Chapter 3a of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult
There had to be a time when I was a baby, left in my crib, screaming my head off, wondering if someone would ever come. Someone did, but not before a momentous realization occurred. Up until that point, I might have regarded my caretaker as a part of me, like an arm or a leg. Arising from that dreadful experience, I learned I couldn’t control everything, there were other people in the world, and it wasn’t all about me. This is an important thing to know and it’s an essential step towards maturity, but it’s also terrifying. To cope with it, I developed three new voices I still have to this day. And that thing I learned that I couldn’t control everything? The three voices convinced me it wasn’t true, so I went on nearly as self-centered as before.
When Others Became Other and I Became Me
This lesson is regarded by most psychologists as the birth our awareness of self and others as distinct entities. It creates a stage upon which all the voices in my head will play. If I let it rest there, I’d grow up with good boundaries, becoming one who maintains my own autonomy while respecting that of others. Unfortunately, learning about the autonomy of others brought me right back to the Abyss I recently escaped.
You must remember the Abyss from Chapter One, the psychic black hole where I was born, that place where I’m utterly helpless and don’t understand anything, so nothing has meaning. I described how I was saved from the Abyss in Chapter Two by the Face of the Other, which came along with answers to all my questions. This face was the very face I was crying for; but, when it didn’t come, I was not only bereft of food and clean diapers, but also the only thing that gave my life direction and meaning. Better for the Face of the Other to be a part of me, not a part of an Other who can take it away at any time. In other words, rather than relying on an unreliable Other, I needed an inner adult of my own.
I’m still seeking it, or I would not be writing this book. Perhaps you are, too, or you would not be reading it.
Wait till you hear what happened next. I created my own “adults”, at least the best a baby can do. They were the first of many Managers I would concoct. They helped me cope for the time being, and I still have them. They constitute some of the voices in my head. Like any manager, they claim to represent an adult point of view. For the longest time, I believed them. They stretched a cloth over the Abyss, so I don’t have to see it and I could pretend it’s not there.
The first of these Managers is the Fireman, named after the civil servant who’s called in an emergency and has license to destroy your house so he can save it.
When my own kids were babies and they cried for me, there was a moment, if I did not come fast enough, that the tone of their cries would change. It became more angry, fervent, and out of control. Then, when I did come, it was impossible to please them. Even if I solved the problem that might have originally troubled them, the frenzy continued. It seemed like the intensity of their need was so strong it prevented the satisfaction of it.
My poor mother must have had to deal with me in the same state when I was small. I still have something like it now, a part of me that chooses the nuclear option. Ordinarily, it’s named Rage, but I like to call it the Fireman because of the way it functions in my psyche.
The Fireman is called on the scene when I’m dangling over the Abyss. Its job is to save me at all costs. When I look back at times when I’ve been enraged, they are all preceded by feeling powerless. Powerlessness is a flashback to that time in the crib when something was wrong, and I couldn’t do anything about it. The Fireman’s job is to do something, anything about it. Rage gives me the illusion of power. This illusion of power, in turn allows me to forget that important thing I just learned, that I can’t control everything, there are other people in the world, and it isn’t all about me.
Of course, there’s a problem with that. If there’s truly nothing I can do, then there’s nothing I can do, and so, doing something is futile and makes things worse. Such is the case with rage. It makes things worse, and afterwards, I feel stupid for allowing it to take over.
Although the Fireman has the same objective as all my Managers, to keep me away from the Abyss, the other Managers do not approve of its means. My Managers, some of whom we will meet in later chapters, want me to stay under control, happy and pleasant to everyone, particularly those on whom I depend. My Managers will call on the Fireman when needed but scold him after his work is done. No sooner am I saved from one Abyss, but a barrage of self-criticism, as well as censure from others, brings me to another. Then the Fireman is called upon yet again.
My clients have Firefighters, too. It’s the leading reason they need to come to counseling. Some of the time, their presenting problem is defined as rage, or, as they like to say, anger problems. But more often, they’ve taken up some other means of self-destruction. Substance abuse, binge eating, purging, reckless sex, careless spending, irresponsible driving, harassing, stalking, stealing, self-harm, and suicide are all in the Firefighter’s repertoire. When called, a Firefighter will take control of my clients so thoroughly, that they can think of nothing but the compulsion to act by these means. It never ends well. The Firefighters save my clients from one Abyss, only to hurl them down another.
The second Manager that helped me cope when I was crying in my crib is the Fuck-Its. The Fuck-Its speak up when I think I don’t give a crap. Do what you want, I don’t care, I’m just going to lay here and watch Netflix. I’m feeling lazy, apathetic, despondent, despairing, and hopeless. Clinically, the Fuck-Its is often called depression.
When my children were babies and crying in their cribs, we were often advised to let them cry it out. If they were enraged, we were counseled to see that their needs were met and if they were, to put them down and have them cry themselves to sleep. It’s a hard thing to do, and I’m not convinced it’s the best thing to do, but I can testify that it works. Babies will eventually go to sleep.
She’s not around anymore for me to ask, but I suppose my poor mother must have had me cry it out from time to time. I still do something like crying it out, now. I still get the Fuck-Its. My clients do, too. Often, the Fuck-Its come on the heels of the Firefighters, when taking immediate and decisive, but wrongheaded action proves futile. Often, the Fuck-Its is the true objective, even when the Firefighter is the first called. If you can’t find peace the healthy way, you might take up substance use, overeating, reckless sex, or self-harm, so you can spend all your energies and bring about exhaustion. Sometimes, we seek to achieve oblivion as a substitute for peace.
If the Fireman represents a misguided attempt to haul myself out of the Abyss and pretend it’s not there, then the Fuck-Its is when I just give myself over to falling down the chasm. I tell myself that choosing to fall is different from just falling. Like rage, it gives me the illusion of power. This illusion of power, in turn, allows me to forget that important thing I just learned, that I can’t control everything, there are other people in the world, and it isn’t all about me.
Of the two, the Fuck-Its is probably a better choice. When there’s nothing you can do, it’s better to do nothing. Eventually, the Fuck-Its can become a terminal illness, but it takes a while. Fortunately, there’s a third Manager, which I have named Linus, after that cartoon character with the security blanket.
Next Week: Linus and the Security Blanket