Traumatic aloneness. It’s not loneliness. It’s an aloneness. And not just any kind of aloneness. It’s traumatic aloneness.
People often think the word ‘trauma’ means ‘bad’. We use it as a modifier – if something really bad, really distressing happens, we say it was traumatising.
But that’s not actually what it means. In psychological terms, trauma is something that exceeds our coping capacities. It floods us, overwhelms us. And it changes us too. Trauma impacts our neurobiology – it changes the way we perceive and respond to threat so that we’ll be better equipped to handle it the next time it comes along. So we’re geared towards sensing danger in our environment and being ready to respond to it – with instant, blink-of-an-eye fight, flight or freeze. The problem is, we can get too good at it, and start shooting off all kinds of false positives.
So far, so obvious. Trauma changes us at a fundamental, cells-and-organs, neurons-and-noradrenaline kind of a way.
But what about traumatic aloneness?
My contention is that at the moment of trauma – in the case of something like child sexual abuse, for example – one of the most traumatising, life-shattering parts of it is that we are entirely alone. We call out in the universe for someone to be there for us, and our call returns to us empty. We’re on our own. The proximity we have to our abuser (invading us, flannelling all over us in rancid, stinking malice) just makes things worse. We want a person, a human being, to be with us in the midst of this suffering, and all we get is this putrid, human-being-gone-wrong.
Our brain is not imprinted forever with the deliciousness of rescue, the sweetness of a savour. Instead it is imprinted with malevolence. We are alone in the universe apart from this evil.
That’s a tough gig.
It would be hard enough for an adult, but for a child …? Alone, alone, traumatically alone. It’s too much to bear. No wonder then that we dissociate and our mind holds aloft, out of reach of consciousness, this murdering of our soul.
And so forever we live with traumatic aloneness. It’s a deep impression, like steel into melting wax, a conviction thereafter that when we’re up against it, when we need another kindly human being, no one will be there for us.
It’s hard to live with that fear. The trauma is bad enough, but the aloneness of the trauma is even worse.
This is why some people don’t ever want to be left alone, why they step blithely into abusive relationships – because someone is better than no one. The perpetrator is better than aloneness. Annihilation is better than aloneness.
But not every kind of aloneness is toxic. Last year I found another sort. It’s a stretch of sand to the blue dab of horizon, the waves lap-lapping, just sky and wind and rocks and this supreme, delectable emptiness of the most beautiful place on earth. I can be alone there but it doesn’t hurt. There’s a wonder about it. There’s no glug-glug-glug of terror. It’s okay to be alone there. It’s safe.
That’s when I realised, on that strip of beach last year, that you can be alone but not feel alone, and you can be alone but not fear to be alone. There’s traumatic aloneness, and nourishing aloneness, and the trauma from my past doesn’t have to infect everything now with its furious terror. When we neutralise the trauma, we can experience life afresh: it really is okay to walk the shoreline alone. I’m not twisting inside with the agony of loneliness, because this isn’t a bad moment: I’ve chosen to be here, I want to be alone, and the vista and the salt air are surging inside me with this joy of being alive.
Can you imagine good aloneness? Can you imagine nourishing aloneness? What might that be like? What do you need to do to create it?
You may also like…
Why can’t I just get over my trauma?
‘If I could just get over it, I would,’ I say, and I’m trying not to sound irritated or hurt but I’m not quite sure what emotion my face is displaying and my throat is tight and my fists are clenched and really I’d rather not be here, and neither am I convinced that I’m a good enough actor to hide all of this.
Meeting pain with pain
When we’ve suffered abuse in childhood, we often experienced pain. And that pain was reflected back in the eyes of our abusers as pleasure. We then take that template and expectation into our adult relationships. In this blog post I explore this topic by drawing on my experiences in one particular therapy session.
Five things I learnt during lockdown
Skin hunger, the unenjoyables, little lifts, crystal balls and ‘just’ surviving: five things I have learned during lockdown.
Interesting (ironic) that no one has commented on this… leaving you alone…
I have been thinking about this since you posted it. Even just the words, traumatic aloneness, kind of took my breath away. This. This thing that I have not quite known how to articulate, and that in doing so, you helped me feel a little less alone.
It’s an interesting thing, noticing when this feeling can get triggered, and how it can try to draw me in, telling me that there will be no-one. And yet I do know what it’s like to be alone in a different way. To just be comfortable in my own presence. I need time alone, the good kind, just to recharge. And long live walks on remote beaches (my favourite kind 🙂 )
Anath, you describe my feelings exactly!
At the moment I am suffering from separation anxiety after splitting with my partner. I am no stranger to alone times that are nourishing, but at this particular moment I am suffering from the other sort.
Thank you for sharing this Carolyn. I was in a session with a highly traumatised client after reading this and was able to share your insights with her … it was like something awoke in her as we explored aloneness …. your blogs are invaluable ! Thank you … Amanda
Carolyn, when you spoke in Bradford this last week. You touched on this very subject and one of your experiences of giving birth so young. This gave me a glimpse of the vastness of the aloneness you spoke about and how you felt the universe had abandoned one of it’s children, when she needed some form of human connection.
How can we allow life to be like this? I feel, only through your teachings on such a public stage, can we ever hope to address this abandonment. More professionals need to sit with you and address the subject directly. “why they step blithely into abusive relationships – because someone is better than no one. “this statement alone could open the eyes of society and help to impart some understanding, instead of judgement.
It fills you up to the brim, that level of aloneness. Some days I can feel it gripping my heart so tight I can’t breath. . Other days I walk on the coast and I’m filled with a vastness all around me seeping inside, creating space to breath, to simply be.
I am so very alone even at home with my family. I almost keep it like that because I fear contaminating others with the vile filth I have inside.
I think I’m not as good as anyone else. Sorry
Diana, I didn’t want your post to go without response. Just, the filth isn’t yours. It belongs elsewhere, with the person or people who made you feel like this.
I would stand with you Diana, we have all experienced different and similar feelings because of trauma and its effects. I hope you are able to move from this feeling in the future. I believe there is a great deal more to us but the trauma masks the positive aspects so we don’t always see or acknowledge them because we are still dealing with the trauma and our feelings from it.
I believe we are equal, I lost my family because I thought I was to blame, I now know it wasn’t my fault and I am starting to take pride in myself for what I have achieved, even if it is taking one day at a time.
My very best wishes Diana.
So powerful. I have’t heard of traumatic aloneness but I am certain I will hear much more as people wake up to the feeling that’s so prevalent in our world. Thank you for lighting the way!
Hi, My experience of aloneness experienced in dreams as a child was being something in Space which was not connected to anyone or anything which was imploding into itself but there was no self. These words I use now to give some idea of this experience but there were no words. It was in my body and fearful and to me was not just being alone but also not existing ,much worse than death because the body is not with the me that I do not experience. Confusion is my most feared emotion. Things are not so bleak now but at times it surfaces.
Thanks for this excellent article, Carolyn. As you suggest, emotional aloneness around the time of a traumatic event happening is what causes the deeper, longer-lasting trauma. In a type of therapy called AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), the Level 1 training (which I have been through) is actually subtitled “Undoing Aloneness”. AEDP is very explicit about the client’s need to be (and feel) empathically accompanied by the therapist when working through traumatic material, and AEDP therapists check in with their clients during sessions about how this feels. It’s very powerful to work in therapy with the awareness and practice of undoing aloneness.
Thank you for this helpful blog. I feel I had a double dose of traumatic aloneness Through both abuse by my mother and the loss of my identical twin sister at birth. I am learning to accept both, but the feeling of longing for both the connections I lost is still a struggle.
The life I’ve lived that I can remember I have always felt lonely. Filling it with different people for different reasons, once a husband and two children I still felt this terrible loneliness. Now I am completely alone, by choice. My children still visit as they are grown and at these times I enjoy them so much and feel fulfilled. I’m not in a perfect place in this life at this time however I am able to be alone without feeling lonely. I experienced trauma through child sexual, physical and mental abuse that followed me into adulthood. I’m still learning to live with this and it is getting easier.
The loneliness for me is becoming too good or adept in an unhelpful way, compromising way -(dissociation). So that I’m always shut off from the real world, people think I’m doing really fine, or feel fine, when in fact I am so torn, distressed and not ok. I hate dissociation even though I know it saved my life.
A very helpful blog post in reducing the aloneness of knowing I’m not the only one out there with this predicament. Thank you.
It has been said that children in concentration camps (well everyone) are in a better situation that a child on their own even when not in trauma because despite the fact that they were often facing death they were all together. This was said by those who were in camps but survived. As you say when you are on your own as a child know one help you and you are totally isolated. I have yet to experience ‘aloneness’ and enjoyed it although I have been surrounded by many lovely places and looked at beautiful things but the isolation remains for me.
I relate, I have DID, but I don’t know where to go for help. While I can draw parallels here, I don’t hear any advice on how to deal.
Yes, where to go, where to begin? Who will I turn to? This reinforces my aloneness. I’m so sad for the little girl who was alone.
I actually seek aloneness, to be on my own without constant noise, chatter, hustle and bustle. I used to have a place where I went to think about my life and the trauma I experienced as a child without interruption from others. A place where I could be myself and not have to put a smile on my face and pretend I was ok. My dog would be in front of me and stop intermittently and wait for me to catch up. It is safer to be alone, without people, to have a large space where the view appears endless and there is fresh air and I can please myself how long I want to be there. I am not antisocial but I am perfectly fine on my own, sometimes it is necessary to help me put things into perspective and blow away the cobwebs of yesterday.
As a child I was restricted and traumatised daily so to be able to be on my own sometimes is really important.
But can someone tell me the best way on how to heal my trauma?