Awakenings: a patient’s account of toxic parenting Part 2

As children, we do not have a developed sense of self; an ability to discern our being treated badly from our being bad; interpersonal boundaries that can protect us; a physique that can defend us from harm, or a developed sense of morality.  In such a state of genuine vulnerability we are then open to a social, emotional and physical environment that may be hostile to us.  And in the absence of adult protection – particularly when those charged with our care fail to safeguard us, put us in jeopardy, or are themselves the threat – we live at the mercy of behaviours and words that can skew our sense of value, self and reality.  Sometimes the emotional impact of these experiences can be so overwhelming that our only sense of safety can be found in limiting our awareness of external threats and the internal emotions that accompany them. Layers of complexity and severity are added when children are sexually abused, tortured or raped, when internal and external boundaries, pain and pleasure; responsibility, blame and shame are further confused and compromised.

Psychosis and dissociation (and the interpersonal, so-called ‘personality’ issues and complex post-trauma phenomena that can accompany them) are just two of many means we can employ as self-protection from emotions and experiences we are unable to deal with in the absence of decent support, creating a disjunction and confusion between what we believe or remember to be real and what we believe to be imagined.  The functional value of these ways of managing traumatic experiences is perhaps obvious: they allow us to survive.  However, in later life, it is all-too easy to reinforce the idea that we were to blame, as we judge ourselves as children from our adult perspective, confusing responsibilities, authorship and our sense of what was real.  A feature of psychotherapeutic work is to disentangle such experiences and recover authentic security and groundedness in the safety of the present, clarifying once and for all, who was responsible for what.

Part 2 of Anne’s account of the many experiences she had in childhood that prepared the ground for severe dissociation and what are called ‘Fugue’ states – states of severe loss of awareness whereby the patient can lose perception and recall of whole time periods, only ‘awakening’ hours or days later, often in a different location, and with no memory of how they got there.


“After my Mother left school at aged 15, she became a Nurse Cadet in the City’s local psychiatric hospital in Chester, Cheshire which used to be an asylum, known as the DEVA hospital. I vaguely remember her studying to become a Nurse (RGN) and she would go to night school once a week and was possibly on placement (practical experience) at the same hospital where she’d been a Nurse Cadet prior to becoming pregnant with my half-sister and marrying my step-dad.


When I visited my maternal Grandmother in Australia in 1990, I told her about the time Mum had taken me to where both she and her had once worked, how she’d left me alone in a corridor with locked doors either side and how scared I felt hearing shouting and banging from behind the doors and I remember a face at one of the small windows in the doors and I started crying and didn’t know what to do or where to run to. I would have been no older than 7 as my Mum decided to stop studying to become a nurse by then and would have no reasonable excuse to be in the hospital.

I also remember the smell of disinfectant and pale green tiled floors and I think the lighting wasn’t all that bright. I probably didn’t understand the term ‘Psychiatric hospital / ward’ or had the maturity to understand human distress in its most extreme forms. All I remember is feeling very very scared of not only being alone but also scared of the shouting from the distressed voices behind the locked doors and a face peering out at me from one of the doors. As I grew up feeling distressed, depressed, panicked and always on high alert, perhaps I could resonate with their pain even if I had no understanding of their or my pain. My body would have felt it and I think that’s why it still leaves me with vivid memories and panicked feelings and a churning in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes the memory leaves me feeling light-headed.


But my grandmother said I wouldn’t have been allowed to wander the Psychiatric wards alone and they would be locked – so it was probably just a nightmare. She worked there as a Cook for many years, so I took her word for it. Perhaps it was just a nightmare which has remained vivid to this day. But over the years and knowing what I now do about toxic families and narcissistic behaviour, I’ve often wondered if my Mum really did sneak me onto a locked ward and left me there alone, for no other reason than to scare the life out of me.

Being so incredibly manipulative and convincing, I’m sure if I’d have been found by another member of staff, my Mum would have told them I must have wandered off alone from the staff room – or whichever part of the hospital children of staff members were allowed to be in. If this event really did happen, I don’t think I would have wandered off alone. I’d have been too worried about being told off by my Mum. I wouldn’t put anything past my Mother, the harm inflicted was systematic, prolonged, relentless and severe – and that is probably the saddest thing about my relationship with her. The fact she never let up until she’d successfully broken me as a person.

She broke bits of me but not all of me.”

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