I have, throughout my adult life, found myself in the grip of a darkness: a persistent sense of dread and sadness caused by emotional neglect in childhood1. Its devastating effect has been the conviction that I am, at the core of my being, shameful and inadequate, leaving me yearning and striving for a perfection that would prove me worthy.
Whilst I have been labouring desperately and diligently under this self-imposed condemnation, I am at last recognising its destructive power and have, over the past few weeks, begun in earnest to dissect the beliefs that constrain me.
To distance oneself from familiar lies and become acquainted with daunting truths is an emotionally taxing exercise, one that only Art can make bearable, wherefore amidst this ordeal, I continue to work on poetry. Writing verses for this collection is a balm of joy beyond comprehension, dispelling my sorrows, giving me the courage to endure.
“General lack of bonding with children, including disregard, dismissiveness, distancing, misattunement, disassociation, heedlessness, carelessness, oversight, inadvertence, inattention, unconcern, inconsideration or indifference. Ignoring or not communicating with children during periods of separation from them.” – “The Impact of Emotionally Neglecting Children”, Recovery Direct
The title of this post is a paraphrase of a quote by author Willa Carter: “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” I read a popular version of this quote on Minds and it resonated with me. When I looked it up, I discovered it was by Carter and it got me thinking about my own storm and its influence on my life and music. I see Forgotten Fields as a way of learning how to navigate that storm. I cast my journey through the tempest in music. I make music to help me exorcise childhood demons, to restore my soul as it heads for the mooring mast of forgiveness and healing.
My music has a melancholy feel. After listening to my most recent mixes, someone described it as “atmospheric and ominous”. It’s true. The music relives my dysfunctional upbringing, a period when there was literally an atmosphere of the ominous. For a child, feeling unloved is a frightening reality. Today, as all my coping mechanisms fail, I’m discovering that making sense of what happened to me, as a child, and expressing the emotions connected with it, help me work through the devastation, the longing, the loneliness, the darkness and the fear.
The value of the storm
Forgiveness and healing is a journey some are ready to take, sooner than others. We don’t always see the value of the storm when we’re in it. For a long time, I know I didn’t. All I wanted was deliverance, but tragically, merely wanting deliverance is not enough motivation to pursue it. You have to hurt so badly for so long—the pain must devour you—before you finally face the music.
The Willa Carter quote reminded me of a post on the subject of forgiveness by Dr. Andrea Brandt, on Psychology Today. In the post, titled “How Do You Forgive Even When It Feels Impossible? (Part 1)”, she offers four steps to help us forgive others. The post is practical and sincere, but one of her readers scorned her advice.
An anonymous commenter, going by Unnecessary, finding himself in the depths of the storm, poured out his anger in an intense response to her suggestions. (I think of the commenter as male because I see much of my own struggle in what he wrote). Dr. Brandt, cognisant of the fact that her post was not intended to deal with severe trauma, made a sensible reply, but sadly, Unnecessary never responded. Here are his comments, as he wrote them; he responds directly to Dr. Brandt’s four steps, in the post:
Submitted by Unnecessary on February 9, 2016 – 5:01pm
Think about the incident that angered you. The problem is I CAN’T just accept it, if I could I would, but their crimes were too terrible. I know what happened to me and I’m angry, and justly so.
Acknowledge the growth you experienced as a result of what happened. I’ll tell you what it made me, it shattered my self esteem and any chance of leading a balanced life. They destroyed me both physically and mentally. What good does knowing my boundaries now??? They went on to lead their lives completely oblivious to the suffering they caused.
Now think about the other person. He or she is flawed because all human beings are flawed. Yes but some are waaay more flawed than others, I don’t care why they did it, I don’t care if they were abused as kids themselves, you think that makes it ok to do it to someone else??? They knew EXACTLY what they were doing and they enjoyed it. I don’t care what their needs are, wtf??? Why should I?
Finally, decide whether or not you want to tell the other person that you have forgiven him or her. I would rather die via the most painful death imaginable than ever forgive them. Forgiveness is the weakness of humans that allow evil to thrive, if you don’t seek justice or revenge, then you have just allowed criminals to walk free and do it again and again.
The ghosts in the storm
Unnecessary’s agony, anger and bitterness are palpable. For him, forgiveness is a byword for those who condone evil. It’s going to be immeasurably difficult for him to confront the fear of vanquishing his ghosts. It may sound strange, but when ghosts haunt you long enough, no matter how terrifying they are, they become your friends—and it’s hard to let old friends go. For some, it may even be impossible. My own ghosts are still unvanquished. Like the billowing tempest, they have an unsettling ability to bewilder and enchant. They continue to call from the darkness and I answer, almost instinctively. Will I ever turn a deaf ear?
It’s easy for someone to judge Unnecessary (and indeed myself) as immature and self-indulgent (and they’re not wrong), but it’s important to be patient. The pain is crippling. It erodes the soul. It is cyclical and cruel. It infects even our finest moments. We have so much anger towards our abusers, years after the fact that, at times, the very thought of them destroys us. We have this sense of people who crashed into our childhood and happily leaves us to pick up the pieces. We have decades of repressed anger, hurt and frustration. And no matter how much we dissect and make sense of our experiences, an irrational, emotional part of us revolts, calling out for justice!
I cannot begin to imagine the severity of the abuse Unnecessary and others like him must have suffered, and I have no doubt that my own experiences would pale in comparison. But, this does nothing to lessen the pain. The abuse a child suffers in a dysfunctional family is subtle and insidious, it is difficult to decipher its effects, to explain why one’s seemingly normal childhood leaves one feeling so devastated.
I hope we find some way of starting the journey towards recovery. Making music is my way of edging closer to the point of departure. I hope we all find our music.
I was reminded of Breughel’s Massacre of the Innocents, today. My reason for thinking about that painting was curiosity of a personal nature. When I first laid eyes on it, I had to fight back the tears, so powerful was my emotional response to it (and I didn’t even like Breughel’s work, up until that moment!). This wasn’t an isolated incident. I sometimes find myself talking about something I consider to be an example of brilliance and I’ll become inexplicably emotional. It’s never made sense to me why this happens. Why, when faced with instances of great beauty, creativity, genius or some other mastery, I seem to disintegrate. There’s nothing more or less special about me than any of my peers, and yet they don’t fall apart when they hear Dvorak’s 8th!
Unsurprisingly, the origin lies in my childhood. I was an “accident”, the result of bad planning—I used to think of it as “a moment of passion”. After not being aborted, I was raised by a mother who didn’t really need me around. I was left in my grandmother’s care, whilst she pursued her career. But, as any adult child of a dysfunctional family will tell you, children can tell when they are not wanted, when they are not celebrated, when they are an inconvenient burden; and the effects of these circumstances are devastating. This was certainly my experience. Growing up, I had a sense of not being all that important to the big people, least of all my mother. I craved her love, care and affection. But, she was incapable of loving me. (There were reasons for this inability, which I now understand intellectually, but, of course, to my younger self, none of that mattered.)
The “good boy” game
As a result, I had to find ways of attracting the love I needed. I became a “good boy”: I never expressed feelings or needs and I always did what I was told. When I was well-behaved, I was praised and approved of, and when (on the rare occasion) I was ill-behaved, I was punished and disapproved of. My emotional security and my value became wholly dependent on my performance, not on anything inherently lovable within me. It left me feeling emotionally abandoned and unwanted. The “good boy” game was working, but a roller coaster of insecurity was the inevitable outcome. What I needed was unconditional love, love independent of what I did or didn’t do. And since I couldn’t make my parents love me, I needed a new plan. The game was up. I needed a love substitute.
I found this in beauty. At first, it was the superficial beauty admired by a child: decorative items in the house, flowers in the garden, toys, favourite stories, songs, thoughts—tangible and intangible things I could collect. But, as I grew older, I began to see the beauty of creative genius in the arts, design, engineering, philosophy, science, and so forth. My reverence for what I collectively call Beauty became absolute. I began to see it as a constant: it wasn’t reactive, it didn’t become less beautiful, it was consistent and reliable, a kind of refuge from the loveless reality I experienced as a youngster.
An imaginary friend
The people in my world were insensitive, dismissive and unappreciative. They made me feel insignificant and worthless. All I could do to survive was to find ways to protect myself. But, in the presence of beauty, I could lower my defenses. I could drop the “good boy” act and just be. Admiring beautiful things was a way of vicariously giving myself the love, approval and worth I so desperately sought. It was twisted, but it became a genuine replacement for the conditional love and approval I was generating in my parents. Beauty became my imaginary friend, a source of joy with every new creative or intellectual discovery. It didn’t disapprove, ridicule or disappoint. It was only its wonderful self, admired by all who loved its form.
I cry because I’m vulnerable
And so, when I come face to face with something Beautiful—something excellent, pure and masterful—that unloved, wounded part of my soul is exposed. It’s no wonder I become a defenseless little boy who just wants to break down in tears. Beauty has protected, soothed and healed me, all my life. Without it, I don’t see how I could have survived—I owe it my life and sanity. I become emotional because for that brief moment, in the presence of something great, all my defenses are down. When I was a boy, my first exposure to true creativity was through music. The works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky exposed me to genius I couldn’t even begin to understand, but it inspired me to make music, to try to create something beautiful, myself. Today, the very process of making music restores me and delivers me. May the music I make also bring beauty into the lives of others.