Childhood Trauma Left Me Feeling Worthless and Depressed

I was in eighth grade when my mother picked me up at school, telling me that she was leaving my father. I never knew how much your life could change in one day. It turned out that she had already rented a house and had been slowly moving in. I ended up living with my dad, and my mom said we would talk all the time, but we really didn’t. Even though that was the worst year of my life, I actually have a hard time remembering most of it. All I remember is crying myself to sleep every night I was missing my mother so much. I felt worthless, like I wasn’t good enough. My dad also was depressed and developed bipolar disorder. I also felt abandoned by him because all he did was hide in his garage because he was depressed himself. It was extremely lonely. It’s hard to live a life feeling like you’re not wanted. In my teens, I felt depressed and suicidal. I became very cut off from the world. I did not hang out with friends, I did not date, and I did not do anything involved with school. Now I am 20 years old, still a virgin, still depressed, have social anxiety, and when I see alcohol I am so tempted to just drink until I can’t no more. Even though I don’t drink now, I just have a strong feeling that one day I will be an alcoholic; when things start getting bad, I just want to drink. I guess I’m just seeking advice on what to do? I’ve never seen a counselor or a therapist. —On the Wrong Path
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Dear On the Wrong Path,

Thank you for your question. Boy, oh boy were you put through the wringer. My heart ached to read of your experiences. I suppose the short version of my answer would be to see a therapist soon as you can, if only for the reason that you mention suicidality from your teens and depression today. This is not to be alarmist, but depression is something you don’t want to go unaddressed for long, more a sign of trauma than any “character issues.”

Clearly, your mother’s traumatic flight and your dad’s withdrawal left psychological scars that now need attending. This is not to blame anyone; the tragedy of mental health issues (you mentioned your father’s depression) is that those afflicted often end up passing on their condition by creating, as the authority figure in the home, a psychological mood or atmosphere of depression, anxiety, etc., which children are liable to absorb. They don’t call them the “formative years” for nothing. These wounds are passed along from generation to generation until someone has the courage to say “enough” and get some professional help. The good news is that you are young and in an excellent position to get help, and in so doing, start life over again and find contentment and purposeful living. Your experience, believe it or not, can be a vehicle for compassion and empathy for others down the road.

I am a fan of author and psychoanalyst George Atwood, who says in his excellent book The Abyss of Madness that, to paraphrase, people become depressed when depressing things happen to them. There are so many ways in which your trauma would upend anyone’s psyche. The most common question people ask me is, “Is this normal?” I usually say I gave up on normal a long time ago. Also, we therapists can relate to the childhoods and suffering of the people we work with more than we sometimes let on.

Yet another wounding occurs when the abandonment pain is not acknowledged or permitted to “exist.” A depressed parent may withdraw for self-protection and neglect the child, who cannot help but take it personally. Of course, as a young adult you now want to drink alcohol and blot it all out. What happened was wounding indeed, but not only were you alone with the abandonment, but you also had no one to even acknowledge or help you cope with its scarring legacy. Thus you were in the impossible situation in that you couldn’t have or not have these feelings; the terrible loneliness you experienced was compounded by not having a caring witness to empathize and help bear your very understandable feelings—a kind of solitary confinement.

You sound like a psychologically resilient person who survived a very difficult upbringing, who cares enough to do something about it now. I would encourage you look for a therapist who understands the kind of trauma you experienced, someone who is willing to be patient with you as these injuries to selfhood—which, actually, you seem to have borne quite nobly or you wouldn’t even be writing—begin to heal. Consuming vast quantities of drink or drugs is understandably tempting, but I encourage you not to. In the end, it will only erode your self-esteem and, in a sense, repeat the abuse by neglecting the hurt that needs a safe place for healing. You’re worth the effort (even if it doesn’t always feel like it). Thanks again for writing.

All my best,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Delia

    Delia

    January 23rd, 2015 at 11:03 AM

    It is so cruel for adults to put children through this much stuff and then expect that they will be alright. Kids are resilient but there is only so much that anyone can take without looking for a way to cope, in your case, alcohol.

  • Jack T.

    Jack T.

    January 23rd, 2015 at 1:18 PM

    You are so much better than this past, so if there is a way that you could ever leave it behind you that is what I would strongly suggest that you. I know that you probably have a warped view of some things because of the things that you witnessed and lived, but life for you today can be so much better and more fulfilling than what it was in the past.
    I know that these things can be difficult to overcome, but I know that with therapy and commitment you can carry on in a way that you might not have thought possible before. Its doable.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    January 23rd, 2015 at 6:43 PM

    Nice comments, thanks.

  • yasmine

    yasmine

    January 25th, 2015 at 6:02 AM

    My story is a little bit different from the one above but pretty much the same results in that I always felt like a pawn used to inflict harm on one parent or the other by whichever one I was with at the time. It left me feeling hurt and confused, unsure of what my role in life was really supposed to be. I had caused so much hurt that for a time this was who I thought that I was supposed to be until I understood that I was not the one who caused the hurt, they used me in their twisted games to hurt the other person. I understood a little better that I was not a bad person because of all of that, but that they were only bad ones to make me feel this way and to hurt the other.

  • Tyson

    Tyson

    January 25th, 2015 at 4:19 PM

    I am so sorry for that childhood card that you have been dealt, but I think that you are very brave just seeking out help on here. This sounds like a good time to start looking into therapy that is more one on one and will help you heal some of those wounds.

  • Deb

    Deb

    February 1st, 2015 at 6:11 PM

    You are strong and courageous and so smart that you know to ask for direction ! Please find a therapist , one you can connect with and trust , as soon as possible . I had a traumatic childhood and I finally found the right therapist and am doing good ! Don’t give up , it is absolutely possible to find peace ! 💝

  • magz

    magz

    February 1st, 2015 at 6:22 PM

    Hi
    You are not alone. The thought that comes to mind is how do you eat an elephant – one bite at a time. Ok seriously I mean one step at a time. Have you tried mind mapping. There are lots of images on goggle. I also suffer with depression am in process of checking maps out. Starting with with your name in middle of paper ring round it, then slow from line of outer circle draw line out, write on line one of your issues you want to work with. Best using only one or two words. I hope the above helps, if not hope the elephant brings a smile :)

  • Dr. Ken Newberger

    Dr. Ken Newberger

    February 8th, 2015 at 9:20 PM

    Growing up, I heard the expression, “it is just as easy to marry rich as it is poor.” Whether this is really even desirable is debatable. But one thing is true, this is easier said than done. Let me take this expression and use it in a better way.

    Long-term, a wise thing for you to consider is to find a woman who comes from a secure home – one in which there was no divorce or trauma. This too is easier said than done, but if you can do it, you will more likely have a partner who will give you the kind of security and acceptance you need to feel good about yourself. In gratitude, you will, in turn, happily do all you can to meet her needs. If this person turns out to be your wife, you will be fortunate indeed. The pain of childhood will be replaced by the love of one who hopefully (especially given her background) will not withdraw from you as your parents did.

    Dr. Ken Newberger

  • elaine

    elaine

    May 22nd, 2015 at 10:57 PM

    Also a huge George Atwood fan : )

  • Rowan

    Rowan

    March 20th, 2016 at 7:20 PM

    This is why I’m terrified to have kids or get married. I don’t want something horrible to happen to anybody, everyone says that the only reason i don’t want kids or marriage is because I’m young. I’m really just afraid of losing everything.

  • Chris

    Chris

    April 30th, 2016 at 4:54 AM

    Abandonment and dependence are central fears for most people, and can create an awkward dance when two people with similar backgrounds meet. Oddly enough you will naturally gravitate to a person with shared history and this can enable the pair of you to heal those primal wounds together if you are both willing to work at changing the way you react when triggered. Therapy helps if you find a grounded healthy therapist, but the best test can be resolving the past through a current relationship where you intuitively understand each others’ fears and doubts and struggle to repair your faulty core beliefs and kneejerk responses. Good luck.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    April 30th, 2016 at 11:16 PM

    What a warm and wonderful response. Thank you Chris.

  • Tara

    Tara

    November 30th, 2016 at 12:13 AM

    This is a great article. I am 46 years old and still suffer from depression. I know it stems from my childhood. I grew up with an alcoholic mother and never knew my father. By the time I was a teen I opt to live with another relative and went years without hearing from or seeing my mother. I developed social awkwardness, depression, all accompanied with abandonment. I have low self esteem.

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