“Abuse when you are a child is not ‘daddy issues.’ It is a psychological stumbling block for adult relationships. It is amazing to see by our actions and what we accept just how much of the abuse we experienced is internalized.” – an anonymous survivor
“As the survivor struggles with the tasks of adult life, the legacy of her childhood becomes increasingly burdensome. Eventually…the defensive structure may begin to break down.” – Judith Herman, M.D.
“Repetition is the mute language of the abused child.” – Richard Rhodes
Just when you think you are done, here you are again, learning just how deeply the experience has impacted your day to day actions. You want to think the coping skills you used to survive (the same ones that destroy your ability to function in adulthood) have moved on and that you are finally “arrived.” Nope. They are a part of you and even as you grow they hold on, “like the resonances of a temple drum that aren’t heard so much as felt in the hearts cavity.”
In recent months I find myself confronting my initial childhood trauma more directly than ever before. There is no more denying that this is still with me, and perhaps my need to confront it head on is stronger than ever before. Research says that oftentimes survivors experience a “change in equilibrium of close relationships” such as a birth, death, divorce, etcetera that precipitates a break down of the defensive structures built up out of necessity as a child. This is a GOOD thing: repeated trauma in childhood essentially deforms the personality, causing adaptations to maladjusted/dysfunctional norms. These adaptations are immature psychological defenses needed by a child to survive, but they prevent the development of an integrated person in adulthood. So this breakdown of defensive structures is a positive step, despite the fact that it is painful in this moment. Pain is not forever.
I am learning quite a bit about the neurological and psychological aspects of trauma, and honestly I find comfort in studying the academic research related to the day-to-day experiences I am having. What I am learning is that the way I show up in life right now makes perfect sense in light of the trauma I experienced as a child. For example, I struggle with having a narrative of my abuse. I feel the memory of it, but I can’t tell you linear details. Science tells us that this is because our brains do not process trauma in the frontal cortex (where narrative and stories are held). In a traumatic event, our higher brains (executive function) shut down and all memories are stored in our lower (this is the brainstem, which controls the essentials such as breathing) and mid-brain (the mid-brain includes our limbic system – the fight or flight/danger emotions). In addition, the frontal cortex isn’t even fully developed until adulthood. As a result, I cannot verbally explain my abuse and it almost feels like there is a wall locking me in; it is like I am this close to explaining something and having it all make sense, but the words just will not come out. There is a doctor, Bessel Van der Kolk, who is doing some really fascinating research on this. If I could, I would just sit in this gentleman’s office and let him map out my whole head. Knowing that scientists can actually SEE the PTSD in my brain through a scan is refreshing. It gives me a name and therefore a bit of a solution.
In addition to the neurological science, the psychology of trauma tells me that based both on the skills that I have and the skills that I lack that it makes sense that I have chosen relationships which require me to relive the trauma. My relationships are textbook: “driven by the hunger for protection and care” and “haunted by the fear of abandonment or exploitation.” My keen sense of empathy? Strong sense of loyalty? Although these traits can be incredibly positive, they are also hallmarks of a person who was abused as a child and learned how to manage it best they could. When they are out of check, the tools I used to survive become like kryptonite and can get me into trouble – choosing partners that aren’t healthy, numbing my feelings with instant gratification, care-taking in order to feel wanted as opposed to doing it out of pure composition or selfless love.
There are three major forms of adaptation: dissociative defenses, development of a fragmented identity, and pathological regulation of emotional states. Children in an abusive environment have to adapt – finding safety in unsafe homes, power in helplessness, control in terror; all these things must compensate for the failures of adults meant to care for a child, whether that adult is the abuser or the adults who did not protect the child. In order to adapt, children learn to disassociate (called “double think” by Dr. Judith Herman) which is essentially to minimize, rationalize, or excuse abusive behavior at a minimum, but can be a trance like state or a completely fragmented personality. I tend to shut down in emotionally charged situations, oftentimes I make excuses for the abuse my father subjected me to (and for the adults who did not protect me, for that matter) and I even dissociate in environments that remind me slightly of the abuse. At times this is not enough, and children learn to blame themselves (“double self” or seeing themselves and their innate badness as the cause for the abuse). Double self can lead to all sorts of behaviors, many of which I see in myself: Overachieving to camouflage the problem and to placate abusers, difficulty right-sizing emotions for the issue at hand, feelings of intense shame or guilt, and development of contradictory identities (debased and exalted selfs). Issues with pathological regulation lead to states of dysphoria – the coalescing of grief, fear, rage, and aloneness. Some children cannot manage the feelings and they come out in physical responses – self harm, gastrointestinal issues, migraines, etcetera. Others experience hypervigilance – I am overly aware of changes in mood or tension around me, and sometimes I catch myself falsely identifying cues as dangerous that really are not. All of these adaptations allow the child to survive abuse and preserve the appearance of normality. However, upon arrival into adulthood, these adaptations become a prison.
These defenses have been being chipped away since I was much younger, but it is kind of similar to peeling an onion. The outer layers are easier to manage; the center is stronger and definitely hurts more. I see now that I am able to love and protect my own children in ways I have never been able to lend to myself. No one ever loved or protected me the way I do for my children. I deserved to be honored as a child in that way, so now I am working to give that to myself. I am in the center, and with the breakdown of these more insidious core defenses I am in a place where I am both excited confused. Who am I now? How do I sit in quiet without my mind wandering to dark places that I can’t escape? What could I do that I haven’t done before now that I can shed these adaptations? Who do I WANT to be? What am I afraid of? Practicing intentional mindfulness, listening to my true instincts, and by being gentle with myself I am working to answer these questions and to try and be awake for this journey. When I catch myself slipping into the old coping mechanisms, I am working not to shame myself, but rather to remember that 30 years of adaptation to dysfunction won’t disappear overnight.
I am not damaged, I am not weak. I have overcome more in the first chapters of my life that some people will ever experience. Finally I am in a place where I can write that, mean it, and know that I do not have to go backwards ever again.
Books that relate to this post:
Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman MD
The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D.
The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz