Deep Programming and Core Beliefs

I have discussed core beliefs on this blog (Core Beliefs and Double Distortions, Gridlock and Core Beliefs, Core Beliefs) .  After my “career” in therapy, I thought I’d covered all the ground until I landed on core beliefs.  I learned that after putting in the time and energy along with all the blood, sweat, and tears I could be cognitively intact, mindful, self-actualized, burgeoning with insight and self-regulation and still influenced by these almost subconsciously held “core beliefs”.  EMDR, in part, addresses these core beliefs so that we can change them and adaptively process trauma in order to heal and ultimately move on free of negative, internal influences.

That’s a mouthful.  What does this look like in terms of recovery because it sounds relatively easy on paper? I’ll use my journey and process as an example to further elucidate the premise.

My father was a member of a certain military branch’s elite special forces unit.  It was just yesterday that one of my daughters commented on him and his participation in military operations as a member of this unique special forces squad.  She had been reading a book in one of her university classes wherein this unit was described by another member of the military–a soldier who had direct contact with my father’s unit.  In an interview, he described them as barely human.  They kept to themselves and exhibited no emotion.  They were so intimidating that other soldiers instinctively avoided them.  They exuded danger.  They were feared.  They were the assassin’s assassins.  They were the group that trained other soldiers on torture.  They made sure that everyone knew just how expendable they were ensuring that the most questionable orders were followed.  They were the men hired to be mercenaries after discharge from military service.  No one fucked with these guys.  Ever.

I told my daughter that this book’s description described my father perfectly.  It was validating to hear it particularly in the context of a book about war from the perspective of other soldiers.  It explained him somehow.  His actions and treatment of me had little to do with me.  Cognitively, I have finally learned and internalized that.  He was acting in accordance with his nature, and yet I was still left with old programming.  I had to get rid of it even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I had to get rid of.  Something lurked in my subconscious.  A dark and misty fear.  Untenable.

Whether or not it was intentional on his part, my father did participate in programming and torture techniques that were used in the military when I spent time with him.  Was he re-living his military days as a civilian? Was I viewed as the enemy? Is this why he did the things to me that he did? Perhaps he couldn’t help himself.  Maybe he liked it.  He was a sadist.  It doesn’t matter.  When you’re stuck with “programming”, which is what core beliefs are, it’s vital to search it out and delete it.

How do you do that? How do you even go about finding it?

All of my old and deleterious programming/core beliefs emerged while I was trying to fight against abuse in my marriage and during the first year after my ex moved out–during the initial trauma processing.  I do not recommend engaging in this process alone.  It is excruciating in every way, and my therapist warned me that it would come for me.  My circumstances might be viewed as unusual.  I am not the only person raised by a borderline mother.  I have written extensively about her and what healing from that kind of childhood looks like.  It’s painful and difficult, but it can be done.  My father, on the other hand, was a highly training killing machine to put it bluntly.  His humanity did not survive his time in the military nor did it survive his own childhood.  His father, my grandfather, was also a member of a specialized military unit with ties to certain alphabet agencies in the government.  He grew up under inordinate emotional and physical deprivation, and he continued that tradition with me.  It is what he knew.  It was our family’s tradition.

As is the case with family traditions, belief statements go along with them.  For some families, those statements of belief might be, “We always vote Democrat,” or “We are a Christian family with traditional values.”  Sometimes it’s whimsical–“We love Christmas!” or “We always eat Swedish meatballs on Easter!”  Sometimes it’s dangerous–“We hate Jews,” or “We don’t go downtown at night because those people are everywhere and might hurt us.”  Every family has their belief system much like a statement of faith in a church.  Sometimes it is implicitly stated.  Other times it’s not, but everyone understands what is believed based upon attitudes and actions.  Family culture is often the first place to look when attempting to root out core beliefs and/or programming.

The foundational core belief that almost all of the other ones in my father’s home were founded upon was this: “You are expendable.”  It is entirely appropriate considering who my father was.  It would only emerge in me when I was attempting to assert myself under extreme pressure, and it was always followed by profound feelings of extraordinary despair as if life were meaningless.  Death seemed like a welcome option.  I found myself thinking, “Why bother?” Why bother trying to do anything? If I am expendable, then my hopes and efforts to affect change in my life were utterly futile.  To quote the Borg from Star Trek, resistance is futile.  Why not just fall into the warm ease of the collective and give up my distinctness? Why not just be assimilated into whatever I am attempting to fight and give up? And yet I never could.

This type of thinking goes against everything that I believe as a person which is often your first clue that you are dealing with a core belief or trauma-induced programming.  When you find yourself behaving and making choices that go against your own set of consciously held beliefs, then you might be dealing with core beliefs/deep programming.

Those “thoughts” are “programming” at its finest.  How are these core beliefs/programming fortified and glued in place? Through trauma.  And, sometimes the trauma is extreme, but it doesn’t have to be in order for it to be effective.  For example, a child may witness a parent physically abuse the other parent.  It is traumatic for children to witness abuse in their families, but imagine that there were words spoken as well.  In addition to the physical abuse, perhaps one parent saw the child crying at seeing the abuse.  Suddenly, the abusive parent shouts at the child while raising a fist, “You better stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

What belief might have been planted here in this moment? There may have been many fears and insecurities related to safety and an emerging belief that one parent is an all-power perpetrator.  What about something else like, “If I show weakness or emotion, then I’ll be hurt,” or “If I attempt to stand up for myself, then I’ll be threatened and possibly hurt.”  There are other possibilities in terms of parentification or even failed parentifcation.  Helplessness.  Powerlessness.  Ontological fear.  Fear of death.

The now fallen Bill Cosby once joked in a stand-up routine that his father told him when he was a child that he could take him out of this world just as easily as he brought him into the world.  What’s more, he could make another one who looked just like him.  So, as if his father were the great Santa Claus in the sky, he better watch out.  He better not cry.  He was watching lest he be “taken out”.  His late 1970s delivery of this joke was humorous in its extremity, but it was funny because it was true in the sense that children actually believe their parents when they say things like this.  Parents are as God to their children for a long time.  What we see and hear from them as young children roots itself in our subconsciousness and influences us for years.  It does not matter if it’s the embodiment of deception.  It doesn’t matter if we cognitively and consciously disagree with it.  If your emotions believe it to be true, then you will be a house divided prone to self-sabotage and fumbling your way through myriad missed opportunities.  This is the power of deep programming aka core beliefs.

So, what did I do with that deep core belief that told me at key moments in my life that I was expendable? Eventually, I had to sit with it.  It rose to the surface numerous times at the tail end of my marriage.  After the last sexual assault, I truly felt expendable.  Worth nothing.  When my doctor told me that I needed pelvic floor corrective surgery due to years of sexual violence, I felt…broken in a distinct way.  It was so profoundly personal.  I sat with that belief.  I sat with all the emotions that came with it, and, truthfully, I wanted to die.  Throughout most of 2016 I wanted to die.  I looked back over the landscape of my life, and I felt inordinate anguish.  How did I get to this point? What the hell happened?

But then my therapist said something to me.  He asked me why I fought so hard to get out of captivity after I was abducted.  He asked me why I fought so hard to get out of my marriage once I realized it was not good for me.  Why did I leave both my parents behind? Why did I make those decisions? I didn’t want to answer.  I felt too vulnerable to speak about any of it.  Frankly, I was tired of discussing my weird life.  I have lived a weird life, and I grow tired of it sometimes.

After much prodding, I finally answered, “I fought and continue to fight because…I’m just not going out like that.  I won’t let these bad people get the best of me.  I just…won’t.”

“So then…you don’t honestly believe any of it then, do you? You wouldn’t fight so hard if you truly believed that you were expendable.  You fight so hard to prove that you are, in fact, the very opposite.  The anguish you feel then is because the people who were supposed to love and support you have never seen you for who you are.  For the girl and woman you see yourself to be, and that is the heart of your pain.  You know the truth, and they only know the lies.  You feel such pain because you don’t know what it’s like to be truly seen, and the invisibility is too much sometimes.”

And there it was.  My father’s core belief that I was expendable because he was expendable never truly settled into me.  I fought so hard to prove him wrong because I wanted what everyone wants from a father.  If I couldn’t get love from him, then I, at the very least, wanted acceptance.  Please, just see me! I couldn’t even get that.  I would always be disposable, and, in a way, that was true for my mother as well.  If I did not meet her needs and make her happy, then I was worth little to nothing.  This was reinforced in my marriage repeatedly.  Being ignored for almost three years tapped into that latent belief that I was expendable and resurrected it.  I felt like the walking dead.  A ghost.  Present but never seen.

This is why it is imperative that you stop running from what pains you and learn to tolerate your own personal distress.  It is within your inner turmoil that your answers lie because that which you fight in terms of your own inner demons may be the very thing that is saving you.  We may feel a certain thing to such a degree that it pushes us beyond our perceived limits, but our inner fight is there, too, attempting to prove to us that what we feel isn’t true at all.  We are, in fact, worth something.  We are, in fact, worth knowing, loving, accepting, and fighting for.  The anger we feel that is often internalized and experienced as depression and desolation screams this out at us.

If this resonates with you at all, then I encourage you to do the hard thing and explore the darkness.  Don’t do it alone.  Have someone on stand-by at all times who will, at a minimum, check in with you.  But, dare to go into your own dark corners and unopened boxes.  Therein may lie your redemption.

Fight for the life you want and deserve.  Never stop.




Deficiency and Excess Patterns

I want to come at the idea of healing and recovery from a different direction.  Please bear with me as I lay a foundation.

I am in a traditional Chinese medical school program.  Suffice it to say, this is not anything like the Western Cartesian-based model, but I am the first to admit that there is a place for both traditions at the table.  Integration is happening albeit very slowly.  A foundational aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is Yin-Yang theory.  To Westerners unfamiliar with Yin-Yang and Qi, this may sound strange and completely out of place particularly in the medical arena.  For the Eastern mind, Yin and Yang are just as relevant to the state of the mind and body as blood pressure and cholesterol levels are to the cardiologist.

Yin is Blood.  Yang is Qi.  Yin is internal, cold, dark, nourishing, and solid.  It descends.  Yang ascends.  It is warm, invisible, energetic, and functional.  It propels and moves outward.  Yin generates Yang, and Yang generates Yin.  The two are mutually dependent upon the other.  This generation catalyzes growth and movement.  In extreme environments, Yin and Yang will transform into each other.  All of the activities of Yin and Yang manifest in the body and mind.  Their imbalance.  Their movement.  Internal organs are known by their Yin or Yang-like behaviors.  The liver’s actions, for example, rise upwards and outwards, thus, we often refer to “liver Yang” when discussing the liver system.  We do not say “liver Yin”.

Why is this germane to, well, anything? Ah, well, I will make my point.  In TCM diagnosis according to Yin-Yang theory, one looks at patterns and speaks in terms such as “deficiency” and “excess”–Yin deficiency, Yang excess, Yin excess, Yang deficiency.


courtesy of TCMStudent

Regard the graphic image.  Note the balanced Yin-Yang.  Now, note the graphic representation of Yang Deficiency.  Notice that Yin is the same.  It is still functioning as it should.  It is Yang that has decreased.  Compare Yang Deficiency to Yin Excess.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that Yang has not decreased at all but Yin has increased as is depicted.  In both cases, there will be too much Yin influence, but will there be a difference in symptoms? Yes.  Deficiency and excess patterns are very different, and their symptomology is different.

How does this apply to you? Well, this idea came to mind when I was having a conversation about the state of the world and humanity.  Is the world overrun with evil? Are we humans more terrible now than we were, say, 100 years ago? I don’t think so.  The world has always been a terrible place.  Read any history book.  Talk to anyone who isn’t within the privileged class or gender.  There have always been genocide and ethnic cleansing.  There have always been myriad forms of subjugation.  There has always been war.  There has always been pestilence.  There have always been terrible leaders and corruption.  There is nothing new under the sun.  In other words, there has never been a deficiency in suffering.

What we are deficient in, however, is goodness.  The world is not different in terms of awfulness.  Our nostalgia would tell us otherwise, but that’s privilege speaking.  Who looks back on that so-called “better time” except for those who benefited from the previously and presently existing power differential and those who fear losing it? Life is very hard.

In TCM, what does one do to fix a deficiency? How does one treat an excess pattern? We clear the excess and nourish the deficiency.  That is the high-level treatment.  How does this apply to our lives–to you and me?

From what I personally experience and observe in others, we all have deficiency and excess patterns in our lives.  We can be deficient in certain resources be they financial, social, employment opportunities, mental and physical energies and health, etc.  We can also have excess patterns, too, like excessive anger or sadness, excessive thinking that manifests as obsessive and racing thoughts, worry, excessive doubt and fear that lead to feelings of stuckness and paralysis in life, excessive illness, excessive bad influences from our relationships leading to a deficiency in adequate socio-emotional support which would actually nourish our deficiencies.  Excess leads to deficiencies, and deficiencies often lead to excess.  This is a cycle.  We experience this quite often.  Viewing it through this lens is simply another way to understand our experiences.  Once you can understand and name your experiences, then you can begin to regulate them.

So, what do you do then?

Well, if the TCM treatment is to nourish the deficiency and clear the excess, then start there.  On the macro-level, talking about the great evils of the world will not clear the excess of suffering.  Determining to be an agent of goodness and kindness in the world, however, will address the deficiency–even if only a little bit.  We have to start somewhere.  On a micro-level, in your life, nourishing your own life’s deficiencies is a daily task that requires small, committed steps.  Pick one thing and begin to nourish it.  That sounds hokey, I know, but being kind and good starts with yourself.  You can’t extend kindness and goodness outward and upward if you can’t direct it inward.

Howard Thurman, educator, philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader, said:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

My suggestion then regarding nourishing any deficiency you might be experiencing in your life is to do something today that makes you come alive.  Coming alive sparks hope.  Hope inspires goodness.  Goodness increases kindness.  Kindness cultivates patience.  Patience softens hard places.  Once hard places are soft, then trust can grow.  When trust can grow, intimacy is possible.  When intimacy is possible, love is possible.  When love is possible, anything is.

So, really think about it.  What is one thing that you could do today that would make you feel more alive? It need not be earth-shattering.  It might be as simple as making yourself a cup of tea or coffee and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.  It might be going for a walk while listening to K-Pop.  It might be going to the gym or watching the same episode of your favorite TV show just because it makes you laugh really hard.  It might be dusting a shelf or editing the metadata on your iTunes library.  It could be cooking or gardening or swimming or petting your cat.  Maybe it’s gaming or making love or reading novels or car dancing or doing naked yoga.  Whatever it is, do it.

And then, do it again tomorrow.  And the day after that.  Do whatever it takes to come alive every day.  See what happens.  Write about it.  Talk about it.  Just…do it.

And please let me know what happens.  I’d love to know.





The Ego and You

Relationships can be very rewarding, but, truthfully, they can be difficult.  This is true for everyone regardless of any residual issues you might face in terms of family of origin, trauma, and relationship history.  This makes personal development in terms of interpersonal effectiveness, perspective-taking, validation, and empathy development all the more important.  Why? Well, a proper development of empathy and perspective-taking enable us to dismantle a lopsided ego when it may, under pressure, take its edification from the disempowerment of others in order to empower itself, and that pursuit and process can be extraordinarily subtle.  The question I often ask of myself is this:

Is your ego driving you, or are you driving your ego? 

In order to continue to develop a more integrated identity (eg0) and increase interpersonal effectiveness and emotional maturity, it is vital to develop insight into our own behaviors and drives and the behavior of others (empathy):

As James Mark Baldwin aptly stated, “Ego and alter are born together”. What he meant by that is our sense of self emerges in close relationship to our sense of others (and how they treat us). Indeed, because our “selves” exist within interdependent networks of other people, because we initially understand ourselves through the lens of mirrored others, and because our identity is very much about narrating and legitimizing our actions to others, a key aspect of ego functioning is the capacity to understand others in a complex manner. Whereas insight refers to the capacity to understand one’s self, empathy refers to the capacity to understand others. So central is this ability that a recent, modern psychodynamic treatment is called mentalizing, which teaches individuals steps for developing more complex, richer, less judgmental and reactive narratives for describing and explaining the actions of others.  (The Elements of Ego Functioning)

Note this idea: “we initially understand ourselves through the lens of mirrored others….”  This concept explains, in part, why family of origin trauma is so significant in personal development.  If we initially understand ourselves through the perceptions of others, then our budding identities could often be founded upon distortions and extremities when we hail from abuse.  Furthermore, this would be normalized because this is our starting point in life and often the cornerstone for our core beliefs.

In my experience, remaining at this developmental stage is often the cause for interpersonal difficulties and suffering.  When we continually remain in a state wherein we understand ourselves through the reflective lens of other people we fail to develop insight or even a more developed empathic response towards others because we are functioning from a deficit.  What do I mean by that? When you are continually looking to understand yourself through the experiences of other people, your reference point for all your experiences becomes, oddly, self-referential even though you are looking externally for your legitimacy and validation.  The mechanism underlying this is the need to consistently legitimize and identify yourself rather than already feeling existentially or ontologically legitimate, and that need is internally driven.  It is the ego driving you.  The extreme version of this is narcissism.  In that context, a person is looking to others for “narcissistic supply” which is:

“a psychological concept which describes a type of admiration, interpersonal support, or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment. The term is typically used in a negative sense, describing a pathological or excessive need for attention or admiration that does not take into account the feelings, opinions or preferences of other people.”  (Wikipedia definition)

Essentially, you are building an identity with borrowed or even stolen bricks and repairing a wounded ego by the same means.  You are not building, maintaining, or developing a sense of self through an internal process of growth.  While it is absolutely necessary to experience support, love, and validation from other people in order to experience a rich and meaningful life, it is important to note the difference here.

We have to ask important questions like: Who is responsible for meeting my needs? Who is responsible for making me happy? Who is responsible for my well-being and sense of personal significance? How do I build a meaningful life and experience rewarding relationships that enrich me and the other person while promoting growth? How do I continue to grow personally even in the midst of a social and emotional drought? How do I feel good about myself when there is no one around to make me feel good about myself? How do I learn to validate and motivate myself?

Why does this matter? Well, on a truly fundamental level, what might happen when you are faced with criticism? It becomes an attack on identity instead of an opportunity to generate growth and listen to another person’s legitimate perspective which may strongly differ from yours.  Why might that be the response? If my sense of self is perceived and developed through other people’s experiences of me rather than a solid understanding of myself, then criticism would be, of course, devastating.

What if you are confronted with a hard truth about how you relate to other people? What if you hurt someone’s feelings? What if you have bad relational habits of which you are not aware? Or, what if your sense of self is still largely founded upon what your family believes about you or even an abusive ex-partner? What if deeply rooted core beliefs are dictating the functioning of our egos? What if your sense of self is founded upon social convention, wealth, or meeting expectations and, suddenly, you lose your standing? All this is to say that it is imperative that we devote time and effort to developing insight into ourselves so that we become not only more empathetic but also more integrated in order to be more interpersonally effective.

What might ego-driven behavior look like in terms of personal relationships? We experience this often, and we certainly feel it.  The sting of a wounded ego is very particularistic.  I’ll give you a more extreme example to illustrate the point:

When my ex-husband and I would try to work out relational issues, it almost always failed.  His self-assessment was largely based upon his professional life and success, therefore, my experience of him created an inescapable dissonance.  Whenever I told him how I felt or even my experience of him he would say something like this:

“No one complains about me.  I have asked other people if I’m like that.  I’m not.  That hurts my feelings that you even think that about me.  I think that you are a broken person because of the things that have happened to you, and maybe you don’t perceive reality as it is.  That’s what is happening here.  Besides I don’t even remember what you’re talking about.”

This is an ego-driven response.

  1. “No one complains about me.”  His sense of self and his behaviors are understood through others.  Were they not, then he would not have used other people’s perceptions to minimize or dismiss mine.  Furthermore, this response conflates his experiences with other people and our experience in relationship together.  People can and do behave differently with others and within the contexts of different environments.  It is not unusual at all to find out that a person, for example, has a bad habit, addiction, or even profound personal struggles “behind closed doors”.  To the shock and dismay of their friends and colleagues, everyone says, “I would have never guessed.  S/he never gave any indication that they struggled in that way.”
  2. The presence of blame.  Blaming is a way to externalize discomfort, distress, and anger.  As Brene Brown puts it, “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability.”  Once the blame sets in, shame follows quickly.  To quote Brown again, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged and healed…Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
  3. The absence of empathy and validation.  “That’s what is happening here.”  Speaking in terms of omniscience, as if he is the expert on my experiences and heart, shows a lack of empathy, personal insight, and compassion.  There is no interest to learn and grow.  There is, however, a strong desire to be right as well as another desire to deny.
  4. The presence of gaslighting.  This is an example of perceptual manipulation which defines gaslighting, and it characterizes ego-driven responses.  Basically, one must manipulate, suppress, and force change upon the perception of the other person in order to mold it to one’s own perceptions since one’s self-perception is dependent upon others.  It is vital for underdeveloped or dis-integrated ego survival that external supply is consistent because dissonance, which spurs growth, is not allowed.  Growth is often very painful, and survival and pain often don’t make friends easily.

When you experience something like this in life, and you will, understand that this can be the mechanism behind behaviors like this.  Does it hurt to be a part of this kind of dance? Yep.  It is much easier to process, however, when you understand the process, and it’s also a wonderful reminder to tend to your own ego and growth process.  It’s how we heal, grow, and become people worth knowing.  We become better people, and that’s a journey worth taking.

For an outstanding article on ego functioning, read this:

The Elements of Ego Functioning

The Buffer and Rat Park

I went to therapy on Tuesday with a migraine.

I have to pause for a moment and talk about migraines, pain, and trauma.  Whenever I have mentioned the nightmare known as The Migraine on any blog, well-meaning people have offered helpful comments.  I certainly want more good information particularly if I don’t have it, but it must be explained first that a migraine is not a headache (please bear with me as I will make a point).  It’s a neurological event that, if left untreated, can leave lesions on the brain, thusly, leaving the brain vulnerable to a future ischemic attack.  Who knew? I certainly didn’t.  You can’t fool around if you have “chronic migraine” (15 or more attacks in a month).  I am one of those people.  A dark room, a few Excedrin for Migraine, and lavender oil don’t help me.  Regretfully…

I began experiencing migraines after an auto collision, and these pain-mongering menaces arrived days later and never left.


They are the bane of my existence.  I have tried everything known to, well, anyone for 13 years now and continue to pursue every avenue of treatment and prevention available from PT, diet therapy, pharmaceutical interventions to yoga, breathwork, chiropractic, aromatherapy, massage, acupuncture, myofascial release work, European herbal remedies…you name it.  They don’t stop.  Ever.  They might abate for a while, but they always return.  I was in the ER on Tuesday night for an infusion of the magic cocktail due to a migraine that lasted around 16 days.  It sucked, and I felt very discouraged.

Once again, I was in therapy during this round in the ring with Mega Migraine, and my therapist, who has experience counseling people with chronic pain, tried to coach me through the pain suggesting different strategies.  He also asked me carefully if past trauma played a role in the frequency of my migraines–a legitimate but admittedly tiresome question.  At times, however, one starts to feel patronized.  I did my best to answer his questions while I massaged stabbed myself as if I had an ice pick trigger points and squinted at him possibly slurring my words.


MJ in therapy…

This is where, I observe, that people with PTSD or past trauma might experience a defensive response (looking catatonic can be defensive in nature, I suppose).  I do, at times, feel emotionally defended when people suggest that migraines or any other illness are psychosomatic if you’ve experienced trauma; that is an oversimplification as humans are far too complex.  I didn’t, however, defend myself at all on Tuesday because I was in too much pain, and, for what it’s worth, I know the emotional stressors that trigger a migraine attack.  I also know that a car crash has damaged the nerves in my neck (neuropathic pain), and I also have vasculitis in my CNS thanks to SLE (Lupus) not to mention genetics.  These are three “quantitative” etiologies for these migraines that have nothing to do with PTSD or past trauma; so, I felt safe enough to address the more qualitative reasons.

For example, the sound of my mother’s voice will trigger a migraine in a certain part of my head–around the trigeminal nerve to be exact–in about five minutes.  This is a primary reason I’m pursing EMDR.  That is a classic trauma-based somatic response.  I want that outta here! If one of my daughters becomes labile and needs to go to the Behavioral Health ER for something like suicidal ideation or a sudden onset of a mixed state, I will most likely experience a migraine within 12 hours after that.  That is a classic stress trigger for me.  My ex-husband’s antics will trigger a stress-related migraine particularly if it hurts one of my daughters in a meaningful way, but this does not mean that a migraine emerges out of the ether and descends upon me, the migraineur, in some sort of psychosomatic fog.  Blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol most likely play a huge role in affecting the blood vessels in the brain thanks to the stress experienced from these events, thusly, causing a migraine.  We are not machines even though Descartes would like to attribute such a description to humans.

Westerners can be quick to banish anything stress-related and almost act as if the resultant symptoms are not real.  Stress causes heart attacks.  That’s as real as it gets.

Look at the rise of hypertension and diabetes or even cancer.  One can point at diet first, but what fuels the poor diet choices (leaving out low income and class issues)? Stress.  Why, for example, won’t people give up their favorite foods loaded with salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats? Stress.   People are often trying to mitigate stress using the closest thing at hand to do that–food products i.e. substances.  The Big Three make us feel better for a time, and that’s real and measurable.  Reduce stress and one observes a subsequent reduction in illness and its damaging effects on the body and mind.  This is a known principle.  Once stress is reduced, the automatic habits that go along with that stress tend to reduce as well i.e. emotional and/or stress eating, increased alcohol intake, increased caffeine intake, increased substance use for stress and emotional management.  It’s tough, however, if the very things used for stress mitigation are themselves addictive which, alcohol and opiates aside, dairy and gluten are as their proteins occupy the opiate receptors in the human brain.  That’s why it is such a pain in the ass to give them up.  What’s more, the very things that ultimately exacerbate our stress levels and level our health surround us namely industrialized food products.  Our biology works against us here.

What if then one has done everything one can, but the stress cannot be reduced?

Isn’t that the magic question though? I can’t control my children or my ex-husband.  You can’t make an infant sleep through the night nor can you control another person’s behaviors or driving habits, and it’s these very things that potentially exacerbate myriad illnesses in us if we are already under internal pressure–how other people’s choices affect our lives.

Enter The Buffer.

What is The Buffer?

Well, we are supposed to have natural buffers in our lives that help support us in ways that our proxy support systems– Fat, Sugar, Salt, Caffeine, Entertainment, Substances, and other things–do.  The emotional soothing and regulation that we get from these sources are supposed to be provided to us from something else.  Like what?

Let me introduce you to Rat Park.  What is Rat Park?

“The Rat Park Experiment aimed to prove that psychology – a person’s mental, emotional, and psychosocial states – was the greatest cause of addiction, not the drug itself. Prior to Alexander’s experiment, addiction studies using lab rats did not alter the rat’s environment. Scientists placed rats in tiny, isolated cages and starved them for hours on end. The “Skinner Boxes” the rats lived in 24/7 allowed no room for movement and no interaction with other rats.

Using the Skinner Boxes, scientists hooked rats up to various drugs using intravenous needles implanted in their jugular veins. The rats could choose to inject themselves with the drug by pushing a lever in the cage. Scientists studied drug addiction this way, using heroin, amphetamine, morphine, and cocaine. Typically, the rats would press the lever often enough to consume large doses of the drugs. The studies thus concluded that the drugs were irresistibly addicting by their specific properties.

However, rats by nature are social, industrious creatures that thrive on contact and communication with other rats. Putting a rat in solitary confinement does the same thing as to a human, it drives them insane. If prisoners in solitary confinement had the option to take mind-numbing narcotics, they likely would. The Skinner Box studies also made it incredibly easy for rats to take the drugs, and it offered no alternatives. The need for a different type of study was clear, and Alexander and his colleagues stepped up to the plate.”

Are you curious yet?

“The goal of Bruce Alexander’s Experiment was to prove that drugs do not cause addiction, but that a person’s living condition does. He wanted to refute other studies that connected opiate addiction in laboratory rats to addictive properties within the drug itself. Alexander constructed Rat Park with wheels and balls for play, plenty of food and mating space, and 16-20 rats of both sexes mingling with one another. He tested a variety of theories using different experiments with Rat Park to show that the rat’s environment played the largest part in whether a rat became addicted to opiates or not.

In the experiment, the social rats had the choice to drink fluids from one of two dispensers. One had plain tap water, and the other had a morphine solution. The scientists ran a variety of experiments to test the rats’ willingness to consume the morphine solution compared to rats in solitary confinement. They found that:

  • The caged rats ingested much larger doses of the morphine solution – about 19 times more than Rat Park rats in one of the experiments.
  • The Rat Park rats consistently resisted the morphine water, preferring plain water.
  • Even rats in cages that were fed nothing but morphine water for 57 days chose plain water when moved to Rat Park, voluntarily going through withdrawal.
  • No matter what they tried, Alexander and his team produced nothing that resembled addiction in rats that were housed in Rat Park.

Based on the study, the team concluded that drugs themselves do not cause addictions. Rather, a person’s environment feeds an addiction. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, hopelessness, and lack of control based on unsatisfactory living conditions make a person dependent on substances. Under normal living conditions, people can resist drug and alcohol addiction…

Today, psychologists and substance abuse experts acknowledge the fact that drug and alcohol addiction involves transmitters within the brain. Certain chemicals latch on to different receptors in the brain, altering the way users think and feel. The user becomes addicted to the high he or she experiences while on the substance, and soon has to use it all the time to cope with other feelings. The more neuroscience discovers about addictions and the brain, the more physicians can find solutions to treat addictions.

What scientists today realize is that addiction is as mental as it is physical. Humans do not have to be physically isolated, like the rats in the Skinner Boxes, to become addicted to substances. Emotional isolation is enough to produce the same affects. Humans cope with their feelings of dislocation with drugs and alcohol, finding an “escape” or a way to smother the pain. A human’s cage may be invisible, but it is no less there.” (online source)

Many people have written about Rat Park.  My takeaway is this: In order to heal and progress in a meaningful way we must build a buffer.  We must emerge from our human cages with as much dedicated effort as possible and do something different than we’ve been doing.

Why do I call it a buffer? That’s what my neurologist called it, and it struck a chord.  She had prescribed five medications for me to take in order to prevent constant migraine pain.  Five.  It’s ridiculous.  When I asked her why so many she said, “These medications are your buffer.  Your life is so stressful.  You have nothing in your life properly supporting you right now.  Until you have real buffers in place like people you can count on consistently to alleviate some of your intense stress like your sick kids and abusive husband, you need the medication.  Otherwise, you won’t be functional because your brain is just too irritable.  Your circumstances have to change, and the meds are bridging the gap for you until they do.”  Well, that’s a lousy answer, but is that not a true answer for so many of us? Who is absorbing the stresses and inequities of our situations? Us.  Our bodies.  Our minds.  Our spirits.  We are caged in circumstances that we did not entirely choose.

Psychologist Adi Jaffe states:

“To make matters more complicated, we know that biological influences related to genetic differences, neonatal (birth-related) circumstances and early nutrition can alter brain mechanisms and make people more, or less, susceptible to the effects of trauma. For instance, we now know that early life trauma alters the function of the Hypothelamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, making individuals who have been exposed to trauma at an early age far more susceptible to stress, anxiety and substance use; or that hypoxia during delivery (certainly a form of trauma) can increase the chances of mental health defects later in life. Like the Rat Heaven experiment, it should be somewhat obvious that without these early traumas, the individuals in question (those who struggle with addiction) would experience less “need” for heavy-duty coping strategies like, let’s say, opiates. So biology is important here at least in this regard.

So trauma and stress are not at all objective truths but rather individually determined patterns of influence. I am fully on board with making sure that the treatment system we use does not exacerbate the problems that stress and trauma bring about (so no shaming, breaking-down, or expulsion of clients for their struggles), but I think that the picture this TED talk and the related book presents is far too simplified to be as helpful as we want it to be. I believe that more focus should be given to improved prevention efforts in order to reduce the likelihood of these early traumas and therefore of later drug seeking experience in the first place. I also know that significant efforts are already being put into this sort of work through a multitude of social-services organizations and government agencies. Needless to say, the demand for drug use has not abated despite these efforts.  It’s been happening for at least 8000 years already and I’m thinking it’s here to stay.” (Adi Jaffe)

Where does this leave me? What is my point? It’s not as if we can suddenly jump from our circumstantial cages and swan dive into a metaphorical Rat Park as lovely as that would be, but can we migrate to such a place given the chance to make small, meaningful changes consistently? Is that possible? I think so.


Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past 13 years.  The reason that I know it’s been 13 years is that the very auto accident that resulted in my now ever-present migraines occurred two weeks after I ended my relationship with my father–my primary abuser.  That was a monumental choice in my life, and, while I did not know it at the time, it set me on a course of recovery.  The trajectory of my life changed in that moment.  A few years later, I ended my relationship with my mother, my secondary abuser.  And, a year and half ago, I ended my marriage.  I finally climbed out of that cage.  No more abuse.  From anyone.  

Was it hard? Excruciating.  It is hard for me to describe the emotional suffering and turmoil I experienced last year.  The pain and grief were nothing if not backbreaking.  I think I wept more last year than I have in my entire life, and it wasn’t because I missed my ex-husband.  It was simply an overflow of pain, grief, loneliness, fear, and existential alienation that I was forced to set aside in order to survive.  I had pretended to be fine for so long that when it came time to be truthful with myself, it became a reckoning.  I spent many sleepless nights sobbing.  I can barely write about it even now.  I felt like I was somehow vomiting forth my viscera through my tears, but, I think, it all had to go.  Years and years of absorbing the inequities, the emotional and physical abuse, and believing that in order for others to be happy I had to diminish had to be sucked from me as a poison.  And do you know what has happened? Unbelievably, my Lupus blood panel is now normal.  For the first time since my diagnosis, I am in remission.

My neurologist also wants to look at reducing those medications.  I am getting better.

I enrolled in grad school.

And…ahem…I met someone, y’all.


It’s true. Aaaaaanyway….

Yes.  This is hard.  I have never lied on this blog about the inordinate difficulty involved in turning your life around.  BUT…it is possible.  And that is what I have always wanted to know.  I never cared if creating a life worth living was hard.  I only wanted to know if it was a possibility for me.

Is it possible? Yes, it is.

So, excuse my language, but fuck hard.  Do what is possible because, while it might seem impossible, it’s not.

You can do this.  Keep going.

The Disgust Cycle in Healing

I want to address something that inevitably comes up during the healing process after a break-up or divorce particularly if your ex-partner was not a very nice person.  What do I mean by ‘not nice’?

Well, my marriage ended for many little reasons much like this proverb:

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”


The primary catalyst for my separation and divorce, however, was domestic violence.  As an aside, I want to make note of something significant for a moment.  Less supportive people have questioned me about my divorce including my family.  People can be extremely judgmental about divorce, and some groups who we might hope or even assume would support vulnerable families in need even think that domestic violence is not a legitimate reason to end a marriage as noted in this study–“Poll Shows Lack of Conversation on Domestic, Sexual Violence in Churches”.  Judgment and blame then become part of the cycle of abuse and even recovery.  The victims are initially questioned rather than the perpetrators of violence, and the questions may look like this:

  • “S/he was so nice to everyone.  You seemed so happy when we saw you.  What was going on to make him/her do the things you say?” (the implication being that some outside influence could “make” a person harm another i.e. stress at work or nagging)
  • “Well, if it was so bad, then why didn’t you report it? Why didn’t any of us know?” (This question is based in ignorance.  The dynamics that keep domestic abuse of any kind in place are shame and fear.  With shame and fear in place, one wouldn’t self-report.)
  • “If s/he was abusing you enough for you to divorce, then why weren’t the police ever called?” (I was asked this.  A few times.)

The first thing to note is that all of these questions smack of victim-blaming.  Secondly, there is no perspective-taking present within these questions.  Thirdly, there is no acknowledgment of the Resiliency Spectrum.  What do I mean? I will use a scenario from my marriage to explain.

There was abuse present throughout my marriage, but some of the abuse did not register as “abusive”to me due to my past experiences with abuse.  I was troubled by the behaviors to be sure, but I did not feel traumatized by them.  When my ex-husband consumed too much alcohol, he was capable of verbal and physical abuse.  Weird things happened.  Yes, weird.  That’s how I interpreted the interactions: “That was weird”.  Even when the “knife incident” occurred, I was still relatively shocked more than anything else.  It didn’t register as trauma although it probably should have.  When your spouse brandishes a blade and waves it around in your face menacingly, you should feel something other than surprise.  I was asked very directly by my therapist, “Why did you not call the police when he did that? That was a felony.”

Well, I had seen my mother do worse things than that.  I was so shocked by his behavior that I froze, and then I was far more interested in diffusing the situation.  Getting the police involved never occurred to me.  I grew up around so much violence that, while I knew my environment wasn’t normative, I wasn’t terribly shocked by it when I saw it again.  I am not justifying it.  I needed to be recalibrated and reacquainted with what a safe and healthy relationship looked like.  The Resiliency Spectrum describes a state of being in which what might be traumatic to one person is not for another.  The death of a pet might be a 9 or 10 on one person’s Resiliency Spectrum while the same event might register as a 3 for another.

Who, however, wants to trot out their past abuse stories with other people? Furthermore, who should have to? If you are experiencing abuse, then you are.  You have the right to feel safe, secure, loved, and accepted.  That’s it.

With that foundation laid, what happens when you bump up against your own Resiliency Spectrum in terms of cognition and emotion? That’s a very abstract question.  I’ll put it another way with an example.

I was in a therapy session discussing my ex-husband when a wave of disgust washed over me.  I shuddered and blurted out, “Oh my gosh, he saw me naked.”  I became nauseous.  I tasted bile.  I actually threw up in my mouth a little.

I just threw up a little in my mouth.gif

My therapist jumped on that immediately.  “What just happened there? What are you feeling?”

“I feel disgust.  Viscerally.”  That seemed legitimate to me.

“Why?” he pressed.

“Well, I…don’t know.”

We went round and round for a while until we came upon the answer:

“Do you believe that you should have known better? Do you believe that you should have been able to discern that he had the potential to abuse you? Do you feel disgust at him or yourself? Are you disgusted with him that he saw you naked or yourself that you revealed yourself to a man who abused you AND you missed all the signs that he could and did?”


“Well, shit.”

Yes, that is exactly how I felt, and I felt tremendous shame over it.  I felt disgusted with myself.  How did I miss it? How did I not get it for so long? What if I miss it again?

My therapist always turns it around for me, and he did it this time, too.  He leaned in and looked at me squarely:

“When you met him, did you believe what he told you?”


“Did you have any reason not to based upon what he presented?”


“Did you do the best you could at that time in your life with all the information and resources you had?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Then you have nothing to feel badly about.  Once again, this is not your fault.  This is not your fault.”

This is what I mean by bumping up against your own Resiliency Spectrum.  Cognitively, I know that it’s not my fault, and most of what I endured, while understanding the behaviors to be wrong, I tolerated to a degree because they were not out of the norm for me.  Emotionally, it feels like my fault because I feel like I should have known better.  I feel like I should have done something about it sooner.  Just because you can tolerate something doesn’t mean that you should.

This is, however, the process of recalibration; the process of aligning cognition with emotion.  The feelings of disgust that radiate outwards but originate from within need to be named for what they are.  They are more about me than they are about him.  I was vulnerable.  Yes, he saw me naked, but, in a way, I never saw him naked.  That lack of reciprocity caused me to want to judge myself because I kept giving myself away regardless of what I received in return.  My own hope was the currency I kept using in the relationship.  It cost him next to nothing to be with me, but it left me bankrupt.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, then I suppose I would encourage you by saying that this is part of self-regulation, integration, and trauma recovery.  It’s not unusual.  It’s a marker on the road of recovery.