The fear of abandonment still haunts me, 33 Aprils from that traumatic first time.
It haunted me last April, when my husband packed up his things and left for five weeks. As I comforted my crying children that horrible night, my mind flashed back to when my dad left.
I was that five-year-old child again, crying in bed, comfortless, terrified, and heartbroken.
When I walked to the master suite after settling my children in bed, I nearly panicked when I saw his empty white closet space. I couldn’t stand the void, so I stuffed towels on the shelves and hung coats on the rods, even in my emotional and physical exhaustion. I couldn’t handle the visual image of desertion.
The same fear haunted me as a young bride in the days before mobile phones, when my new husband ran almost two hours late. I called his work, then his friends, and finally, I called the sheriff’s office. No one knew where he was. The dispatcher spoke evenly, trying to calm me down, and then my husband pulled in the drive. I clung to him and sobbed, feeling helpless and frantic. Small again. Nearly abandoned again.
It haunts me in less dramatic moments too. I hate goodbyes of all kinds. Every May I have to attend the commencement ceremony at the high school where I work. I sneak out the back and completely avoid the reception afterward. I don’t want to say goodbye to any of those graduating seniors. I simply disappear and avoid the overwhelming emotions.
I dreaded visiting my grandpa in the nursing home after his stroke. Not because he couldn’t speak anymore. Not because he cried every time, this wonderful man who had been so playful and upbeat. Not even because my children were so upset after the visits. It was because I couldn’t stand the goodbye, the fact that I might never see him again. The goodbye was just too painful.
Most other children of divorce I’ve known have also struggled with fears of abandonment, whether they recall their parents’ split or not. Dr. Richard Gardner writes:
The child of divorce will often consider the departing parent to be abandoning him. Although continually reassured that this is not the case—that he is still loved very much—he tends to maintain this view. His world becomes a shaky place indeed…The separation produces a general feeling of instability in all human relationships. It is almost as if no one can be trusted…The resulting insecurity and instability can indeed be frightening.
Richard A. Gardner, M.D. Psychotherapy with Children of Divorce. Jason Aronson, Inc., New York: 1976.
Those fears carry over into adulthood for children of divorce, particularly in romantic relationships. Researchers Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee write how this affects their marriages:
“…residue of the past…can ricochet into the present at any time. Such triggers can be an unexpected absence, a moderate disagreement, or a flash of anger. The child of divorce thinks, ‘This is the other shoe dropping. Here it comes. I always knew it couldn’t last…I am alone and abandoned, just like I always knew I would be.’”
Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. Hyperion, New York: 2000.
I have struggled with this fear as a child and as an adult, and I also tend to fear the future because I expect to be abandoned and left alone. This fear is a major block to my healing, and I want to expose this fear in writing so I can work on it.
Once I watched a PBS show about divers who explore underwater caves. The divers must tether on all their gear before diving in dark caverns, because if the diver drops a tool or flashlight, the silt that rises from the impact is a light-blocking dust storm. The silt takes more than an hour to settle, and that one mistake can be fatal, since the diver can’t orient himself upward to get more air.
Any moment that reminds me of the original abandonment is a flashlight dropping on the floor of my cavern, and emotional silt swirls to blind my reason. It disorients my journey of healing and almost blocks God’s light in my heart.
I have to remind myself to stay in the moment. I must refocus on the issue and think about practical ways to address it. If I can’t avoid a goodbye, I can be extra kind to myself afterward. If I can’t reach my husband by phone right away, I can say a prayer, take a deep breath, and try again in a few minutes. I can find ways to have control over the situation now, though I was powerless as a child.
I know God wants to fill my caverns—he wants to cleanse them and help me filter the water so no more silt can be stirred up, no matter what drops on the floor. I know he is the only one who can perfectly fill that fear cavern inside, since he is my perfect Heavenly Father. God is the only one who has promised to never abandon me. The psalmist writes,
Even if my mother and father abandon me, the Lord will hold me close. Psalm 27:10 NLT
That truth brings me comfort and healing.
If you struggle with fears of abandonment, what are the roots? What coping skills do you employ now?