How I Healed from the Trauma of My Father’s Abandonment

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He doesn’t require punishment. That’s the message he is sending.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

My father abandoned me, my younger sister and mother when I was 15 years old after we filed for bankruptcy. My mother took me to the kitchen and showed me her financial situation, written on a yellow paper.

Six months’ unpaid rent was left behind by Dad. The landlord threatened to evict us unless mom agreed to continue paying extra rent each month until the balance was paid. These terms were acceptable to him.

Dad’s abandonment included disappearing with everything we had of any value. He took our music, art, records—everything that made the place a home. He also took his blender.

My mother’s secretarial job covered our housing, car payment, and other bills, but we would run out of money the last week of the month. It would be necessary to come up with a solution.

My father’s larger-than-life personality made him the center of our universe. He had no formal education or training and produced films, invented a tripod, started a furniture shop, and created a golf training video.

He was always interested in a new business every few months. We were three lightless planets that revolved around the flaming sun. His absence left us all spinning after his departure.

We walked around the neighbourhood looking for jobs such as housecleaning, car washing, or lawn mowing. People don’t have the money to pay children to work in low-income communities. We each picked up one babysitting job for one night—nothing regular.

One day, I answered a call for a solicitor job by telephone. The office was only a mile away from our house. The company would consider me for a job with a bonus commission if I was able to make seven sales during two 4-hour shifts. Even though I thought I was thirteen, at fifteen I actually looked sixteen.

My seventh sale was a success and I felt proud. Everything was going to be alright. But, instead, my manager informed me that one sales call had been cancelled, and therefore I was not eligible for the job. I had worked from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. for two days and didn’t get paid a dime. Later, I learned that the owners of the company were accused of profiting from underage work.

In the darkness, I ran home and wept. Unidentified man pulled up in front of me and offered to take me for a ride. With a starving eye, he looked up at me. I ran down the street, and continued my way home. My interior walls crumbled. It was then that I realized the impermanence and fragility of all things. In my home town, I was a refugee.

Three generations of our family survived financial hardship. We managed to make it. But the abandonment deprivation was more severe.

Abandonment, at any age, leaves one gobsmacked by the cold awareness that someone you love no longer cares if you’re dead or alive. You’ve been rendered irrelevant to someone who once benefited from your loving affection. You feel discarded like yesterday’s trash.

You’re never the same person once you know that someone you love can walk away and not look back. It is a knowledge you have ingested from the tree that contains the knowledge of both good and evil. You will always have this knowledge. A broken heart can be hard to break.

Therapists talk about “fear of abandonment” as if it were a form of phobic anxiety, like arachnophobia, the irrational fear of spiders. We were never abandoned by my sister and mother. We were abandoned.

When someone is shot with a gun and survives, we don’t tell them they have a “fear of guns.” We call it trauma. It is the wound that holds the pain. These scars are tangible.

The abandonment of someone we love by another person is a relational injury. It’s like being shot but without visible scars. According to neuropsychologists, losing someone you love triggers the brain’s pain receptors. It hurts physically. It is similar to withdrawal from opiates.

The pain will eventually subside, just like opiate addiction. We can find hope in new experiences that offer the possibility of relational healing. The ability to love again is something we learn. The healing balm of love is like the soothing balm on a burnt wound. You will feel the nerve endings relax. The happiness returns.

The brain is affected by relationships trauma. The brain may thin in one or both of its parts. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for self-awareness and the medial temporal brainlobe handles emotions. These changes could lead to anxiety or depression.

My parents both were abandoned as children by their fathers. My father had extreme emotional polarities, with manic, entrepreneurial energy surges followed by depression. My mother suffered from depression occasionally, which was followed by long periods in recovery.

Trauma can change us at a cellular level, and it can last for many generations. Families are haunted daily by intergenerational trauma. To endure suffering is to become wise. Wisdom is the key to easing suffering.

We gain wisdom from our suffering. A survivor’s confident armor. A cell’s awareness that security is a myth. Ability to bring peace and joy to the potluck. Protecting our hearts and precious souls is an instinct. 

After each setback, I was forced to try new things to get my healing process started again. The children are naturally self-centered, and they feel responsible for any bad events that occur to them. The child believes “If I feel bad, I am bad.” With maturity, we learn to differentiate between what our parents bear responsibility for and our own adult responsibilities. I began to recognize that my father’s decision to leave us had nothing to do with us. He chose to abandon responsibility for his family due to his own failures and weaknesses, not ours.

My emotional maturity led me to realize that I could make better choices if my life was better. After several relationships with men who feared commitment and didn’t love me, I made the healthy decision to no longer find that type of man attractive.

Because I felt the need, I became a hunter for opportunities. To cope, I searched for tools. Here’s what I found helpful:

  • Meditation: When I was 16 years old, meditation became a part of my daily life. That saved me from crippling anxiety and clinical depression. Meditation can heal the brain damage caused by trauma. Meditation gives you a calm, non-judgmental experience.
  • Friendships: My friendships have opened up new worlds. My friends were my lateral mentors. They taught me to drive and play the guitar and how to write resumes to apply for college.
  • The beauty of love: Loving relationships can heal feelings of self-worthlessness. The example of loving couples was a great model for how it could be done.
  • Meaning and purpose: My happiness and resilience were enhanced by my volunteer work as a psychotherapist and raising a family.
  • Compatibility: I was a child of very young parents. Their children also suffered from abandonment and losses. I feel compassion for my father’s loss and for what he lost in leaving us. Compassion heals.
  • Gratitude: I’m grateful for my small family and what we built from the rubble. We raised children in a secure environment. Our sister and I have never experienced poverty or abandonment. We broke with the tradition of transgenerational marriages.

When our family comes together, I see our grandsons playing with the pups in our grassy yard. Our oldest son watches over the children with a protective eye. The boys love to ride on my back and get horsey rides. The lovely dinner is prepared by our daughter-in law using fresh ingredients from the family’s garden. The funny routine of our other son is a hit with his nephews. To keep the laughter going, our daughter and her husband perform an improvised comedy routine. The sun is slowly setting, so we enjoy the food.

Love wins.

Gina Simmons Schneider, Ph.D.

Frazzlebrain by Dr. Gina Simmons Schneider (Central Recovery Press: April 2022) As a certified psychotherapist, coach and trainer, she has worked with Fortune 500 corporations. Schneider Counseling and Corporate Solutions is her codirector. She is a leading expert in coping skills and has more than twenty-five year experience working with people to manage conflict situations and emotions.

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