Angel chapter 29
XXIX. Mirroring self
What would happen to you if the next time you looked into a mirror you did not see yourself reflected back to you? How would you feel? What would you think? What would you do? Something would happen to you. I guarantee it.
“Impossible,” you say? Unlikely? Perhaps. But for some of us this kind of invisibility is what we were born to.
When an infant comes into the world it relies from its first breath and its first cry upon those who give it care to be guided into the world. A newborn has no other way to begin to know it has a self because it IS a self. Newborns are biologically designed to seek their self in the mirror of their mother’s eyes.
A mother who is to one degree or another preoccupied with unresolved trauma in her own life will show an emptiness back to her infant where the infant is supposed to see itself shining. A mother’s preoccupation with anything other than her infant’s complete well-being can literally starve the self of her infant to death before it has ever had a chance to recognize itself in her eyes.
We can use words like “missing love” or even describe this vacancy as “preexisting distress” in a mother, but the physiological facts of early infant body-brain-self-development are that if a mother cannot mirror her infant back to itself in what is termed “good enough” ways, such a fundamentally deprived infant cannot develop properly no matter how well its other basic biological needs might seem to be met.
An infant’s need for its mother (and other earliest caregivers) to attune to it is a body-brain-self essential developmental requirement. Any infant who is deprived of the chance to have itself attuned to and mirrored not only in the eyes of its mother but also in her voice and movements toward her infant will have its earliest development altered by the trauma these missing interactions cause in the infant.
Under ordinary conditions the patterns within safe and secure infant-mother attachment interactions happen naturally. Under unordinary conditions parts and pieces of what an infant needs to have to build a healthy body-brain-self are missing. Over time such a deprived infant will suffer from disturbances in its patterns of being alive that few of us are prepared to recognize.
Unsafe, insecure and inadequate responses by early caregivers to infants cause insecure attachment disorders that underlie disturbances on every level of being alive as a self in a body. HOW such an early trauma survivor will be in its lifetime will inevitably be far different than it would have been if its first 33 months of life (conception to age 2) had gone correctly.
Missing parts and pieces of safe and secure attachment patterns change the way a self develops from the start of life. These changes are complicated because all aspects of early development are interconnected and dependent upon one another. Given enough of the wrong kind of experience an infant will simply come down a different chute prepared in every way to live a life in a world that is a malevolent rather than a benevolent one.
My mother was devastatingly altered in her development from the time she was born (see Story Without Words.) By the time she grew to an age of beginning cognizance the patterns of her young life followed a theme best described in a childhood ditty often repeated to her: “There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she was horrid.” For all its purported innocence, the patterns contained in those words became very real in a mantra that clinched the inevitable destruction of my mother.
By the time I had completed the process that birthed me into the world, Mildred’s mind had suffered a psychotic break along the fissure within her caused by very real enactments of that child’s poem during her childhood. Long before Mildred was old enough to understand the meaning of those words neglect, abuse and trauma had interfered so much with the development of her body-brain-self that she had no healthy defense ability to coalesce into one whole self once she was further attacked by the influence of the disastrous split-child mantra that ran the world Mildred continued to grow up in.
“Very very good” Mildred seemed to be loved. “Horrid” Mildred was hated, “punished” and ignored.
After her psychotic mental break there were two literalized sides to Mildred. The all-good Mildred was her husband’s wife and her all-good children’s mother. “Horrid” Mildred was my mother. As a result I was not recognized by her as myself. She had no ability to attune to me or to mirror me back to myself.
Through some miracle that I may never be able to comprehend in this lifetime, the love in my 13 ½ month older brother, John, enabled him to attune to me as he mirrored enough of me back to me that I was able to grow my own self far enough into the world to survive. However, I suspect there is more to that part of my story.
It seems possible to me that because my mother was ONLY Horrid Mildred, and because Good Mildred had an all-good child to mother, and because my brother and I were so close in age that she could not be Good Mother to John at the same time she was Horrid Mother to me, during much of my first two years of life a safe zone was created for me by accident. Because Mildred could find no way to be Horrid Mother to me at the same time she was Good Mother to John, the worst of her interactions with me were eliminated from much of my ongoing early experience.
It was therefore the combination of John’s adoring attentiveness to me during this time as well as the particular patterns of Mildred’s psychotic mind I am describing that saved me. Although I am certain that never, not one single time was my Horrid Mother able to look at me, speak to me, or touch me with anything like genuine affection during this time (or ever), in the interest of preserving the entire sanctity of her Good Mothering of her little adored Johnny she did not openly harm me when I was in his presence.
It can best be said that in Mildred’s broken mind it was as if I was my brother’s doll baby. She allowed this because she could not be Johnny’s Good Mother and prevent it. I know that as a baby if I ever winced he was instantly at my side with the fullest intention to “repair” whatever “rupture” I was experiencing. I also know that the “borderline” that preserved the silence between Mildred’s two minds could not actually be crossed when my brother was with me.
Did her illness allow her to be aware of the seething hatred Horrid Mother had for all-bad Linda during these times? Did that hatred erupt any possible time she could get to me without John being present?
These early years as the patterns of Mildred’s split mind processes were in play let me experience enough safety and security that I could survive all that came next as Horrid Mother was increasingly able to separate me from John as we grew older. In the meantime it is important for me to describe another protective factor that I believe was available to me from birth because of the exact way Mildred’s psychosis operated.
It is my belief and understanding that all humans are born with the essential characteristic of being good. Because of the complete good-bad split in Mother’s mind, because I only had Horrid Mother, because all she ever felt for me was the hatred the all-bad mind enabled her to feel for me, that is all I ever saw reflected back to me in my mother’s eyes any time she looked into mine. To varying degrees – depending on who was present with us – I would have heard hatred in her voice and felt it in her hands, as well. She never fooled me because true goodness cannot be faked. No pretending can mimic true goodness. I knew the difference.
(I recommend three books related to essential human goodness: (1) Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential – and Endangered, by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D, William Morrow, NY, 2010; and (2) Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, by Dacher Keltner, W.W. Norton and Company, NY, 2009; and (3) The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg (translated from the Swedish by Roberta W. Francis), DE CAPO PRESS, MA, 2003)
Because all the patterns of Mildred’s broken mind were in operation from the time I was born, I was simply constitutionally incapable of ever accepting the hate in Horrid Mother’s eyes as being any reflection of me back to myself. What I saw in her eyes was not mirroring me. It was there. It was something fierce. But it was never a reflection of me.
Having such hate in her eyes meant that this entire attachment mirroring process that is so essential for forming a growing infant’s brain-body-self never happened between Horrid Mother and me. When it came to Mildred’s interactions with me, her mirror turned toward me was wrought iron black. No part of me could possibly be reflected back to me in those eyes.
Because I had NEVER seen myself in her eyes I never knew what I was missing. More importantly, because I had never seen myself mirrored back to me in her eyes I did not ever look for what had never been there. I do not minimize the pain Horrid Mother caused me. I understand the vast impact that the trauma she caused me had on my physiological development. But my environment did not damage me in the ways that Mother’s had damaged her.
My entire piece of writing this morning, as inadequate as it is to address the complexities of the processes I have alluded to, has been intended to take me in the direction of an important point I want to make about one of the central reasons why I write this book. Humans not only require attunement and mirroring with others at the start of our life, we need these processes all of our life.
If I had not experienced any positive early infant contact with my father, grandmother and most significantly with my brother, I could not have grown into my body-brain the connections, pathways and circuits required to experience attunement and mirroring between self-and-self and self-and-others. No matter how minimal, even pitiful, the opportunities I had might seem to be if compared to nearly everyone else, they were enough for me to use all the way through my horrific childhood and through the rest of my life.
Because humans are designed by nature to look for the mirroring of their own inner self reality wherever they can find it, that’s exactly what I did.
Most tragically child Mildred heard her own experience accurately reflected back to her in the good versus horrid child nursery rhyme. Her patterns of attachment to her caregivers were broken along the lines those words describe. As I grew to an age I can clearly remember I found myself and my experience reflected back to me of course in the story of Cinderella, very importantly in the book of Heidi by Johanna Spyri, and as I grew past middle childhood in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
These are just a few examples of how important I believe it is for those of us who live very unusual lives because of the early trauma we survived to be able to see our reality reflected back to us in any way we can! Right now I wish to say that as I make my way forward in the writing of this book (and any others that may follow this one) I am aware that there may be readers who see the reality of their own childhood reflected in the mirror of my writings. These readers will resonate with my words because they will recognize themselves as they were also forced to endure in a psychotically abusive early world.
The possibility that I can create such a mirror for others who endured what I did motivates me to forge ahead as honestly as I can as I leave a trail of words behind that fellow sufferers call follow as they will. For all the difficulties in my life that Horrid Mother Mildred created for me, it was the very complete break in her mind that saved me coupled with the existence of my baby brother – exactly how and who he was (and still is!). Mildred’s caregivers mixed her up completely. They reflected two different Mildred’s back to her.
My early life was horrible but it was completely clear. That clarity preserved me. It also enables me and obligates me to write my story.
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