Sunday, August 4, 2013

My Red Balloon: Dealling With A Persistent and Destructive Memory

Please Note:  If you have a history of emotional neglect, reading the following post might be triggering for you.  If you do read this and, as a result, find yourself in distress, please call your therapist or try 1-800-273-8255.  If you are in Oregon, look on this website for a local number:

Red balloon.jpg
Many years ago I was enchanted by an amazing film titled "The Red Balloon."  The main character, a little boy about ten years old, Pascal, befriends a large red helium-filled balloon, and their relationship is the stuff of which the story is made.  Neither boy nor balloon speaks a word, but no words are needed.  For much of the film, the red balloon follows the little boy, dogs his heels, in fact, to the point where the boy is punished for the balloon's bad behavior by adults who do not understand that the balloon has a mind of its own.  Why not punish the balloon?  Nobody, of course, thinks of that!  At the end of the film, a pack of envious schoolmates destroys the beautiful red balloon, but does this act destroy little Pascal?  Certainly not!  A multi-hued cluster of helium-filled balloons from all parts of Paris swoops Pascal up and takes him on a ride high over the city.  And there the tale ends.

So what on earth does the tale of little Pascal and the red balloon have to do with me and with C-PTSD and with my journey through therapy?  Interesting and complex question!  I'll attempt an answer.

Last week, I discovered my own "red balloon."  Although my balloon is not a benevolent balloon,  it certainly is as faithful as little Pascal's.  It has dogged my heels throughout my life and has seemingly had a life of its own for all these decades.  I say this because much of the time I have not been aware of its presence.  But I know now that it has been bobbing along, shadowing me for 74+ years, pursuing me relentlessly and with a vengeance.  How do I know this?  I know because last week it made its presence known big time!  It bumped up against me as I talked to my therapist about my early years, and it remained with me as I dipped deeper into depression after I got home.  Yes, I've given my tenacious balloon a name: essential depression.  I say essential depression to mark that its roots are deep in my psyche and go back in time for as long as I have existed. This depression is different from the fleeting, more superficial and temporary sense of depression that descends upon me when I experience a situational setback or the sort of emotional hurt that comes with everyday human interactions that may not be of major importance but, nevertheless, hurt. 

This essential depression may be familiar to many of you:  It's the sense of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, and total isolation that may come over some of us from time to time--or more often, perhaps.  It's the sense of crawling in the white-hot sands of an immense desert, my knees and hands on fire and my tongue parched but with no oasis in sight.  Ravens are circling above, waiting for me to stop so they can make a meal of my body, plucking the gray matter of my brain first, an appetizer.  If you really want to know about this desert, read Camus' "L'Etranger".  One caution:  If you tend to pick up on depression, you might be better off to NOT read Camus' book! 

As my retired psychologist friend often says:  With awareness comes change.  I believe that I'm beginning to understand the nature of this balloon, and now that I am beginning to understand it, I believe I can pop it so it no longer dogs my heels and bobs up to make me miserable.  

My therapist calls this balloon, this essential depression, a "memory."  When she said that last Monday, I thought, "Wow!  A memory!  If it's a memory, then it's not present reality, and if it's not present reality, then why am I letting it control me?  Why am I letting a mere memory make my life so miserable?  I don't want to suffer because of this memory; I don't need to suffer because of this memory.  So I am going to learn all I can about this memory and its origins, and then, when I understand it, maybe some EMDR sessions will reduce the emotional impact."  Sound simple?  Well, trust me, dealing with this memory is not going to be as simple as popping a helium-filled balloon, but it isn't an impossible task by a long shot.  In fact, I've already begun the task.  I have identified what I believe to be the experiences that generated this memory.

If you type effects of neglect on infants into a search engine, you will find a multitude of articles, some probably more trustworthy than others.  For starters, you might read the Wickipedia article that comes up just to get a basic idea as to the effects of neglect on infants, and from that article you might look for others from more trustworthy sites in order to get more details.  If you do this research, you will find that infants who are deprived of the attention and quality of care that all infants need for proper development are at risk for a lifetime of physical and psychological illnesses.  In fact, even infants in the womb are sensitive to "bad vibes" in their environments and can arrive into this world already emotionally damaged.  We come into this world with the neurological "wiring" set to receive adequate parenting; when parenting is inadequate, when we are chronically neglected and don't receive this parenting, then our wiring "shuts down" much as a computer goes into hibernation mode.  The consequences?  PTSD, according to some researchers.  Well, this is my very simplistic description; I'm a writer and not a scientist.  However, my personal experience exemplifies the theory.  The good news is that this inactive wiring can be reactivated at any point in life, including the senior years, and the wounds left by neglect can be healed, at least partially, given the right environment.  By "right environment," I mean good and effective therapy and a good, healthy, and effective emotional life situation.

All my life I have known that I was not supposed to have been born.  I remember thinking when I was a very little girl that I was here by default--God had intended to kill me at birth but had been distracted and simply had not gotten around to doing the deed.  But he would remember, and one day when I least expected it, he would do the deed, and I would be dead.  That thought, like the red balloon, followed me around all day and caused me to be anxious and jumpy.  My kindergarten teacher noted on a report card that "Jean seems very nervous," but she, not knowing anything of my inner life, attributed the nervousness to a growth spurt.  My parents didn't show any interest in ferreting out the cause of my nervousness.  They certainly didn't ask me!  I could have told them, but they didn't ask.  Of course, the sexual abuses I endured added to my nervous behavior, but I did not tell, and my parents did not ask.  The fact is that my mother seldom engaged me in a human-to-human conversation, and my father never spoke to me directly except to yell at me in anger when I was doing something that displeased him.  So the opportunity to tell never arose.

One day, at age eleven, when I had nothing else to do and was digging around in my parents' bookshelves, I discovered and read the manual--the "cookbook"!--that my mother had used as a guide to parenting.  This manual was published by the U.S.D.A. in the 1930s and distributed to expectant mothers.  My mother, I can imagine, regarded it as a gift from heaven.  She had been an only child and was totally clueless regarding infant care, so she read and followed the guide to the letter.  I can only imagine she believed that by following the rules of parenting outlined in this book, she would produce a "perfect child."  It was a matter of "plugging it in, turning the crank, and out would come a perfect product." 

 In order to get this product, parents were admonished to leave the baby alone--feed it, clean it, change it, and if it cried before the time for the next feeding and changing, don't touch it!  Yes, babies were mentioned as "it," as if they were little "things," objects, and not relational human beings.  Touching, according to the manual, spoils children and makes them little tyrants who think they are boss of the household.  Babies need the experience of asking for attention and not getting it, the experience of needing and wanting connection with another human being and discovering instead that there are no other human beings and there are no connections.  There is only isolation and the misery that goes with it.  That, at any rate, is what the cookbook/child care manual in my parents' bookcase advocated. 

My mother, having no sense of empathy and no ability to use any maternal instincts and common sense she may--or may not--have had, followed the book to the letter and even passed the wisdom on to other young mothers in later years when they came to our house for coffee and "klatsching."  Of course, what we know now is that the government-issued booklet advocated child neglect, purely and simply.  And God knows how many babies were damaged and now as senior adults suffer PTSD or C-PTSD because their parents followed the wise words in this booklet.  At age eleven, though, I knew that the "wisdom" in this book was toxic, and I tucked the information into a file in my brain to recall at some future date.  I'm glad I did that at age eleven because now that information is helping me unlock the doors to my healing.

The information I've given above supports the fact that as an infant, I experienced neglect.  I also know that for the first month of my life I lived in the hospital nursery--not a place where an infant receives the nurturing of loving caregivers.  My mother developed a kidney disease when she was pregnant with me, and since there was nobody at home during the day, my parents boarded me at the hospital for the sum of $1.00 per day.  For about a month I lived in a white metal hospital crib and was fed, changed, and cleaned every four hours.  Possibly the various shifts of nurses visited me and cooed over me, but I don't know that for a fact.  I was an attractive baby, so maybe they did.  But maybe not. 
Jean, Almost Age One

When my parents finally took me home, my mother was still recovering from giving birth and the kidney problem, so I can imagine that she did not have much of herself to give to me.  But, then, she didn't seem to have much to give me at any time, as I recall.  I remember that at some point in my eighth year I became aware of what seemed a fundamental truth in my life:  I was on one side, and everyone else in the world was on the other side.  On the side of what?  I wasn't sure, but I did know that if I was to get through my life, I could not expect any help.  Nor did I deserve any help.  Obviously--to me, at any rate--I was essentially worthless, so I had no right to ask for help or to expect any help.  So I decided I needed to be as self-sufficient as possible in order to avoid the certain pain of rejection that would come if I asked anyone for help of any kind.  Because I was a child and thought as a child thinks, the notion that my parents might have been worthless as parents did not enter my head. 

And then one day when I was about forty, my mother's words inflated this balloon I've named essential depression to the point of bursting.  The balloon didn't burst, but it came close.  At one point, as my mother and I were engaged in a discussion regarding the condition of the house my family and I owned, my mother said, apropos of nothing, "You were supposed to have been aborted, but I didn't go through with it because I was afraid I'd die."  She did NOT say, ". . .because I wanted you."  She said, ". . . because I was afraid I'd die."  I was stunned!  After a long pause, however, I asked her why she told me that.  Her response was, "I just thought you should know."  I remembered that response, and a year later I asked her the question again.  Again, she said, "Oh, I just thought you should know."  She's dead now, and I'll never know why she thought I should know, but whatever reason she would give me now doesn't matter. 

I believe I know the reason:  My mother had no sense of empathy, or if she did, she completely ignored whatever she had when it came to me.   Why else would she have repeatedly said to me when I was a pre-teen, "Jeanie, you are built like a brick toilet"?  Why else would she have said to me when I was a teenager, "Jeanie, you have such a pretty face.  It's too bad you are so fat"? Why else would she have said to me when I told her I was getting married, "My friends all believe you are pregnant and have to get married"?  Why else would she have said to me when I told her I had been accepted into a graduate program at one of the state universities, "That will be a waste of money.  Look at how poorly you did when you were an undergraduate"?  I didn't tell her that I had done so poorly because I had tried to flunk out.  After all, I had not chosen to attend college after I graduated from high school--I wanted to work for a year.  But my parents forced me to go to school.  In my still-adolescent mind, I reasoned that if I flunked out of college, they would see that I was right and they were wrong.  However, I failed to fail. I failed to fail, and in failing to fail, I failed myself.  That failure added a few inches to the girth of my red balloon! 

Well, the facts are in, and the data point to one major piece in the puzzle of my life:  I was not wanted, and my parents were not happy to see me. Even before I was born, my mother rejected me emotionally.  After I was born, of course, I experienced further neglect.  And what is the relationship between this basic neglect and parental refusal to relate to me as a human being and this red balloon that has dogged me all my life?  My red balloon has been filled not with helium but with the devastating and excruciatingly painful sense of isolation and loneliness that a baby experiences when she cries and nobody comes.  Nobody comes to comfort and soothe the baby and to reassure her that, yes, she is loved and cherished.  Nobody comes to tell her she is valuable and worthy of attention.  Nobody comes to smile at her and play with her and enjoy her laugh.  Nobody.  Her despair inflates the balloon, and the balloon grows larger as the little girl grows older.  It dogs her heels until she considers ending her young life just to separate herself from that balloon.  But she doesn't end her life.  She just keeps putting one foot in front of the other and does her best to raise her children, be a wife, and earn an income. 

Finally, when she is in her early forties, the balloon swells to the point where the woman fears for her life.  The balloon engulfs her, threatens to cut off her air supply.  Does she give in, or does she continue to struggle, continue to put one foot in front of the other?  Desperate and thinking about her children, the woman asks for help.  And to her complete amazement and joy, her cry is heard and somebody comes.  At long last, somebody comes!  And thus begins this woman's journey on the road to healing. 

If you have been following my blog, you know the story from this point.  I’m not quite “there” yet, but I’m getting there.  And now that I am aware of my red balloon, the roots of my essential depression, I’m going to work at deflating it, rendering it powerless.  Doing this will be, I believe, a giant step in my journey toward healing.  “With awareness comes change,” and with change can come healing.

Jean, Age Two

Jean, Age Four

Jean, Age Nine
Jean Today, Age 74


  1. It's great to see how far you've come. I think you began your recovery by not passing on the meanness you were raised with. Thanks for sharing your passages with us all.

  2. You have an amazing story. A great resource I have found for healing from C-PTSD is the book To Soften the Blow by Lynnie Vessels- it is an amazing and uplifting story, like yours.

    1. Thank you for telling me about this book. I'll take a look at it. Jean