It will come as a shock to none of you that I've seen a therapist or two in my day. That's a low estimate, especially because I know the exact number is six. A law-abiding citizen doesn't rack up the mental health drug history I have without running your problems by a few people. Granted, I never stuck with therapy long enough for it to amount to much of anything productive, but it is telling that, no matter who I was talking to, everyone assured me of one thing: I have abandonment issues.
Fear of abandonment is a more popular way to put it, even though it's not recognized as an actual phobia. Maybe that's why hearing it never registered as anything important to me. Who doesn't have abandonment issues? It definitely wasn't something I ever looked into further. I logged the information much in the same way I would an interesting fact about an album or movie. It was the answer to a trivia question about myself, and nothing more. I never once explored the implications of those words and how they might apply to me as a person.
I had cause to do that recently, though, and boy is it depressing stuff! Way too depressing for a comedy podcast like Unpopular Opinion ...
... where I'm joined this week by comics Kym Kral and Chet Wild to discuss, you know, just fears in general. I talk about bugs most of the time.
No such luck if you're reading this column, however. I'll keep it as lighthearted as possible, but for all intents and purposes, today, you become my seventh therapist. Here's what I learned when I finally looked into how fear of abandonment can alter your life.
This part should be obvious, right? You don't just choose a crippling fear of abandonment as a quirky lifestyle, like being a goth or an introvert. Something happens first -- usually (but not exclusively) the death of or separation from a parent during childhood. It doesn't have to be a parent, and the same kind of loss as an adult can trigger it as well. It's also common among those who had abusive or neglectful parents. So, you know, almost the entire world.
Where did it start for me? It's hard to say; there are a lot of possibilities. I'm sure I've talked about it in one or two of my columns previously, but never in any great detail. Even if I have, I've certainly talked about it a lot less than a person on the Internet with little-to-no editorial oversight (Jack made me tweak a column slightly once so that it didn't imply that Cracked encourages employees to get drunk at work) and a readily-available platform on which to discuss their tragic past would generally be expected to. So I don't feel too heavy about sharing the details again.
You might want to pack a lunch for this.
Starting around the 7th grade, I experienced a string of deaths in my family. Big deaths. Important people. Even those who were maybe less important died in such spectacular and unsettling fashions that it stuck with me anyway. First up was my grandfather on my dad's side. (My grandparents on my mom's side were dead before I made it out of kindergarten. Shout out for sparing my feelings, you two.) He was a lifelong smoker who was diagnosed with throat cancer in his mid-70s. There wasn't a whole lot they could do besides let him die in peace. He did that from a hospital bed placed squarely in his living room. I lived with my grandparents at the time, which meant that for the next few months, I watched him die. Slowly.
If there was a bright side, it's that we weren't especially close. I cried a lot, but I think I was mostly just sad for my grandmother, who was the closest thing I had to a best friend at the time. I knew she was sad, and it made me sad. Four months after he passed, my grandmother died as well. We were all gathered in the living room, getting ready to go to Red Lobster, when she suffered a stroke right there in front of us. I was looking at her when it happened, and I can still see her eyes rolling in the back of her head and everything else about that moment vividly. She slipped into a coma and never came out of it. She was gone two weeks later. I wasn't excited about going to Red Lobster either, but fuck, Grandma. Way to overreact.
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Weird place for a joke? Hi, I'm Adam Tod Brown, and I'm a comic.
I didn't cry at all at her funeral. I'm fairly certain I was in shock.
It's at this point that things get bizarre. At the start of my freshman year in high school, a cousin in Wisconsin died in a car accident. We'd hung out when I was growing up and it certainly made me sad, but by then it was nothing I couldn't handle. What rattled me was when, exactly one year later -- as in, the first anniversary of his death -- his older brother (also my cousin, obviously) died in a car accident on the opposite end of the exact same highway. I don't think anyone really knows if it was intentional or not. If so, no one's talked about it much. No matter how close we were and no matter how strange the circumstances, just the fact that I'd had four deaths in the family in right around the same number of years was hard to deal with at that age. What I didn't realize was that it was going to get so much worse.
Around the middle of my junior year in high school, out of nowhere, my mom sat me down and explained that we needed to go to a doctor's appointment with my dad, and that he only had a few weeks to live. As she's so often been known to do, my mom was being a bit dramatic. Turns out he had months.
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Way to scare me for nothing, Ma!
So yeah, that happened too. There are a lot of gory details, and not to just gloss over them or anything, but that's exactly what I just did. The point is, a lot of people died.
If all the deaths didn't instill a healthy fear of abandonment in me, the things that happened immediately after probably would have. People deal with things in different ways. My mom just sort of shut down, which I was expecting. We were never a family that talked about things or how they made us feel; we just kind of hung out. When I was nine, my mom either tried to or threatened to kill herself. People aren't super forthcoming with specifics when you're that age. We never talked about it. I never asked any questions. I just remember that she ended up in the hospital for it, and that I was sad and kind of angry that she'd even think about leaving like that.
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Kids are self-centered jerks sometimes.
I expected to not get much emotional support from my mom. What I didn't expect was how angry she'd get. In the days when my dad was dying, whenever she was upset or aggravated, she'd routinely say things like, "Once your dad's dead, I don't care what happens to any of you." I took that to mean me and my sister, since we were all we had left. I knew she didn't mean it, and that somehow made it worse. Like making me feel bad made her feel better. It sucked, but I didn't hold it against her. I still don't.
Goddamn! Aren't you glad I don't write about this shit all the time? There's a lot more, actually, but I'll spare you. I promise next week's column will be about explosions or something.
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Reminder: Explosions kill people.
The point is that there's a reason fear of abandonment is such a common problem, and it's because a lot of people reading this will be able to relate to at least one of the situations I just mentioned, and any one of them is potentially enough to flip the wrong switches in a person's head. Under the right circumstances, there's almost nothing you can do to prevent it. More on that later, but for now, like I said, it's not your fault.
Right off the bat, I'd like to make it clear that I'm mostly talking to myself right now. I don't "know your journey" or however it is that the most annoying people in the world put it, so it's very possible nothing I'm about to say will apply to you at all. That's fine. It's my column, not yours. Sometimes it's going to work that way. Skip ahead if you need to.
Anyway, the thing about all of the shitty things I mentioned in the first entry is that, without exception, they all happened before I even turned 18. That means I've had almost two decades to address those things and deal with them properly. I didn't, though. Instead, I've spent almost as many years ignoring them, and being kind of an awful person as a result. By no means should you feel sorry for me.
Even worse, it was probably just arrogance that made me ignore things the way I did. I heard "abandonment issues" and just assumed it was the science name for what was making me depressed.
"People" is the science name for the other thing that makes me depressed.
So it's nothing a prescription for anti-depressants can't fix. And then, obviously, I could just drink when those don't work, because nothing cures the blues like alcohol.
You don't need me to tell you that was a terrible way to approach the problem, for any number of reasons. Nevertheless, I carried on that way for a lot of years, assuming all along the way that all of my failed relationships, broken connections, and burned bridges were just the sweet trappings of the rock-and-roll lifestyle of an Internet comedy writer (or insurance claims processor, fast food employee, or telemarketer, depending on the era).
I was wrong, of course. As it turns out, all of those things could mostly be chalked up to the fact that I was kind of a monster. Here's why.
Object constancy is the idea that something (a person, for example) doesn't change just because you can't see it. A rectangular book doesn't stop being rectangular-shaped just because it's not in front of you anymore. We learn this at a very early age. It's what allows us to spend extended amounts of time away from our parents without the separation sending us into a panic. You're apart and you can't see them, but you know they still exist and they still love you. People who fear abandonment struggle with this, and it makes them jealous and clingy as a result. It's as if, during those moments when a connection or relationship isn't something you can see or feel or touch, it's not real.
I searched a stock photo site for the word "jealous" and this is what I got.
I don't know if I was ever very good at it. I was the type that would try to spend the night with a friend or grandparent, only to wake up crying in the middle of the night wanting to go home. I cried on my first day of school. I really don't know why, but I do know that the time period we're talking about is the early '80s, so the industry that's blossomed around trying to figure out why kids sometimes act up wasn't quite in place yet. Which means I never really looked into it like a responsible child should.
They probably would have just written me a prescription for cocaine, like everyone else in the '80s.
Whatever the cause, it's not a tendency that got better once people close to me started dying.
There's probably never been a time when being in a relationship with me wasn't at least sort of a nightmare. I get irrationally jealous over stupid things. I've had a lot of relationships that ended with me being cheated on, and for the longest time I assumed that justified my antics. Sure, I was a mess, but I also dated some terrible people. Looking back now, I think it's way more likely that me being an overbearing maniac probably pushed a lot of people who were just as broken as me to do things they otherwise might not have. So it's not just that they were terrible people, I guess.
Anyway, that lessened sense of object constancy also impairs a person's object permanence. What that means is that any extended absence from a loved one has the potential to feel like a legitimate loss, complete with adorable miniature-sized versions of the various stages of the grieving process. In other words, I'm that lunatic who cries when I drop someone off at the airport. It's obnoxious.
It's not just separation that makes a person with abandonment issues come off as an obsessive nightmare. Their issues with object constancy also tend to make the most minor things seem like a slight. Minor things like a text message that goes unanswered or a request for more space or free time. These are normal things in any relationship, but a person who fears abandonment will very likely see them as the first signs that the person they love is starting to pull away. If that person is in a less-than-pleasant mood, you immediately assume they're angry at you.
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"She wrote 'LOL' with no exclamation point. What did I do wrong????"
It's a constant state of believing that everything is going to come crashing down at a moment's notice. That's how love works in your head. It's there one day, then it's just gone. You worry about that happening, to the point that it eventually happens, one way or another.
I'd love to tell you about some of the petty or otherwise insane reasons I've found myself worked up into a jealous rage or some kind of emotional meltdown, but I really can't. It's too embarrassing. The time I smoked crack? Sure, I can talk about that all day.
Everyone should try it once, just to see what you're made of.
The years I spent addicted to cough syrup? Definitely, fire away with your questions. Talking about either of those things couldn't make me sound half as crazy as talking about the absurd things I've gotten jealous over would.
It's inevitable, though, that a moment like this will happen when a person with uncontrolled abandonment issues enters into a relationship. The person on the receiving end of all that insecurity and worry probably won't even realize that they've done anything wrong. They haven't done anything wrong. But it almost always ends up being a huge turning point. It's the moment when that irrational part of your brain starts dictating your behavior. It's the beginning of the end.
All of that fear and suspicion is in your head, of course, and somewhere deep inside, you know it. But that's sometimes a hard conclusion to come to, on account of another common characteristic among people who fear abandonment ...
The urge to self-medicate is extremely common among people who fear abandonment. I got blackout drunk for the first time the night before my father's funeral. I woke up on the bathroom floor with a python in my face, and that's not a dick joke. I've told the story before in this column. If it was a scene in a movie and you already knew what my history with alcohol would be like after that day, you'd see that snake and complain about how heavy-handed the filmmakers were with the symbolism.
The next night, I smoked weed for the first time.
In the months following my father's death, I formed a strong bond with chemicals. It's not like I had a ton of people I could talk to about my feelings, so burying them seemed like a reasonable option. With the possible exception of infancy, that's probably the worst point in life to make a decision like that, but I can't really unring that bell now.
For a lot of years, that just meant smoking weed. I didn't have friends so much as people I'd get high with. I mostly dated girls who already had boyfriends. I bonded with no one. It was a shitty way to be, but it was a fairly peaceful time for me.
You still love me, don't you, marijuana?
I lost my access to weed when I moved to South Dakota like a total fucking weirdo in my early 20s. Finding it would have meant making friends with drug dealers in that state, which likely would have entailed pretending I enjoy things like hunting, camping, fishing, and racism. I'm not interested in any of that, so I decided to fill that hole I'd made for myself with alcohol instead. It was just so much easier.
What I didn't realize at the time is that all of those crazy thoughts and impulses that come with fearing abandonment become almost impossible to control when you drink. Trauma is considered in some circles to be a disease of the amygdala. That's the emotional center of your brain. It's responsible for your fight-or-flight instincts, among other things. When you suffer a trauma, information about it is imprinted on that part of your brain. When something triggers memories of that trauma, that part of your brain reacts like a squirrel darting out of the way of something thrown in its direction. It doesn't take time to consider what's being thrown, it just goes.
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"Hey, leave me out of this, psycho!"
For people with abandonment issues, those panicked messages hit the brain first. It's an overwhelming feeling. Abandonment is a primal thing. Of course people fear it. It's fucking awful. In those moments, that's your brain tapping your most basic instincts, and in most cases, it's going way overboard.
When you're drunk, those messages read like perfectly reasonable responses. All the jealousy and anger you're directing at people who don't deserve it seems like the right way to go. I've sent a lot of emails I regret. That's putting it so mildly.
That said -- and I know this is going to bother a lot of people -- I've never really felt like I was addicted to any one substance or chemical over the other. Well, nicotine, definitely. I've been chewing nicotine gum for longer than I can even remember now. But I've never felt a physical need for alcohol, for example. I'm definitely a menace when I drink, and I realize now that it's something I just can't do, but it's never felt like a "disease" to me. I know it's supposed to, but it just doesn't. I've never woken up like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, shivering from alcohol withdrawal.
I do sometimes wake up yearning to find a treasure map hidden in a historical document, though.
Is that just me being in denial? A lot of people will say it is, but what I'm implying isn't that crazy. A lot of people have come around to the line of thinking that a lack of bonding and connection with the world around you is the real driving force behind addiction. That addiction is a nearly unbeatable disease is a theory that came about, in part, thanks to a study where a rat was placed in a cage with a regular water bottle and another laced with cocaine. The rat kept returning to the cocaine bottle until it finally died.
That's pretty harrowing. What no one ever mentions, though, is that the exact same experiment was tried a few years later, but instead of putting the rat in the cage alone, it was with other, less cocaine-addled rats. In that setting, the "addicted" rats would still occasionally return to the cocaine water, but it was rare and certainly not enough to lead to a fatal overdose. That one difference -- not being alone -- was enough to keep them from getting perilously addicted to drugs.
What does happen is that, when I drink, I drink all of it. If I have 12 beers, I will drink them all. If I have a fifth of something, I'll try to drink it all before I pass out. Alcohol is a depressant. When you take too much of a depressant, it's going to keep you down for a bit, even after you're done consuming it. So then I'm depressed, and what do I do to fix it? I drink again. In pretty short order, it turns into a thing of its own. A problem that perpetually causes and solves itself, to paraphrase Homer Simpson. It's like that "I work more, so I can make more money, so I can buy more coke" commercial from the '80s, if at some point the dude started staggering around and falling into chairs before ordering Dominos at midnight while weeping in a corner.
That tends to carry on until someone sits me down and reminds me that I'm a monster when I drink. That's typically a girlfriend, and it's almost certainly because I've turned into a crazy person one too many times. So then I quit drinking. It's usually far too late by then, though, so we break up anyway.
Then what do I do? I start drinking again, mostly out of spite, partially out of a sense that extreme sadness calls for extreme fixing. Eventually, I meet someone else. But because I'm drinking, all of those worries, impulses, and bad thoughts that go along with fearing abandonment get really hard to control. So when it starts becoming an actual relationship, I start freaking out.
So then I quit drinking. It's usually far too late by then, though, so we break up anyway.
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So then what do I do? I got to ask myself that question again recently, with the added bonus that I had four days to sit in a motel room in a strange city by myself to think about it. Historically, my answer would have been to start drinking again and immediately start looking for another life to temporarily make worse, especially in a solitary confinement situation of that nature.
That's probably overstating it a bit, given the number of times I ate at Buffalo Wild Wings while I was there, but you get what I mean. It was exactly the kind of situation that would normally compel me to start drinking again.
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Especially the Buffalo Wild Wings part.
I didn't, of course. That would make for a pretty audacious twist ending though, right? If I did all this soul searching and emoting just to finish it off hammered in a motel room in the desert? Classic Adam!
No, what I did was just kind of sit there and think about how exhausting it is to keep ending up in that situation, and about what I could do to hopefully prevent it in the future. So I started looking into the things that the various mental health professionals whose doorways I've darkened over the years have told me about myself. Then I made an appointment to go talk to one about it all.
What I've been finding out is that this is all much simpler to get a handle on than it probably seems. That's especially true once you actually take the time to acknowledge and understand what exactly it is that's happening inside your head in those moments when you feel insecure and unstable. There are books you can read and exercises you can do to make things a lot easier on yourself.
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No, sending dozens of increasingly desperate texts is not one of those exercises.
One of the things they suggest is that, when you're sad about the past or uncertain about the future, you should take time to focus and get back in the moment -- back to right now. That's where your attention should be. To do that, the recommendation is that you shut down everything around you, sit in silence, and listen for the most far away sound you can identify. I can't do that. Silence makes me uncomfortable. I get what they're saying, though, so instead of silence, I'll listen to the same song repeatedly and try to follow one instrument the whole way through. One guitar out of several or just the bass, for example. Obviously, the more intricate the song the better, but it doesn't have to be something that relates to your situation. I use this one a lot:
Or maybe that has everything to do with my situation, and my subconscious is just trying to be artistic and edgy about things. Who knows? Anyway, provided you've upgraded at least somewhat from the stock earbuds that came with your iPhone, each sound and instrument occupies a different space in your head. For some reason, focusing on one part of that song, holding onto it and following it and still being able to identify it and connect with it in the midst of all the chaos going on around it, goes a long way toward taking my mental focus off of the things that sometimes make me unnecessarily sad. I accept that this sounds corny as fuck. I don't care.
Also, not drinking helps. That helps almost everything, really, but it's particularly helpful in the fight to keep your emotions in check. Avoiding alcohol even got way easier when I started looking into the things that make me the mess that I so often am. I stand by my assertion that I don't drink because I have an insatiable physical craving for alcohol. I've been doing it to fill a void in my life. Like I said, there were times when getting drunk or high felt like my only connection to pleasant feelings of any sort.
The decision to handle my problems and thoughts in that way is one that I made a long time ago, though. I have a lot of things now that I didn't have then. Case in point ... this. Back when I decided to start filling that need to connect with something that didn't make me feel awful by drinking and taking drugs, I was working a miserable job that I hated, with nothing but the promise of coming home to sit on the couch in front of the television to occupy the rest of my time. For a lot of years, that was a terrifying prospect.
But that's not my life now. I'm not in South Dakota anymore.
The most exciting thing about South Dakota is also the most boring thing in the world.
I have friends. I know people. I love my job. Not only that, but it's a job I can do anywhere, at any time. Sometimes I have no choice. Cracked doesn't stop running just because I'm sad. Some of my favorite things I've done for this site were written when I was at my worst. No matter how depressed or unhappy I am, I never lose the ability to write something that might make someone else happy. When I need to get out of the house, I can go do the same thing in person. Walking into a room and making everyone laugh when you're feeling like a total piece of shit is a powerful thing. It makes me happy. It keeps my mind occupied and stimulated. It makes me feel connected to something. And when things get especially heavy, I can just write something like this and unload it on you motherfuckers. It's great.
So that's what I did in that motel room. When it all got to be too much, I just started writing. I force myself to comedy through my problems now, instead of drinking them away. Alcohol is a relationship that has to end. It's fine. I have experience with that.
I even smoke less weed now, which is kind of shitty of me. Weed never did anything to deserve being shunned in such a manner, but I just don't need it as badly as I used to think I did.
It's not you; it's me.
Sometimes you're going to be alone. I'm learning to accept that, and I know I have something inside me that I can turn to in those moments to make me feel better if need be. You can do the same thing. I don't mean that you can quit your day job to pursue comedy. That's exactly the kind of impulsive decision-making you're trying to avoid, and you'll never be as good at it as I am, anyway. You certainly don't need that kind of disappointment during the healing process.
What you can do, however, is make an effort to find something about yourself that helps you make peace with being alone. It will happen from time to time. If that scares you, look into why that might be and do what you need to in order to get better. Help is out there. Go find it. If you don't, chances are you really will be alone forever.
Adam is a barrel of laughs today, follow him on Twitter @adamtodbrown.
For more from Adam, check out 5 Ways Your Life Changes When You're (Voluntarily) Homeless and aThe 5 Most Unintentionally Offensive Things Done For Charity.