Imagine being an 11-year-old boy and having your childhood shattered after being abandoned by both your mother and father. The carefree days spent in rural Vermont as a happy family no longer a part of your reality, and your parents divorcing and moving on as if you didn’t matter at all, with your father settling down in Canada, and your mother deciding to become a doctor. Neither of them claiming you, and that divorce not just a wedge between them but between you as well. Everything you knew and cherished is no longer, and there’s no other word for what happened to you but “trauma,” relinquishment trauma to be specific. For the first time in your life, you don’t feel safe and soon experience your first real darkness—the first bout of depression in a series of many that will plague you throughout life. The feelings of abandonment are now ever present even though your grandparents picked up slack and tried to give you a loving home, with your grandfather doting on you and your little sister. And although your grandfather is sensitive to your struggles and tries to distract you with intellectual challenges—like building a boomerang worthy of its native Australia—the dark clouds are always gathering above you never to disappear beyond your horizons. Soon, there will be other stimuli, like girls and school—where you will be the class president—but also more trauma, like the death of your first beloved, before you fall in love with the woman who will become your wife and who joins you on the rollercoaster that is life. And there will be one more thing—the only thing that will make some of those dark clouds bearable when they come again. That thing is alcohol. A force that will bring you peace and joy at first, and later, ruin and despair before it finally breaks you so you can triumph again… at least for a little while. The trauma will never leave.
What I’ve described are the early childhood experiences and subsequent consequences of Bill Wilson’s trauma, the founder of Alcoholic Anonymous, a community where I first got sober after a trajectory not so dissimilar from our hero. It was no surprise to learn about Bill W.’s—as he’s often referred to—abandonment by his parents and how that shaped his life. Bill W. lived with what we now know ACEs—Adverse Childhood Experiences, a series of events that are potentially traumatic and that often result in things like mental-health issues like addiction or problems with relationships and poor self-regulation. Knowing what I know of Bill W., I see that he has had at least a few of those ACEs, such as household dysfunction through his parents’ divorce, emotional neglect, perhaps witnessing violence in the home (as when his parents fought prior to the divorce), and death. I don’t know if Bill W. ever made the connection between his childhood and how he drank, and I cannot say with 100 percent certainty that it was his childhood that lead to poor coping skills, but I can say that about my own life, which strangely mirrored his, complete with a career in the stock market and experiencing conflict with religion when I finally got to AA (Bill W. was an agnostic and an atheist at various points in his life and some of his later-life writings reflect that).
I wonder too, if Bill W were alive today, would he be able to see the correlation between his trauma and his addiction? Today we have a lot more knowledge and tools to be able to make such educated guesses and be able to help those who have been abandoned or relinquished at birth or had otherwise lost that most important bond. Like Bill W., I too ended up in a loving environment after being given up for adoption and was given a lot of support and had lots of wonderful opportunities. But the darkness was in me despite it all, and it wasn’t until I got sober and later until I wholly recovered and faced my past that the darkness went away. I have felt empowered in my recovery, but I suspect Bill W’s frequent bouts of depression, problems with interpersonal relationships, and later, disillusionment with the very program he’d founded had something to do with untreated trauma.
There’s a sense of shame often attached to having been abandoned or relinquished—a feeling of not being wanted or defective… of being broken. I often hear these sorts of sentiments from others, and I know exactly what they’re talking about. We begin our lives with this notion that we are not like other people and that we have been shunned—no matter how loving our grandparents or parents are. But what I’ve learned over the years is that our experiences are just human experiences and there are many others like us–people who struggle, but also people who are successful and who lead exciting lives, even people who have at one point been named by the “Time Magazine” as one of the “100 persons of the 20th Century.” So as much as I don’t wish relinquishment and abandonment on anyone, I also feel proud that I am a part of community that is just like any other community where people bond together because of similar experiences. And that’s when for me, that unnecessary shame turns into pride.
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