Braving Life Without a Family

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were — I have not seen / As others saw I could not bring / My passions from a common spring / From the same source I have not taken / My sorrow I could not awaken / My heart to joy at the same tone / And all I lov’d I lov’d alone ~ E.A. Poe (Alone)

Like the folks who reach out to me for psychotherapy, I can personally affirm that the experience of being completely alone in the world, unsupported and on the fringe, was a pervasive theme I regurgitated throughout complex trauma recovery. I recognize in my clients who are adult survivors of childhood abuse, what it is like to navigate through life as an orphan.

Raised in toxic dangerous homes, the basic emotional and developmental needs of adult survivors were chronically derailed by those assigned with the task of providing parental care. Besieged by symptoms of complex trauma, survivors of child abuse and neglect understandably feel the lack of familial and paternal bonding, irrespective of whether their parents are deceased or still alive.

It is the brutal reality of psychological and literal abandonment by one’s caregivers that haunts trauma survivors and plagues them with feelings of being forsaken and unwanted. Rootless and exiled, they desperately try to hobble together a life and a sense of self without a familial tribe.

Family therapist Salvador Minuchin imparted (Families & Family Therapy), “Only the family, society’s smallest unit, can change and yet maintain enough continuity to rear children who will not be “strangers in a strange land,” who will be rooted firmly enough to grow and adapt.”

As Minuchin suggests, it is the cohesive primal bond of the family that affords the child a sense of collective identity and enduring security. This tribal unit of the family is where children are raised, where love is shared, and where roles and ambitions are defined. Ancestral and cultural ties deepen this profound experience of unification.

However, for children born into abusive families, listening rather than participating, and preferring the solitude of withdrawal above the interchange of participation may be critical to survival. These efforts to retreat from systemic abuse critically impact social development and can ignite, complex trauma, disordered narcissism, perfectionism, and co-dependency.

Psychologist Lytt Gardner studied the development of children who were socially and emotionally deprived by hostile and rejecting parents or by parents who were apprehensive about playing with their infants or showing them attention beyond that required for routine caretaking activities. Gardner’s findings correlated with the behavioral patterns of the foundling home children psychoanalyst Rene Spitz studied who incurred anaclitic depression, a condition that engenders unresponsiveness and behavioral withdrawal.

In the bleakest scenarios children reared in institutional settings and children who experience frequent and abrupt changes in caregivers, develop Reactive Attachment Disorder. This tragic outcome portends the inability to develop strong or affectionate personal attachments. Children with RAD remain emotionally cold and isolated, capable of only the most superficial interpersonal relationships.

Undeniably, we’re designed to thrive in some sort of stable nourishing group of kindred people.
The orphan however, is denied this birthright.
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In complex trauma treatment understanding the archetypal nature of the orphan is a critical step in managing and even deriving great benefits from the orphan’s plight. This means gleaning the universal symbolic patterns that comprise the orphan’s existence, and which according to founder of analytical depth psychology Carl Jung, are hardwired into our psyches.

Following the fall of the archetypal idealistic innocent, the orphan is born. Ousted from Paradise, the orphan’s quest for safety and fulfillment ensues. He is challenged to find hope amid debilitating despair and fears of exploitation.

Engaging with the orphan archetype is an effective way to honor the primal fear of one’s aloneness in the world, particularly when it is amplified by the absence of family. Consciously giving the orphan form allows the survivor of childhood abuse to address the profound feelings of alienation fueled by collective ostracism and societal exclusion.

According to scholar and author Dr. Carol Pearson (The Hero Within), for the orphan to transcend debilitating suffering they must relinquish the yearning for rescue and embark on the stage of wandering.

Pearson explains, “No matter how much people want to feel loved, appreciated, and a part of things, they will be lonely until they make a commitment to themselves, a commitment that is so total that they will give up community and love, if necessary, to be fully who they are.”

For the orphan, venturing out into the world to discover one’s true self means relinquishing the deep-seated wish to be saved. Although this is fundamental to becoming one’s own salvation, needless to say, it is a daunting task.

Despite the yearning for safety and security, the orphan lives on the sidelines. Having graduated from ‘the school of hard knocks,’ the orphan harbors no illusions about human evil. Naturally, this makes them critical of humanity. Hence, the greatest challenge the orphan encounters is the pull towards intractable cynicism and perpetually blaming life on one’s hardships.

Lapsing into a victim mentality is an inevitable development for the orphan. Staying stuck there is their downfall.

Essentially, the sacrifices that are required of the orphan to lead a productive fulfilling life will either result in sensible realism or bitterness. Aimless, traumatized and lonely the defeated orphan will revel in self-pity, railing at their lot in life while defiantly refusing to take responsibility. Suffering becomes weaponized to perpetuate destructive patterns of unceasing blame and disempowerment. I know this scenario well.

For many years victimhood became a conduit for my rage and identity I could latch on to. It was challenging to relinquish my attachment to it as there was so much truth to the pain which underscored its existence. Fortunately, I refused to succumb to obscurity. Even though fury and sorrow threatened to erode my resolve, I wanted to make something out of my life. This meant excising all toxic familial ties to go it alone.

Although leaving one’s abusive family of origin is nothing short of courageous the orphan knows that illusory ideals of family are exalted. For that reason, in spite of heinous evidence of abuse and malevolent motives operating within the family system, the onus will typically be on the adult child for ‘abandoning’ familial abusers.

In spite of stigmatizing backlash, the heroic orphan understands that tapping into their intrepid, authentic nature requires radical effort. He knows that bereavement and disillusionment are necessary parts of the healing process. So is creating networks of support that reflect individual preferences and needs.

Healing from traumatic loneliness and dismantling patterns of hostile dependency and intimacy disorders, requires the orphan to assume responsibility for their inherent need for love and acceptance. By searching for compatible others the orphan willingly risks rejection and accordingly, he risks facing a terrifying reminder of his primal wound.

The ultimate triumph for the archetypal orphan is becoming an unpretentious accepting person that lives life on life’s terms. Having identified his place in life, the heroic orphan, no longer steeped in cynical despair and victimization, is unassuming and possesses a stern sense of realism. Trustworthy attachments to others and artistic and spiritual exploration, fill the void of ruptured bonds.

Irrespective of disapproval and cultural condemnation the orphan accepts all those parts of himself which were repudiated and shunned. When he is no longer concerned with defying or conforming to conventionality, the orphan knows he has defied the odds. He knows he has finally come home.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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