“The reality, Nicole, is that although your thoughts are not completely rational and are definitely cognitively distorted, there is an element of truth to them this time.”
I had spent three weeks ruminating endlessly on these thoughts that I shared with my psychiatrist, only to hear that statement from him. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to communicate verbally very effectively during the appointment. I had spent an hour the previous evening writing out what had been going on in my head and in my environment to lead to my current despondent state. As I had no energy to protest or to retort back or…do anything really, I remained drooped over in my seat, not able to look him in the eyes. Silent.
“Many of your peers are going to move on with their lives after this semester. Your current friends likely are going to focus more and more on themselves and their own future from now until their graduation – and afterwards, there may be less opportunities for you to spend time with them. With some people, you may never speak with them again.”
I gave a weakened nod.
“That does not mean they are abandoning you.”
Photo by Mohammad Faruque
For those unaware, I am a fourth-year undergrad student who requires an extra year as a result of a (much-needed) mental health leave. It may seem surprising that what is bothering me is not the fact that it feels as though my life is getting ‘put on hold’, but instead, the fear of abandonment. Yup!
You see, ever since we started the second semester, there has been a marked increase in phrases like, “Man, I am so ready to graduate!” and “I’m not ready to adult yet!”. Don’t get me wrong – I am genuinely happy for everyone who worked hard to get all their required credits and have a plan for themselves after undergrad (no matter how developed or not developed the plan may be). But hearing variants of this phrase set the tone in my cognition. Already I was thinking, “But then everyone will leave and I will be alone”.
Then over the next couple of weeks, I reached out to a few people I was close with from second and third year and noticed a pattern in my attempts. In most cases, the individuals I spoke with seemed to keep a distance from me. They were conversational, but in a polite and impersonal way. They very much seemed to be focusing on their own lives, and though I would not phrase it so anymore, I considered these interactions as signs that I had something wrong with me intrinsically. That I was not interesting, intelligent, attractive, witty, or exceptional enough for people to desire my company. That my struggles with mental illness were the only dimension with which these individuals identified me.
And after suddenly realizing why my mood was dipping gradually over the past three weeks one night, my cognition made that final distorted leap.
“Everyone has abandoned me. Everyone is abandoning me. Everyone will abandon me.”
Abandonment vs. Drifting
My psychiatrist was right. It is reality that people will come and go from everyone’s lives. For a very long time, when I thought about difficult decisions regarding my relationships, I had solely focused on how to let go of people who bring you down. As a child, I moved houses and schools often, so even then I was the one leaving my friends behind. My high school friends and I still keep in touch, going for sushi dates on school breaks and sending snaps of our dogs regularly. So it has been a long time since I had to experience the cold hard reality of being the one let go, even if it is/will be unintentional.
And yes, our cognitive distortions will cause us to believe strongly that this is abandonment. But let me challenge that notion with a different word: “drifting”. The only similarity between the two is that both describe a reduction in physical and/or emotional availability between two parties. What are the differences?
Abandonment is when a person intentionally leaves a situation or person with finality – they desert that situation or person completely, often suddenly. It is often influenced heavily by an irreparable change in the relationship between the two people or the person and situation.
Drifting is when a person unintentionally and gradually becomes less physically and/or emotionally available to another person or a situation. It is often influenced by changes in either individual’s lives that result in more difficulty in maintaining the same level of closeness or commitment as before.
1. Abandonment is intentional and often happens for a direct, clear reason. Drifting is unintentional and often happens due to a collection of indirect, vague causes.
Abandonment often has a conscious motive behind it. When a person “abandons” a business venture, it is often because they feel that after a long period of time, it is not producing the results that they had aimed toward. Between people, abandonment is a rare occurrence. It often only occurs after a major decision that required intense thought and consideration. It may, for example, arise as a legal term. “Child abandonment” is “the act of withholding emotional, physical, and financial support of a child” (1). “Marital abandonment” is “the severing of ties with the family by a spouse who forsakes his responsibilities to the family” (2). There are a large variety of reasons why these forms of abandonment may occur, and oftentimes these reasons are conscious and intentional.
Drifting is unlikely to occur as a result of conscious causes or intentions. It can happen due to environmental changes in one person’s life. For example, in my case, if one of my current friends from university pursue a master’s degree at another university, they would undergo a major environmental change that reduces our physical proximity to one another. It would become more difficult to maintain the same level of closeness over a prolonged period of time if, for example, our friendship was built mostly around an activity we did together regularly at my university. It can happen as major life transitions occur, along with a shift in immediate values and foci. So in this case, many of my friends are preparing to graduate with their undergrad degree – a major life transition, no matter where they end up. They are likely focusing on their own futures and are very anxious about what may happen, which may manifest in behavioural changes that can mistakenly be interpreted as rejection.
2. Abandonment occurs quickly. Drifting occurs gradually.
I know I just mentioned that abandonment often occurs after a period of intense consideration, but here I am referring to the direct before and after states. When something is abandoned, it is dropped cold, very suddenly and abruptly. Before the time of abandonment, the business venture existed and there were people working on it. Afterwards, suddenly, no one is working on it, and the work materials are discarded or archived.
In contrast, when we drift, it is a slow process. For example, with my high school friends, we used to talk everyday about everything going on in our lives while we were attending school together. For the first semester of first year undergrad, many of my friends and I kept in touch through text messages about once every other day. Then it turned to once a week, then once a month, then once every few months. Now, we still do keep in touch and hang out when we are all available (about 2-3 times a year), but we certainly do not know all the ins and outs of our lives as we once had before.
3. Abandonment is often final – it slams the door shut. Drifting is not final – it keeps the door open.
With abandonment, there is often a sense of permanence to the act. When the business venture is dropped, there is not usually an intention to pick the venture up again in the future. When “marital abandonment” occurs, one spouse forsakes his or her responsibilities to the family with the intention to sever all ties to that family (2). There is usually no semblance of a healthy or sustainable relationship left over after the act.
Drifting is not a doorslam. When my friends graduate and attend other universities for higher-level programs, they are not shutting me out of their lives. With some friends, very little will change in terms of our interactions with one another and the ways in which we cultivate our friendships – thanks to social media and messaging platforms. With other friends, the proximity change will likely result in less communication between us, but the communication line is always open for either party to engage. With my high school friends, we all still communicate with each other, but we also have mutual respect for our busy academic calendars and accommodate with each other. I would consider our friendships to be healthy and balanced because of this respect.
It is okay if you sometimes experience intense anxieties about abandonment
I just told you about some differences between abandonment and drifting, but I want to end off with the note that you should not leave and think to yourself that it is not valid to feel anxious or down about the fear of abandonment. When we invalidate our own emotions and thoughts, we feed our internal monsters. It is okay that you may feel abandoned sometimes. It is completely understandable in a large variety of situations. But the practice here, is to accept that you feel fearful. To accept that you think you are being abandoned, and then try to challenge your cognitions surrounding that thought – when you are ready. The most important takeaway here is that abandonment is not the same as drifting, and it is worth peeling apart the layers of each to understand their dimensions. But the first steps are always acceptance and self-validation.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),
- Child Abandonment – Definition, Examples, Processes [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 31]. Available from: https://legaldictionary.net/child-abandonment/
Marital Abandonment – Definition, Examples, Cases [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 31]. Available from: https://legaldictionary.net/marital-abandonment/