themighty logo

The Childhood Neglect That Still Lives Inside of Me

I am the only physical evidence of my childhood neglect.

It shows up in my push and pulling in relationships of any kind. It reveals itself in my overly friendly and open demeanor with total strangers, hoping to make a connection and generate caring, a trust my left brain knows is difficult, if not unrealistic, to build upon a first hello. It further festers in the distrust I have with those same people, the fact that I tell them my truths and wonder if they think what I just said was TMI, the fact that I let them into my personal space then listen hard to suss out whether they want something from me, the fact that no matter how long I know them, I’m still unsure whether I’m welcome in their house on a holiday.

The insecurity wedges itself between the woman who presents herself as the career climber who can get it done, no matter what “it” refers to, and the girl inside who continues to question what she is doing. It sits there heavy, never budging, despite the ascending order of important job titles on my LinkedIn profile. The person who can survive makes things happen. Then the same person who did so without feeling safe or sure of any step makes everything that does happen a fragile and fleeting event. And sometimes, a throw away one — on purpose.

Neglect is a double-edged sword to a childhood. The lack of parental attention served me with a resourcefulness that helped me navigate. Even if the plan was to run away or attempt to kill myself, I did both with thoughtful intention. I plotted my escape with a patience that I ran out of long ago. But this focused and relentless (an adjective a boss once called me) drive was my power tool back then and continues to propel me through life’s big and small problems — even if I’m still just surviving.

We are all survivors by nature, yes. But in a world where it’s helpful to follow social norms, instruction booklets and authority advice, I learned as a kid to just figure shit out without looking for the guidance that was absent anyway. And that figuring it out comes without respect for the “normal” way of doing things. I am a slave to my internal coping mechanism — the trigger inside that says “fuck it, this is what feels better.”

Whether that better is actually worse for me, I bow to that feeling of momentary safety. Walk out on that six-figure, and, actually interesting, VP job because one more day under the thumb of a boss who spends his time checking my computer activity, questioning my decisions for the team he hired me to lead and sits over my shoulder like a vulture circling prey feels unbearable. Not just a little unbearable, soul crushing. I give myself a little credit inasmuch this would be inappropriate behavior for anyone to endure, but others might roll their eyes and take the paycheck along with the opportunity in whatever way they can shape it. Some might laugh at the absurdity of being treated like a child by a boss and take him golfing or for beers to make the relationship better. I tried sincerity, looking him in the eye at my most vulnerable moments when I truly felt quitting was the only solution I could control.

Was it his disapproval of me? His inability to see me? His biting language in criticizing how I work? What made me retreat into the confused, fearful and insecure child I once was? What makes my adult self miss the trigger when it strikes, knowing what I know about its existence?

I quit relationships with the same vehemence, until I ask — no beg — the person who did and could still love me to make it better and fix it. But I fatigued him. Each of five the hims from my early 20s to my late 30s. I run away from all kinds of things — from apartment leases to fun vacations planned with the dream guy I conjured — because the need to get to a safer place never leaves me.

Neglect lives large inside me. How ironic that the absence of nurture is ever-present. I carry it on my back, in my heart, like an invisible ID card that validates its claim on me. I want it to disappear but how do you remove something that only manifests itself in intangible, non-concrete, non-material ways? It is my disease, eating cell by cell over the course of 30 plus years, paining my insides left raw and bleeding but perfectly put together for corporate photo shoots.

I look behind me and see the wake of its existence, a trail of misplaced energy following behind my life moves to mark its reality in plain sight. But that evidence is only presented to my one-person jury. No one else knows or has experienced its presence in a way that can be understood — only those with a shared vocabulary from a shared childhood experience with a shared awareness that comes with extreme scrutiny and introspection and, frankly, emotionally draining work.

I work to heal that neglect, but unseen, it taunts me, reappearing like puffs of dust I can’t capture, contain nor sweep away. I remain fighting against air to win my way back.

Getty image via dragana991