Traumatic Independence

I first heard about independence as a result of trauma earlier this year. It blew my mind because as long as I can remember, my parents told me I was born independent. I think part of that is my personality and the other part is based on trauma.

I’ve read a lot on attachment to caregivers in babies and how caregivers bond with babies by consistently meeting their needs when babies cry. Babies cannot communicate their needs in any other way than crying for the first few months of life, so neglect quickly impacts the way babies feel about their caregivers. I know of several stories where my parents grew tired and did not respond to me as a young baby. They think the stories are funny. I suppose if you neglect to care for your baby in the middle of the night and the next night the baby sleeps through the night without crying, it could be interpreted as the baby is just going to be an independent person. But my guess is that it happened more than that one night. In fact, I know it happened more than that one night. I know that they drove me around in the car, took me to the store more than once in the middle of the night, and fought with each other about who was going to get stuck “dealing” with me.

I remember being a 4-5 year old and telling my parents regularly that I hated them. It was sometimes an emotional outburst but sometimes I would just walk up to them matter of factly and announce that I hated them. I have no idea where I learned that and why I did that. None of my kids have ever done that. Two of them have told me they hate me when I took something they loved away temporarily or didn’t let them do something they really wanted to do. But never has this been a daily event with any of them. It’s hard to reflect back on how I felt and what I was so angry about with them. But something made me hate them; something upset me so much very early in my life. And that something made me fiercely independent too.

As I grew up and went through life, I struggled with bullying all the time. I wasn’t tiny, but I was fairly thin and quiet. I didn’t fight back. I tried really hard to be a good kid and not get into trouble. Even though I was dealing with kids picking on me all the time, I still liked going to school to see my friends and playing at recess. In middle school, I just liked school. It was the first school I went to that had its own pool and I loved that about gym class. Swimming was one of my most favorite things growing up. My first two years of high school were really hard because my dad taught at the same school I went to and he was a very mean teacher. I was picked on constantly, especially on the bus. I started just riding into school and home with my dad to avoid being picked on. When we moved to another high school, things got mostly better, with no serious bullying. I had one shitty friend who pretended to be my best friend but really was my worst enemy. But mostly I was safe and happy with my friends those last two years.

I was ok in college too, and my first few years out of college. My life fell apart repeatedly from about 27-44, mainly because my marriage wasn’t healthy. Especially for me. He was verbally and emotionally abusive, and very explosive about everything. I know he had (still had) his own issues that he should be resolving, but he wasn’t kind to me. Perhaps I wasn’t great to him either, but I know that I didn’t shred him on purpose to make myself feel superior. I gave up so much of who I was to make the marriage work until I just couldn’t do it anymore. And then I went through almost two years of recovery work. The marriage, the Air Force, the pressure I was putting on myself to be perfect was all too much. I had to take my time and go through lots of therapy to find my inner peace again. And now I am close to being healed. The ugliness still comes up sometimes but it’s mostly controlled.

Lately I have been thinking about why I have gone through so much but did not break. I used to wonder why I went through so much and I’ve started to realize that when you are used to poor treatment, you accept poor treatment. You don’t put boundaries in place to keep you safe. You let just anyone in and don’t even try to figure out if someone is safe for you. And you get hurt repeatedly because you don’t think you deserve any better.

But why didn’t I just give up? Why did I keep fighting so hard to stay here? What kept me focused on getting through it alive? The only thing I can come up with is the independence caused by the trauma, along with the ability to just disassociate from what was going on, which is also a trauma response. I can remember there were times when I just wasn’t present in my body when things were being said to me. Like when I got the call while deployed that I wasn’t getting promoted. I knew that was going to be result because I could see the writing on the wall. And when it was time for that call, I tuned out everything around me. The commander back home said something about how I didn’t make it. I was like ok. And then I hung up. I think I might’ve said something about not changing anything even if I would’ve known. And then I got on the crew bus and remained disassociated from the whole thing for an entire year. I used to think that I just didn’t care because I knew leadership didn’t like me and I knew that they had me ranked poorly because of that. But now I am realizing that when something was going to go badly, as soon as I realized it, I disassociated it. I made myself independent from whatever it was so that it could not hurt me. If I didn’t let it get close to me, it could not hurt me.

I treated people the same way. I did not let anyone in completely. I could share a lot so that people felt like I must trust them, but I still kept them at an arm’s distance. I didn’t want to make friends with people and then they’d see the real me. I wanted to hide that person from everyone. There were a few notable exceptions of people who could read me better than most. One was a deployed friend. He was pretty much my best friend on that deployment. I liked talking to him and how nice he was to me. I didn’t have to worry about much with him and I found myself not hiding as much, at least until the day he told me I was one of the guys. That was terrible, because I felt like I had let him in too far. He could see the real me and it was scary.

My wife (who I have known since college and had been just a friend for a long time before we actually got together) could see the real me too. I did not hide a thing from her. I let her see all of me and I could see all of her. And so our friendship grew into so much more as she was working through her grief after losing her husband. And the day I told her through tears after a therapy session that “I am a boy in my brain,” she laughed and said she always knew that. And that was when I knew that she saw the real me, all the way through. And since the beginning of us, I have felt my trauma induced independence slide away from me. I can be independent when I need to be, but I can also count on her to be there emotionally and physically. No relationship is perfect, but I know that I can trust her and that when we have a slip-up, it’s just a tiny miscommunication that got out of hand. And I can trust that it’s really something small and nothing bigger lurking in the shadows. I know it hasn’t been easy for her to stick with me when I feel myself want to run away, especially when I first started therapy and too much was coming out at once. But she has always been there, no matter what.

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