I saw Jack, my still-feeling-new therapist, on Tuesday, and we had an almost adversarial session. It didn’t feel therapeutic to me. I felt as if I were there to challenge his ideas and assumptions of what survivors of trauma look like. He consistently says, “Studies show…” and “The brains of survivors of trauma show…” and “Studies show that survivors of torture will believe…”
I fall outside the results of whatever studies Jack is relying on. Had I been “studied” a year or two after I left the trafficking environment? I don’t know. I’ve been wrestling with the elements that make me a “survivor” since I was 16 years-old. I cognitively know what is true. The point of therapy for me now is to build a bridge into the future rather than get mired down in the present by fear as well as to resolve any emotional dissonance that remains. Jack is still wrestling with his own assumptions about whether how I, as a survivor of profound trauma, present in session is possible. “You shouldn’t even be able to live as you do. You shouldn’t have succeeded. I don’t understand.”
Oy vey! Well, I did. Now what?
I think about other people who survived far worse, and what they accomplished. How many Jews left the extermination camps, emigrated, and built new lives for themselves? Successful lives. How many émigrés from war torn countries have done the same? Leaving everything behind, including family–if they even have anyone left–and settled in foreign lands, started over, and built something new while facing prejudice and social exclusion? Humans are built to survive and even thrive. It is possible regardless of what studies show.
Think of epigenetics. Yes, trauma is passed down through generational lines via changes to the genome. Children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tend to be more anxious and suffer from certain health and mental health issues due to genetic changes caused by the extraordinary suffering their forebears experienced in the Holocaust. This would hold true for other groups that experienced extreme hardship like the Great Depression and civil wars. My paternal grandmother and grandfather both died by suicide. My grandfather was a veteran, but his great-grandfather was also a Russian Jew who most likely emigrated due to the social oppression that kept Jews restricted to the Pale of settlement as well as kept them socially and economically restricted. My grandmother, an anusim, was never able to reconcile her family and ancestral history with her present. She could not resolve the dissonance and make a choice for herself. It is hard to overcome a deeply ingrained fear particularly when keeping secrets and lying are the family way even at the expense of one’s own identity and future.
What do we do then when people tell us that certain possibilities are out of reach for us? Do we believe them?
Nope. We do not.
Perhaps it’s cliché or stupid, but I’ve come to believe that we are often able to achieve that which we want when we decide that we can. When we begin to imagine it. When we find our inner contrarian and make a decision to succeed no matter what anyone else says even while they’re quoting studies about what should be possible for ‘someone like us’.
“Psychologists tell us that by the time we’re in our mid-30s, our identity or personality will be completely formed. This means that for those of us over 35, we have memorized a select set of behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, emotional reactions, habits, skills, associative memories, conditioned responses, and perceptions that are now subconsciously programmed within us. Those programs are running us, because the body has become the mind. This means that we will think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, react in identical ways, behave in the same manner, believe the same dogmas, and perceive reality the same ways. About 95 percent of who we are by midlife1 is a series of subconscious programs that have become automatic—driving a car, brushing our teeth, overeating when we’re stressed, worrying about our future, judging our friends, complaining about our lives, blaming our parents, not believing in ourselves, and insisting on being chronically unhappy, just to name a few.”
― Joe Dispenza,
This is interesting, isn’t it? So is this.
“Reason this: When you think from your past memories, you can only create past experiences. As all of the “knowns” in your life cause your brain to think and feel in familiar ways, thus creating knowable outcomes, you continually reaffirm your life as you know it. And since your brain is equal to your environment, then each morning, your senses plug you into the same reality and initiate the same stream of consciousness.”
― Joe Dispenza,
I’ve said it before. The brain lives in the future based upon what it knows from the past. I am the poster child for this phenomenon. My family, my grandmother and grandfather, lived and died by this phenomenon. What can we do about this? Oh, so much.
“Change as a Choice, Instead of a Reaction”
I, therefore, carefully make one suggestion. What is one small thing that you could imagine changing? You don’t have to change it in real time. Just in your mind. You cannot make a meaningful change in your life, if you can’t imagine it first.
I’ll go first. I have a habit of letting my mind run away with me. It happens when I’ve done too much in a day or after I’ve had a migraine. Suddenly, the script starts. A film plays in my mind in which I’m all alone in my life. I feel lonely and overwhelmed but stoic and contrarian about the situation at the same time. Sort of like this:
It won’t last long. I’ll eventually end up crying alone in my room mumbling to myself:
I was once caught crying in the kitchen by my daughter as I sniffled, “I’m going to die alone while trying to help refugees, but I’ll be eaten by wild dogs having helped no one…” I am not lying when I say that I have always had a larger-than-life flair for the dramatic, hence, my mother’s terrible nickname for me:
My mother called me ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ for the first 20 years of my life. I hated it although it was perhaps earned. Per my own suggestion, I am going to imagine responding to fatigue and stress differently by creating a narrative now–when I’m not stressed. Then, when I’m stressed I will have this narrative to call upon instead of my brain trampling over me like a herd of terrified bovines.
Will it work? We shall see, but I’m doing this in the spirit of making changes as a choice rather than from a reactionary place.
If you want to read something that has the potential to introduce you to a very different way of thinking, then I recommend this: