Last week one of you readers left a comment on my Facebook site (Facebook search terms: Healing the Wounds of Child and Spousal Abuse: Jean’s Story) stating that because psychological abuse doesn’t leave obvious marks, people often do not take it seriously or believe it happened.  Wow!  A lot of us could say a lot about this topic, I’m sure, especially if we have endured abuse in our marriages. 

This subject is especially relevant now for me because I have recently faced my own issues of childhood abuse, the kind that left no marks on my body but did plenty of damage to my psyche. The essay that follows, then, is about the effects of child neglect, the abuse that doesn’t leave physical marks. Please note:  The material I will discuss is strictly from my own experience.  I am a writer and not a mental health professional.  If you have had similar experiences, I sincerely hope you are getting help or have gotten help to repair the damage of abuse.

Emotional Neglect:  A Personal Experience

If you have read my website at, you read my discussion of the feeling of being invisible and of not even existing (see “Abuse Takes a Toll” on my website).  I have heard abuse survivors mention their own experiences with feeling invisible, and I have certainly spent my share of time feeling invisible and nonexistent, but until just recently, I did not know the origin of this experience in my own life.  I assumed the episodes of questioning my own existence came as a result of sexual abuse because the people who have told me their experiences were, as I was, sexually abused. The other day, though, I was able to trace this phenomenon in my life to its taproots.  Perhaps what I say in the following excerpt from my therapy dialogue will sound familiar to you.
In this passage, my young-child self is talking to my adult self about the relationship I had with my parents and about the matter of feeling invisible.  I have underlined the sentences that seem particularly important and relevant:

Little Jean:  I was afraid of her [my mother], for sure.  I never knew what she would be like.  If I played quietly in my room and then went out into the living room where she was or into the kitchen because I got lonesome, I never knew what she would be like.  Maybe she would yell at me, or maybe she just wouldn’t even know I was there.  That was worse than being yelled at.  Sometimes she just never said anything to me or looked at me.  Then I wasn’t even sure I was there.  That was an awful feeling.  So on the mornings when she turned me out after breakfast, I roamed the neighborhood to find somebody who would listen to me and somebody who made me feel like I was there.  I didn’t want to be with my mother if I felt like I wasn’t even there. 

Adult Jean:  But were you afraid she would hurt you?

Little Jean:  No, I wasn’t really afraid she would hurt me, but I was more afraid of the way she was toward me.  I didn’t understand her, and I couldn’t figure out why she was that way.  And that’s why I was scared, I think. 

Adult Jean:  What do you mean you were afraid of the way she was? 

Little Jean:  I mean she was there but she wasn’t there.  That’s what I mean.  She was there but she wasn’t there.  It was like she was there, but she didn’t know I was in the room with her.  And then I didn’t know if I was there or not.  And sometimes I thought I was there, but I didn’t know for sure if she was there because she didn’t act like I was there.  Do you understand me?

If the dialogue above confuses you, then you can imagine how confused I was as a young child when my mother appeared to be present but did not act present to me.  Much of the time, she ignored me or told me to leave the room because she didn’t want me around.  If it was raining outside, she sent me into my room to play alone.  If the weather was good, then she sent me outside.  She clothed me, fed me, sheltered me, and educated me, but she didn’t interact with me or connect with me. Since my father was mentally ill and incapable of relating to me, I did not experience a close connection with either parent.  This, I am convinced, is the origin of my feeling of invisibility, a feeling that has dogged me all my life.  Again, nobody could see any physical evidence of my parents’ failure to nurture me or connect with me, but the traces of parental psychological neglect became deeply etched in my brain.

I was, however, a strong little girl who had a sense of self, and I did not give up the search for a person who would connect with me.  When my mother put me out in the morning, I roamed the neighborhood, knocking on doors until I found people who would listen to me and talk to me. These people, housewives who had sent their husbands off to work for the day, tolerated me for a while and then sent me off to knock on other doors.  When I made my rounds of the neighborhood, then, I felt present and visible.

My search for a sense of connection to others and for a feeling of existing, however, had a dark side.  Because I was a powerless young child and so desperate for human connection, I was vulnerable, prey for any predator.  The woman next door to my house recognized my vulnerability and took advantage of it. The violent sexual abuse she inflicted on me left no visible mark on my body, but it wounded my heart and my soul and caused me to be afraid of seeking connections with people.

After this abuse, I stopped trying to connect with people and trying to be visible.  I withdrew inside myself where I felt safe, and the only “me” that people saw was a shell of “me.” I remember, in fact, saying to myself when I was about eight years old, “I know now that it’s me against everyone else in this world.”  By the time I was eight, then, I had given up trying to find somebody who would listen to me, and I had learned to co-exist with the feeling of being invisible. 

Later, as a married woman, I accepted invisibility as a normal part of my life.  The abuses I endured in my marriage were happening to somebody else, to the shell of “me,” but not to the person living deep inside that shell.  In fact, after I found my husband abusing our daughter, had reported him to the police, and we had separated, I asked him why he had stepped up the emotional and sexual violence toward me in the final few years of our twenty-year marriage. His reply: “I needed to see if there was a person inside you.”  In other words, he thought that if he increased the violence, sooner or later he would force me to be present to him.  He didn’t consider the possibility that his violence was causing me to retreat deeper inside myself.  He later admitted that if I had not stopped the whole process, one of us would have been dead.  I believed him. 

I understand the roots of my feeling of being invisible, now. I know how and where my sense of being invisible began.  And now that I have this information, my next step is to integrate my young child self into the rest of me.  Can I do that?  I believe I can!

If you struggle with a feeling of being invisible, please find a therapist who specializes in helping people with childhood abuse issues and trauma.  Repair as much of the damage as you can while you have enough life left to enjoy the rewards of your efforts!