Growing up, I listened to David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars until the album cover fell apart in my hands. In my teenage wisdom, I duct-taped the cover back together. The masterpiece had to be protected at all costs. It still sits in my record collection in all its damaged glory.
Ziggy was an album that demanded to be heard from beginning to end, from the apocalyptic opener, “Five Years,” to the final pleading lament of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.” This last song I remember listening to with a fractured ear. I identified both with the song’s suicidal protagonist and the song’s pleading narrator. I was always torn. I wanted succor and I wanted to be the hero providing it.
I heard the song again this morning as I was eating breakfast. I was touched by its tenderness, yes, but also by the tension between its historically bound message and its timeless insistence. Bowie/Ziggy was exhorting a generation of children “to turn and face the strange,” as he’d charged his listeners in an earlier song. But he also was speaking to an innate human need for connection and love.
We need to know that we’re not alone. We need to know that we’re wonderful, no matter what.
Upon hearing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” this morning, I also was struck by the realization that too many of my clients exist without an experience of unconditional love and acceptance.
I feel sad even as I write this.
Who did you turn to for comfort?
This is a question I ask all of my clients during our initial sessions. I want to know who, as children, they turned to for support and solace. Some clients answer quickly, naming a parent or another family member. But too often, clients will simply answer, “no one.”
This is important information. It clues me into how this person has come to know the world and her place in it. It does not answer everything for me, of course; it merely offers a perspective on this person’s life. Early events do not absolutely determine who we become. We, after all, are an amalgam of experience, genetics, and individual resilience.
Lacking a foundational experience of security and safety within early relationships, however, can contribute to maladaptive core beliefs. These so-called working models cannot simply be swapped for healthy adaptive ones. We develop emotional schemes to make fast sense of the world. Once developed, these schemes are virtually intrinsic to who we are as individuals, second nature, if you will.
If these schemes emerge within a secure, stable environment we typically can rely on them to help us develop healthy intimate adult relationships. But if these schemes emerge within a chaotic, unstable, or neglectful environment there is the possibility that our working models of self and other will impede our ability to form satisfying and fulfilling adult relationships.
Cognitively, it is possible to work on verbalizing that we are OK and that the world is safe. But in order for real change to occur we need to experience in our bones some semblance of safety, security, and stability. This can only happen in relation with another. We cannot think our way into emotional stability; we must experience it with another, someone whom we can trust enough to be vulnerable.
I can learn and practice self-soothing until the cows come home, but this cannot replace the human need for connection. We need others in order to be ourselves.
How this translates into lived reality will be different for everyone, but when we ask the question, “will you be there for me?” we need an affirmative answer in order to become our truest self.
We might not have models of healthy relationships
Existing or surviving in isolation – “I had no one to turn to” – even when all of our external needs are met, is not enough. (It’s sometimes not even enough for human survival, but that’s another story.) If as children we had no one to turn to, or if we experienced traumas that threatened our experience of safety, then how can we be expected to know how to be there for someone else?
Too many of us find ourselves living in isolation, whether we are in a relationship or not. Too many of us simply have no models for how to navigate healthy, loving adult relationships. We end up blaming ourselves. We end up blaming our partners. We end up seeking solace in strategies that might have helped us survive the worst of times, but that only serve to isolate us further from intimate human connection (e.g., substance use and other unhealthy behaviors).
Thankfully, psychotherapy is a restorative process. Recent research has demonstrated that neuroplasticity allows us to change not simply what we believe, but how we live our lives at the most fundamental level. For individuals, forming a safe, secure, and stable bond with a competent professional can aid in transforming our relationships with others. For couples, therapy can aid in creating a secure bond with our beloved.
When David Bowie died on January 10 this year, I cried. I felt a little bit lonelier than I had in the moment prior to hearing the news. He was an artist who had changed my life by reorienting me towards relation and away from isolation.
I also admit to some level of embarrassment: just another fan-boy mourning a celebrity. But so what? The guy changed my life. He provided solace. He provoked questions. He prompted me towards integrating the sacred and the profane.
Along with the exhortation in the final moments of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” that “you’re not alone” is the simple reminder, “you’re wonderful.” We cannot live in isolation and we cannot thrive without our partner’s unconditional positive regard. We need to know that our beloved will be there for us not only in spirit, but in body. We crave and need connection. We need to know that we matter to someone.
I can’t say it any better than Bowie/Ziggy already did so I’ll simply leave you with the final verses of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”:
Oh no love! you're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care
Oh no love! you're not alone
No matter what or who you've been
No matter when or where you've seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I've had my share so I'll help you with the pain
You're not alone just turn on with me
You're not alone let’s turn on and be
You’re not alone gimme your hands
You’re wonderful gimme your hands
You’re wonderful gimme your hands