Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved trees. She would spend hours in the fields behind her house lying in the grass and looking up at the leaves as they rippled above her. The dancing fingers of sunlight transfixed her gaze and she found peace in that place, under the trees where she felt safe.
Once upon a time there was a little boy who loved to feel the sand in his toes as he ran across the beach to visit his grandmother. He felt the wind in his hair and the sun on his back as he ran with his dog across the beach and up through the dunes to granny’s house.
Once upon a time there was a frightened little girl who thought the world was going to end each time her mother and her father fought and argued. That little girl could not concentrate as she lay and looked at the leaves on the trees, for some reason her breath caught in her chest and she felt panicky, she licked her lips because her mouth was dry. She watched her mother’s face as she went back inside the house and hoped that the redness around her mother’s eyes would go away.
Once upon a time there was a little boy who ran to his granny when his mother and father shouted at each other, on this day though, this little boy could not feel the wind in his hair or the sand in his toes, he could only feel the tight band across his chest and a gasping feeling which made him wonder if he was going to die.
These two little children lived in an unpredictable world in which the fear and anxiety they felt each day became entwined within their growing limbs and the sharp arrows of terror which ricocheted around them took root in their organs and the channels where the blood should flow.
Put these children side by side with those whose lives have not been blighted by such things as grown ups shouting and the atmosphere clouding and you will see the embodied suffering these things bring to the growing self and soul. See the little girl at the age of fourteen, bent double with digestive distress and the little boy at twelve unable to stand up straight because of the pain in his back. See the girl’s anxiety weave itself into the fabric of her being and the boy’s uncertainty grow into aggression and rage. Watch as the defences build until the child is grown to adulthood and begins the compulsive repetition of history in the relationship they attempt to build with others.
Such is the story of adverse childhood life experiences, such is the story of the alienated child.
For the alienated child however the story has a different twist because whilst those children who suffered physical abuse can point to the person who did that and say ‘there is the person who harmed me’ the alienated child struggles to get to that place, even when they are liberated from the harm that has been done. Akin to the child who suffered sexual abuse in secret, the alienated child’s defences of splitting, places the harm done to them out of the reach of their conscious mind and into the depths where the experience is ‘forgotten’. As the child grows, unconscious of where the bodies are buried, the mind attempts to flag the location with reminders in the form of signals from the body to the mind. An alienated adult child will find persistent reminders of something forgotten in dreams and nightmares. Alienated children have these too, dreaming often of knives and guns and being under attack. The experience of burying a living loved one into the unconscious cannot ever result in peaceful sleep.
The lives of children are not the conscious lives of adults. As children we are like animals attuned to the noise and the smells and the tensions that cut across our consciousness. Unable to make sense of what is happening around us and why, the major themes that play themselves out in our psychological experience of the world are those which connect with our felt senses. The world of childhood is either happy or sad, it is blue skies or always raining, it is long days spent roaming in the fields or it is being shut up inside and feeling bored as the day winds itself to an interminable end. Our childhood is filled with the extremities and our defences, developed in order to survive even the most intolerable of conditions, leave us alive at the end of it. Alive, but for some not fully conscious. Alive, but for others, so battered and bruised that adulthood becomes a repetition of attempting to resolve the wrongs done in the past.
The saddest part about being an abused child is the high risk that the whole of the rest of one’s life is spent in unconscious repetition of the harm done in order to try and find a different, happier ending. As Professor Levy, the Freudian Character in the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors tells us –
When we fall in love, we are seeking to re-find all or some of the people to whom you were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask our beloved to correct all the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted on us. So, love contains in it the contradiction, the attempts to return to the past and the attempt to undo the past.
Without conscious awareness of the abuse caused by being alienated however, children grow to surround themselves with people similar to those they were attached to as children, in order to do that psychological work of recovery. When being loved as a child included encouragement or assistance to kill and bury a living parent or the whole side of one’s family, one is condemned to the unconscious repetition when one’s own children arrive into the world. As the struggle with the loved other contains within it the desire to right the wrongs of the past, the risk that one will marry someone very like one’s mother or father is extremely high. In doing so, the alienated adult child arrives right back at the beginning, this time not as the child who is digging the grave of their loved one but as the parent who dug their own grave in childhood. The unconscious repetition of alienation is that an alienated child is highly likely to become an alienated parent in the circular attempt to find someone to right the wrongs done way back then.
The problem is that in alienation, the righting of the wrong cannot be done by someone who is like the alienating parent. Nor can it be done by someone who is the polar opposite. These two choices, made by the unconscious mind of the abused child, simply leads the adult into disaster. Becoming conscious of how alienation happens is the first step to understanding the past, learning how to break the pattern and become aware of the risks is the next step towards freedom.
The secret life of the alienated child contains within it so many mysteries and so many keys to learning and understanding. When one learns to speak that language, it becomes possible to hear the narratives and intervene. When one understands the enormity of why one should learn that language and the risk to children of having this hidden epidemic of harm go unheard, it becomes imperative to speak on their behalf.
Because it is not about contact, it is not about rights, it is not even about parental relationships at all. It is about the fundamental right of the child to live in an unconscious world of the felt senses in which the leaves on the trees and the sand in their toes is an experience we should fight to protect, for all children, for all time.