Chapter 1b of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult
In the middle of everything, there’s this deep, dark, depressing hole. When you fall in, sometimes there’s no climbing out. When we call it anything at all, we often call it death, brokenness, meaninglessness, futility, emptiness, or despair. I like to call it the Abyss[i]. Think of it as a psychic black hole. The Abyss is beyond what you can imagine. It cannot be grasped by language, it’s something other than your belief in ordinary reality. It’s everything that’s left over after explanations try their best. The Abyss is what you’re trying to fill up with your insatiable, misplaced desires.
You might like to believe the Abyss is at the end of everything, not until death. But it’s right here, in front of us. We walk around it, gaze into it, slip into it, and watch others fall into it all the time. We don’t like to think about it. It’s impolite to even acknowledge its existence. We live at the edge of this hole; some, dancing at its rim; others, peering carefully in; most, with their back to it, as if it’s not there. We often find ourselves reeling, dizzy at the edge. We cling to something to prevent falling. Clinging to something enables us to live at the edge of the Abyss more comfortably. We think, if we start to slip, we can haul ourselves out. Unfortunately, anything we cling to starts to fall into the hole, as well, taking us down with it. Eventually, everything must fall in the hole.
The Innermost Child was born there.
Yes, that’s right, the Innermost Child is a creature of the Abyss, suspended in uncertainty, meaninglessness, and peril. That’s the trauma from which we are all trying to recover. We have climbed out of the Abyss, clung to the edge, tried to fill it, and papered over the hole, to pretend it’s not there. We left the Innermost Child behind.
I can tell we experienced this trauma by the flashbacks we get. When something occurs that reminds us of it, it’s like we’re in the Abyss all over again. War, rape, natural disaster, betrayal, or any trauma strips away the fiction and the faith that protects us from the yawning chasm. They reveal how thin is the fabric that shields us from it. What we call later traumas are really instances of re-traumatization.
How to Find the Abyss
One such trauma I experienced later in my life was when someone I loved very much told me she had been systematically sexually abused throughout her childhood. This was before I became a shrink, so, at the time, I barely knew such a thing existed. I knew her family and, while I did not have a high opinion of them, I had no idea they could be such monsters. Everything I thought I knew about her, her family, sex, the whole world was shattered. Nothing made sense, and I wasn’t even the person this happened to. I was at the edge of the Abyss. I couldn’t even function until I papered it back up and revised what I knew about everything.
Since then, I’ve known many people who’ve been sexually abused, as well as some who’ve committed the crime. Hearing about it doesn’t shatter my world as it once did and I no longer see sex offenders simply as monsters, but the memory of the horror is still there to keep me from becoming inured. It’s one of the portals I have to the Abyss, where nothing makes sense, and the daily experience of the Innermost Child, who doesn’t know what to think about anything.
If you don’t want to be reminded of your own traumas, I have another way to give you some idea of what I mean. Go outside on a clear, dark night. Look up at the stars and allow yourself to think about how big the universe is, and how small you are. Now think about all the questions you have about why the universe exists and how you got here. Resist, for a moment, all the easy answers you learned in Sunday school or astronomy class. They just kick the can down the road, anyway. Even if you say it’s all here to glorify God, you can’t say why God exists or how the Creator got here. Even if you evoke scientific theories of the beginning of the universe, like the big bang, they still don’t really start at the beginning, for there had to have been something there to go bang. Try to stay in that place of uncertainty and unknowing.
You can’t do it for long. Sooner or later, you must turn away from those questions, accept a trite answer, and go about your day as if you knew the meaning of it all, as if there were any purpose to anything. You can’t even get out of bed if you do not construct some fiction, or faith, that keeps you going.
Now imagine you’re a newborn, lying in your crib. Nothing has meaning. You are surrounded by the Abyss, with nothing to shield it from your eyes. Even that warm, fetid sensation between your legs is meaningless, much less the mysteries of the universe. This gives you a reason to develop all the voices in your head. They protect you from the Abyss.
When I was a baby, I couldn’t even change my own diaper. Where could I get the answers to all my questions? Someone did come to my crib, eventually, or I wouldn’t be here to write this. When they did, they brought the very things I needed, a clean diaper, food, and an explanation of what I was going through. Of course, I wouldn’t have understood an explanation in verbal form, but it came, nonetheless. It was written on their faces and in their actions.
These moments of unspeakable uncertainty set the stage for the arrival of the second inner person of my life. I call it the Face of the Other. You’ll have to go on to the next chapter if you want to know about the Face of the Other.
Next week: The Face of the Other
[i] I call it the Abyss, but the psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan calls it the Real, which, like most of what Lacan says, is confusing, but insightful.