Intermittent Reinforcement

The idea of intermittent reinforcement came up in session today. I have pondered it some more these past couple hours, and it is true. It does describe how I was parented. Had both my parents just been completely absent I might have fared better, but instead I had inconsistent parenting. Thinking back on what I learned in college about Skinner and his study of conditioning, I remember that intermittent reinforcement worked as well in animals as those that were consistently reinforced.

For me growing up I was loved and cared for. I was held and hugged and was the object of attention. Unfortunately for me, that didn’t last. My mother was more often than not absent. Sometimes by physical distance, other times through psychological defenses. When I was about 9 she left me, she was off and running. She didn’t stop till she hit Ohio. I didn’t know why, or what was wrong. What had I done to make her disappear? I would sit and stare out my window, wishing she would reappear. I dragged around a red and white blanket she had made for me, years before. God the tears that were shed on that nappy old blanket, makes my heart hurt just thinking about it.

Occasionally she would call. I remember asking her when she was coming back. I never got an answer. As the weeks turned to months, I found refuge in my closet. I no longer looked out my window. It was too painful hoping.

Out of the blue care packages would arrive. It was my only connection left to her. I would unpack the boxes and drag the stuff to my closet, carefully hiding the stuff behind the clothes. I couldn’t bear to see the reminders of her. But eventually my wishing and hoping would get the best of me, and I’d climb in the closet surrounded by what I had left of my mom. A single faded picture of her petting my favorite horse. I would hold that picture and dream of her walking back in the door. Sweeping me into her arms and holding me against her. But the months past and a year past. My thoughts grew darker, and my hope was gone.

Then I got to go visit her. I saw her picture perfect brick Victorian house, and played in her pale yellow tub. I was happy. I wanted more than anything to stay there with her, but instead I was returned to NY. To my closet, and my dashed dreams. I think it would have been better to have never seen her life out there in Ohio. I think my hope was almost extinguished, but instead that intermittent reinforcement came instead. I went back to the hoping. My little heart just wouldn’t quit. Maybe she would come for me, or maybe she would take me there to her perfect house and her big perfect tub.

No, that didn’t happen. I felt crushed, I felt unloved. Somehow it was my fault she had run away. I disconnected from life and withdrew. A somewhat normal kid had been transformed into something else. Something wild and desperate, something lonely and scared. My school work faltered, my life came undone. I would walk home from school down the railroad tracks, praying a train would come along. I was just a kid. I didn’t know what suicide was. I just knew I had had enough. My heart could not go on beating. That train never came.

I wonder now what my life might have been. I know that the bipolar probably would have reared its head anyway, but would I have had a better chance? Had my heart not been so thoroughly demolished back then.


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