Exactly why?

I teach only 3 periods on Mondays. It’s the easiest day of the week for me. More than half the regular school day, I am actually not teaching. There is a one-hour department meeting which is often mostly a waste of time, but not terribly taxing.

During the time I had free, I completed a training for mandated child abuse reporting. I suppose this was why I came home in a state. I didn’t connect it until just now…

But I got home, there were kids waiting on the stairs leading up to my house for me. There is  a test tomorrow. My students are deeply struggling, so I do need to help them.

As soon as they left, I had the urge to a) lie down in bed, b) self-harm, c) commit suicide. I made dinner and wondered why this happens. I pondered Peter Fonagy’s idea that mentalization is impaired when the attachment system is activated. Is this about losing symbolic control over thoughts and feelings and having, in consequence, “no emotional skin”?

I get that I am triggered. Why does “triggered” look like this? During life-or-death experiences I may (as an infant) been lying in bed. I did not self-harm to save myself. I did not attempt suicide. These are not procedural memories of how I saved myself. This is about shame, for sure–that’s the accompanying feeling. But why does it look like this?

I thought it seems like still an attempt to communicate. This seems to be about the social engagement system still working. I thought, “This seems to be about trying to take my abusive parent’s perspective and ending up in a kind of loop.”

I was endangered. I turned to my parent: I needed their wisdom to escape the danger. The way to do that is to accommodate their desire to harm me. I am in danger. The loop replays.

I have seen in the case of C and The Boy and at times in myself how we have learned to avoid considering the mental states of other people or avoid taking into account our own mental states, so as to avoid confronting the malignancy of the parent–actually, more likely, the ego-destroying shame that goes with it: in other words, the tendency is to alternate between rather than integrate the felt experience versus an image of oneself.

It erases the malignant mind of the other. All I have is myself, but it’s isolating. Immensely, immensely isolating.

I’ve lost my ability to inhibit my capacity to mentalize, ironically, and what I have is a parent who wants to hurt me, whom I must try to cooperate with to save my own skin and this leads me to harm myself.

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But…how?

I was noticing recently the disconnect between how it feels to be me inside me–so when I am doing things I enjoy, for example. I feel quite good. But when I am in a situation where I am aware of myself–in some way looking at or examining myself–then I don’t feel good at all. This is my imagination of how others see me, only I don’t actually imagine any particular person who sees me in this negative way. It’s just there, as a part of my mind, this image of myself that’s so painful.

I go back to this idea of the incoherence of the abused child’s working models of themselves and others, and it seems to me to be one part of this incoherence. These two sources of information about the self–how it feels to be me and what other people seem to think of me–are discontinuous and seem to bear no relation to one another. I think the malevolence or controlling nature of the parent is why. If the child responded to the parent’s view of herself, she would collapse in permanent despair. All sources of good feeling would be cut off.

What I mean is usually there are enough things we can do that feel good to us that we can lose some of our sources of pleasure when they turn out not to be socially acceptable or to have negative consequences for us later. So, while it might feel good to push my way to the front of the line or to steal some other child’s candy, I can give those things up because I still have so many pleasures available to me. The abused child may have nothing left aside from those things the parent punishes her for doing. She has to learn to defend herself against conscience.

For example, I have been aware from the kids that concentrating on something of interest will very likely lead to interruption or interference, and it is not just that they would like my attention sometimes, but that my state of concentration makes them aware of their loss of my attention. When I am mindlessly going through the motions of life, they wouldn’t notice. This pattern gives me insight into my mother, who would sometimes come to me, express a lot of anger or frustration for seemingly no reason, and then recede again. She especially attacked my writing and sometimes my reading–taking me to the library, but telling me to go outside and play when she saw me actually reading said books.

It wasn’t about not liking my writing or my reading, it was more likely an attempt to manage her own feelings of loss by attacking the trigger. It’s like me fixing the leak in the kitchen sink so that I don’t need to be reminded every day of my mother trying to drown me while washing my hair. Only I am a person. And writing and reading give me pleasure. I can’t give them up the way I could other things.

It may also have been about jealousy. I have seen VP Ma’am, who for sure has disorganized attachment, show flashes of anger as she approached if she sees me talking to someone else. That’s jealousy about attention, but my mother may have also felt a jealousy over pleasure, because she could so rarely feel comfortable or happy.

I think a child in this situation develops a disconnected sense of self, whereby the inside and outside are experienced separately. I can become my raw instincts, or I can behave well. But not both. What this does, I think, is remove modulation.

There are times when The Boy seems to become his appetite. He likes to eat, and so he eats 10 chilis at a time, or an entire bag of pears, or piles up bowls of food and then has stomach aches later if i don’t stop him. While he is doing this, he expresses a socially bizarre degree of pleasure in eating. And I think this is why: he feels he is the pleasure of eating. The shame about overeating, about taking too much and even perhaps taking food he does not deserve (because he is not my own child) have been removed along with that outside view of himself, which is what may allow him to enjoy food at all in the first place.

So I think this has, to some extent, happened to me. And these are the parts. It’s not all about pleasure, but it is about having an internal experience which is painfully incompatible with my view of myself from the outside.

I think children who are abused learn a lot of strategies to avoid seeing themselves at all, so that they are not assaulted by their own negative view of themselves.

I think, in some way, this also removes me from the ability to be able to comfort or modulate feeling states: this human capacity to see myself seems connected to the equally human capacity to provide care. I must see that I need care before providing the care. I cannot merely become the need for care.

A few years ago, when the parts were more active, Ruthie expressed a very intense desire to be “inside mommy.” I can understand this better now, as wanting to be connected to the compassionate view of myself which makes care feel like care. Indulging an impulse that provides relief does not feel like care. It feels like being bad, but I don’t care.

It meshes, in my mind, with what Fonagy says about lack of symbolic control over felt experiences–or having that control collapse under strain, which it does–causing the person to feel as though they have no emotional skin. The loss of  sense of connection to other people who have in the past felt the same thing creates a mental devastation, and it also, I suspect, removes the individual from a connection to experiences in which one might have learned to manage those feelings.

For an abused child, this was at some point adaptive: what the parents did with difficult feelings was hurt the child. In that case, it is best not to be aware of the minds around you trying to cope with the difficulty: You won’t learn anything good from that. But I think the disconnection from other minds also creates its own pain.

What I don’t know still is how to heal that rift within the self.

Grief

So it’s Sunday, but it’s also a holiday, which now means I am to some degree obligated to engage with the world. I cannot just clean the house and work in the garden–or, at worst, collapse under attachment weirdness.

I did not intend to write about grief today. I had some other things on my mind, which I will also write about later. Youtube thought I would like this video. I did. Thank you, Youtube, for not suggesting I would like to meet Muslim singles and instead getting the algorithm right.

People typically regulate emotions together: it is our ability to co-regulate which makes us desire contact. Children without attachment figures do not learn to use others to help them to regulate. They are forced to do it themselves and then have no way to add social knowledge to their repertoire beyond what they can gain through instinct and trial and error. It makes these children emotionally very brittle and lacking in resilience so that even ordinary life challenges can be unmanageable. It can create a tendency towards using control as a strategy: since the interior world cannot be managed, the exterior world must. In fact, children with disorganized attachment typically develop controlling attachments with their parents.

I was reading also, in a different study, that people perceive a hill to be less steep when accompanied by a friend than when alone. Doing things together makes them seem easier, because someone can help us manage our internal state.

When we experience grief, the person we share this feeling with is also trying to regulate the feelings of loss with us, but because it is usually our grief and not their grief, it can be difficult to do this with us. Their responses are often aimed at what will make them feel better, but not us. For example, they may suggest an easy solution (have you tried acupuncture?) because this seems realistic to someone not connected to the profoundness of the problem. They may suggest looking at the bright side, because for someone not grieving, it’s not very difficult to turn their attention away from the source of sadness. They cannot really grasp the difficulty of reconfiguring your life or your sense of reality after an intense loss or trauma.

It isn’t precisely what the video says, but it’s what I think. 

What I think happens in the case of mental illness in the family, which I believe is the real source of childhood abuse, is that whole communities develop where even the people experiencing loss are not able to realistically cope with their own loss. They adopt the coping strategies of people unaware of the loss involved in having a family member who is mentally ill and then feel the lack of effectiveness of those strategies lies within themselves.

I saw a meme recently about parenting children with attachment difficulties. It made the analogy that it is like driving in the dark with no headlights, your hands tied behind your back, and an octopus around your neck.

I thought it’s tempting to believe people with headlights, their hands-free and no octopus are doing so much better–we must find out what they are doing. But it’s not their great driving skills making things so much easier. It’s the headlights, the lack of rope, and the absence of an octopus that make the difference. People who don’t have someone mentally ill in their family cannot tell you how to cope with having someone who is.

My trauma is extremely profound, but my thought today is that it need not be overwhelming to me. It is overwhelming to other people, who do not actually need to come to terms with those issues, but it need not be overwhelming to me.

Watershed

I am not okay again. I had a hard time after the midterm holiday which I think has something to do with mid year culture-shock fatigue, because I seem to recall this happening before. I start getting impatient, have less tolerance for others and generally believe that other people exist solely to make my brain hurt.

I got past that, began to feel normal again, and something else has flared up. I think this one may be a actual grief–Nata died in October. It is September now and close enough perhaps.

But it’s not playing out so directly. It’s playing out more as mother issues and low self esteem. I took a bath this morning (imagine a bucket of hot water here–not a tub) and while I was lathering up I felt really bad. I began to imagine someone really impatient with me, someone who felt annoyed at the inconvenience of needing to bathe me. The odd thing is later I remember that thought better than I remember the awful feeling.

In the evening, I got home and I began to wonder why I feel forced to exist. If I need to keep people at arm’s length because they continually cause me suffering, why must I bother with being alive? Why can’t I just die?

As these thoughts played out, I was careful to remember thoughts are not reality. They are just thoughts. And I was curious about my thoughts.

This frees me up from the urgency of believing I must stop the thoughts in order to be okay. Thoughts are just thoughts, not reality, so while they are painful, I don’t need to wage war on them. It also sidesteps the debate in my mind which would ensue if I began to believe I needed to assess the validity of these thoughts: the problem with the debate is the evidence for the negative thought would make me feel worse.

But the other thing this does is connect my state to events, rather than to my being, and eventually I will start to see myself as coherent rather than fractured. I will see myself as someone responding to events and not the event or the response.

So that’s the approach.

I began this post yesterday and I have been pondering what has been happening inside me for a full 24 hours now. I had a very painful evening and maybe also morning, and during that time, I was thinking about which part the feeling matched up with. I didn’t recognize it. Verka is very sad, but it’s a different sad. It’s angry and determined and my feeling last night was much more hopeless. Verka is grief-stricken, but it’s a very fierce kind of grief.

I began to realize this is actually Lana, whom you may not remember much about. She’s that feeling I have of “get on with it, suck it up, endure.” But under that pushing back of my feelings so that I can, in fact, get on with it, is all of this sadness. When I am in this state of merely enduring life, I am actually very sad. I feel colourless and blank, but I am in a lot of pain at these times. I am feeling the pain now, but this pain is going on when I shut things down and don’t feel it.

I also began to think Lana really feels like my “true self.” It’s a dominant part of me. I don’t mean she is more authentic. I mean this feels more normal to me. I don’t have a part, as far as I can tell, who carries on normal life for me or answers to my name. But Lana would be the closest thing.

I have been pondering this all day, in the back of my mind.

Children with disorganized attachment often develop distortions in their views of themselves based on their parent’s distortions such that you might say they have even “false selves.”

This evening, I began to think this pain and sadness and really intense shame and hopelessness about myself feels like my “true” self and that may be because it’s the self other people seemed to be able to see. We are social creatures, and what is seen by others is felt to be “real.” The feelings held within my various parts are not felt to be me or to be real, because they were not real to my parents.

But their distorted views of me, based on their anger, hopelessness, frustration, loneliness and paranoia were felt to be real, because they saw them.

There is another element to this: because I had to make sense of the world before my mind had matured enough to do that, there are errors in cause and effect. Because I felt bad, my sense of badness seemed to be the cause. Actually, at the ages when I was most intensely mistreated, I did not have enough psychological development to be aware of factors outside of myself to any great extent. I knew about my feeling of badness. So the feeling of badness seemed to me to be the cause.

More than that, I would guess my mother named my badness as the cause and since I did not yet know much about anything, I assumed she meant my feelings of shame and unworthiness. I did not know these feelings were the result.

I suspect this is a watershed moment.

Crying

The Boy wants to come back. He came on Thursday and brought vegetables along with his friend and then went away again. His younger sister called me later in an unrelated matter and happened to ask if he was with me. He was not. He came back last night and wanted to stay. I said no, because you had a clever plan to play with your friends instead of going home and now hope to escape your parents’ wrath. Go home, take the consequences which should not actually be a surprise to you, and we will talk. Well, he did not.

He has a thing about weekends. I don’t know what causes it. The tension begins to build and he starts to think of ways to run away. It was like this when he first came to my house, but I did not know its a regular thing. With me, we tried to find safe ways to deal with this.

I think it may have to do with work. There was one day he was washing dishes and he said he felt like a slave. It was not a complaint. This was not in the course of a conflict. We were just talking and that popped out.

So I think he finds work humiliating. Maybe his father does not help at home or do physical work–his father is what is called a lay monk. Maybe only the lesser beings in the house do manual labor. I don’t know the situation at home. But weekends would be when the kids help their parents on the farm.

But last night I did not think about his avoidance of work. I thought maybe without the structure of school a sense of emptiness builds up. I began to think of my father’s sense of inner desolation and the borderline’s complaint of chronic emptiness. I wondered if the kids feel that kind of emptiness.

I read up on this just a bit. It turns out borderline emptiness is a craving. I suppose it’s a craving for an extrovert. It is not quite the same as numbness.

I wondered if my attachment pain at night and in the morning was anything similar. I experience a very deep sadness. C talks about this attachment pain as her heart hurting. It is an impulse to cry, which makes sense to me because our attachment systems may have stopped developing as infants, when all we knew to do is cry.

Then I went to bed. And I had that same pain and I this is a procedural memory of lying down. This goes back to infancy and neglect.

The Polyvagal Theory

I was happy to come home this evening. I often am. Then I get home and nothing especially joyful happens there. I just struggle with difficult emotions.

So I was walking home, feeling happy, and I began to build on this idea that I react to my home like it’s a person–like it’s actually an attachment figure. And I thought about having incoherent models of attachment. I thought, “This will change.” And I decided to watch how I felt.

A man named Porges has a theory called the Polyvagal Theory about how groups of behaviours connect to our actual, physical nervous system. It is similar and related to our three brains, but also somewhat different, but it is the same in acknowledging the evolution of our brains. The “higher” systems suppress the lower systems.

His theory, simply put, is that we have three systems of behaviour based on three major nerves. When we feel reasonably safe, we use our social engagement system to navigate the world. We use other people to cope with difficulties. We defuse potential conflicts and rifts. This relies on nerves ennervating the face and cranium, so it begins with sucking, facial expressions, and turning the head and develops from there.

When we don’t feel reasonably safe, our social engagement system collapses and we turn to our more universal (as in, all animals have this) mobilization system–fight or flight. If things are really bad, this system collapses as well, and the immobilization system takes over. In humans, this feels like dissociation. The purpose of this system is to reduce injury or to escape the notice of predators. There are some animals who will not kill prey if they aren’t moving.

Part of this theory is that some people feel unsafe very quickly, and their social engagement system collapses under somewhat normal strain, so that they enter into states of fight-or-flight or even freeze very quickly instead of resolving the problem using relationship skills.

I am reminded briefly of a blog I used to read in which the writer described retreating to the bathroom and contemplating jumping out the window during a therapy session. That’s your mobilization system at work. This does not feel safe: I had better run.

This was what I was watching for. As I got closer to my house, would I begin to enter into fight-or-flight or even freeze? Would I begin to feel less safe as I got closer?

Well, I don’t know exactly, but I did begin to feel less optimistic. There is the anticipation of a reward which makes you feel happy in advance of meeting someone you like (or, in my case, my house, which I like). I began to doubt the likelihood of the reward as I came closer. Not in words, but just in a feeling.

I have an idea about this. I think this happens regularly for people with disorganized attachment. At a distance, you feel safe, and so contact seems potentially very likely to be rewarding. As you come closer, you feel less safe, more alert to potential danger, more likely to remember other failures to obtain connection, and the expectation of reward slips away.

And then I think sometimes it feels as though the reward itself has been stolen from you, when actually what has happened is simply that your perspective shifted. The other person is now your enemy, because they stole your happiness. Only they didn’t steal it: your expectations of what might happen stole it.

I have another thought about this, which is that from a distance, you may be focused on processing your own perspective. You come closer and begin to take the other person’s, and actually it’s possible you haven’t gotten it right. The other person may not be in the mood to respond to you at this particular moment, and on top of that your experiences have been of your attachment figure being malevolent. Your view may be actually distorted by an expectation of malevolence.

It’s something I am thinking about, just watching what happens.

 

 

 

My Dad

I wrote a post about a month ago perhaps about my dad’s murders, and how I had come to understand them as an attempt at communicating his inner state through his actions. His lack of mentalizing created a dead world inside him, devoid of people or relationships. This lack of development made it seem to him as though only actions could speak, and also that if he controlled the actions of people around him, he could understand their intentions.

His inner wasteland made him crave the relief of connection and intimacy, and so he needed someone small and unthreatening to communicate to, someone he could create an illusion of communication with by controlling their actions.

His stalled mentalizing development occurred because of the malignancy of his first object–his mother, who was schizophrenic. He could not think about her mind or later minds, because it created an untenable loop in his head: she wants to hurt me, but I don’t want to comply and be hurt. And yet I need the support of an alliance.

I feel he was expressing his inner states in other situations as well. I came home tonight and I began to react to coming home, which I seem to be doing lately, and I wanted to reach out and immediately felt a sense of disgust.

I thought, “I am bad.” The thing is I used to be unable to stay with this, because it’s such a horrible way to feel. This is what I mean by “lack of symbolic control.” I was not able to consider my feeling states. I could move past them, but not think about them.

So this time I thought about it, and I thought this is what I expect: I expect if I move closer to someone, they will do something that will make me feel ashamed or disgusted. I thought about one reader’s comment about expecting exploitation. Yes, that would feel shameful and disgusting.

This felt like my dad. There may be “mother” connections to this to0, but it first felt like my dad. I thought there may be many reasons men sexually exploit and abuse their daughters, but I think he was communicating by making me feel what he felt. He was communicating a sense of disgust and evil within himself. This would have come from his own disorganized attachment–I don’t know how what transpired exactly with his mother–I do know his father verbally abused him, but he was very focused on young girls. I think he wanted to tell his mother how bad he felt.

When a caretaker is unable to “mark” their expressions in such a way that the baby understands it is his own emotion being mirrored, rather than his mother’s, then distortions in mentalizing develop in the child. Feelings seem to be like magic, just spreading into other people by virtue of his having them. This is psychic equivalence. Thoughts are real.

If the child is distressed, and this distress appears to magically jump to the parent, rather than being acknowledged and moved on from towards helping, then the baby may form  distorted view of themselves as being capable of inflicting pain on other people via his very existence. He feels both powerful and evil. This will especially be sustained if this is how feeling states seem to the parent–if her own mentalizing ability makes her unable to see her mind as an arbiter of her own experience.

That’s what my dad was communicating to me: a sense of being both evil and all-powerful, but also disgusting and unwanted, which I think probably had to do with his mother’s rejection and contempt for him.

You might think it wouldn’t be helpful for me to consider my dad’s intentions in abusing me, but it makes a difference to me. It puts things to rest in that way you can stop humming the same tune because you finally remember the rest of it. It also makes the “badness” not me, but something I felt. It reduces it from identity to information.

It makes my dad’s actions something like words: I can read words and not have them become me. I can remember the blood all over me, and understand the blood wasn’t me. I won’t ever forget how it felt to have the blood there on me, but it lightens its sense of permanence.

There is something about horror which feels permanent: it is so cognitively overwhelming, so confusing, so emotionally powerful, it feels impossible to move on from. The image of it happening springs up and you feel rooted to the spot in shock all over again. But it does feel slightly lighter now.