When I was a little boy, I experienced a hunger for something that I could not name.
Since that hunger was never satisfied in any lasting way, I didn’t know what “normal” should feel like. I didn’t know what it would feel like to have my needs filled, so I couldn’t even name what was wrong. And for all the decades of my life, I’ve felt something missing.
The missing piece was love.
I was hungry for a kind of healthy love and acceptance that I’ve never known. And that missing piece at my core left me with the vague knowledge that something was wrong.
For many years, an angry voice inside my head has asked, “What is wrong with me?!”
It didn’t seem like a serious, rational question, but rather reflected the way I felt inside — about some horrible shame lurking at my core. I mostly haven’t been able to put words to the feelings. I’ve just sensed a horrible mixture of fear, shame, anger — and a tremendous terror that I could never be “good enough.”
At every stage of my life, I have tried to find things that could finally chase away those fears — something that could fill the void, that could make me feel loved and connected.
I felt as though I was the only one who felt this way. I felt as though nobody else had experienced the core wound I felt — and that nobody else had gone through the horrible and confusing patterns that I have put myself through.
But I finally understand that everything I’ve done — and everything I’ve felt — was common to people who had suffered childhood trauma. The psychological term for what I was living with was complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).
I’ve talked before about my childhood, but I always feel as though I’m nibbling around the edges of the real issues. Some of the pieces are obvious. My well-intentioned father lived with demons of his own that made him a narcissistic monster. At times, he was a loving father. At other times — sometimes mere moments after a good time — he might become a raving and angry monster who seemed to hate me. I could never truly win his approval, no matter how hard I tried. And I was terrified of him.
I desperately craved the love and attention of a mother who left us for the first time when I was 5 years old. After that, she was out of my life far more than she was around. I thought I didn’t care. I thought I handled it just fine. But I had bottled everything up and I was an emotional basket case. Deep down, I felt that I must not deserve my mother’s love — and that pattern would follow me with women for most of my life.
I thrashed out in agony — metaphorically speaking — all my life. I’ve been afraid of what love was offered to me. I’ve pursued love which I knew I couldn’t have. I’ve trusted women who I shouldn’t trust. And I’ve been unable to give up on fantasies of healthy love which I should have known weren’t going to be there.
I live with a harsh inner critic who lashes out at me with a fierce stream of self-critical thoughts at random times. I long for a world where everything is perfect, but that’s nothing compared to my demands on myself. I fear that I can never be good enough, right enough, correct enough. It’s very important to me that I never violate my own values and ethics. I hate every instance I see in myself of error or hypocrisy or wrongdoing.
Any deviation from what I perceive to be perfect is evidence to me that I’m not worthy of love.
I could go on and on about the specifics of mistakes I’ve made which turn out to be typical of those who suffer from CPTSD. Here’s a YouTube channel from Anna Runkle (aka the Crappy Childhood Fairy) which breaks down many of those patterns into very digestible videos. (She often calls it childhood PTSD, but the meaning is the same.)
Writer Shari Schreiber described a lot of things in her work that resonated powerfully with me as well. I’ve experienced all of what she talks about in this passage.
“Core-damaged children grow into needful adults,” Schreiber wrote. “They might fear that if they let themselves love somebody as intensely as they want to, that person will shriek, run off into the night, and abandon them. Their sense of need feels gigantic, and often painful. It presumes that someone on the receiving end won’t be able to handle it — which triggers shame for being ‘so needy.’ This shame makes one want to shut down their needs (or control them), which is a defense that has one giving to others what he/she desperately requires. It also has them choosing emotionally unavailable partners who reactivate painful sensations that reinforce their childhood abandonment trauma. Every core-injured adult child lives with the tormenting, inescapable question: ‘Am I good enough to be loved by you?’”
Childhood trauma is impossible for most people to genuinely understand, simply because they have no frame of reference for it. The trauma that I experienced wasn’t as severe as what others lived through, but it had effects on me that have been lasting and baffling and scary, in part because the effects hide as other things. Every time I’ve dug through another layer of emotional damage, I’ve found something else that I’ve hidden from myself. It’s exhausting.
My experience is that we’re almost always our own worst enemy — even when we’re trying to recover from trauma — but most people refuse to recognize this. It took me many years to accept this about myself. I have continued to put myself into situations that would keep me locked where I was — and would prevent me from finding the love and acceptance which I’ve craved.
But I’ve also come to understand that things often have to get really dark before we can heal, because healing requires uncovering things at your core that you wish you had never had to look at. It involves opening wounds that you had forgotten were even there.
If you ever start down the path of serious personal growth, it requires things getting much worse before they get much better. Growth and change in your life seem to always require a rejection of things you’ve known and rejection of the dominant culture around you.
It seems to require you to pass through a period of inner chaos and outer conflict. The end result can be worth it, but most of life will be easier and outwardly happier for those who simply accept the beliefs and culture they’re given. That’s true, but I find it’s impossible for those who have the sort of core wounds that I’ve found in myself.
There are many ways to look at what happened to me as a child. There are many ways to look at all the mistakes I’ve made in my life — thrashing about to find what I needed in one way or another. But the path forward toward healing is still the same.
I was hurt as a child by what I lived through. I was desperate for love — from both parents — which I could not experience as I needed it. I’ve tried all sorts of substitutes to fill that horrible void.
But the only thing that will ever fill the void is real, genuine and vulnerable love. That means learning who to trust. It means learning who not to trust and who not to count on. It means unlearning a lot of lies that I’ve told myself. It means unlearning the lie that no one is ever going to love me and accept me just for being myself.
We live in a dangerous and dysfunctional culture, but the biggest battle that a lot of us fight is in the core of our own psyche. If we don’t win that battle and find ways to love and be loved, the world around us won’t matter.
Inside, I’m still that 5-year-old boy who doesn’t understand why he doesn’t feel loved and accepted and cherished. If I can find a way to get that need filled, every other problem in my world is solvable. But until I fill that need, it doesn’t matter what I achieve.
Only real love and acceptance are ever going to fill that hole in my heart that’s been there for as long as I can remember.