A Healing Hypothesis

I’m supposed to be doing homework, but it’s cold and snowy.  I am entirely unmotivated to study the alimentary canal.

A thought occurred to me when I was stuck in traffic a few days ago.  I’ll start with a question.

How many times have you fallen down or gotten hurt? If you really had to answer that question with accuracy, what would you say? I don’t know if I could answer it.  I’ve injured myself a lot.  I’ve eaten it too many times to recall with any accuracy.  Falling off my bike? I fell into a pile of gravel once, and that was a bloody disaster not to mention humiliating.  I almost fell onto exposed rebar once and barely escaped impaling myself.  I sound like I starred in MTV’s “Jackass”.  I’ve almost drowned more times than anyone should just because I overestimated my own swimming abilities in relation to ocean conditions.  I was bitten by a shark once.  It didn’t keep me from going back into the water.  I’ve been mildly electrocuted twice.  These are all ridiculous injuries.  My injuries probably sound tame compared to some people.  You know, the adrenaline junkies? Their tales of thrill seeking are epic.  Compound fractures and missing teeth.  As soon as they can stand upright, they’re clinging to another rock face like Spiderman.

Why do we get back up again after we get hurt and get after it with relative confidence? Why don’t we fall apart? I really thought about this.  Why do little kids fall, skin their knees, cry, and then get up and start running again?

Because they know that they will heal and be okay.  They don’t have faith that it will happen.  They know.  We have evidence that we will heal because our bodies are designed to do that.  We watch our wounds heal.  We feel the itch of the tissue regenerating.

Many of us think that it’s odd when parents coddle their children just for getting scratched up.

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Why? Because scratches heal! Broken bones heal.  We recover from surgeries.  We are tougher than we look and even feel.  So, most of us are not too afraid to take reasonable risks with our bodies in terms of getting in a pool, riding a bike, running fast, rollerblading, rock climbing, etc.

Why are we then afraid to take risks emotionally? This feels like a very legitimate question.  I’ve been pondering the question and wondering what a sound answer might be.  The answer I came up with is that we might believe that we won’t heal.  Or, we don’t know how to heal when we sustain an emotional injury.  Wouldn’t it be easier to take emotional risks if emotional healing occurred in the same way that physical healing did?

I pose the question this way because uncertainty acts as a primary source of anxiety for almost all of us.  We might be willing to try new things if we knew more about the outcome.  In terms of physical risks, we are far more likely to take risks because we know that our bodies heal.  But, our hearts and minds? Well, that’s different.

How familiar is this? “I don’t know if I want to get involved.  I could get hurt, and I just don’t know if I can go through that again…”

If I break my leg, I can go to the ER.  If I break my heart, where do I go? How exactly do you heal a broken heart? How do you heal from major trauma? How do you heal from chronic anxiety? There are too many opinions to give a discrete answer.

And there is another element at play here.  Culture.  If I break my wrist or lacerate my arm, is there anyone who will tell me that it’s not possible to have my injuries treated? Will someone point at me and say, “Good luck with that.  You’re going to suffer for the rest of your life with that broken wrist.”  No.  That’s ludicrous.  Going further, if I slipped on wet pavement after a thunderstorm and fractured my elbow, would anyone tell me, “All concrete sidewalks are bad.  Never trust a sidewalk.  You will always get hurt! From now on, only walk on grass lest you break your elbow again.”

No.  You will not hear that.

Will you hear Broken Elbow songs on the radio? Will you be bombarded with chorus after chorus about the depravity of concrete sidewalks and even roadways and the danger they pose to your vulnerable elbow? How the sidewalk beckoned you, promised it would support you as you walked and its blatant betrayal? How dare it collect water and mislead you permitting you to slip and break your elbow! Those rakish sidewalks! Manipulative elbow-breakers!

Uh…no.  You will not hear that.  But, how many songs do we hear and even love that are all about the broken-hearted? How many movies do we watch repeatedly that are devoted to the heart break experience? You haven’t truly lived until you’ve had your heart torn out, right? There is a collective belief that being heart broken is terrible and almost romantic.  And, for some, impossible to recover from.

I want to challenge this.  I want to start by putting an idea out there that we are capable of healing emotionally and mentally just as we are capable of healing physically.  It makes no sense that our bodies are designed to heal as efficiently and elegantly as they do, but our psycho-emotional selves would not.  I hypothesize this because the ability of our bodies to heal and maintain that ability is so heavily dependent upon the state of our psycho-emotional state.  In other words, if we are unhappy, anxious, scared, and in a state of emotional pain, our immune function is impaired.  When we are happy, at peace, and well, we don’t get sick; we heal better; we fight off cancer; and we thrive.

If this is potentially true, why are so many of us suffering psycho-emotionally?  An idea came to mind as I was turning these questions over in my mind.  I thought of my grandfather.  My grandfather grew up on a farm on an island that was rather remote.  During one winter, he and his brother were sledding, and, during the downhill race, my grandfather hit a tree and broke his tibia.  He sustained a compound fracture.  With no medical help nearby, my grandfather’s family did the best they could to attend to the fracture.  It never healed properly.  For the rest of his life, he suffered with circulation issues and pain in his leg and even ulcers as he aged.  All this because his injury wasn’t properly set and healed improperly.  Note here that his injury healed.  The body did what it does.  It healed.  It just healed improperly because the healing needed an outside intervention to direct the healing.

I suspect that our minds and spirits heal, but, like my grandfather’s leg, without outside intervention to direct a healing process, we heal improperly resulting in improper “blood flow” leaving room for infection and incessant pain.  Had this type of problem presented today, surgery would be done to re-break the tibia, reset it, and induce a proper healing.  Rehabilitation would be done during the healing process in order to direct the body’s healing process.  The body knows what to do.  Sometimes its energies need direction.

Applying this paradigm to our psycho-social selves, what would happen if we believed that we can and do heal? What would happen if we viewed our current psycho-emotional state as a healed state in which perhaps our injuries were not set properly? Our body has the ability to heal.  It healed.  At the time of the original injury it did not receive the appropriate care it needed to heal so that it would return to its pre-injury state?

Was my grandfather’s leg still broken? No.  Did he do the best he could at that time with the resources he had available to him? Yes.  Did anyone blame him for the scars in his leg? No.  If he had undergone a reparative surgery to correct the poorly healed injury, would that have been a shameful thing to do? No.  Would that have been beneficial? Yes.

Therapeutic interventions, nutritional changes, psychiatric supports, various types of exercise, pursuing healthy relationships, making important changes in your life to bring about healthy changes, using different healing modalities, etc. are all reparative changes to “reset” breaks that didn’t heal properly.  Changing our language around our own healing process goes a long way into changing how we view ourselves, and that goes a long way into eradicating shame and fear of uncertainty.

Once you begin to believe that you can and do heal, you may find yourself making changes that you’ve only dreamed of.  It is an idea I’m considering.  It’s got somethin’…

So, as always, keep going.

Further Reading:

The Emotional Immune System

 

 

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Pushing Back against Malignant Core Beliefs

I want to talk about negative core beliefs and dissonance–and perhaps a way to challenge them effectively.  Bear with me as I get there.  I have written a lot about my last two years in therapy with a neuroscientist.  I didn’t know initially that he was an official neuroscientist (who taught at the college level) who also happened to be a social worker, but that’s what he was.  He specialized in “difficult cases”.  I didn’t think of myself as a difficult case per se, but I imagined that my history would qualify me for that label once my full case history was trotted out.

 

I’ve written before that my most powerful negative core belief is “I am disposable.  I am expendable.”  It is hardwired.  I have processed almost all of my maladaptive core beliefs at this point, but this one is like the final boss in a video game.  I can take it on over and over again, and over and over again I lose.  It’s not “online” most of the time, but when it’s activated, I fall.  I cannot refute it.  There is no line of thinking that will stand up to it.  No amount of EMDR has defused it.  This is why I agreed to continue therapy after my therapist moved.  To try to get at this particular core belief.

And then…

As I was sharing my frustration and fear about dealing with this with someone close to me, an idea was brought forth.  He commented, “You can’t nullify a person, right? That came up for you early on in therapy.  Your sense of morality doesn’t allow you to do that.  You view all people as significant regardless of past acts.  Is this true?”

Well, yes, I do.  Frankly, it has made dealing with my parents a pain.

He continued, “Philosophically speaking, would you find it immoral to view another human being as disposable?”

Yes.  I would.  Humans are not disposable.

He then asked, “So, would it violate your own sense of morality and personal philosophy to view yourself as disposable? To agree with that?”

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“Well, I…uh…”

Why had I not asked myself this before? How had I not seen it from this perspective? I do not believe that I can have a double standard.  There are not two sets of rules in the universe.  If it is true for others, then it must be true for me.  That is one aspect of integrity.  How I view and treat other people must also apply to myself.  If I view other people as having inherent worth and in no way disposable, then how could I view myself in an opposite way?

This is where the arguments start.  This is what I would like anyone who has a profound struggle with a deeply embedded negative core belief to take note of.  Challenging a core belief doesn’t change it.  You must think of this like a boxing match.  Once you find a statement or a strong sense within yourself that you can hold onto that matches the strength of your negative core belief–that matches its energy, then you can throw the first punch.  Like this:

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Heisenberg: “You are completely expendable.  Disposable.”               Me: “My morality doesn’t let me believe that so I can’t be.  I am not.”

What will happen next? Heisenberg, your profoundly negative, most likely biologically embedded core belief, will get up and come at you with evidence.  That is exactly what mine does.  Heisenberg is cold, mean, and extremely smart.  He uses evidence from my past to prove why I am disposable, and the case is airtight.  And, the more you listen, the worse you feel.  The more monstrous that core belief becomes.  As if it takes on a life of its own until he’s doing this:

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Those feelings that you have at this moment are defined as “dissonance”.  Why? They are the gap between what you are starting to know is true about yourself or situation and what you feel is true about them.  This gap can be shallow or a deep abyss.  This is why emotional dissonance can be so dangerous and hard to manage.  This is where the spin-outs and target behaviors can happen.  I typically freeze and can’t reach out.  Emotional eating, cutting, high-risk behaviors like gambling, high-risk sex, substance abuse and emotional dysregulation are all common manifestations of falling into this gap.

Now, a negative core belief doesn’t sound that bad on paper.  Why would someone react in such an extreme way? It is a matter of what that core belief represents and triggers.  In my case, my negative core belief centering on expendability was literal.  I was trafficked.  I had a literal price tag put on me and was sent to an auction.  Men actually bid on me.  It was the most dehumanizing experience that I could never have imagined as an 18 year-old.  I was put through experience upon experience meant to rob me of a sense of identity so that I would come to experience my own person as an object void of self.  That is the purpose of the “breaking in” process.  Once you are no longer a person, you are compliant.  The problem for me in all of this was that I fought the process in captivity and left that environment with a sense of self albeit a very traumatized, compromised one.  Years later, when there is a trigger, the past becomes present, and I am faced with this old but very effective lie.  It is biologically embedded with the actual trauma.  This is the neurology of trauma and beliefs acquired with trauma.  This is why we suffer so much when we flashback–even with something as seemingly benign as a negative core belief.

Part of battling it out in the therapeutic process is identifying that which you solidly believe to be true with someone who can parse your language.  When someone gets to know you, they can often help you discover your values and truths–the truths that you take for granted.  This can prove to be quite useful when you can’t see what’s true anymore staring up from the bottom of your dissonant abyss.

What is a better strategy? Don’t fall into the abyss.  Well, that’s brilliant.  How do we avoid that? Go back to that moment when Heisenberg is giving you the finger.  In the past, I didn’t have anything that could adequately refute the case he made against me.  I would fold every time and free fall.  Now? I still feel the onset of panic when that profoundly negative belief comes online, but I honestly know that it cannot be true because it does not line up with any of my beliefs about humanity.  How could it be true? Once I sat with that, I let it go further.  If I’m not expendable or disposable but a person treated me as if I were, then who in that situation had acted badly? Me or the other person? Clearly, the other person.  This is an easy conclusion, but it is a very difficult idea to internalize when you grow up under gaslighting conditions or presently experience them:

“We treat you like this because you are bad.”

The truth is this:

“We treat you like this because we are bad.”

Change one word in that statement and the meaning is completely different.  Gaslighting is very common: “You are the problem which is why we hurt you.  You are the problem which is why you were sexually abused.  You are the problem which is why X happened to you.”  What perpetrator is ever going to admit, “I have the problem which is why I hurt you”? Nary a one most likely.

So, there you are staring down Heisenberg.  He’s coming at you with your terrible belief, triggered by something that you can’t control like a phone call from that person, something a person said to you, a feeling you had when something happened that made the past present in an instant.  It could be anything.  When this experience is beginning to crescendo, do not try to change how you feel.  Do not try to change Heisenberg.  He never changes.  Bring in your own strength–your own hitter.  I figured this out because I realized that some of our very malignant core beliefs do not belong to us.  They originated in our trauma and are not natural to our personalities or nature.  We may have held onto them because they helped us navigate extreme and painful circumstances, but they no longer help us.  They hinder us.  This is the definition of ‘maladaptive’.

This is what a solid refute will do to your Heisenberg:

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These malignant core beliefs are designed to paralyze and limit.  Whatever you put in front of them, they will naturally push up against.

Your challenge will become the wall to your Heisenberg.  Heisenberg does not stop showing up when stress shows up.  Your neural connections have created a fantastic pathway for him.  The more you use your challenge against him, however, the more you weaken his pathway until there are potholes in your neural connections.  It will look something like this:

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He still comes for you, but now he trips on the way.

After a few months of challenging Heisenberg with the same new thought that might be one of your beliefs: “I can’t be disposable because it violates my own personal sense of morality,” my personal Heisenberg is starting to do this:

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He leaves before anything serious starts.

In my mind, I thought for years that dealing with negative core beliefs was all about changing them, but then I realized that a negative core belief was a lot like Heisenberg of “Breaking Bad”.  Heisenberg, much like Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde, was an evil alter ego.  A negative core belief is a negative alter ego of a functional, adaptive thought.  It’s a thought gone rogue.  It served a purpose, but its present existence has long outlived its original purpose. Now it just keeps on comin’ because that’s what it does.  Like a cancer.

I can try to kill Heisenberg or strengthen my other thoughts in order to overcome him.  Where is the effort better spent?

So, the key here is finding the right challenge.  That is the most important part of the process in taking down a malignant core belief and arguably the most difficult.  I would assert, however, that the prior work done in therapy, which included EMDR, laid the foundation for present insight.

The other strategy I have used in the past and model in this post is externalizing and naming a toxic feeling in order to separate it from yourself and your identity.  I have identified my most feared maladaptive core belief as “Heisenberg” in order to differentiate every idea associated with it from myself and my identity.  This draws a distinct line between me, my own thoughts, my hopes for my present and future, and what I would like to think about.  This is highly effective for dealing with negative emotions.

For anyone experiencing the abysmal free fall or struggling with repetitive negative thoughts rooted in malignant core beliefs, there are strategic ways to deal with them and eventually defeat them.  It takes time and consistency, but it is possible.

Keep going.

 

 

 

 

That Which Does Make You Stronger

I had an interesting therapy experience yesterday.  Jack is a very different therapist from my previous therapist.  The gap is growing wider forming a gulf that is coming to represent their differences, and I’m missing my former therapist more and more.  Alas, change is good.  Perhaps I was growing too comfortable.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what kind of work is going to be done with Jack.  I find myself feeling disdainful.  Unusually rigid.  Clinging to my own stubbornness.

He wants to discuss my sex life.  He wants to discuss my “getting out there” and dating.  I’ve got a lot to offer the world of men so he says.

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Uh huuuuuuuuh.  He wanted to emphasize that his office was a space for discussing difficult topics that may feel taboo.  Like sex and all the nuances therein.  Like…men and getting with them (my words not his).  You know that I’m uncomfortable when I increase the sarcasm.

“It might be hard for you to even think of having sex.  With everything that you’ve been through…but, we can talk about it.  I’ve had clients come to me who can’t masturbate or even have sex at all.  That’s okay.  I want you to know that we can talk about that.  I’m here for you.  This is my job.”

I didn’t know how to tell him at that moment, when he was staring at me like I was sexually constipated and frigid, that I have a boyfriend.

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“It’s okay.  You can tell me.  This is a safe space.”

I started trying to imagine walking in one day for a session with the intent to ask him about masturbation or a difficult nuance regarding having sex.  I ended up here in my head.

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I’ll tell you why.  If I want to talk sex, then I either talk to a close girlfriend with whom I’ve been talking sex for years.  Or, I’ll talk to the person with whom I’m having sex! It was a fair question for him to check in with me regarding sexuality particularly now that I’m not married.  He doesn’t know that I’m in a relationship.  I haven’t disclosed that to him, but he also hasn’t asked me if I feel competent sexually.  He made an assumption about me.  No, no, no, Jack.  Never assume anything about your clients.  It isn’t really fair to the one sitting in the Hot Seat.  He assumes that because I have past sexual injuries and traumas that I’m presently fearful, incompetent or deficient.  Whether he knows it or not, he was stereotyping me.

That being said, I will say that it is very important to discuss sex, but you have to do it with someone you like and with whom you have an established rapport.  A person you trust.  Someone who will have good insight.  A good listener.  And, a person who will not view you through the lens of past experiences because, if you’re anything like me, then you’re already doing that to yourself.  You want to share this aspect of yourself with someone who has a healthy view of sexuality and brings something complete and relatively unmarred to the table.  Someone who can see you in the present tense and imagine you in future tense, too.  This encourages you to be open.  Sex is one of the harder topics to discuss because there is so much shame and embarrassment tied up in it mixed with social pressures and judgment along with messages from our families of origin and religious upbringing.  We never have sex without bringing a slew of people with us it seems.  You want to talk to someone who likes themselves and likes sex.  That really matters, too.  And, you really want to talk to someone who wholeheartedly believes that recovery and healing from past trauma is possible for you.  Particularly when you do not.

For roughly two and half years, I wrote a blog about sex.  It wasn’t what one would call a “sex blog”.  It was a blog about sexual development and healing in the context of PTSD and the recovery of one’s own sexual health in a long-term relationship.  I really liked that blog and writing it.  For what it was, it was a successful blog.  It also marked the beginning of the end of my marriage.  My ex-husband used to put me in double-bind situations–no win situations.  He would complain about not having sex enough or my not seeming to enjoy sex.  I took his observations to heart and decided that I was done with allowing past traumatic events determine my sexual health and enjoyment.  I process quite well through the written word.  So, I decided to blog about the experience anticipating that no one would find the blog.  I was wrong.

Everything I learned, tried, failed at, succeeded at, and the effects it was having on my relationship I recorded.  How I felt, how it was affecting me in terms of trauma recovery, whether or not I could be present, how post-modern culture and religion were affecting my experiences of my sexuality, all of it–I wrote about it.  What I discovered was that I started to get better, and my ex-husband no longer wanted me.  He changed his stance.  He then complained that I was too demanding.  I was showing up for sex, and he didn’t like it.  He was angry that he was “required” to have sex with me.  Perhaps we could schedule sex once a month.  By the end of our marriage, we had had sex 18 times in two years, and it was all terrible.  And painful.  And somewhat violent.  I didn’t know if I hated myself or him.  After twenty years of marriage, I had never had one orgasm.  He blamed me for that.  I was tired of blaming anyone.  I just wanted answers.  I just wanted to be happy.  I just wanted something better.  And, I clung to a stubborn belief that I could get better regardless of what I had experienced in terms of sexual trauma–and, believe me, there was a boatload the size of the Titanic.

What I can say now is that all the time and effort I spent churning through resources on women’s health, sexual recovery, erotic intelligence, how-to guides on masturbation, reading the epic tomes of Dr. David Schnarch, and the hours I spent talking to the very few people willing to be open and honest about sexuality with me were not wasted.  I did experience a recovery and healing in a kind of isolation.  A very private and personal integration.  And, it was challenged in every way when I met James, the man in my life.

You don’t know just how solid you are until it goes live.  Will your foundations hold? Will all the work support you? There was a lot of room for self-doubt and fear.  My ex-husband’s voice was in my head, but James was in front of me.  One was real.  The other felt real enough, but was it? I learned that I had to choose.  One small choice after one small choice.  Consistently.  Who would I believe? The past or the present? On paper, it sounds easy.  The present, duh.  In practice though? I can’t tell you how hard it was and continues to be on the bad days.  Yes, there are bad days.  Days when I just want to, as Liz Lemon sang, “work on my night cheese” and hide in a hole.  That’s okay.  The sun rises.  You will always have another day to try again.  And another.  And another.

There is no substitute for the kind patience of a person who really likes you and finds you to be utterly fascinating and beautiful.  When that kindness and admiration–nay attraction–grows into love, you have a foundation for something exhilarating, healing, and, yes, very scary.

And that is one of the secrets to healing from almost anything.  To fully heal you must fully risk again.  And, everything in us reels at that.  That sounds counterintuitive.  Why would we put ourselves into a situation in which we could be decimated…again? Are you familiar with that tired, old cliché “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?” To be frank, I think it’s a stupid thing to say.  There is no comfort in being told that you didn’t die at the hands of some evil thing, thereby, the evil instilling you with strength.  Nope.  I don’t buy it.

I think there is a different meaning here.  I’m going to change it.  “That (good love) which did not kill you makes you stronger.”  Do you see it? “That which didn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  Perhaps you survived a terrible reality like domestic violence or a really horrible family involving extremes that are not mentionable in “polite” society.  Maybe you survived a stranger assault, war, tragic car accident, terrible grief, difficult and prolonged illness, mental illness that won’t give way–I could go on.  It’s all trauma in one way or another.  To me, it’s all “bad love”.  Why? Because we end up loathing someone.  Most likely, it’s ourselves that we blame or hate the most.  I’m not making light or being pithy.  Toxic love in all its forms drives some of the worst behaviors known to humankind.  Even war.  Love of country…Love of ideology…Love of God used to exterminate and Otherize.

It is integrous, kind, honest, true, patient, loyal, and consistent love that makes us stronger–“That (good love) which did not kill you will make you stronger.”  A true and honest love only makes us stronger.  And, for better or worse, to experience that, you must risk your heart.  You must make yourself vulnerable to someone.  You must try trusting someone, and if the thought of trusting someone makes your stomach turn, then you aren’t alone.  It is one of the hardest things to do.  I know all about that.  I’ve spent the past two years feeling as if I’m living in a K Drama.  Thrilling? Yes.  Terrifying? Yes.

There are many paths to take should you desire more.  None are fast.  None are easy.  There are no shortcuts, but if you keep going you just never know what’s around the corner.  Your traumatized brain might think, “Something terrible probably,” but if you allow yourself to wonder beyond that for a moment maybe not.  Maybe something better.

So, keep going.

The Neuroscience behind Feeling Stuck

I have recently been reading a lot of material on the endocrine system and neurology.  Why? Anatomy and Physiology II.  Brain, brain, brain, brain.  What I’ve learned, aside from more than I ever expected to know about hormones, is that distress of all kinds is really bad for the body.  Really bad.  It is chemically bad.  Our bodies secrete so many chemicals in response to real and perceived stressors, and prolonged exposure to those chemicals do damage to our vessels and surrounding tissues–to our brains.  We are not meant to marinate in our adrenal gland’s hormones, but we do.  More and more.  What is one stressor that might cause said marination? Trauma.  And, that trauma can be early childhood or yesterday’s car crash.  Time isn’t a factor.

Outside of A&P II, I’ve been reading about trauma and the brain because I want to find some answers to my own questions.  I came across a quote online somewhere a few days ago that said that trauma is an “unfinished event”.  Initially, I did not like this interpretation of trauma.  An unfinished event? What does that mean? It bugged me all week.  Then, I heard it again this morning! I was watching an explanatory video on The Hakomi Method in which Ron Kurtz, founder of the method, was illustrating a point by discussing a session he had with a client.  His client had an experience in session in which he recalled being hit by a car and waking up in the hospital with a priest performing something like a blessing or even the last rites over him.  He was consequently filled with dread in the past and in the present as he recalled it.  Kurtz explained that his client was experiencing an unfinished fear.  He had never had the opportunity to fully process that experience–or finish it.  So, the client’s wife, who had been present in session, held him in order to soothe and console him while Ron talked him through the rest of the experience.  His client finished experiencing his trauma in order to finish experiencing his fear.  He processed that trauma.  I was intrigued and emotionally stirred.

Dr. Mark Brady describes the early phase of recalling traumatic memories as such:

Extensive research suggests that early terrifying experiences take up residence in implicit (unconscious) memory networks primarily on the right side of the brain. These memories essentially compromise the flow of electro-chemical energy and information. In response to overwhelming experiences, our neural networks abruptly inhibit the firing of action potentials (nerve impulses) in the brain so as to cause the adrenal glands to stop flooding both brain and body with excessive amounts of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. In the amounts generated by life-threatening emergencies, without this safety shutoff, that quantity of stress hormones would do even worse damage than the trauma itself. The lived experience feels like going numb or being checked out – dissociated. But that’s not the end of it.” (“When Terror Strikes for No Reason”)

I am all too familiar with this experience.  Does it resonate with you? When I recall past trauma that has not been processed, this is exactly what I feel like.  I have, in the past, mistaken my numbness or emotional detachment for being completely fine.  I used to think that it meant that I was presently okay with whatever happened way back when.  Hardly.  Dr. Brady is describing the “back end” of your emotional and affected experiences.  The inner workings of your mind.  Whether you know it or not, your brain is your friend.  It is the modulator of your emotional experiences.  It allows you to recall and cognitively experience a memory, but it’s not going to allow you to experience the emotional contents of said memory at the same time–unless you go mining and break into buried compartments.  In other words, your brain is trying to titrate your emotional experiences so that you are not overwhelmed or overdosed by your own traumatic experiences.

Brady goes on to say:

“The brain knows when its functioning has been compromised by traumatic experience. As a consequence it seems to constantly attempt to identify or morph people, places and familiar environments into circumstances where its impoverished networks can be rekindled and activated, ideally for integrative re-connectivity. In both the incidents I’ve just described, that didn’t happen. Abdication (flight) is not integration.” (“When Terror Strikes for No Reason”)

The aforementioned remark is absolutely vital to me in terms of understanding ourselves and creating a roadmap out of our suffering.  What do I mean by this? Take a moment to consider your uniquely personal Distortion Machine.  What is the Distortion Machine? It is the name I’ve given to that harassing voice inside your mind that never shuts up.  It is the Malicious Storyteller.  It is the voice that always says, “What if…what if…what if…” followed by hundreds if not thousands of possible detailed scenarios usually involving your downfall.

  • “What if you trust this person and they betray you just like everyone else you’ve trusted?”
  • “What if you try your hardest and fail?  Again.”
  • “What if your house is struck by lightning and burns to the ground?”
  • “What if you never meet anyone and you die all alone and they find your body all decayed and partially eaten by your cats?”
  • “What if you really do look terrible in those pants and no one has the balls to tell you because everyone just feels sorry for you because they all know that you will never meet anyone and will most certainly die alone and will for sure be eaten by your cats?”
  • “What if you’re just stupid?”
  • “What if your parents were right about you all along?”
  • “What if it was really all your fault?”
  • “What if you really do have a snaggle tooth?”
  • “What if no one really likes you at all?”
  • “What if you choke and you’re by yourself and you can’t give yourself the Heimlich maneuver and you die…once again to be found partially eaten by the neighbor’s Great Dane.  Or…just your cats?”
  • “What if you get in a terrible car accident because someone is texting while driving?”
  • “What if he decides he doesn’t want you anymore? Out of the blue? And you don’t see it coming? What if you can’t adapt to that? What if something terrible happens and it finally breaks you? What if…you just can’t get up again…?”
  • “What did she mean about you when she said that? What if she is looking for a way out of this relationship?”

Do you notice the mix of absurdity, fear, and preoccupation with the past that paves the road into your future? The past is informing the present which kindles anxiety and fear about what might happen in the near or distant future? Some of this seems absolutely far-fetched.  Lightning striking a house? Being eaten by cats? Choking to death? Car accidents? These are all examples of cognitive distortions that fall under the heading of catastrophizing, and I do this all the time.  My brain is usually set off when I’m relaxed and happy.  It’s as if it cannot stand to be at peace, and I cannot stand that my brain must kill off my serenity.

For example, if I get my hair done and it looks good, then I usually hear something like: “What if it all falls out? What if you get cancer and have to have chemotherapy and lose all your hair?” When I have a good coffee date with a friend, I might hear, “What if they get tired of you? What if they find out how weird you are?” I am left dragging my self-esteem and bedraggled brain home feeling like this:

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Why does this happen? I have an answer (sort of), and it begins and ends in your brain.  The first thing to understand is that our brains do not live in the past.  I thought that mine did.  I was wrong.  Our brains live in the future.  Our brains are continually looking for patterns based upon past experiences in order to predict outcomes so that we might have a sense of what to expect which allows us to plan a trajectory with a reasonable amount of certainty.  Our brains do this all the time with very few data points without your conscious input.  Also, our brains fill in the gaps between those data points with whatever is available be it past, present, or available data.  In other words, our brains make shit up, and we are completely unaware of this.  We are operating on false premises most of the time, but this is a necessary evil because we would not be functional or decisive if our brains failed to do this.

Think of all the unknowns that surround us second-to-second.  Is that coffee too hot to drink? Did that barista really put almond milk in my latte? Was that really a car backfiring, or was someone shooting a gun? Should I cross the street, or will a car careen out of control from out of nowhere and run me down? Is that dog friendly? Are all these strangers safe? Is there E. coli in my spinach leaves? Should I drink this water? How do I know that someone in this movie theatre isn’t concealing a weapon? How do I know that someone didn’t lick that penny that I just picked up off the ground? We are faced with too many decisions to consider on a daily basis.  Our unconscious brain must act for us all the time in order for us to maintain higher functionality–just to make it through the day.

Enter outlier events.  When you have trauma in your past, your trauma becomes a data point for your brain, but traumatic events should be logged under “outlier events”.  In other words, traumatic events should not be considered viable data points when your brain is constructing its premises and making its decisions.  Think of statistics.  How do we calculate an average? Before we calculate an average, we throw out the outliers: the highest number and the lowest number.  Then, we calculate our average.  Past traumatic events in our lives are part of the outlier numbers–the highest and lowest numbers.  Outside the bell curve if you will.  You cannot consider them as a possible data point for a future set of possibilities, and yet our brains do this all the time.

This is why my brain is the Malicious Storyteller.  The majority of my past events are highly traumatic.

  • “What if he turns out to be a liar and dupes you?”
  • “What if he tries to kill you?”
  • “What if you die in a terrible accident?”
  • “What if everyone leaves you?”
  • “What if it’s really true about you? What if you are disposable?”
  • “What if you get eaten by a wild animal while you’re still alive?”

I know that all of these sound ridiculous, but all of the aforementioned “What ifs…” have happened to me.  I have been duped.  I have almost died in a car accident.  I have been threatened with being eaten alive by wild animals while in the trafficking environment.  I have been tortured.  I have been abandoned and left to fight for my life.  I was young, and these events happened years ago.  These are all outlier events, but my brain does not know that.  To my brain, these are all data points.  These are legitimate possibilities that must be considered.  Some of these old traumas became new again in my marriage during re-traumatization.

Enter the habenula.  What is that? The habenula is part of the diencephalon and, together with the pineal gland, makes up a structure called the epithalamus.  It is a tiny mass of cells about the size of half a pea.  “The habenula tracks our experiences, responding more the worse something is expected to be,” said senior author Dr. Jonathan Roiser of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.”  (Medical Daily) .

The habenula is involved in many, many of your brain’s activities, but it really gets involved when your brain starts storytelling and predicting.

“Previous neuroscience studies have shown how animals will exhibit avoidance behaviors following activity in their habenulas. Researchers watched as cells fired within animals’ habenula whenever bad things happened, or were simply anticipated to occur. Activity in this region is known to suppress dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine not only enables us to see rewards, but also to take action and move toward them. Significantly, the habenula has also been linked to depression.

For the current study, the researchers began by enrolling 23 healthy volunteers. First, participants were positioned inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, while the researchers collected brain images of high enough resolution to capture activity in the tiny habenula. Then, volunteers observed a random sequence of pictures, with each followed by figures depicting the chance of a good or bad outcome. Occasionally, volunteers pressed a button simply to show they were paying attention. Watching, the researchers discovered how habenula activation tracked the changing expectation of bad and good events. In particular, Roiser noted how the habenula didn’t just express whether something would lead to a negative event or not, it also signaled (with its increased activity) “how much bad outcomes are expected.” (Medical Daily)

Now, with that in mind, take a look at this study.  Put on your thinking hat:

“Under repeated or continuous stress, animals and humans may show depression-like behaviour, as proposed by the ‘learned helplessness theory’64 and the ‘rank theory’112 of depression. In both schemes, depression is considered to be a form of behavioural adaptation to adverse conditions. More importantly, in the state of depression sensitization of the LHb-dopamine and LHb-serotonin circuits seems to occur (FIG. 2c). Indeed, in humans with depression and in animal models of depression the LHb (lateral habenula) becomes hyperactive12,83. This may cause the general motor suppression (through inhibition of dopamine neurons) as well as the mood changes (through changes in serotonin transmission) that are associated with depression.

Thus far, I have proposed that the habenula evolved as a general motor controller that was originally devoted to circadian control of behaviour. According to my hypothesis, at some point in evolution the brain areas that encode aversive signals acquired connections to the habenula. The habenula then became a suppressor of motor activities in response to, or in anticipation of, aversive events.” (The habenula: from stress evasion to value-based decision making)

What does all this mean?

“The researchers believe their study suggests how a hyperactive habenula might cause people to make disproportionately negative predictions, while also being involved whenever people feel pessimism and low motivation, or when they focus on negative experiences.” (Medical Daily)

What do I think this is? I suspect that this is a form of learned helplessness (LH) due to past exposure to trauma in which the victim of trauma had no control over the trauma and no means to escape the trauma.  There are numerous studies available for review on LH (search PubMed).  Clinicians are trying to assess how to help victims of trauma overcome LH as well as study the etiology of LH.  LH perpetuates depression, and perceived re-traumatization exacerbates LH in those with PTSD even when there is a means of escape and control over the duration and exposure to the trauma.  Based upon the animal studies, coping style and personality can often determine how one deals with later exposure to trauma or reminders of past trauma.  In addition to this, the neurochemistry of the brain is changed sometimes for the worse after trauma exposure hindering recovery.

Okaaaaay, but how can I make this practical? I like knowing what is happening in my brain.  It helps me feel better about myself for some reason.  My brain is just doing what it was designed to do (or getting in my way).  That being said, now what? What can I do to help myself?

  • Shut it down.  The Storyteller has nothing good to say.  It’s like listening to a maniacally deluded weatherman predict the weather:
    Plryi04.gif
    “Run! Get inside! It will be raining fire and dragons! FIRE! DRAGONS! RUUUUUUN!”
  • Find and activate your imagination by bringing forth colors, music, scenes, and images that you like whenever you begin to hear the Storyteller’s voice. For some reason, the imagery that you choose to conjure which springs forth from the right hemisphere of the brain can often overpower the words of the Storyteller, which you didn’t choose.  This actually works.
  •  Change your language.  Stop referring to what caused your PTSD as a trauma.  Start using the word ‘injury’.  You were injured after all.  You do not have an illness.  You have an injury, and you are engaged in a process to heal from that injury that you received by no fault of your own.  You might be surprised at how effective this one linguistic change can be.
  • Change your perspective.  “One of the keys to Time Perspective Therapy is the realization that we always have the choice to change how we view the times of our lives. Over the course of Time Perspective Therapy, PTSD sufferers move away from a narrow focus on the traumatic past and a cynical present and the possibility of ever achieving a hopeful future. Instead they journey toward a balanced time perspective in which it seems possible once again to live a full and promising life.This concept is reflected in ordinary language that time perspective therapists use. Most people suffering from PTSD have already been labeled as anxious, depressed, or even mentally ill. When they hear these words, and identify with them, the possibility of ever emerging from such a state feels very distant. Reframing their ‘‘illness’’ as an ‘‘injury,’’ and recasting their depression and anxiety as a ‘‘negative past’’ that they can replace with a ‘‘positive present’’ and ‘‘brighter future’’—and ultimately with a balanced time perspective—may seem overly simplistic, especially to those trained in psychotherapy. But to PTSD sufferers, the idea of having a forward-leaning framework in which to understand and work on their issues most often comes as an enormous relief and a welcome ray of light in the darkness.  The image below illustrates how in Time Perspective Therapy (TPT), we show people how to lift their back foot that is stuck in the muck and mire of the traumatic past while standing firmly on the ground of the solid present, and place it into a brighter future.” (Your Brain on Trauma)
    Source: Noah Milich
    So, there it is.  There is so much happening in our brains all the time, and we don’t even know it.  We can, however, make small changes when we feel well or even relatively okay to create habits that will make all the difference when we don’t feel well.  When the Storyteller comes for us.  When it starts raining fire and dragons and Paradise is lost.  Or, at least, when it feels that way.  So, the next time you feel adrift, panicked, and awash in “What ifs”, remember your habenula.  Remember to throw out your outliers before you let your Storyteller even try to calculate potential outcomes.  And, don’t forget to activate your imagination and silence your verbal processing.  Take in some beautiful images and music to silence that Inner Torquemada and overcome that sense of learned helplessness.

    tickled-tuesdays-08-04-15.jpg

Is it a tall order? Maybe.  But, every tiny effort is still an effort.  Be proud.

Keep going.

MJ

 

The Prison of Maladaptive Behaviors

I am an independent person by nature.  I was an only child until my mother remarried when I was 11 years-old suddenly making me the youngest of three girls.  My developing personality came to a grinding halt.  I didn’t know my place in my family anymore nor did I like my new stepsisters.  They didn’t like me either.  I look back and cringe particularly if there are family photos involved.  I did not make that transition gracefully.  As I got older, however, that new family became my family; I learned all sorts of things in that family, and then my mother and stepfather divorced a few months before I graduated from high school.  And, I left for the East Coast never to return to Texas again except for a funeral and to visit one of my stepsisters years later.

I learned that remaining independent–fiercely independent–was a good thing.  Self-reliant.  Literally.  I learned to rely on myself first and foremost to get things done.  My mother was too unstable and self-involved to count on for legitimate help.  My stepfather was too beholden to her for his emotional stability and sense of self for any kind of authentic help.  When the dreaded Choose-A-College time came around, I picked a women’s college and handled all the financial aid on my own–tax documentation and paperwork included.  I drove to college by myself.  I drove across the country numerous times alone, and it didn’t seem that dangerous or odd to me.  I spent days in hospitals alone.  Endured painful medical testing.  Alone.  As a teenager.  In my mind, I had to normalize this.  This, for me, had to become a social and emotional norm in order to be tolerated.

I once got into a serious car accident in an ice storm in Pennsylvania on one of my solitary cross-country road trips returning to college.  I remember knowing that it was serious.  I remember realizing that my car had fallen into a ravine and was not visible from the road.  I also realized, at the time, that I was going to freeze to death if I didn’t get out and go for help.  I have so many stories like this, and I’ve met many, many people who do as well.  You learn, by force of circumstance, that you must take care of yourself because there is no one who will do that for you.  You are on your own in the world.  Rely on yourself because you can always count on yourself.  You won’t betray you.  This becomes hard-wired.  It is the truth for you.  It has to be.  There is no other way to survive your life if you believe otherwise.

Then, long-term relationships enter the picture.  People expect to be trusted.  They want to be trusted and feel needed, but I’ve got this hard-wired belief that backs certain behaviors: “Trust myself.  Depend on myself.  Rely only on myself.”  I have saved my own ass countless times! I also have good evidence from past significant relationships and experiences, mostly from my family of origin (FOO), that my inner prosecutor can whip out anytime to prove that people are untrustworthy and not to be counted on.  People will fail you and even hurt you when you count on them.  Worse, they will attach strings or conditions to their help if and when they give it.

So, how does this work out? I either end up in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and happy not to be needed, thusly, enabling my extreme self-reliance, or I am challenged to discard my maladaptive extreme self-reliance and begin trusting people by asking for help while also offering help.  An even, reciprocal exchange and trust-building, relational exercises.  It feels aversive and gives me emotional hives.

This type of extreme self-reliance is, of course, a conditioned response.  It is an adaptation made to fit into and survive a particular environment.  I was very self-reliant when I got married, but I had expectations that I would be able to relax into a different kind of relationship once I was married.  I asked my husband for help quite often.  He rarely gave it to me.  Initially, I thought it was immaturity.  It wasn’t.  It was personality-based, and it remained a consistent problem throughout our relationship.  A year and half before our marriage ended, he refused to go with me to a diagnostic mammogram that involved an impromptu biopsy because he “felt unwell”.  He did, however, go to work.  On the morning of the appointment, I actually summoned the courage to ask him for help.  I asked him to go with me because I was nervous–a rarity for me.  I asked him for help often enough in terms of tasks, but this was different.  Admitting to someone that you’re scared is different.  Asking for their presence to offset fear is showing vulnerability.  I wasn’t asking him to take out the trash.  I was asking him to be my partner.  To be an emotional support.

He acted predictably.  He was unwilling to support me.  When he was willing to be helpful, he helped but on his terms putting me in the position of beggar.  That kind of disempowerment became intolerable.  I finally stopped asking and fell back into my previous position–it is better to be completely self-reliant.  At least one gets to keep one’s dignity.  That was my default mode, and that is my struggle today.

Asking for help is my Achilles’ Heel.  I don’t value extraordinary self-reliance as a measure of character.  I’m not a pioneer or Ralph Waldo Emerson.  For me, depending upon other people for just about anything has led to punishment.  Relying on others=hot stove experiences.  Or some sort of humiliation.

Does this ring anyone’s bell?

Now, this is where I get to be my own therapist.  This core belief and “stance”, if you will, only successfully works if I’m interacting with my ex-husband or my family of origin.  I adapted to living with them both, and I survived both experiences.  I cannot, however, take that particular adaptation, or psycho-emotional template, and apply it to other relationships.  Suddenly, it becomes MALadaptive meaning that it will not work outside the environments in which it was developed.  It will wreck my other relationships and potentially hurt other people.

The opposite of this would be trusting untrustworthy people.  If I had a healthy approach to relationships in which I could ask for help, depend upon people appropriately while also relying on myself, too, then would I practice this kind of relationship approach in, say, the prison system? Or, would I be far better off using the “extreme self-reliance” approach? The latter, yes? The former would be maladaptive in a prison environment while the latter would be highly adaptive in an exploitative and violent setting.

The term “maladaptive” when applied to a behavior means that the behavior was adaptive or worked successfully in the original environment, but it does not work successfully outside of that environment.  A very concrete example of adapting our behaviors to environments would be speaking softly in libraries.  As soon as we enter libraries, we speak softly–for four reasons.

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  1. Social contract
  2. Respect for people reading and studying
  3. Fear of librarians who use shushing to warn and socially embarrass us
  4. Social embarrassment

When we leave the library, we resume speaking at a normal volume.  If we continued to speak at “library volume”, no one would understand us.  We would have failed to adapt to a new environment.  Our continued use of “library volume” would then be maladaptive.

In its most simplified terms, when we take behaviors that only serve us in abusive environments, be they extreme or not, and continue to use them in other environments where they do not work or are in no way understood by others, they lose their adaptive qualities.  We are the ones who are failing to adapt.  Often, we fail to adapt because we have come to believe something about people, the world, or ourselves based upon our experiences with a small group of people who were very important to us (our family and friends), or we had a very bad experience with a random person and developed beliefs about that event that we have generalized to every other random stranger (a random stranger mugged me on the street ergo all random strangers on the street might mug me at any time).

What is to be done about this? Maladaptive beliefs and behaviors are some of the primary reasons people go to therapy.  People survive abuse and continue to survive their lives because of these maladaptations, but they don’t often go beyond mere survival.  Maladaptations become a prison.  This I know a helluva lot about.  I have been asked to trust people and reach out when I need help.  You may as well ask me to drink poison.  That is how hard it is for me.  I have been conditioned from a very young age to solely rely on myself.  I have tried for years to overcome that, but I was met with such disdain and displeasure for even asking as if my need for companionship and aid from another human being was a sign of a character defect or congenital weakness.  It was used against me repeatedly and caused inordinate suffering and humiliation.

I resorted to what I knew.  I know that I did that.  It is harder now.  What eases the effort is viewing this as conditioning because that is what it is.  If I can be conditioned to rely on myself, then I can be conditioned through repeated positive experiences to rely on others in addition to myself.  The rub? You have to put yourself “out there” and ask for help. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable, and that can feel existentially terrifying.  It can lead to feelings of real panic particularly if the very reasons you are defaulting to extreme self-reliance have not be addressed or resolved.

This is what I know for certain.  You cannot grow beyond the point of survival and experience real intimacy with other people if you remain in the cycle of maladaptive behaviors and desolation.  It is impossible.  You must break that cycle, and one of the first ways that you do that is by reaching out.  Is it often anathema to you? Well, yes.  Who do you reach out to if you have zero safe people in your life? Get a therapist.  For real.  This is exactly what they are for.  They are there for practice.  They act as models for healthy human interactions.  They teach you how to adapt to new and healthy relationships, thusly, showing you where your maladaptive behaviors are, and they help you move from the maladaptive behaviors into new and better ones.

This is not pie in the sky.  This is all very real and possible.  It is hard and painful, but it is what must be done on the road towards healing and recovery.

Between Blame and Uncertainty

I learned something new this week.  Well, I should say that I relearned something old, and it resonated as if it were new.  It’s worth sharing.

There is a phenomenon that almost everyone seems to experience, at some point, after surviving something bad that I’ll call the I Should Have Known phenomenon.  This phenomenon isn’t isolated to certain types of events.  It can be generalized.  When you listen to people verbally process a negative event that has left them in the wake of negative consequences and pain, you may hear them utter, “I should have known…”

You might hear someone say this in a shocked state after a car accident: “I should have known.  I noticed the driver swerving a few miles back,”  and, from what I have observed and personally experienced, many people often agree! Someone might query “Well, why didn’t you stay behind that suspicious driver on the road?”  And, what do you say? “I don’t know.  I just should have known.”

The I Should Have Known phenomenon is so common that it’s almost mundane in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence.  If you’re not the one saying it, then someone else usually is via some form of, “How did you not know?”  

  • “Didn’t you know s/he was bad just by looking at them? I mean, I can tell s/he’s no good just by looking at their face!”
  • “How can you live with someone for so long and not know that they’re ______? Surely you would have to be in denial or an idiot not to know that you’re being lied to.”
  • “Why would you stay with someone for so long knowing that they were never going to change? Why keep trying? At what point are you volunteering for abuse?”
  • “You went out dressed like that! I’d say that you were asking to get raped.”
  • “S/he came onto you in the bar and groped you.  How did you not know they were gonna turn around and assault you in the club’s bathroom? It’s so obvious.”

 

What do all these statements have in common? The omniscience of hindsight.  I have a saying that I often use with myself: “We are all gods when we look back through hindsight vision.”  This is why people often say, “If I could go back in time to one moment, I’d choose X moment and tell myself not to make that choice.  My life would be so different now.”  Why do we say that? We say this because we know the outcomes of past scenarios–the outcomes that our past selves never could.  We know now that our past selves never could have known what was going to happen to them, and there is pain in that.  Why?

Why does not knowing the negative outcomes of past events hurt so badly in the present?

I have a theory, and I’m sure it’s not new.  Based in my own personal experiences with this phenomenon, I suspect that it has to do with blame and control.  Let me illustrate this.

I’ve established that I was abducted when I was much younger.  It’s one of those crazy stories that people struggle to believe.  It’s a Law & Order: SVU kind of story with many twists and turns.  I rarely discuss it.  There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if it was worthwhile to survive it, and I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this.  Surviving was the easy part.  Healing from it and learning to live with what happened have been the hard part.  One of my bigger enemies in my journey to heal from this event has been my sense of personal complicity.  For years, I couldn’t discuss what happened to me in any detail because I believed that I was at fault.  I honestly believed that I should have known that the perpetrator who took me was ill-intentioned and evil.  Had I known, I could have avoided him.  Had I known, I could have protected myself better.  Had I known, I could have…I could have…I could have…

But, I didn’t know.

Why didn’t I know?

Overlay this thought process onto my domestic abuse situation.

Had I known that my ex-husband wasn’t ever going to keep his promises and change, then I would not have stayed.  Had I known that it was only going to escalate, then I could have protected myself and my children.  Had I known that I didn’t have all the information for twenty years, then I could have made different choices.  Had I known…

But, I didn’t know.

Currently, I am doing the deep dive into that past abduction experience in therapy, and, wouldn’t you know, one of the first things to arise was, “I should have known.”  Feelings of complicity are extremely common.  I know that, and yet I enter into it.  I feel it.  I admit it.  Why?

My theory? If I were at fault or to blame in that event, then I can now presently figure out what I did wrong, correct it in the present, and guarantee that nothing so heinous ever happens to me again.  I can experience a measure of control.  If I’m the “bad” one in the tragic scenario, then the world is a predictable place.  I’m the one who needs fixing.  This is one of the primary reasons children believe that they are bad and blame themselves when they are abused.  If you had to choose between an unpredictable world full of chaos and uncertainty with no true guarantee that anyone would look after you or love you or a reality in which you deserved your abuse, then which reality would be more acceptable? The scenario in which you deserve the abuse.

Why?

If you are inherently bad, worthy of mistreatment or hatred, or just plain stupid, then you’ve got a shot at fixing that, thusly, giving you a sense of control and hope.  If you are not bad, deserving of hatred, or unintelligent in any way, then what can you control in terms of outside events? That is the magic question, isn’t it?  Because that question is so hard to answer and uncertainty is so hard to deal with, it’s easier to blame oneself and other people for suffering and misfortune.  Surely, that person did something to deserve or cause their predicament.  I mean, if they did nothing and still got annihilated by life, then what does that say about you or me? Could something equally terrible happen to you, me, or someone we love?

Yes, it could.  There are no guarantees, and that is an impossible thought for many people; hence, they blame, wag their fingers, and proclaim judgmentally, “You should have known.”  That one sentence is the quickest way to distance themselves from unpredictable suffering and pain.  This very belief is what fuels stigma and hatred.  It is one of the many reasons people are alienated, marginalized, and mistreated.  The victim of suffering becomes the symbol for that which is feared the most, and the quickest way to resolve and quench that fear is to blame the victim for their own suffering.

Well, I can honestly say that there is no way you could have known then what you know now.  I have gone over and over seemingly millions of times every detail that led up to my abduction, and the only conclusion that remains is this:

There was no way I could have possibly known that I was living next door to a villain.  

 

Whatever you wonder about in your life be it a past experience, a failed relationship, past abuse, a situation gone terribly wrong, or anything else, I suggest now that there is no way that you could have or should have known what was going to happen.  Were that  the case, then you wouldn’t be wondering now how you didn’t.  The time has come to accept that we did not know and do not know how events will unfold, but we can know ourselves.  We can know our own hearts and minds.  We can stop engaging blame once and for all, and we can begin to learn how to live with uncertainty in a way that doesn’t make us anxious or fearful.  We can get on with the business of building out a life that makes us happy as well as making the world a better place even when we don’t know how anything will work out.

I’ll let Rabbi Sacks close:

“For each of us there are milestones on our spiritual journey that change the direction of our life and set us on a new path. For me one such moment came when I was a rabbinical student at Jews’ College and thus had the privilege of studying with one of the great rabbinic scholars of our time, Rabbi Dr Nachum Rabinovitch.

He was, and is, a giant: one the most profound Maimonidean scholars of the modern age, equally at home with virtually every secular discipline as with the entire rabbinic literature, and one of the boldest and independent of poskim, as his several published volumes of Responsa show. He also showed what it was to have spiritual and intellectual courage, and that in our time has proved, sadly, all too rare.

The occasion was not special. He was merely giving us one of his regular divrei Torah. The week was parshat Noach. But the Midrash he quoted to us was extraordinary. In fact it is quite hard to find. It appears in the book known as Buber’s Tanhuma, published in 1885 by Martin Buber’s grandfather Shlomo from ancient manuscripts. It is a very early text – some say as early as the fifth century – and it has some overlap with an ancient Midrash of which we no longer have the full text known as Midrash Yelamdenu.

The text is in two parts, and it is a commentary on God’s words to Noah: “ Then God said to Noah, ‘Come out of the ark’” (Gen. 8:16). On this the Midrash says: “Noah said to himself, Since I only entered the ark with permission (from God), shall I leave without permission? The Holy One blessed be He said, to him: Are you looking for permission? In that case I give you permission, as it says, ‘Then God said to Noah, Come out of the ark.’”

The Midrash then adds: “Said Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, If I had been there I would have smashed down [the doors of] the ark and taken myself out of it.”[1]

The moral Rabbi Rabinovitch drew – indeed the only one possible – was that when it comes to rebuilding a shattered world, you do not wait for permission. God gives us permission. He expects us to go on ahead.”

You have to be prepared to be lonely, at best misunderstood, at worst vilified and defamed. As Einstein said, “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare me a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.” To be a pioneer – as Jews know from our history – you have to be prepared to spend a long time in the wilderness…Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty.  (The Courage to Live with Uncertainty)

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.

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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.

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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.

How? 

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.

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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.