The Cost of Survival. By Dr Keith White.

I had planned to be with this particular person for over a month, and when I was with her ready to listen to what she wanted to share it began to dawn on me just how costly the conversation was for her. She told me through tears that in anticipation of it, she had not been able to stop crying all night.

The conversation got off to a slow start if one were to gauge it by a word count: nothing was said for several minutes, but it was perfectly understood by both of us that the words would come in their time.  And they did.  She summarised how she felt by using the word “disappointment” and left me to work out to what it might relate.  Any childhood hopes had been “smashed”; she felt “bound” (when saying this she used her right hand to encircle her left); “abandoned”; “ignored”…These were her exact words.

Her early childhood was indeed traumatic and distressing enough to warrant all of these harsh verbs.  She was an unwanted baby in the sense that her mentally ill mother knew that she would be unable to care for her.  And from that time onwards she had never felt genuinely accepted as someone having her own identity or sense of self-worth.  What abilities and gifts she had were not recognised by others.  This is still the case in her mind.

She had in short never formed a secure attachment.

So it came as no surprise when she confided in me that it was so difficult “to trust”.  This was the point in the conversation when I paused to reflect that the context in which she had grown up meant that she couldn’t trust.  In fact her survival was testament to the fact that she had not trusted anyone.  Her trust would have been smashed or ignored (to use her words).  Perhaps that was part of what she meant when she described her feelings.

The paradox or dilemma at the heart of her existence was that she was a survivor who had shown quite remarkable courage and resilience, but to survive she had been unable to trust.  And so trusting was a quality absent from all her relationships including trust of herself.

It was almost unbearably painful listening to her story unfolding, accompanied by her tear-filled eyes.

But why was she telling me this?  And why was she doing it now?  Why in this place?  As she pondered these thoughts there was a distinct hint of brightness in her eyes: a smile.  She saw in a moment that the very fact of her sharing something so painful demonstrated some form or element of the very trust that she had been absent throughout her life.

The extended conversation we were having (this was the second part) was only possible because in some way, however tenuously or implicitly, she trusted me.  And she was insightful enough to say why it was.  “You came gently alongside me…You had time to listen…You had no agenda of your own…”

Before long (90 minutes all told) it was time for me to leave, having agreed when we would next meet.

But the paradox or riddle would not let me go: survival testified to the truth that she had not trusted anyone.  Had she trusted her mother through and through it is perfectly possible that she would not have survived the loss.  And with that lack of trust came a way of life: to survive meant that trust was not a quality that she could afford to explore.

Immediately I thought of another person whom I have known for many years of her life: since she was a girl just embarking on secondary education in fact. She is now in her thirties.  Her early life had been a sad sequence of losses, moves, changes and abandonments.  There was no one alongside her continuously who was able to help her maintain any consistent sense of her story, her identity in relationships, through time and connecting place.  Social workers, foster carers, prospective adoptive parents came and went as regularly as new school uniforms.  And slowly but surely she created her own narrative, which changed from day to day, and situation to situation.  (The word narrative is not a wholly accurate way of expressing what I mean, but it is possibly the nearest available.  The problem was that it was not a coherent story, so much as a kaleidoscope, or collage of recollections and fabrications.)

Understandably it has now reached the point where no one believes what she is saying.  It is sometimes called “lying”, but it is more deep-seated than that.  It is the necessity as she sees it to jettison inconvenient and contrary facts with each new day or encounter so much so that she cannot understand that no one believes her.  She has survived, but at what a cost.  For example she regularly pleads for help to save her from an abusive and destructive relationship, but equally regularly she is drawn into its clutches yet again.  Her sense of time, continuity, identity, the world is warped to such a degree that no one can share it with her.

In both cases I have resisted using the term “defence mechanism” because it comes with so much baggage, and it can be assumed to be a conscious strategy.  But in these cases (and many others) in my experience what is going on is of primal depth and significance.  In order for the most basic survival two human beings have had to dispense with two of the most vital aspects of human life and relationship: trust and truth.

It is painful to witness.  But in the former case there is hope.  For she has not jettisoned truth, even though how she sees herself and others is hugely coloured by her personal feelings and pain.  As we continue the conversation it is just conceivable that a seed of trust might grow within her so that it might start to develop however falteringly in relationships.  But where truth has been abandoned it is hard to see what hope there is of anything other than a replication of sameness.

Having reached this point in my article I found myself reading about child soldiers and the long-term effects of indescribable traumas, suffering and brutality on their personalities and characters.  They are often decisive and resourceful, but the cost to their sense of personhood and relationships, is incalculable.

All of us who are living are survivors by definition, and we have all had to make choices, compromises and sacrifices in order to survive.  There is something admirable about the resourcefulness and resilience that survival betokens.  It should never be under-estimated, but sometimes the cost is immeasurably great and sad.