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Emotional neglect in a free land

Among the orphans

by Keith Purtell Nov. 24, 2023

18+ adults only

I have watched my high school classmates date, marry, have children and grandchildren, and in some cases pass away. But, I'm still in the same mode as my teenage years; trying to get a date.

photo of a lonely chair in an empty room, by tuonela at
lonely chair, empty room

Dating problems probably started in junior high, but I had youthful optimism on my side. I assumed that I would do what my peers were doing: Cat around for a few years, get married in our 20s, find a good job with a stable company, save a bunch of money, and roll along to our elder years.

I was especially aware of this entering 10th grade, because I was in the final three years of public school. Afterwards, I would enter the world as an adult.

But, there was a problem: I rarely persuaded girls to go out with me. I was home alone while my male friends were out living life.

At the same time, my parents' marriage was falling apart as the emotional distance between them grew wider. My Mom took up alcohol. That, and shouting at her teenage children.

This started when I was four years old. Unlike most traumatized people, I have a number of early memories. I was the first born, and I faintly recall my father being affectionate and playful. For instance, I remember sitting on his lap in the living room of our house and feeling very happy. A year after me, my middle brother was born.

grandparents Veva and Clyde Purtell
grandparents Veva and Clyde Purtell

Two years after my brother, my sister was born. It was the beginning of a slow downward slide for my parents' marriage. My father, a Methodist minister, apparently decided to put all his energy into the church career. This was consistent with his birth-family: Grandfather traveled the nation working for the Frisco railroad, and grandmother was in charge of loving the children. But for me, as a little boy, I became lonely for a Mom and a Dad.

For my mother, Dad's decision put the child-rearing on her shoulders and in a small town with few resources. As a minister's wife, she would not have had the freedom to confide in her local friends.

As a now-adult, I realize that she married mainly to have a husband. The community expectation that she raise children triggered something. But, my child's mind only knew what happened in plain sight. Mom would tolerate us kids until Dad left the house for work. In his absence, she was either resentful or in a rage.

What children feel growing up in emotional neglect: Sadness, loneliness, fear and uncertainty, anger, shame, bewilderment, abandonment, grief, emptiness, numbness. Severity can vary from child to child. Children may not be aware of the specific cause of their distress, and they may instead attribute their feelings to other factors. In this context, "emotional neglect" means emotional starvation.

The business of concealing her rage toward us kids ended in 1964, our second year in Madill. When Mom began to shriek at us in front of Dad, he raised the newspaper he was reading to cover his eyes. My brother and sister and I have interpreted this differently. I later decided that Dad's upbringing did not prepare him for discovering that his wife was mentally ill. I believe that my father was overwhelmed. But, my two siblings interpret his actions as abandoning his children.

Dad had turned over child rearing to her to focus on his career, but we were denied loving kindness. There were no aunts, uncles or grandparents to demonstrate kindness, because our family had to live wherever the Methodist bishops directed. While this was going on, most other children in our town were receiving some kindness from family.

I remember the feelings of grief and loss when my father's previous kindness was withdrawn.  * more

I emotionally wandered until I learned to read. Then, I started looking for help in books. I have also heard of people in our culture who feel they were raised by the family television, because that's where they looked for human interaction. In each of these instances, there was nowhere else to turn.

In the 1980s, there was psychological research on thousands of Romanian children abandoned by their families and left in government-run orphanages. Orphanage managers set this up like warehouses. They put infants inside cribs in large rooms where they were provided only shelter, food, clothing, and hygiene necessities. These children were warehoused like products on a shelf.

photo of a lonely child on a concrete floor, by paskelius at
lonely child

Older children lived in crowded dormitories. The notable fact here is the absence of human kindness: no reassuring touch and no gentle words. Orphans who mysteriously died attracted special attention from psychologists. What was revealed over time was that these babies were not starved for food or physically abused, but died from a lack of human kindness.

Prevailing psychological theory in that era was so primitive that no one understood that human touch and kind words are critical for the survival and prosperity of children.

The study of Romanian orphans focused on the impact of severe deprivation on the children in orphanages. The term "institutionalization" was often used to describe the conditions these children faced.

While the focus was on broader aspects of institutionalization, the lack of human touch, emotional neglect, and the consequences of inadequate caregiving were key components of the discussions and research related to the orphans' well-being.

In normal families, kindness shown to children provides them with a sort of tool kit, which they carry into the world. But, the CEN child arrives at adulthood without tools, and has only the clothes on their back. He or she has been denied essential skills and personal confidence. They seem destined to be frustrated and overwhelmed.

Professional articles published in the 1990s used terminology like "psychosocial deprivation", "emotional deprivation" and "absence of touch". In 2012, the term CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) was popularized by author and therapist Dr. Jonice Webb.

Those orphans who survived the emotional starvation led very troubled lives, to the same degree as children exposed to violence or sexual assault in families outside the orphanages.

Here is a list of 12 common life problems that adults may face if they experienced CEN growing up:

There is one important thing I have never seen on lists of CEN symptoms: On at least a dimly-perceived emotional basis, CEN adults sense that death lay at the other side of their parents' decision to withhold human kindness. It's a death that could be the erasure of one's own identity, or could be an internal shutdown of brain and body. It's something we survivors think about when we read accounts of the neglected infants who died in Romanian orphanages. This awareness of having been exposed to death—or a kind of spiritual death—by one's own trusted parents adds an edge of deep fear to CEN symptoms like emotional flashbacks.

photo of people on a beach, by mirofoto at
people seated on a beach
Grieving aids the survivor immeasurably to work through the innumerable death-like experiences of being lost and trapped in emotional flashbacks. Grieving also supports recovery from the many painful, death-like losses caused by childhood traumatization. Recoverees need to grieve the death of safety and belonging in their own childhoods—the death of their early attachment needs.
—therapist Pete Walker, M.A.

Back to the personal narrative, where the third item on that list was playing out: My efforts to date girls. I had begun to read psychology books as a teen, because neither of my parents was available to answer questions or encourage me. Psychology books of that era (1960s, 1970s) were about the unconscious mind, learning and memory, social psychology, personality, cognitive processes, abnormal psychology, mental health, and sensory perception. No one had heard of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Childhood Emotional Neglect. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, I remember hearing about military veterans with PTSD sometimes becoming violent in civilian life.

But this was mostly background. I was focused on my high school classmates in Oklahoma. When I saw that the girls who said “No” to me were saying “Yes” to my male friends, I correctly assumed I was doing something wrong.

As a reader of psychology material, I decided on self-improvement. My first idea was being a better listener. I probably got that from a magazine article. It did not help. None of the girls were impressed with my listening ability. Other attempted ideas: Being funnier, being meaner, being more confident, etc. The “meaner” idea was suggested by a buddy, who reasoned that mean guys seemed to get girlfriends.

The only feedback I got during these years was from the numerous girls who told me I was a “nice guy” who they only thought of as a friend. In retrospect, they were trying to avoid the word “boring”.

Strangely, there was one close call with finding a lover or a girlfriend. I'll call her Rita. (All girls' and women's names have been changed.) She was petite with straight black hair and was very sociable. Frankly, there was no other girl for whom I felt more physical desire. The fact that she was one of my sister's friends meant I often got to talk to her. It was my sister who revealed that Rita was sexually active, which had not registered on my male friends' girl-radar. Rita seemed to be operating with a bit of discretion.

I recalled the rule that many of my buddies advised: Don't make your move (to initiate sex) until the third date. So, I asked her out. To my surprise, she said yes. I was ecstatic. It seemed that I was going to lose my shameful virginity with the hottest young woman I had ever known.

The first date went fine, and included some talking and kissing and my wandering hands. The second date was more fiery, with us reclining in a car seat parked behind a hilltop building. And she smiled and asked if I was trying to maneuver her into my favorite sexual position. Holy Christ she not only went out with me, but she mentioned sex. I was primed for the magical third date. Then, I got her letter.

Bear in mind, Rita lived in a neighborhood near mine. I could have walked to her house if a car was not available. But, she sent me a rambling letter, saying that I was trying to “get serious” and she didn't want that. The only “get serious” I could think of was getting married, and I had only speculated that might happen when I was 29 or 30 years old. What the hell?

By now, I had carried my psychology reading forward to attend group therapy in Tulsa. I brought the letter to get second opinions. Their compassion helped me calm down, but did not equip me with a way to change Rita's mind. I was out. Out of her life, and not on her boyfriend list. I was back to being ashamed.

An example of how teenage girls avoided stating their preferences ...  One of my best friend's neighbors was a cute girl named Cindy. I called her and we talked a bit, and I asked her out. She said
  "Oh, I can't, I'm going to talk to my grandma that night."
(thinking...) Well, okay, maybe she's very close to her grandma or rarely gets to see her grandma. No problem. Next week, I tried again. She said
  "Oh I can't, I have to wash my hair that night."

After graduating from high school, I got my first professional job in a photo lab where we processed film and printed photos for hobbyists and professional photographers. I was 24 years old. That's where I met Kylie, two years younger than me and finalizing her divorce. There was a first date and a second date, and I was extremely careful not to say anything that implied getting “serious” leading up to the third date. But I did blurt out something as we were taking off our clothes. I mentioned that the other girls had turned me down. Kylie was angry and disappointed. She began cursing. Her body language changed dramatically, and she no longer wanted to look in my eyes. I feared she might leave.

So, we completed the act. Nothing else went wrong, and my years of shame were lifted. But, Kylie's shoulders still drooped. Days later, she continued to avoid looking me in the eyes, and my next attempts to get a date were rebuffed.

She didn't say that she only wanted an experienced man, but I figured it out. The ladies have rules. Young men learn this.

I knew it might take a hell of a long time to find someone else like Kylie. After all, it took me 11 years just to lose my virginity.

Six years later, I enrolled in college and met a woman two years older than me; Diana. First date, second date, a weird misfire on the third date, and then the fourth date. I had invited her to travel with me from Edmond to Kansas City and meet my friends Chip and Pam. We stayed at a place named The White Haven Motor Lodge. That night, Diana and I flirted and talked in our room and sat on the edge of the bed.

photo of White Haven Motor Lodge, by John Roever
White Haven Motor Lodge, photo by John Roever

I started to reach out for her, and it never happened. I had made the decision, but I was still sitting there in the semi-darkness. Diana sensed something was wrong and was deeply frustrated; she began to quietly weep. I felt like a donkey's butthole for not responding, but my arms were oddly not energized, nor was my voice.

Often called the 4Fs—Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn—they have evolved as a survival mechanism to help us react to real or perceived danger. As to what part of the situation with Diana my mind perceived as danger; I don't know. But the wisdom of hindsight sees an obvious freeze response. It would have been nice if my parents had provided a guide book to the downstream results of their traumatizing indifference, but that's not how things work.

The two of us drove back to Oklahoma the next day, with me at the wheel, and I used the entire five-hour trip to plead and reach out and apologize, but all that did was get on her nerves. By the time we were back in Oklahoma, none of it had worked. If I had it to do over, I would not be ashamed to beg. The opportunity slipped through my fingers.

If you're counting, that's three potential relationships lost. There were dozens of other attempts along the path, but I'm only writing here about the ones where I was attracted to her, and she was attracted to me.

Here is the last one. I first met Iyanna at a party during ninth grade. She was a beautiful Native American girl who loved music. She did not want to go out with me; she was explicit about that. But 35 years later, and after she was divorced, she found my email address and contacted me. We tried to make a go of it.

Yes, we completed the act. And, I kept my mouth shut about my sexual history. I only did a fair job of the male responsibilities, but I won't judge myself too harshly.

I'm completely serious when I say these wildly abnormal relationship experiences have forced me to become an amatuer philosopher. What else could I do? I discovered mindful practice in about 2013 and learned how to stare out a window and turn off the negative thoughts, and the unhappy emotions that result from those thoughts.

Anyway, the newfound romance with Iyanna only lasted about a week. I had just taken a job with a CNHI boss who treated his entire team like garbage, and I was deeply unhappy. That showed up when I was in Iyanna's house, and it spoiled the atmosphere. We have at least remained friends all these years. From the ashes of lost hopes, I salvaged a good friendship.

Come to think of it, I also re-discovered Rita, who turned out to be still hot and divorced and on social media. I asked her out, and she did the same thing to me in 2022 that she had done in 1973: Gave me clear "interested" signals (saying she bought a new summer dress—a short dress—just for our lunch together) and then immediately changed her mind and claimed I was trying to get serious. "Keith, I have always thought of you as my friend ..."

There wasn't even a second date. What the hell?

Nowadays, reading my former classmates' social media about their spouses and children is deeply poignant. What they have is completely normal, and it seems—from my perspective—to have been delivered to them without any effort on their part. Unfortunately, all those happy family photos recall the loss I experienced in a CEN family. Their pictures of joy remind me of the home life I longed for as a boy, and for which I have searched in vain as an adult. There are many kinds of loss; losing the good things you had, or, in my case, losing the life you have not found.

Let's leave this on a positive note. If you or someone you know is or might be CEN, here are a few suggestions that kept me sane (all links are unsponsored):

Learn more about CPTSD. Since CEN is a subset of CPTSD, try visiting the CPTSD Foundation website. You can download materials, find services, review programs, sign up for a regular emailing, and other options.

logo for The Mindfulness AppMindful practice/Mindfulness. Don't be put off by the slightly hippy vibe. It really does work, and you can usually find the information you need either online, or in a library or used-book store. There is at least one good smartphone app (Mindfulness App) that I found to be helpful. Or, try the Mindful-dot-org website, or check this article by the American Psychological Association.

Professional trauma-informed therapy. I know insurance may be a problem, but do everything you can. I have found three very good therapists so far. You can search the Psychology Today therapist database. Look for someone who is experienced, but not near the end of their career.

Gratitude/Gratefulness. I initially resisted this idea, because I thought it meant being passive or settling for crumbs. Nope. It just means focusing time and energy on every good thing in your life. You don't have to give up also healing the negative stuff. Try Grateful Living and sign up for their daily emails. (I am not affiliated with these folks, but I read their literature.)

NVC. Marshall Rosenberg developed Nonviolent Communication as conflict resolution, including in situations involving urban gangs. But the methodology is so adaptable that it works in many settings. I have used it internally to resolve tangled emotions. You can read more and purchase materials at the Center for Nonviolent Communication website.

Physical movement, preferably outdoors. Walking, bicycling, stretching. You don't need a gym. You do need contact with Nature. You need clouds and trees and a gentle breeze and creatures all around.

Enjoy music or something similar like books or movies. A public library will save you a lot of money on this media. Try becoming friends with artists to support their shows. Desi and Cody think I'm nice to them because of their personalities, but I'm just another hyped-up fan.

Find or build a CEN tribe. If there's not a physical group in your area, you might try starting one, or starting something similar, or look for a group on social media. You could also suss out friends who are open to talking about these topics. Exercise mutual respect and discretion. Susan Pinker's book might be helpful, as might Cheri Huber's website and books.

Jeff, Clint, and stepmom Marsha Purtell; photo by Claire Purtell
Jeff, Clint, and stepmom Marsha Purtell; photo by Claire Purtell

*During my mid-20s, my Dad remarried and became emotionally reborn. He began to say "I love you" and ask to sit and talk with his kids and ask how each of us was doing. It was the relationship that began when I was between the ages of 1 and 4, only to vanish for 20 years. Many men in our society are distanced from their fathers. For having a second chance with my Dad, I was very lucky.