This is the eighth article in this series about the recovery path, and it is about the second half of the path. This is after we have fully accessed our anger, and begun to grieve our losses and let go. This article may not necessarily be helpful to someone who is still reeling from betrayal and loss, or even someone who is still exploring righteous anger. However, it is part of this series because a growing number of people on LoveFraud are considering the influence of their histories on their relationships, as part of healing themselves and their lives. Please, take what is valuable to you, but if this one doesn’t make sense or, God forbid, makes you feel like you’re being blamed, it just means that you’re at another healing stage. Which is good. Every stage is necessary and good. Be where you are, love yourself and heal. That’s all that matters. — Kathy
In recovering from a trauma or extended trauma like a sociopathic relationship, we often discover that what we lost isn’t what we first thought it was. In fact, our very resistance to letting go – the thing that often keeps us stuck in anger or even bargaining or denial – isn’t exactly what we thought it was.
The traumatic recovery process, if we have the courage to see it through, turns out to be very different from the “he done me wrong” drama it first appeared to be. It’s not about unrequited love. It’s not about us not being good enough or smart enough. It’s really not about anything that is between us and our sociopathic opposite number.
It is really about us waking from a dream.
What is real?
An old friend talked to me recently about feeling so disoriented that she had difficulty finding her way out of her hometown airport. She was returning from her third trip to visit a man in another city. Based on phone conversations with him, she had become convinced that he loved her, wanted a future with her, and accepted her as she was. When she arrived, she discovered that what he wanted was “friends with benefits.” And by the way, would she please invest in his condo because he was having trouble making the payments?
As on the previous trips, he was cold, critical and exploitive, expecting her to pay for staying with him and pay for everything they did together. Knowing that he had less money than her, she did that willingly. She would have given the five-figure investment in the condo, except that her money was tied up in a trust. The one thing she could not do was casual sex, and she could not understand how or why he did not remember that this was a baseline truth with her. If she was in a sexual relationship, it had to be serious and committed. Of course, they had sex before his idea about “friends with benefits” became clear, leaving her feeling used and ashamed.
After the other trips, she had felt wounded and depressed. Half angry at him, half wondering what she had done wrong. This time was different. She finally understood that she had been deluded, and it didn’t matter if he had misled her or she had misled herself. She contacted me to ask me what to do about the feeling of disorientation. She didn’t know how she could have been so mistaken, and she didn’t know what was real anymore.
“I want my old self back,” she said. Then she thought a moment, and said. “No, I don’t. Not if it’s the old self that keeps doing this over and over.”
The broken part
My friend is not stupid, though she has a history of relationships with exploitive people. Listening to her talk about how ashamed she felt about the love letters she had written and her feeling that she was too stupid to live, I could almost see the broken cog in the machinery of her psyche.
With her, as with many of us, this broken part is not really about the exploitive people who take advantage of it. We feel like these relationships are “happening to” us. But what really happened is that a certain set of circumstances triggers something in us that I call a “state.” (Some psychologists call it a ‘trance,” because it is a form of self-hypnosis. It may also be called a “fugue state,” after a type of music where a single melody line is repeated in many variations.)
A state is a reactive response with certain characteristics. One is a narrowing of focus. Everything else fades to lesser importance. Other, possibly unrelated experiences are interpreted through our intense involvement with this state and its triggers. The anger we have discussed in previous articles is a state. The disorientation of my friend and the distressed confusion of early-stage recovery are also states. Other characteristics of states may be reversion to childlike emotional behaviors – tantrums, outsized hunger for validation or security, confusing the feeling of relief with love.
Another characteristic of these states is often disassociation, or distancing ourselves from objective reality. “Inside” the state, we identify with it. It feels “right,” often passionately right, the truth about ourselves. A feedback loop can evolve. The state becomes magnified by our attention; so we pay more attention to it. If the state is painful, we may start looking for self-medication through alcohol, drugs, video games, shopping, work, etc. If the state provides pleasure, we may do more and more of what we think is creating the pleasure. As we pursue or avoid feelings, learning skills or living with the effects of our actions, the state’s structure evolves into more complexity.
So where do these states come from? Especially the painful ones. Anyone who has been reading this series of articles knows already. They are residue of unprocessed trauma. One of the simplest ways to grasp this is to ask, “When was the first time I ever felt this way?” We may not immediately remember the first time, but most of us can track the state backwards through events in our history.
My relationship with a sociopath was not the first time I’d felt completely subsumed by a romantic attachment. (It was just, unfortunately, the first time I’d done it with someone who felt no ethical responsibility toward me.) I realized, fairly early, that what was happening with him wasn’t “different,” but only a worst-case scenario of something I’d been doing my entire life.
Leaving Las Vegas
Few of us on LoveFraud would consider ourselves gambling addicts. But if we think about what gambling addicts really want, we might see a bit of ourselves in it. When a gambler is winning, the emotional payoff isn’t the money. It is the sense of basking in a kind of sunshine of divine acceptance, where s/he is magically doing everything right and being loved for it. The love may be expressed in financial winnings, but the thrill is that big, loving, supportive “yes” from the cosmos.
From the book “Leaving the Enchanted Forest: The Path from Relationship Addiction to Intimacy” by Stephanie Covington and Liana Beckett, here is a brief description of the progression of an addictive relationship:
1. Experiencing the euphoric high of a new relationship, which enables us to focus on another person, rather than dealing with our true emotional state
2. Seeking the positive mood swing, looking forward to it, being willing to make sacrifices to get it, suffering occasional feelings of dejection or jealousy or panic, but the pain is still manageable
3. Dependence, where focus on the lover crosses the line from choice to need, and life becomes narrow, unbalanced, unhealthy with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors
4. Maintaining contact just to avoid being in a state of chronic depression and emotional pain, because there is no more euphoria and the inner balance is in shambles
Is this a state? It actually sounds like a series of states with a common thread. If we return to the gambler, we can see a similar fundamental story. A pursuit of magical redemption in which we get the prize if Lady Luck smiles on us, or fall back into a kind of emotional hell if she doesn’t.
But is that a fair analogy? Games of luck depend on the random distribution of a shuffled card deck, the end of a wheel’s momentum, the way dice fall. The gambler is essentially passive, beyond risking the stakes. In our relationships, we do so much more, don’t we? We don’t just show up and hope. We go out of our way to be charming, agreeable, enthusiastic, compliant, understanding, tolerant and supportive, while we kiss, cook, make love, arrange our schedules, dress to please, help out with their finances, children, careers, leave behind huge chunks of our lives as they were before. We’re actively building, investing, sacrificing, trying.
Still, the gambling analogy holds, because of one thing. The success of it all is out of our control. All we can do is our best, and hope that we earn a happy ending. In sociopathic relationships, we learn several very tough lessons. But primary among them is this: if our happiness depends on something outside of ourselves, we are living a gambler’s life.
The crumbling foundation
A recent show on HDTV was about the crumbling foundation under a house. Contractors mortared cinderblock up against the old walls and dug trenches around the outside of the foundation to divert the water that had weakened the concrete. In all, they managed to preserve the rooms of the house above by shoring up the old foundation.
What we face in getting over a sociopathic relationship something like the same problem, although our solution may be quite different. Our “states” are like rooms built on the foundation of old coping responses we adopted when we faced an overwhelming event when we were younger. When I was very small, I learned that no one would protect me from my father’s unreasonable verbal and physical abuse, and in fact, I was responsible for keeping him happy. At three years old or so, I developed an immediate coping response that involved alterations in patterns of feeling, thought and behavior, designed to manipulate circumstances and myself in order to survive. All of it was founded on an awareness of impending danger. But it also included a memory of the time before the danger, a dream of a better time, when I was loved, safe and could thrive as who I was.
That is a quick illustration of the foundation under a “room” in my psyche. I developed through my childhood and adult life with that “state” ready to be triggered by any circumstances that seemed to “fit.” Through the years, I furnished this room with more experiences that supported its reality, learned more survival skills for a world of impending danger, and once or twice, learned that I could relax and be myself in certain circumstances, thinking I was making big progress in my life.
But the twilight-zone reality of this room, which began with the original decision about how to handle an overwhelming childhood event, is what allowed the sociopath to take residence in my life. A coping strategy that was designed to help me survive danger as a child turned into a vulnerability to tremendous danger as an adult.
My friend who kept going back to a man who is incapable of loving her and uses her for money isn’t trying to hurt herself. In fact, she is trying to help herself out of other circumstances in her life. Because of her family background, she has a life strategy of being very, very good and helpful, because love must be earned and the alternative is punishment. Her dream is that, if she earns love, she will be able to recover the lost state of being accepted for herself and the right to her own identity. In this “state,” she is vulnerable to interpreting small kindnesses or seductive behaviors as “love” and acceptance. Especially if the other person meets certain other criteria, like bearing psychological resemblance to her pathologically selfish father.
All of us have gone through these perfect-storm situations when the right stimuli and our old coping strategies come together to throw us into a “state” that seems exciting and redemptive. But for my friend, on her final encounter with this man, something new emerged from this relationship – a realization that she was deluded. She was understandably disoriented because this realization potentially affected not just this relationship, but the structure of her entire life. When she said “I don’t know what to believe anymore” or “maybe I’m just too stupid to live,” she is talking about cracks in the foundation. Not just in the way she understood the world, but even in her ideas about her own identity.
How much can we lose?
In dealing with the residue of a sociopathic relationship, we feel separated from parts of our identity. We talk about not being able to trust again or love again. We talk about the loss of ourselves as lovable or attractive people, as trustworthy to ourselves or others, as believers in the goodness of the world or in a benevolent deity. We have feelings – like bitterness, anger, vengefulness – that we fear or dislike in ourselves. It seems like our rules of social engagement, romance or personality integrity have become broken or unreal.
It is no wonder that many of us need time before we jump back into the world again. With so many basic realities up in the air, a larger question emerges. If the world is so different, if we are so different that what we imagined, then what is real? Or more importantly, is real about us?
As profoundly disorienting as this may be, it is also part of the grieving and letting go stage of trauma processing. Because as we start to allow ourselves to face irretrievable losses – like the loss of the person we loved and the loss of the dream that person represented – we often discover that those losses are just the superficial veneer over deeper losses we have not yet grieved and let go.
In my case, grieving the loss of this man also brought me to the realization that he, and all the other lovers of my life, were band-aids I used cover a very old wound. That was the too-early loss of supportive protection when I was a child. I saw how much of my life was constructed around my coping with impending danger, and especially in my search for safety and restoration of a sense that I belonged and was welcome in the world.
In healing, I had to revisit that child who still existed in me, who was still holding up the foundation of that now-dysfunctional room that welcomed my sociopathic lover as a savior. I had to grieve with her about the childhood she lost while I reassured her that I was taking care of her now. That she could drop that weight finally, stop holding together all those coping strategies like a little Atlas with the world on her shoulders.
If you had asked me five years ago who I am, I would have given you a list of all the characteristics I developed in that room. Hardworking, responsible, trustworthy, generous, tolerant, kind, polite, presentable – all “virtues” that were really highly developed skills to earn the acceptance and approval I needed to feel safe. If you had thought to ask me who I was underneath all of that, and I was feeling particularly honest, I would have told you I was scared and tired and alone. Chronically and unfixably, except for the temporary respites I got from diving into another relationship, winning some praise for my work, or buying or eating something that made me feel better.
Today, if you asked me the same question, I would just smile. The question doesn’t compute. I am my “states,” and yes, they still exist. I still have knee-jerk responses to the stimuli that remind me of my old “world of impending danger.” But increasingly, I recognize them as responses to trauma. I observe myself slipping in and out of these states, being tempted to behaviors that are band-aids for pain.
In getting outside these states, I stopped limiting my identity to characteristics based on arranging my life around impending danger. I freed myself to grow into a larger identity. It includes characteristics – like selfishness, undependability and anger – that were forbidden before. I am more fluid and accepting of myself and other people. But most important, I find that my center has shifted. It’s hard to describe who I am now, but it includes this “observer,” as well as more awareness of the world around me, and more openness to feelings of joy, awe, gratitude and compassion.
I let go of a lot of things. It wasn’t always easy. There was backlash from well-intentioned “rules” and critical voices designed to keep me safe in a world of impending danger. I had to feel my way along to discover what rules were reasonable and which were obsolete artifacts of coping with a scary daddy.
This process of letting go of parts of myself will, I believe, never end. But, to my surprise, it becomes increasingly enjoyable. I once grieved over the discovery that I was not always trustworthy and that, despite all the effort I put into it, I could not make everyone like me. Now, when some inner voice tells me “I have to” do something, my inner observer frequently pops up and decides whether that “state” is useful or whether we have better options. More and more, everything about me is optional, because every moment is new with new challenges and new opportunities that have nothing to do with my history or with some frightened little identity that is really just baggage from that history.
As far as impending danger goes, that’s another issue that we’ll discuss in a future article. Fear, the natural fear of the dangers of a random universe, is something we still have not addressed in this journey of recovery. Grieving and letting go paves the way for that next stage.
Namaste. The joyous awakening spirit in me salutes the joyous awakening spirit in you.
P.S. I owe a debt of gratitude to the writing of Stephen Wolinsky, Ph.D., for many of the ideas in this article. You can find his books on Amazon.