It was awful - and then?
December 30, 2017 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find words to better express feelings of isolation and sadness felt during my childhood and teenage years.

Hi Mefites,
About 5 weeks ago, I started therapy to address my depression and anxiety. (It's going well! Yay!) In addition I am trying to do work on my own between sessions. I had a pretty miserable childhood which included light physical abuse from my father, an utterly loveless mother and being ostracized relentlessly by my peers. I told some of this to my therapist, and she said "I'm sorry" - and it felt amazingly good to be heard and validated. (Quite a revelation, to me!)

So I want to try and tell my partner (and maybe later others) about it. However, in the past I have been really bad at finding any words to describe how I felt during that time (feeling utterly isolated, unloved, lonely, not really connected to my body from never being touched). I usually quit at "it was awful" which, while accurate, isn't really suitable for getting my point across.

My question is therefore this: do you know any good firsthand personal accounts of people who were in similar situations and have expressed it well? Books, blogs, poems? Can you lend me your words if you have had a similar childhood?
Thank you very much in advance!
posted by any_name_in_a_storm to Human Relations (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have a couple of specific incidents involving each parent that I share if I want people to understand my crappy childhood. I've found that people get it more quickly that way than if I try to explain how it felt. You might try distilling it that way.
posted by goatdog at 8:01 AM on December 30, 2017 [15 favorites]

You might try Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth.
posted by paduasoy at 8:21 AM on December 30, 2017

I’m sorry, too. Children deserve to be and feel loved, heard, and seen. You are doing a very good thing for yourself and for others in your life.

That being said, a word from someone who has been down a similar therapy road: talk to your therapist about this ask in your next session. Depending on how she practices, she may have book recommendations for you. She may also recommend that you hold off on doing a project like this, either because reading about other people’s traumas will consume too much of your emotional bandwidth for you to effectively process your own trauma, or because she thinks it is very important you find your own voice. Finally, she may redirect how she handles sessions because she can tell that you are super engaged. But whatever the outcome may be, please do at least give her the heads up on this.
posted by suncages at 8:36 AM on December 30, 2017 [11 favorites]

I think this is really great work you are doing and I commend you. I am going to throw a wrench in your whole question a little bit by saying the following: that to really make sense of your past and come to terms with the feelings it has left you with, you really need to find your own voice to talk about what happened to you.

Books, blogs, poems? Can you lend me your words if you have had a similar childhood? Absolutely by all means search for your self in others' writing and art, as this can be very therapeutic and confirms you are not alone, but you need to at some point find your own voice to speak to yourself about your childhood.

I am a proponent of the idea of getting in touch with the inner hurt child. It sounds a little pop psychology mumbo-jumbo-ey, but I believe it is a very accurate portrayal of how we are wired as human beings. Sit alone, quiet and revisit your childhood. Bring back the difficult memories of the hurts and deprivation and put yourself in the shoes of that child and feel what he/she felt. When you get there, this is the time for the adult person in you to search for your voice and find the words to talk to that child. Tell him/her what it is they are feeling; what is happening to them; tell them you are here and they aren't alone; it is going to be ok; comfort, console, nurture. It might be a good idea to have a pen and paper handy at this point and write some of these things that come to you. Later when you are in a different place emotionally, you can look at what you had to say. Sometimes, the hardest person to find the words to talk to is that inner hurt child. If you become good at doing that, it becomes easier over time to convey your inner world to trusted therapists and partners.
posted by incolorinred at 9:02 AM on December 30, 2017

Best answer: I'm going through this right now. I'm finding my voice and sharing the molestation with my brother. I started with a simple phone call to say "Yes, I was abused". As I felt safe revealing I changed to letters.

To hear someone else beside my therapist say "That was wrong" or "I'm sorry" was a validating experience.

But talk to your therapist about it. You may think you're ready, but really aren't (not that's bad or anything). Your therapist will have good advice for you. Like incolorinred, I believe about the inner child. Here's a book I found helpful. Cathryn L. Taylor M.A. The Inner Child Workbook. It takes you from infant to teenage years. My inner child found them empowering.

Long story short. Talk to your therapist. I'm sure there are other books out there, but I don't have another specific title.

Good luck on your journey.
posted by kathrynm at 9:53 AM on December 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by redwaterman at 10:12 AM on December 30, 2017

Response by poster: Thank you all for your suggestions and help!
Goatdog, my memories are very weak and the singular incidents aren't "so bad". It is the effect from endless, relentless repetition, the compound interest of neglect if you will, that I'm trying to capture.
To all of you who suggest talking to my therapist: I will ;)
I have been trying to give voice to that inner kid, and this question is part of it.

Thanks again!
posted by any_name_in_a_storm at 12:23 PM on December 30, 2017

Best answer: Try journaling to find your own words. Something like the morning pages might be interesting for you.

Writing helps me find ways to think and talk about things.
posted by bunderful at 12:53 PM on December 30, 2017

I would say that there are no words for the primal experiences. We say grief is devastating, for example, and attach words like fear, loneliness, and isolation, but none of them convey the emotional topography of grief at all. But Joan Didion, for example, manages to convey the starkness of widowhood in The Year of Magical Thinking by talking about everything around that. You might want to read it.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:04 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've found that other people who have similar experiences understand profoundly and without needing much explanation. There is sometimes almost a bitter dark humour to the sharing but also a relief in not having to explain from scratch. With people who lived happy secure childhoods by comparison, it requires a huge leap of empathy and insight that very few can make, not from lack of love or friendship but simply from not having the same damage. I know first hand a woman who had a wonderful childhood truly and who does understand through hard work of living with and loving people with difficult childhoods, although it took time for her to grasp the scope.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:01 PM on December 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Are you familiar with Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose quintet? They most famously deal with child sexual abuse and its aftereffects, but the effects of nonsexual emotional abuse are also explored in depth. The first two novels might be of especial interest; Patrick is six in the first and nineteen or so (and by this time addicted to drugs) in the second. Although if you're anything like me you won't want to stop there, not least because it's unbearable to abandon a character as distressed as Patrick. You'll want to keep reading to find a sense of peace.

The Melroses are in many ways a fictionalized version of St Aubyn's own family, so while the books are novels, the emotional content is not speculative.
posted by desert outpost at 2:10 PM on December 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can you lend me your words if you have had a similar childhood?

"My parents tried their best but they weren't really emotionally equipped to be parents (and were dealing with their own untreated mental health issues). They could be emotionally abusive, very rarely physically abusive, and I was neglected. I was a shy timid kid and a lot of people made fun of me and I didn't have the toolkit to deal with that at the time. I like being an adult a lot better."

I don't get into it with people most of the time, and I did wind up mostly okay (other than a high level of anxiety and hypervigilance) but I had years of feeling like what I experienced was supposed to be normal and yet was so difficult for me to process, it was hard to try to explain it without going back there and being a kid again experiencing it. Trying to contextualize it so that my parents were responsible for this but maybe not entirely "at fault" (if that makes sense) has not only been helpful for me but makes it easier to talk about with other people because then I'm not enmiring them in my pain. Appropriate for a therapist or close friend (and I do occasionally talk about it) but maybe not right for some random person asking what they think is a polite question about my upbringing.

My (neglectful) mother recently died and it's been really interesting for me trying to figure out how to honor her memory with people who adored her while also trying to explain why my experience of her death has not been the same. Developing your own "take" on your parents can be very helpful. Best wishes.
posted by jessamyn at 4:28 PM on December 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You may want to look into the writings of Alice Miller. Probably her best-known book is the confusingly titled "Drama of the Gifted Child." (It's not about the academically "gifted and talented.") She explored the effects of various kinds of child abuse, including psychological/emotional abuse and neglect as well as physical violence. Miller was a psychologist who didn't reveal her own abuse until publishing Banished Knowledge in 1988; it was her fifth book (I think). Her other books aren't memoirs, but neither are they dry, scholarly tomes. I found them helpful. Maybe you will too. Best luck--this is hard work.
posted by scratch at 6:10 AM on December 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Look up Wheel of Feelings- it has descriptive words for emotions. I have seen it used in group therapy to help people flesh out their feelings.
posted by momochan at 10:17 AM on December 31, 2017

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