A Hole in Your World
By Jude LaClaire, PhD
The primal feeling of abandonment is one of the first responses in young infants. The moment we arrive we are looking for safety, reassurance, and connection. Sadly, many people have parents who are not available for the infant, the young and growing child. Sometimes it is caused by mental illness, substance abuse, death, adoption, emotional immaturity of the parents, or because the parents are trauma survivors. Whatever the multi-faceted causes, the result is a huge loss for the growing child. Many developmental milestones are missed and some children respond by developing an adult persona prematurely.
These are the people I see who come to therapy seeking help with the pain they are experiencing from this parental loss. They are often super responsible, sometimes controlling, failing in relationships, and very lonely, and insecure internally. My first introduction to this phenomenon was many years ago when I was working with highly traumatized children who had been abused, neglected, and abandoned. One little nine-year-old wanted me to read the story, Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman, over and over. Then he would ask, “Do I have a mother?”
As I continued to see many clients who had this issue, I was also aware of helpful stories like, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), by Maya Angelou. She was describing her parental loss and pain. Beginning in the 70s and finding a big voice in the 80s and 90s, the Adult Children of Alcoholics began to name and describe the painful experience of parental loss due to substance abuse. Incest and sexual abuse survivors also began speaking out, writing about their experiences, and asking for mental health services. The trauma of stolen childhoods was gaining recognition, and I was honing my skills in working with this issue.
Richard Rhodes in A Hole in the World (1990), describes his experience, “I didn’t know my mother, except as infants know. At the beginning of my life, the world acquired a hole. That’s what I knew, there was a hole in the world.” Hope Edelman, after losing her mother to cancer at age seventeen wrote, “There is an emptiness inside of me—a void that will never be filled…I am a survivor, mentally strong, determined, strong-willed, self-reliant, and independent. I also keep most of my pain, anger, and feelings inside. I refuse to be vulnerable to anyone, especially my husband.”
What can we do with this reservoir of pain, so carefully stored away with unrealized parts of the self? Amy Tan, author, and parental abusive survivor says through one of her characters in The Joy Luck Club, “So this is what I will do. I will gather together my past and look. I will see a thing that has already happened, the pain that cut my spirit loose. I will hold that pain in my hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear. And then my fierceness can come back, my golden side, my black side.” Watching the Netflix documentary, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, I was transfixed by her account of her abusive childhood, her suffering, and her depression. She described how, reluctantly taking care of her mother, she decided to listen to her mother’s story, and began writing about it in her subsequent books. Today she is a happy, funny, smart, active woman who sings, dances writes, and enjoys her life.
There is good news in all of this. Many times a day, I have the honor of being with people who are on this journey. I am the guide in this process of healing as people of all ages are learning to embrace the vulnerable child, to hear their pain, their cries, and their need for love, safety, reassurance, and encouragement. It is an arduous journey taking patience, consistency, a safe place, and courage. The result is finding the parts of oneself that were missing, filling the void with happy children, and feeling safe and loved. There are some wonderful new books like; Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, Mother Hunger and The Body Keeps the Score. There are older books on adult children of alcoholics, sexual abuse survivors, and co-dependency, all focusing on the process of children who became adults far too soon, abandoning the vulnerable, needy child parts of the self.
I am happy we are, as a society and mental health community, more aware of these issues and that we are continuing to find new ways to heal. More young people are writing, singing, pod-casting, and sharing their stories. There are many stories, and many ways to heal. The good news is that we can face the hole and fill it with our many young selves. The journey never really ends but there is much fulfillment and happiness along the way.
Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor and educator. She is the author of the “Life Weaving Education Curriculum” that teaches creative, effective problem-solving. For counseling appointments (confidential video or in-person sessions), seminars, speaking engagements, or information on Life Weaving, Neurobehavioral Programs, or Imago Relationship Therapy call