Ghost Busters: Breaking Through the Pain of Abandonment
If the top charts on iTunes are any indication, I’m not alone in my new obsession with the broadcast, Missing Richard Simmons. If you had told me that I would ever be counting down the hours until I could hear the next installment of a reality drama involving the over-the-top weight loss guru, I would have looked at you with confusion and maybe even a little irritation. I’ve always thought he was a great person with amazing compassion and an insatiable drive to help people. But frankly, his approach was always a bit too much for me and would usually prompt me to look away.
Until he went missing. All of sudden, I am this drive to understand him. To know that he’s okay and to delve into the possible reasons for his sudden and complete disappearance, not only from the public eye but also from most of his friends and family.
Unlike me, I didn’t analyze my obsession. I just fed it.
Until another podcast crossed my feed – Haunted by Ghosting on Dear Sugar radio. This pod focused on two letter writers who felt they had been ghosted, one by a friend and another, a lover. And as Cheryl and Steve dug into the particular effects of being ghosted, it finally clicked.
The reason for the national obsession with Missing Richard Simmons is the same powerful drive to understand “why” when we’ve been ghosted on a personal level.
Because the cruel truth about ghosting is that it may be the easy way out for the one doing the leaving, but the results of the abrupt and ambiguous ending haunt the one who is left for a very long time.
One of the strongest and most immediate drives following a ghosting is the overwhelming need to know. Our brains detest a mystery and so they desperately try to solve the puzzle. The first impulse is usually thinking that something terrible befell the person, that the disappearance was the result of an accident or a tragedy rather than some conscious decision to act.
I experienced this in a major way when my ex pulled a ghosting test-run of sorts. I thought he was on a business trip to Brazil (and desperately ill from food poisoning). The reality, as revealed after the final ghosting occurred, was that he was on a honeymoon with his soon-to-be bride. When he failed to respond to any calls or messages for days, I went into a panic, calling hospitals, airlines, the embassy and his boss. It was the latter that finally got his attention (and his ire). In all that time and effort, it never even crossed my mind that his vanishing act was deliberate.
Once the initial explorations into foul play or unforeseen catastrophe fail to pan out, the mind begins to turn inward. “What did I do to cause them to suddenly leave?” “Am I so bad, so unlovable, that they couldn’t bear to stay around me?”
Ghosting is rejection of the most brutal form, the childhood game of silence played out to its most sadistic end. It’s one thing to be yelled at. It’s another entirely to be ignored. As though you’re not even worth the effort of speaking a word.
And then that’s followed by the secondary rejection of self-blame, the turning away from ourselves, often causing even more damage than the initial ghosting. If we’re not careful, shame begins to grow in that dark and tear-dampened environment, telling us that not only are we unlovable, but that we must be kept hidden.
The cruel irony is that shame is one of the primary driving forces behind the act of ghosting. The disgrace the ghoster feels coupled with a distinct lack of courage builds into an irrational anxiety and the decision to step out instead of stepping up. To make an about face instead of facing the difficult truth.
Their choice to disappear speaks volumes about them and a mere phrase about you. In don Miguel Ruiz’ masterpiece, The Four Agreements, he explores our tendency to interpret the actions of others as a personal affront. The reality, he argues, is that they are in their bubble and you, in yours.
I found comfort in the phrase, “collateral damage” when I was emerging from my shame-filled hidey hole after abandonment. I opened myself to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t disappear because of me.
For a long time, I believed that I needed him to face me. To face what he had. I wanted the satisfaction of seeing him uncomfortable but, more than anything, I sought closure. I thought if I could just hear from his own lips why he left, I could move on. I thought that if he said he was sorry, that the pain would fade.
I was wrong. I was expecting the one who hurt me to be the one to heal me. A desperate fool’s mission.
I never did speak to him. I never heard an apology or an explanation. Yet I no longer internalize the rejection. I’ve gone full circle, now again thinking that something was wrong with him when he didn’t respond. Only instead of an accident, it was depression. Or addiction. Or shame spiraling out of control. Or anxiety about his professional future. Or fear about his health.
And that’s the thing about ghosting – the person is gone, the pain eventually fades but the questions, they will always remain. It’s up to the one left behind to learn to live with the uncertainty instead of allowing it to haunt one’s days.
As for Richard Simmons, maybe the final episode next week will lead to some answers about why he disappeared. And maybe it won’t. Not all mysteries are meant to be solved.