Content Warning: Mention of childhood abuse, abandonment, suicide, trauma and death.
I am a successful product of child abandonment.
Raised in an abusive home, my mother left when I was in 7th grade. From that point on, I spent an excessive amount of time alone, making decisions that a teenager shouldn’t have to make, making my own dinner, and eating that dinner alone, in deafening silence, time and time again. Doing homework sitting on my bed, unsupported, I remember thinking, Why bother … no one cares if I get this done, why should I? – which eventually led to dropping out of high school. It wasn’t until I was an adult and started serious therapy, did I understand how this trauma played into every decision I made. By all accounts and statistics, I should be a non-functioning adult. Although I am a high school drop-out, I am studying for my Doctorate and will graduate next May. Don’t get me wrong, I have idiosyncrasies and the physical aliment I suffer from the most is a volatile digestive system (controlled with a healthy diet) – a norm for kids and adults with abusive backgrounds.
Abandonment Trauma is real and unpleasant, to say the least, and it comes in many forms. I never really understood how it really affected me until my first trip overseas alone. And then the next trip and then the next trip. All would find me sitting in my hotel room upon arrival, terrified. Paralyzed. Unable to think. Confused. Feeling as if I lost someone, or, I was lost. Wanting to go home. Calling my then husband, crying, saying I couldn’t stay. It was scary and confusing, because I didn’t understand why I was so afraid. I had already lived overseas with my husband, so, why were these trips so frightening? Then a therapist finally helped me understand – they asked me what I envisioned when I was in those places – and I suddenly realized my subconscious had me sitting on my bed in silence, all alone, eating dinner – and all that came with that memory. There it was. The association to the horrible, lonely reality of my childhood, was what was driving my fight or flight as an adult.
All the things that I am, have formed, in part, due to my comprehension of being left, feeling as if I wasn’t worthy of love from the people that were supposed to have loved me unconditionally. Although I understand why my mom had to leave, that makes it no less traumatic, no less difficult, no less isolating, no less fearful. The great news is that I get myself. The years and years of work I have completed have led me to understand and be so in tune to myself, as well as exceptionally true to myself, I am actually proud of how far I have come. I get my fight or flight. I understand my fear and anxiety of being alone. I comprehend the magnitude of my utter despair at the thought of isolation. I have strong friendships and was married for twenty-one years – I know how to maintain healthy relationships. I also know when I need to cut ties with toxic and harmful people – although that notion doesn’t register as quickly as I would like it to. I work out of, and speak from, a deep sense of hurt, harm, abandonment, healing, understanding, and compassion.
In all of this, I have done some serious inner work the last six months, as we’ve entered this time in the world that has lent to disastrous effects from Covid19, and I have come to realize that it’s almost as if I’ve been prepping for this pandemic my whole life. Every moment of abuse, every moment of loss, every moment of abandonment, every moment of hopelessness, every moment of isolation, every moment of feeling utterly alone on this planet, and every moment of therapy to face all of that – has helped me get through the last six months. Especially because I currently live alone and do not have a partner at this time, it has been particularly difficult. I picked a hell of a time to remain fiercely independent.
I have been disheartened to read about the worldwide rise in suicides due to isolation because of Covid. I relate, because I tried to end my life at 19 – when I was feeling so utterly alone – I felt I had no way out, I felt the deepest despair I have ever known. I think we all have a feeling of moving through the world as if we were all alone, some more so than others, but the reality is, many are alone. I am not, but, many of the people I work with and for, are. Many live on the streets and literally have no one. Yet, many of the pandemic suicides are occurring with people who have family and friends. It is tragic. And it is a paradox for me when I keep hearing, We are all in this together. No. No, we are not. The notion of us as one human family is so at odds with itself right now, it is dizzying.
I am certain that unaddressed childhood trauma is effecting many right now and I so wish I could reach every person and tell them that I understand. The reality is, facing childhood trauma sucks. It is scary, painful and there are still incidences of abuse that I experienced that I have yet to work through as well. I am uncertain I will ever face those moments, because they are that painful, that real, that scary. I know I am not alone in this. I akin this to the pandemic. It is painful, real, scary, and uncertain. They are strangely relatable and it is all so triggering, on many levels.
Bringing God into the mix is even more perplexing. Because then those difficult questions arise – Why did God allow harm to come to me? Why did God allow my parents to harm me? Why didn’t God love me enough to protect me? The theological notion and consequences of God and parental abuse and abandonment, are deep. Too deep to discuss here.
The reality that the pandemic is not going away anytime soon is weighing heavily on me. People are dying, all over the world, and not only is the Extrovert in me, but the Empath in me is also withering. The loss of life on so many levels is difficult to grasp and I think, too much for many. I am prepping for at least another six months, but that doesn’t make it easy, by any means. I keep saying, This is hard. Because, it is. This is so hard. And honestly, the thought of more isolation, more time away from the things and people I love, is going to be even more difficult – I know this. And I am struggling. A lot.
My sister says I came out of the womb pissed off at the world with my fists up, ready to fight. Ready to defend myself. Ready to survive whatever the world handed and will continue to hand me. I believe this, and more, I know this. Without, what I refer to as my feistiness, but what many in my family call me is, “Difficult,” I simply wouldn’t be here. So, to my abandonment trauma, to Covid19, and to all that goes with it, I say – Put ‘em up. I will kick your ass.
In this time of tumult, may you find the will and the strength to face the harm caused to and on you. And may you find solace in the empowerment that facing that harm, brings you. And if that doesn’t work, join me and put your fists up too. You are not alone.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending four years working with United Religions Initiative, in several different positions. An Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in her major, Peace and Justice Studies, where she wrote her thesis on Al Qaeda and their misuse religion for political gain. Karen currently lives in California, works at three faith based non-profits, teaches and lectures, is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.