During a conversation about the trauma bond with my oldest, she challenged me to write a post that dealt honestly with the difficult journey my four daughters and I took from years of abuse to a healthy and loving blended family unit. The original trauma bond belonged to me and my ex-husband. For reference, a trauma bond is a seemingly iron-clad tie between an abuser and his or her victim. The result of the cycles of abuse that revolve around reward and punishment, the trauma bond has the same psychological effect as a trap has on the leg of a wild animal. Lured by the promise of something good, we venture further and further into a relationship that will result in a slow, agonizing emotional death.
The choice is to either remain or to gnaw off a part of oneself in order to escape. Some damage will inevitably linger. And having established a firm trauma bond with my ex who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I successfully passed the fear, the unfounded hopes, and the acceptance of drama as normal to my daughters. I say that he suffered from NPD, though in reality, it was we who suffered. But with some direct revelation from the Lord and some really good self-help books, I pulled up my stakes from my disaster of a marriage and took the girls with me.
If only I could see from a birds-eye perspective then what is so clear to me now. Each of us expected life to give fleeting rewards and then unexpectedly pull out the carpet from us in retaliation. Our minds and bodies were used to moments of praise interspersed with weeks of rage. Unwarranted, unpredictable, and vicious punishment ground into us the idea that somehow we deserved this treatment. It wasn’t merely that we had done something wrong (and whatever it was could never be articulated). We were fundamentally wrong. What the hell is wrong with you? That was the message on loudspeaker all day every day.
When I took the girls and found a tiny brick house for $425 a month and saved enough money to let them pick out a couch, we thought we were in heaven. Little did we know that while we had gotten loose from the trap, at least a couple of us were missing limbs like the fox who has gnawed his leg off in order to break free the iron jaws. If daily life never feels secure, then any disturbance becomes an earthquake. Normal events feel cataclysmic to those who have lived through continental shifts on a daily basis. Thank God I had relatively normal parents. I, at least, had a plumb line to communicate to my daughters. They had never lived a life when they weren’t in trouble until we fled my ex.
The fact is that my daughters and I still struggle with the idea that we will be caught doing something bad. What makes it worse is that we can never figure out what that horrible thing we’ve done is. John Berryman has a poem about this in which Henry, his alter-ego, feels tremendous shame pouring over his being and can’t connect it to anything specific. I still weep when I read it because I know that my daughters have their Henry’s, too, just like me.
Dream Songs #29
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
so heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless in all them time
Henry could not make good.
starts again in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
One of my daughters, mourning the end of a relationship, cried to me But I was such a good girl. That is life after narcissism, with everything bad a mysterious but deserved punishment. Often my girls and I reckon, in the dawn, our sins, our inadequacies, the remembered shame that lurks as memories in the very tissues of our bodies. But that is only part of our story. We were lucky. Ours didn’t end in obliteration.
We became our own tribe. What was unfocused and thwarted with my ex-husband became solid and dependable with our girl power. Muskoxen form a protective circle that is nearly impenetrable from the outside. That was how my daughters and I lived as a family unit. All against any intruders. We had a common enemy and despite the internal squabbles, a sense of safety began to settle slowly. The problem, of course, with that kind of arrangement is that muskoxen form circles around their young. I was only one mama muskox. My oldest tried to keep the circle with me and eventually, my second oldest joined until it was us against the world.
And our little family, once custody was given to me, was a safer place. Not wholly but mostly. Then I married my husband and the full circle of protection was re-established. He and I had such challenges. His own divorce was a pretty typical one. Both he and his ex-wife were good parents that found themselves unable to be married to each other. I still am amazed that each of my daughters loves my husband, given their foundational experiences with their father. He had to woo them the way one courts a wild animal. Years of waiting and learning that anything fatherly translated into something scary for them paid off in the end. In the beginning, his support was mostly one of stability and provision. Now my girls and their step-father talk to each other and listen without fear, without the drama. My husband is kind and they have benefited mightily because of it.
Of course, the next part of the story is how we took six kids and helped them become a family. Part 2 of this saga is how to cope with so many different attachment styles in one ill-prepared but well-meaning family.