The best I could


, ,

I was reading yesterday about the right temporoparietal junction, which is the area of the cerebral cortex where the temporal lobe meets the parietal lobe, on the right side (as the name implies). It seems to be involved in tasks which involve shifting attention between different stimuli, and is especially implicated in tasks involving false beliefs. In other words, if I know where the doll is hidden, but I have to understand that Sally Ann doesn’t because someone moved it while she was out of the room, I need to be able to take into account that Sally Ann does not know what I know and will search for it in the place she (falsely) believes it to be.

This is important to me because these kinds of tasks involve mentalization: thinking about someone else’s (and one’s own) thoughts, beliefs, motives and feelings. The ability to mentalize is something which seems to be break down during stress for people with borderline personality disorder, and I suspect in others with relational trauma.

Anyway, it’s something I feel I am working on. I have an instinct that this is key, and I do a lot of just trying to keep being aware of myself as someone who thinks and feels even when those feelings and thoughts are distressing. In other words, I don’t so much work at eliminating distressing thoughts and feelings, but try to keep it within a tolerable range and not numb out so that respond I impulsively and reflexively without actually knowing why I am doing what I am doing. Sometimes that means just holding onto an awareness of the unpleasantness of the sensation of the emotion for as long as I can manage it, because that eventually seems to lead to some part of my brain eventually saying, “Oh, I think this is sadness…” or anger or whatever. And then it kind of gets better.

So I was reading about this part of the brain, and I suddenly realized something which I basically already know: children really have no ability to think about false beliefs below the age of two, and it’s pretty limited until about five. Kids at four years old are on the cusp: some four-year-olds know that Sally Ann will look in the place where she last saw the doll, but many won’t. At five, nearly all children who don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder will know this.

And it just occurred to me so if my mother was a lunatic, essentially, and had distorted beliefs about me (that I was trying to ruin her life, say, rather than call attention to my loneliness or my hunger or whatever feeling I had), before around three at the earliest, I had absolutely no way to think about this. I had probably also no way to think about my father’s obsession with death or corpses or even the idea that the corpses could not feel pain when he mutilated them. These aren’t situations about false beliefs, but they are about minds which were quite different from mine.

I have an idea some of the most severe abuse I experienced occurred before I was five, and a lot of it before I was four. The way these memories are encoded would be different than memories where I have an awareness of being a mind which thinks. I think memories of being very young when my mother was viciously attacking me would have encoded her mental state as merely my feeling about her mental state: “My mom is angry at me,” is encoded as, “I am bad.” In other words, as though the mental state is merely a reality: my mom thinks  I am bad is not possible as a thought, because three-year-olds can’t think about thoughts.

When those memories come rushing back, I feel again that sense of badness as I did as a toddler. I know some people feel this is a maladaptive belief which will remain troublesome until it is corrected, but I feel it is an attempt to tell a story, which will be a lot less troublesome when I can hear the story.

The story is my mom got really mad about things and she yelled at me and sometimes hit me and said I was bad, and it felt really terrible when she did those things. And the thing is if my mom had been sort of normal, my distress at feeling overwhelmed by this sense of badness (which is essentially guilt) would have prompted my mother to lay off. Right? I suppose that’s probably why I remember it the way I do: I remember the message I needed my mother to hear. Listen, mom, I feel terrible. I feel so full of badness I want to tear off my own skin. Mom, stop, I am overwhelmed.

That’s what I think today. I think about this little toddler me and what I felt, and I think knowing how it actually felt is important. I think that’s part of the story. And I can’t really imagine telling myself, years after the fact, well, I’m sorry this happened to you, but you got it all wrong. You had the wrong feelings. Your misunderstanding of the situation has more or less ruined my life.

I can’t really do that. I think of my toddler self who just felt unbearably, excruciatingly bad and I feel prompted to simply accept this happened. It was awful. It hurt me. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault what happened and it wasn’t my fault how I made sense of it. I did the best I could



New job

I had an interview yesterday. Fifteen minutes and then they said they wanted to hire me. I suppose that was their plan: fifteen minutes and then a decision. No discussion among the panel, no checking your references to see you are as great as you say you are. Just, “We’d like to hire you.”

It’s the same thing I have been doing–just day-to-day substituting, but closer to where I live. It was gratifying.

It also meant I have some things to do now: another TB test, some online trainings, more fingerprints (but they pay). I went to the DMV to get a new ID, because I lost mine more than a decade ago and never replaced it. That means I’ve had only my passport as a form of identification, and it ends up making me a little crazy–like what if I lose that?

Anyway, it wasn’t a terrific surprise that I woke up in a more distressed place than usual.  I wonder what is really happening in my mind when this goes on. Why do I feel drowned in emotions that don’t really make sense? Why even do I seem to be more focused on myself, and on whatever my thoughts have prompted me to believe about myself?

I don’t have answers to this. I think it helps to try to continue to be able to think. I think being able to engage in any kind of “I am a person thinking about my own mind” sort of thinking makes a long-term difference.

My other thought about this is that, for one, actually having the sensation of the emotion (as painful as it is) makes it easier to be with it rather than feel I need to do something. Losing awareness of the feeling catapults me into a place where I am restraining urges or holding onto thoughts that, for me, feel annoying: pointless, like chatter.

In addition, being aware of the sensation of the feeling connects me to being the person who has had that feeling in the past and is likely to have that feeling again. In other words, since I probably cannot think rationally, during these times, it’s no use running down the rabbit hole of “am I a worthwhile human being?” But allowing myself to have the emotions of someone who feels I have no worth (or whatever distressing feeling I am having) connects me to being the person who felt that way as a child and is likely to experience set backs in the future which might lead me to feel that way again.

I think there’s a benefit to that. It sucks to feel worthless, and it most definitely felt terrible to feel worthless when I was five or two or whatever, so rather than debating over the fact of the matter, which I think mostly leads to shame, (I am not worthless, so then I am not allowed to feel the sucky feelings I have right now, so now I feel like I can’t really exist as a feeling person….) it’s much better to build a sense of compassion for myself as someone who sometimes has painful feelings.

They are building a deck on my neighbours house. Circular saw going for the last hour–on and off–can’t really cope anymore….

Have a nice Saturday.

Tired and Burnt out

I stayed home sick Wednesday as well. The hard thing about this is my mind is free just spin.

It was okay, more or less. Not amazing. C is taking what are called trial exams, which count for 5% of her grade. I feel worried about her, because I don’t know her midterm grades still. I asked the class teacher. He promised. He did not. I asked him for about 2 months. Then I asked my friend for the principal’s phone number. I used to have it, but I think I lost it. She said she would ask him for me. He promised. He hasn’t. It’s so hard being far away. This kind if thing just wears you down.

C probably won’t qualify for 11th grade. She will be crushed. But if she is at all improved over last year, that would be a way to encourage her. You improved, C, keep trying and maybe you will.

I am worried really that she’s scared. It’s just a feeling– not that something will happen, but just I am being pulled. And I can’t come.

My friend emailed me last night as I struggled to sleep. I wouldn’t be so placenta-ed to my phone, but there is C.

My friend said some important-looking mail had come, including a paycheck perhaps.  She wanted to leave it on her front porch for me. She said I know this sounds inhospitable. Then she said she hoped we could get past this. Well, her approach would be unlikely to make anything improve. I feel like I am in 2nd grade.

I said if it seems important, please don’t leave it on your porch all day. Keep in mind, someone will most likely be home. I didn’t respond to her hope of getting past things while simultaneously being rude. (I just want to make a point of making sure you know I don’t want you to actually knock on the door.) It’s her mind fighting itself and I prefer not to come between it.

In which I cannot keep my pronouns straight

I saw my therapist on Monday this week. I had stayed home sick with a cold, but I thought it might be easier to come in then than during an evening after work when I might still be recovering.

It went more smoothly. She started off asking if I still thought it was a good fit, which of course hurt my feelings although I had also been wondering this. I said I thought our issues were a normal part of relationships. It takes time to get to know each other. It is not necessarily a smooth process.

That said, we went on to more serious stuff. Nata, my miscarriage. I went away feeling much lighter.

As time goes on, I sense that things about my mother and how she affected me are clicking into place. A kind of mental unjamming.

There is a predictable pattern to relationship trauma emotions. This is what I feel I have noticed, among other things. The flip among states happens so fast because you are so vigilant. The alertness makes you observant and reactive.

Thinking of this as schema therapy modes is very useful. They intersect with some basic emotions. What I feel in close relationships about having needs and what C feels, my mother felt towards me although I was the child. Children do meet some of their parents’ relationship needs– enough to activate responses once learned as a child.

Here, I am imagining myself as a child, experiencing my mother’s relational trauma.

So you get the Vulnerable Child who has relationship needs and might feel lonely or affectionate, might want to pull you close in order to get a need met for warmth or attention or just stimulation. This might feel like the warm, nice mommy. Then once you are pulled close, there is the Abused Child who has a list of hurts and grievances, bandaids to be applied and scraped knees to kiss. Or, you could get an anxious parent, aware only of unease about closeness and not knowing what the unease might be.

In a parent, this comes through as a list of the child’s shortcomings and errors, either resentfully or fearfully. If these aren’t addressed to satisfaction, then the parent becomes angry and punishing. This is really frightening.

What it means is a child who continually feels deceived by the false hope of being accepted and cared for. Then picked apart, then terrified.

On the other end of this is a child who grows up with the expectation that approaching a parent or anyone close means looking for what’s wrong with you. Isn’t that the reason behind the shame for merely making an appearance and being seen? A deprived parent unable to locate a reasonable source of her feelings of deprivation settles on your weight on your posture or the way you did your chores or your tone of voice. But the real source is the parent not knowing how to meet her own needs what they are or even whether one is allowed to meet them, and maybe also childhood memories of the same terror the child now feels in being found wanting.

And this might escalate to the histrionic version of Angry Child who wants to express needs and feelings but feels consumed by guilt or shame.

Or to the Punishing Parent who gets needs met by force. What that feels like is anger and a fight response.

So tangled up, but I feel it all fits together.

There is another piece to this: histrionic displays perhaps come as a result of having grown up with a parent who was depressed or drunk or self-absorbed or even simply ill and could only be roused by deep alarm. It’s a learned strategy: seriously, attend to me!!!! But to a child from a parent, it’s traumatizing.

The effect of all of this is several-fold: the sense of being continually betrayed or deceived makes intimate relationships feel permanently uncertain and also that when someone really does get close, they won’t like you. You always seem to get played.

In reality, the parent who made you feel this way was responding to themselves and their own feelings and desires more than to the child. The parent brought you close and discovered a listener to hear their feelings of deprivation, not realizing the child might feel something about being identified as the parent’s source of pain when she never started this fire in the first place.

My friend says kind things to me, I realize, at times of parting. I realize that she says them because, impulsively, she does not want me to leave and in those moments she might actually feel that way. But later, she does not really remember feeling that way about me. The person who said them does not really seem to be her, and promises and implications she has laid out feel like corners someone else has forced her into–me, it seems then–when it’s her desire to avoid loss that pushed her into saying them, and not me.

That’s the kind of thing I mean: Later, it feels to me that she lies about even liking me, and I feel used almost in a mechanical sense, even though I don’t quite know what has been gotten out of me. Just that something must have been. I think it feels mechanical because she does view the world in a mechanical way: people are like levers she pulls, trying to figure out how to get her needs met, not knowing how to work relationships in more naturalistic ways. Not knowing really how to get serve-and-return. The mechanical sense may come doubly from the feeling that comes with shutting down attachment feelings the trauma feelings that go with them; You end up kind of blank, shutting down all of this.

But really I think it may not exactly be manipulative that she does this. Her way of seeing the world is so different at different times that it becomes difficult to see a pattern to it. There is a coherence problem, which goes beyond what I am writing here, but this same kind of coherence problem created a coherence problem within me.


I saw my therapist on Wednesday. I had worked a half day in the morning, so I wasn’t as exhausted as I sometimes am.

My friend had sent me a nasty email in the morning. I read it right before class, and responded simply, “You do seem very angry about this.”

In kindergarten, we had gone over the calendar and colored pumpkins. All very Halloween-y, all very difficult for me, but the day went okay.

So I started off by saying it had been a difficult day. I mentioned the email and I mentioned something about Halloween being difficult.

We talked about the email for a bit, and she broke off and asked which I wanted to talk about first: the email or Halloween. Well, I said the email, because I thought we were about to wrap that up in a minute or two. I didn’t have much more to say about it.

She, however, did, and we spent the entire session on it.

There was a moment, answering her many, rapid-fire questions when I realized she is emotionally shut down. We are both in this kind of mindless state where we aren’t aware of ourselves of thinking, feeling people and are only acting.

Earlier in the week, I had realized when I act impulsively, I don’t hurt. I can enact the hurt without feeling the pain of that hurt when I am in that state. It was a strange realization. I might know I am hurting, but the physical sensation of pain goes away.

So we were doing that.

It was a difficult session. She really wanted me to express more of my own feelings to my friend. She felt I was acting self-protectively. I told her  it’s my job to protect myself. She said, “But if you’re always protecting yourself….”

I don’t believe not expecting someone who seems overwhelmed by their own mental state to be able to take in mine means I am always protecting myself from hurt.

She asked what it would be like to be able to bring wounded feelings to someone and have them acknowledge my hurt. I can’t remember what I said, but most of the time I feel my wounded feelings aren’t really about the present. I mean, some of it is and some of it isn’t, and it’s so consuming to entangle it, I don’t necessarily get to the point of knowing which is which before life has basically moved on.

She asked, in kind of a poignant way, “How would it feel for you if you could have that from your parents?” Well, I would think my parents were possessed. My parents can’t hear about consequences or about minds outside their own. A strange mind is an assault on them, a danger. If they began to see from my point of view I would know they were no longer themselves anymore. You can’t spend your whole life wishing your parents weren’t mentally ill and trying to imagine how life might be if they weren’t. It’s more exhausting to imagine life as it might have been than simply to deal with what is. At some point, there has to be a way to accept that they are, and to begin to think given what is, what can I make out of the life that I have? And to focus not on one’s deprivation, but on what hope there might still be.

Not that there isn’t a place for seeing deprivation and not that there needs to be some kind of time-limit on how long you are allowed to notice it before you are forced to move on. I think it is something that always recurs, in fact. At every important life moment, you will see what might have been or you will see what seems to be normal for other people but that you will never have.

When you have mentally ill parents, at every graduation, wedding, bar mitzvah, holiday gathering, christening, whatever….you will either see what it is like to have normal parents be a part of these events when yours aren’t, or you will see yourself needing to manage parents who are emotional toddlers on grownup legs when other people have parents they don’t need to babysit.

But I can’t set up camp and live in that place. This is my life. It isn’t fair. I can’t really do anything about that. It’s a deeper societal problem: in reality, mentally ill people need help raising their children. Society cannot either accept that people with mental illnesses need help nor that there will always be some parents with mental illnesses. I don’t think society at large can accept that mental illness is a permanent part of the vast range of human experience. It contradicts too deeply held a value: we are each of us responsible for ourselves and our own families. The practical application of this is that problems get passed down through generations and generations.

She has this idea that I am lonely and I need more relationships. She thinks I am pushing people away. She thinks this is the answer.

She thinks I am seeing my friend in a distorted way.

She asks me about this I think four times, something like, “Are you sure you aren’t reading into this?” Not those words, but something like that.

I wonder if my own reading hits a wound for her: sometimes people do mean to hurt you. When someone is angry, our instinct is to wound. As we become older and more able to regulate our emotions, our cognitive biases let up a little, and we stop hitting people on the heads for stealing our toys. But when you cannot acknowledge that someone you trusted and depended on wanted  to cause you pain, then you find yourself unable to talk about it later.

I wonder if she won’t allow me to identify that my friend at the moment of the email wanted to hurt me, because there are people she cannot identify as having wanted to hurt her: if this idea that sometimes harm is intentional is unspeakable for her and she needs it to be unspeakable to me.

People can hurt you, I suppose, but it cannot be intentional and unremorseful. And yet it is sometimes. Not necessarily because people are evil, but because emotion creates cognitive biases. Then later, people find ways to justify what they did while in a state of mindlessness.

I finally asked what the purpose of this was: Why was she pushing so aggressively for me to agree with her? She didn’t think she was being aggressive, so we left it at that. I was feeling really suffocated at this point, as if I had no space to breathe or to think my own thoughts.



I started another post, realized I had forgotten what point I was trying to make abandoned it. This is my second attempt at it.

With that unpromising start, off we go.

I suppose I’ll relay my last session. It did not go nearly so well as the previous one. She started off by asking me whether I felt my relationship needs were being met. I said probably not. We talked about this for a lot of the session. She asked questions. I answered them. I felt again very much like I was being interviewed for a job: “Can you describe your educational philosophy? How have you handled difficult parents? What classroom management strategies do you use?”

No, they are mostly not being met. No, I don’t think there is any particular solution to this at present. No, I am not especially happy at this. No, I don’t want to express any emotion about this. No, I don’t want to try to imagine what life might be like if things were different and I did not have the problems I have. My choices are to accept how things are right now at present and to make the best of life as it is or to be miserable about it. I have chosen to accept myself where I am right now and to make the best of things. At least then I get some enjoyment out of life. When I begin to compare the life I have with the way I might wish it were, all I am is unhappy.

I finally said, “I am so bored.” It really did just feel boring. It’s really hard to maintain a conversation about a topic that is not of interest for so long. I suppose it might have been about 30 minutes. I suppose it was something like me trying to talk about fishing, which I know nothing about and care about even less.

In the course of it, I said basically people want to do things their way. I find this exhausting to do all day, and I need to be alone much of the time so that I can do things my way.

The session felt like a reflection of that. The therapist would like to talk about my relationship needs and how they are not being met, so we are. More than that, the therapist does not give me time to think about anything. If I pause to think, she changes the question. So both the topic and the way we are discussing the topic are what the therapist would like to do. They are not what I would like to do. I don’t know what I would like to do, because the therapist won’t allow me to do what I need to do in order to know. My beliefs are playing out in the room. I can’t say why that is happening, but it leaves me unsurprised. This has been most of my experience with humanity.

I could fight to do things my way, but there is no satisfaction for me in forcing someone else to do things my way in the same manner people insist I do things their way. There is nothing gratifying in getting someone to listen to you whilst knowing they don’t like listening to you.

Anyway, she said, “What would you like to talk about?” I said I didn’t know. Not to be difficult, but at that point the boredom felt excruciating. I wasn’t really aware of anything beyond that.

The session was nearly over by then. She mentioned on my intake form I had said I wanted to talk about “the memories.” I hadn’t.

I find this an odd expression though. I am not sure why that is. What are “the” memories? Which memories are we referring to? It sets certain memories apart from other memories. Obviously. But I am still puzzled by it.

It gives me the sense that there is something different about how other people think about their traumatic pasts that I don’t really know about. It suggests an apartness to it, that certain thoughts or feelings are “the memories” and other thoughts aren’t.

I wondered if “the memories” is what happens for people for whom trauma is ego dystonic, and for them certain experiences feel like an interruption to the person they normally are.

She said I could talk about whatever comes up.

I felt puzzled by that too. My past feels omnipresent. It never “comes up.” Things don’t really come up for me. I sort of labour away at an idea, kind of slog through until something holds together in some way. It’s not a style of thinking in which things “come up” very often.

Again, I had that feeling of wishing I understood what people mean by things. I asked her, and it didn’t help that much. I don’t think she had ever thought about it before. I don’t think she had ever come across someone who does not know what “comes up” means.

But I thought about how she felt in the session–sort of a bounciness to her way of thinking. Things do “come up” for someone like that. They just sort of spring to mind.

That aside, I had some thoughts later on why the session went in the way that it did. They are just thoughts.

We had a connected session, in which she was teary-eyed at the end. It seemed to me she came to the next session feeling anxious and vulnerable, either because the expectation of connection made her feel vulnerable or something happened at home (she had childcare issues and pushed back the session 15 minutes).

So she started off asserting her authority: I am the expert. I am here to fix you. And she pointed out my defectiveness: you seem to be struggling with relationships.

Now, the normal responses are to adopt a childlike kind of stance: Yes, I am defective and please help me, or my defectiveness is unfair and I want to pout for a bit about it, or a more teenage I’m not defective so there.

I did not really do any of those things. It wasn’t satisfying to her, and so this strategy of pushing at a wound to get a response didn’t get her the sense of reassurance she was seeking and she kept at it until I more or less couldn’t take it anymore.

As teachers, we talk about not eliciting the child voice in students by avoiding taking on the parent voice. What is meant by this is that if you don’t scold the student like a child, they don’t pout and whine like a child, and the door stands open to more effective and adult problem-solving. I had never thought about how therapists can deliberately talk to clients from the position of experts and this deliberately evokes in the client a response of helplessness and need that can meet the need of the therapist for safety and security.

I don’t really know if that’s why she did that, but some people do.

What I had said, I realized on the intake form, was I wanted to integrate.

And I also said I needed to talk about grief.

Little things

So I have this idea that witb childhood trauma the problem is not just with the past but also with the present. Bits of what I think are buried in other theories, but I have never heard anyone come to the same conclusion about it.

Let’s see if I can put all of the pieces of my idea into one place.

The first piece of this is that whole categories of experiences become unspeakable. We can’t make sense of them because they connect within the family to unspeakable horror.

The thing about being social creatures is that in situations of uncertainty, we put our heads together to figure them out. But  if something is unspeakable, we can’t. We both have the instinct to recruit help with making sense and feel disallowed from doing that.

So if we reach out, we don’t see ourselves trying to make sense. Instead of making sense, we enact. No one can really make sense of our enactments either. We are desperately trying to communicate and can’t.

This happens with whole categories of things: loss, rejection, unfairness, being forgotten about….

Even if we don’t enact we can’t communicate about these things: we don’t actually know that we are. Conversations get repeated, because of the cycle. Most of what we get in response is heard as, “Don’t talk about that.”

Rinse, repeat….

The practical result is we aren’t able to make sense of ordinary losses, as well as traumatic ones.

A student locked my keys in the room today. I said, “Go to the office and have someone let you back in to get them.”

After she left, I began to feel anger in my body. I realized this is one of those categories of unspeakableness: “You took my thing.” It’s in these disconnected bits because I did not get help making sense of unjust losses. Unjust losses became unspeakable things. Things we don’t talk about and don’t know about. Because I couldn’t make sense of murder I have not been able to make sense of lost keys. Now I responded ok, but I lost coordination. I handled it and felt angry later. Someone else might have been angry, might have known they were angry about keys and might have expressed in a way that communicated one does not lose keys.

The other thing with childhood trauma is that we learn to enter heightened states, either because they were dangerous for us or they had been dangerous to someone else and so that person felt fear. We learn what danger is not really because someone tells us but because someone communicates fear.

My friend taught me to be afraid of the toaster.

I am pretty unafraid of touching hot things generally. I often flip things on a skillet with my hands. I don’t think I have ever been burned doing that. So if the toast doesn’t come up I usually pull it out with my fingers.

Well, I did this a few times in front of my friend and she stood there more or less in mute terror.

I still feel fear doing what I have done without incident all of my life.

So you learn to go on high alert at all kinds of what seem to be strange times. Mostly people would like you to stop communicating fear.

But also you are just heightened. Everything seems more intense. Sometimes this does not make sense. Why would we react so strongly to something so minor? No one likes to over-react. It must be something big and bad and horrible. It’s not necessarily. You are just keyed up.

The thing to do about being keyed-up is not to send more signals to yourself that you are in danger. Shaming yourself is not likely to lower your arousal.

But the stuff you are reacting to might very well be real. You might have displeased your boss. Your colleague might not have been amused at your joke.


C had a holiday on Saturday, and went to her grandparents’ home on Friday evening. I got a message on Facebook: “Mom, I reached home.”

Touching. And touching to have it be remembered that I want to know where she is and whether she reached her destination safely.

She said, “Call me later.”

This was Friday evening for me. So I got her message while I was racing out the door, running late as pretty much usual, and tried to keep her apprised of my whereabouts and ability to be in touch with her until I got to school and could call her. Not that I couldn’t call her, but I thought she would be frustrated with the noise of the train.

I was mostly avoiding sending signals of rejection. She has never asked me to call her that I remember.

When I got to school, she didn’t answer.

The day passed. I had therapy in the evening. The therapist slowed down, which we had talked about in the last session. It helped, and we had a more connected session, where I didn’t feel I was cramming myself into a box in order to do things someone else’s way. We had agreed also to talk about Nata’s death (although she didn’t know this), but we didn’t. The things we did talk about instead seemed acceptable.

I am aware that the traumas I most need to talk about we haven’t talked about. We dance distantly around them.

Oh, well. I have not found forcing conversations on people a helpful strategy.

I chatted with C quite a bit on Saturday (Sunday for her, I suppose). I talked to her about feeling she is good. I know that the feeling of being good develops because of a relationship. It’s not some absolute reality, in fact. But when your parents don’t do this for you, you have to provide that experience for yourself. I talked to her about remembering the feeling of goodness and worthiness at times when she feels shame and trying to recall that feelings of shame can feel global–that your whole self is bad–but that shame comes and goes. Shame is not your true self–it just feels that way.

Towards evening (for me), she brought up her boyfriend suddenly. We have not talked about him since midterm. I wrote tremendously long letters about this, which she did not recall and may not have read.

She asked me if I had been chatting with him. I told her no, because actually he has blocked me. I have no great desire to chat with him, but it is not up to me in this case. I wondered to her why she was asking.

She said he missed me. Okay, well, he has blocked so he’ll have to work that one out himself.

Some other things were said–not what I wrote above. It became apparent that C was angry.

The little boy in my class on Thursday has spurred me to think about some things in maybe a slightly different way. He went through everything that C goes through: the wild leaps between states, fear, anger, sadness. Seeing someone else go through made it look different to me, and what I thought about it was that people need to be able to continue to make sense of their experiences while they are being reactive and trauma-y. I talked to the teacher after school–she had been at a training, and she returned to her classroom at the end of the day while I was writing a note.

Her response to the child in similar moments was to be puzzled, as I have been puzzled by C. “D, you’re safe….” she told him, when he had a temper tantrum the other day. Well, he has to learn from experience what safe is. Her response only made his own state more confusing to him.

That’s what I thought.

So when C is having trauma kinds of responses, she needs to be encouraged to stay in an emotional place where her internal experience can be seen and thought about. That ability to feel and also see oneself as one is feeling needs to be preserved. What has happened for her is she learned she has to choose between being a thinking person who is unaware of her feelings or a feeling person who acts impulsively without thinking.

So I told her to tell me about why she was angry and I would listen. I wouldn’t get angry at her and I wouldn’t leave. I would listen and try to understand. It seemed to be more important to keep her in this place of being able to think about feelings than to get her to see things in a way that might feel more accurate to me.

She said a few things. I asked if she felt better and got no response. Eventually I called and her grandmother answered. C came to the phone and I asked if she felt better. She said she didn’t know. I told her when she talks a lot, I feel proud of her, and this seemed to open a door to a flood of more talking.

Things began to make more sense.  Speaking seemed to suit her.

It emerged that either Boyfriend was very confused about the facts or lying. He had said he chatted with me on her account, and that I had said he was a bad boy or something like that. I couldn’t remember anything like that happening, but I looked through just in case. No. No mention of Boyfriend at all. I said, “Let’s try to imagine why he might say that I said that when I didn’t.” C suddenly needed to make lunch at something like 9 am. Now, it’s possible that she did. It’s also possible that she simply felt too frightened that Boyfriend had lied about me to keep talking.

I was feeling pretty sick and feverish at this point and did not aggressively follow up.

I have a couple of theories at work in this. The first is that I am trying to do with C what I do with myself: not judge the thoughts, just try to maintain an ability to think while in the midst of feeling. It’s fine that C is probably angry over some deeper issue than Boyfriend’s drama (given how often she is angry at the mere sight of me). This is about developing a mental skill, not about insight.

Anger itself has been unspeakable. It might take many attempts at speaking about anger to begin to feel that speaking about the deeper sources of her anger are going to be okay. We can start by talking about the girl who took money from her or about a lie her Boyfriend told her about me.

The same has gone for deprivation: she can talk to me about the unfairness of not being allowed on an outing when she needs to buy pens, when the real issue might be how unfair it is that her parents have not allowed her to even try to meet her own needs, let alone meet the needs of their child. But at least this makes deprivation speakable. What can happen is that the kind of deprivation brought up seems so trivial, the topic get shut down altogether. Deprivation remains unspeakable because when someone makes a stab at it, the stab does not seem to make sense.

The other is that life with complex trauma is partly so difficult because these intense emotional states caused by a vigilance brought on by relational triggers results in a patchy sense to reality. The intensity of emotions creates cognitive bias and you end up filtering for certain kinds of evidence. The more intense the state, the greater the cognitive bias. If you are reacting to many different stimuli that create wildly different biases, it feels like reality is changing in the blink of an eye. There has to be a way to ride this process out.

As an adult, I have realized life does not wait for me to calm down again, and while I don’t want to act impulsively based on these intense states, I somehow need to figure out what to do while I am in the midst of them. C has taught me as well that the things we notice while in these states are often real: I can’t simply dismiss them as unfounded fears. But what I need is context for them, and maybe some restraint. If you feel like running, maybe you don’t overshare. That kind of thing. The impulse to run does not mean you literally need to sprint, but there are many ways to back away from something which feels dangerous.

So that’s what I am trying to do with C. Trying to ride this out with her, so that she has help with trying to understand what are upsetting and puzzling experiences. I am trying to get across to her that the contents of her mind need not be frightening or dangerous, although the emotions are intense and difficult to deal with. They can be manageable.

The last thing I think about this is how, like the little boy in class, C has needed to break through drunken stupors and dissociative states in order to get basic needs met. The kind of courage a child has to summon in order to demand they be fed by a parent who wishes to remain neglectful and expresses this in physically and emotionally devastating ways is astounding to think about. The child has to think, at some level, you might kill me, but I am so hungry or so lonely or so in need of toileting that I am going to risk death in order to be cared for.

Well, C switches. I don’t know how this works exactly, but it shuts off some sense of the danger so that C can pursue her needs and not be overwhelmed by fear. I could see this to some extent when we talked. There is a girl that for some reason always seems lavender to me who said it was up to me whether she kept seeing her boyfriend. She wants to please, this part. She’s my Katya, I think, wanting to be virtuous.

There have been many times I have wondered why I bring out the reactions that I do from C: Why is she unable to pick up the phone when I call, for example, but she manages to call a mother who has actually abused her and really is frightening? She’s splitting less in front of me, and her feelings are being displayed. She misses her mother because she is her mother, and armours up by splitting off into parts that don’t know the dangers they face.




I called social services yesterday. I’ll tell you why in a minute, but first I’ll tell you that in 9 years of teaching I have done this 3 and a half times. The half is for the time I did not call because the police were already on their way. At a training, someone asked how common making a call is. Well, it depends on you doesn’t it? The facilitator had made 3 calls in 20 years.

It was the end of class, and this boy had more or less lost control of his body. His arms were all over the place. Anyway, I should have realized he was reaching out for help. That’s why arms extend. Pick me up. It’s the oldest gesture we know

Instead I got mad. I spoke sharply to him and he was terrified. He completely stopped being able to process anything. So.

I realized and softened up. Hung out for a while close to him. He settled after a minute and came back.

He got kind of weepy. “I don’t want to go with my grandmother because she hits me. I want to go with my tia.” (aunt)

We had reached dismissal time. I took the kids outside–this was kindergarten–and waited with them. When his grandmother came he shrank back fearfully and cried a little. When she was actually out of her car he ran to her, arms outstretched.

I got information from the office about him. The school psychologist happened to be there, and we talked a bit. He had been placed with his grandmother due to his mother’s abuse.

I made the call. I asked to consult. He said it wasn’t reportable. Okay. Fine.There is something called the Hague protocol, where cases of abuse are investigated when situations likely to lead to trauma occur–so mental illness, domestic violence and drug abuse. The parents are interviewed in these cases. Not the children.

It leads to earlier intervention, so fewer interventions are needed. It also avoids the problem of knowing abuse has occurred but not who the perpetrator was.

I was just reminded of that.

The thing is everything this little boy did happens to C. The disorganization before hand–do I ask for help or do I run away? Do I hit someone? Do I lie still?

The deep confusion brought on by feelings of separation and the longing for reunion.

I had another thought. I was reading something about emotion misattribution. A study was done where men were surveyed by an attractive woman in moderately stressful conditions (or not….)

She gave them her phone number in case they had anything to add or any questions. The men under stress called more than others. The study concluded that the men mistook fear for attraction. I think we know arousal is non-specific. If you are in a heightened state, you will experience everything more strongly, including attraction.

That happens for me. I am experiencing the present in a heightened way during experiences I recognize as being potentially dangerous.

I have learned I can’t just ignore everything in these states. What I am alert to often turns out to be important. But I need to ratchet everything down a few notches.

The other thing that happens in these situations is that I become alert to too many different stimuli. I can’t possibly process everything and only some of it is important. I become confused where to even start.

Also, because in the past my experiences were not seen or understood or responded to, I often can’t understand them either.

They become total. I want to die–not I feel guilty for eating junk food. The trigger is not the junk food. I am experincing junk food in that way because I am already in a heightened state.

There is more to this. I grew up with parents unable to regulate feelings of guilt and shame. I was expected not to feel guilt or shame or remorse.

I have only recently begun to recognize them. They had at one time been disembodied thoughts.


Mentalizing is making sense of mental states–one’s own and others. There is a theory that in borderline personality disorder, difficulties in mentalizing are part of the cause, and that makes sense to me.

Maybe not specifically about bpd–I can’t say about that–but in complex trauma generally. Mentalizing is partly learned: you feel hungry, you cry, your parent feeds you, and I think you work out that what one does about the feeling of hunger is eat. You know how to respond to that feeling of hunger, because your parent knew to do. But what if your parent instead hits you?

I suppose hunger is not very complicated, but other feelings and needs are, and it’s not that easy to figure out acceptable avenues for addressing them when the model for how to respond is unclear or silencing.

I think the feelings become more intense when you don’t respond to them, and I also think when you shut the feelings down they become merely thoughts and urges that you are more likely to act on.

That is what I see in myself, anyway. Emotions can seem almost unmoored. What brought this on? And that can make them seem global or total in some sense: I was writing yesterday, and I felt overwhelmed with feelings of badness. That’s shame, isn’t it? And I think that’s a step forward: okay, so this is a feeling. I am having a feeling. And the feeling is called shame. Shame, among other things, happens when you have violated some kind of social norm. That ought to be guilt, but I seem to feel shame and guilt over similar things.

It seemed total and global. I began to consider my general worth in the world, but after a second I realized I had moved away from a painful topic. Okay, so I think I ought not to do that. I ought to stay with difficult things. That is, actually, kind of my rule for myself. And it came down to size. I went on with my writing.

I have a feeling. It is called shame. It happened because I violated a rule I hold for myself.

The thing is that this is not a big deal. I moved back toward the difficult topic, which my feelings were telling me I ought to stay with. Life went on.

Unmoored and disconnected, it is a big deal. It’s much more painful.

There have been times when I have written in this blog that it isn’t about the past. It’s about the present. Because, actually, it is both. The process of thinking about them is not, in itself very different.

Oh, so I