Secret Life Stories of Quiet Childhood Abuse, Dissociation & Hidden Trauma

Website sponsored by Counselling Initiatives Charity No: 1082706



Welcome to the home page of the secret lives of apparently normal people, a website dedicated to the lives of people coping with the invisible effects of quiet attachment abuse in childhood and its hidden dissociative impacts. The website has been sponsored by Counselling Initiatives [CI] a London based charity set up in 2001 to innovate in the field of counselling and psychotherapy including, against current trends, the provision of generic long-term counselling and psychotherapy to people on low incomes or in temporary financial difficulties.

Although attachment abuse usually accompanies the severest forms of sexual abuse or neglect associated with dissociative identity disorder [DID], and can be part of the caretaking environment of all forms of invasive or contextual abuse, it also exists in its own right with its own profound impacts on the developing self.



Attachment abuse, sometimes referred to as emotional abuse, developmental abuse or caretaking misattunement – for example the emotional unavailability of a parent – is described as ‘quiet’ because it goes unrecorded as abuse, usually unnoticed by the child or the parents, and often by the adult survivor. Who in consequence who is left dealing with disturbing consequences that are subtle, difficult to pin down and obviously dysfunctional yet often baffling to clinicians unused to dealing with quiet abuse disorders, their dissociative effects and potential for developmental arrests and deep relational impairment [Howell, 2011; Lyons-Ruth, 2006].




To be added shortly


This website has been created by a survivor of quiet abuse and hidden trauma who, in spite of the best efforts of some thirty counsellors and psychotherapists, took almost forty years to understand and unravel its consequences.  Now myself, a clinician, researcher and lecturer in psycho-education I want to share the insights of my journey to psychological health, to make a forum available for others to share their stories, to help and support those on earlier stages of their journey, and to encourage research, education, treatment innovations and theory development in this sector of the dissociative continuum.




I use the term apparent normality in three ways. First, in the sense it is used in structural dissociation theory [Van Der Hart, et al., 2006] to describe a state of self which has become dissociated by a split, usually as a result of childhood trauma, that divides the emotional part of the self from the cognitive part. The whole of structural dissociation theory revolves around this dissociative split, first noticed by Myers [1940] in shell-shocked soldiers returning  from combat whose emotional self appeared to have become numb and disabled whilst their reality facing [cognitive] self continued to function normally.


As a survivor my interest is less in apparent normality as a model of the dissociative personality, than as an experience, which is the second sense in which I use the term. As an experience, apparent normality is a sense of self in which something important is missing, something important that most other people seem to have. The normal people, people who seem to go about their lives with all their self-capacities intact, people who have all kinds of ‘contents’ of life crises, but in whom a strong sense of self is unquestioningly taken-for-granted as an unremarkable part of their everyday reality.


This is what normal means to the apparently normal person. Normal isn’t a value judgement, or even an ideal in the conventional sense, it is simply the baseline for being a person from which an adult life can be lived and experienced as completely genuine, however emotionally difficult, terrifying or otherwise full of hardship.


By contrast, the life of the apparently normal person is the opposite. On an everyday basis a life of apparent normality is experienced as emotionally inauthentic and forever hovering on the cusps of derealisation and depersonalisation. As if the real world were always seen through a slight haze, a perpetual fogginess in which edges are blurred and reality is seen through glass, which when it occasionally and unexpectedly dissolves reveals the startling colour and vividness of how it can feel to be real.


This is the sense of apparent normality I carried with me my entire life after the catastrophe of my mother disappearing without a word from my life when I was just three and a half. Along with the secretly longed for miracle that would make everything alright again, and each day managing the disappointment when the miracle didn’t come: not realising until my early sixties it wasn’t normal to feel like this. Meanwhile, explaining my dysfunctional life in all kinds of complicated  ways  whilst pouring all my surplus energy into seeking a stable  identity I could rely on. 


Desiring the normality of those who seemed actually normal only became an aspiration as a result of finally concluding that none of the identities offered by philosophy, literature, revolution, spirituality, psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis or indeed anything else applied to me. After spending some years in limbo without a label, the description of apparent normality I came across by chance in Van der Hart et al’s book “The Haunted Self” seemed to fit like a glove. Not because it definitively described my symptoms, but because it described in the simplest possible way how I felt. Yes, I was depressed some of the time and anxious most of the time, but above all I didn’t feel real – and because it seemed as if most other people didn’t question their personal reality in the way I did [even if they questioned everything else] it followed that if that was the norm, I wasn’t normal because I questioned my personal reality all the time.


Moreover, alongside doing so, I constantly made every effort to look as if I was as normal as they were. This was in order not to give myself additional problems of not fitting in. To fit in and take on the appearance of whatever is around one isn’t the only response to adversity. Some other people I observed, who were also dysfunctional like me, found different ways to survive, through drink or drugs for example. For some unfathomable reason [which I only understood much later] I had the idea I needed to preserve myself for when I got better. I now believe this response of trying to fit in arises from having a particular type of personality: a type of personality that initially responds to abuse trauma by compliance, which it tends to carry on as an adult by and large avoiding the excesses of destructive addictions.


Apparent normality in the third sense of the term has a more sociological, even global meaning which suggests that what I perceived as the normality I aspired to although it had qualities of feeling ‘real’ - and in that sense desirable, included damaging aspects that my sense of non-reality didn’t.  In other words what is ‘normal’ in terms of human behaviour may be considered, from some points of view, to be aggressive, possessive, territorial, colonial, devious, prejudiced, oversexualised, incestuous, envy based, hateful, spiteful, in fact pretty much as Freud described it, and for all those reasons hardly to be aspired to. But interestingly, my sense of self included almost none of these features which sometimes led me to entertain the notion I was ‘supernormal’ and in fact superior to these normal people I otherwise wanted so much to be like.




Recent developments in childhood abuse trauma research [e. g. Dell & O'Neil, 2007; Howell, 2006, 2011; Lyons-Ruth, 2006; Putnam, 1997] has given increasing prominence to forms of trauma resulting from subtle mis-attunements by caretakers to the unique needs of the individual child: especially sensitive children who neuroscience now tell us will be highly - although of course unconsciously - aware of their emotional needs and whether or not they are being appropriately met from very soon after birth.


The impact of such mis-attunements – invisible at the time to all concerned but prototypical of the parents subsequent style of caregiving - will be pre-symbolically encoded in the earlier developing right brain in terms of neural circuitry and action templates, that even before the development of language and reflective functions, will be preparing the emotional defaults and set points on which the working models and theories of mind of the toddler will be based.


Subtle caregiving mis-attunements can take many forms, those identified by research include the emotional unavailability of one or both parents, constant low level criticism, protectionism that suffocates curiosity, over- or under-stimulation of the exploratory system, minimal explanations of parental restrictions or embargoes, contradictory rules of behaviour or their inconsistent application, psychological ‘unsupport’, social fearfulness, unspoken tensions, critical attitudes or indifference to one another by one or both parents. Additionally, researchers have studied more obvious disruptions to the positive experience of caregiving, including parental alcoholism, extended hospitalisation of one or both parents, mental illness, depressive episodes, frequently triggered anxiety states, perfectionism, obsessive/compulsive behaviours and many other cues for a child to experience activation of attachment behaviour – often on a permanent basis – together with the eventual sedimentation of excessive conditions of worth, persecutory/critical introjects and external loci of evaluation. Few, if any of these mis-attunements - or in some cases non-attunements, would count as abuses  in the conventional sense of the term, nevertheless they impact on a child’s developing self systems and senses of self, especially those of the sensitive child, and for that reason alone can and should be considered abuses.


An arguably more important reason however, is that by doing so the consequences of these caretaking behaviours, which although broadly speaking unintended - the result of the parents ‘just-being-themselves’: can be put together with conventionally, intentionally and obviously abusive behaviour – whose consequences in less severe forms they resemble, and treated under the same umbrella and with the same respect and philosophy of treatment as applied to more overt, more intentional abuse survivors.




Most of the abuse and trauma websites [for example see] tend to focus on adult event trauma, and sexual, physical and neglect trauma in children. Emotional trauma is often mentioned but not discussed in ways that when I needed it, I found especially or immediately helpful.  The ‘Secret Lives of Apparently Normal People ‘ website has been set up to add to the resource base for survivors of trauma with a specific focus on trauma survivors who because the abuses they experienced were quiet, were not experienced at the time, or in retrospect as abuses, and their consequences – in terms of distressing childhood experiences and  malfunctions in adulthood - therefore not understood as based in trauma. It is for this reason that they have been depicted as hidden traumas by Karlen Lyons-Ruth, for a bibliography of whose work see:

Website by Sue Medley of SynTax