Traumatic Families

I’ve been thinking trauma is inherited. Not just that my parents, in responding to me, taught me to cope in the way that they coped with their traumas even though these same events might not happen to me, but also that trauma begets abuse.

Not to conflate traumatized people with abusers, but it is the traumatic impact of abuse which caused my parents to abuse me. This is not really rocket science. Everyone knows this, but I have been wondering exactly, precisely what is the mechanism of inheritance.

I had a 3-day weekend, quite unusually and very mercifully given the anniversary effect involved, following Halloween. I felt awful, but kept my shit together enough to get through the day and landed here, on a Tuesday now, with some answers.

I should add the reason this is so important to me is that I believe that my relationship with my parents shapes my relationship with myself, and I speculate it is largely my relationship with myself that causes me misery. Secondarily, it is my relationship with others, and lastly it is the actual, day-to-day impact of the trauma itself. One of my bloggy friends mentioned in a pot that her parts have been living in an abusive environment, and this has stayed with me since I read that. I think she’s really on to something.

That may not be unusual to think, except that I don’t tend to have the cascade of negative thoughts other people describe. I suddenly feel bad. Parts complain about how awful they feel. And it’s extremely hard for me to work out what precipitated the bad feelings. But something is going on.

So I think it’s this. What’s inherited is difficulty in mentalizing: difficulty in understanding or making sense of desires and intentions. It may be there are deficiencies in this area, because the mind of the other feels so menacing or is overwhelming and painful. How do I respond to my mother if I understand her intention is to cause me harm? It may be that the parent’s inner world is so confusing there seems to be no point in trying to understand why they do what they do.

Normally, what’s happening for a parent is not impossible for a child to see, although it may be different from the child’s experiences. Parents are hungry and thirsty and tired too. They want to get to work and school on time. They want you to buckle your seatbelt so they can drive safely. Parents are surprised by sudden noises that surprise children too. As a child, with some effort, you can work out why parents feel the way they do, because people’s inner worlds are related to their outer worlds and you can see it and hear it. If your parent, like my father’s mother, is responding to sounds and images that you cannot see or hear, you may give up on trying to understand people altogether.

That’s one piece: the developing child who is, for whatever reason, unable to understand other people’s experiences and then may grow up to be a parent unable to understand their children’s experiences. This, of course, we think of as being an element of pathological narcissism, but it is not all of narcissism. It’s only one aspect.

You may also have a child whose self-image is so negative that it’s painful to think of the self, so however well someone else understands the child, she cannot see herself as she is imagined within someone’s mind.

The other piece of what I believe may lead to the inheritance of trauma is the result of not having a parent who imagines your experiences, or even if they imagine it, but as a child it’s so painful or confusing for you to see what they imagine that you don’t know if they are able to understand your experiences or not. The only way to know if they understand is if you can see it in their actions. In other words, the lack of imagining of other people’s mental states, increases the pressure to get your way, because it’s only when you get what you want that you feel yourself existing in the world.

And this happens both for children and for parents in these families. Power becomes very important, because what is at stake in interactions is not merely your comfort, but a sense of being real and alive. For the child, getting the toy they want is not merely about a toy, but feeling they are themselves. For the parent, having a child who won’t go to bed when you tell him means you lose your sense of yourself.

Naturally, we all get a sense of efficacy when we can have an impact on the world. None of these things are abnormal.It’s simply the pressure on this as a part of our identities that’s overly intense, because other ways of feeling we exist cannot be relied on (namely, empathy).

Of course, adults usually have more power than children in the world, and so they may be more likely to win in these seemingly life-or-death contests over whose will might prevail. The child complies, feels perhaps dead inside, or turns away from the punishing, smothering parent thus losing the opportunity to learn the social skills normally developed within the family.

The third piece of that attachment impulses are easily activated, because the degree of conflict inherent in normal, everyday activities is so great. You feel like you might need help with simple things, because with a parent who feels not getting her way makes her disappear, you must be prepared to fight hard or not at all. The weapons may be physical, but there are parents who don’t hit, but instead attack your self-image, your sense of belonging, or your status.

I cannot tell you how much this set of assumptions about what forces may have shaped me make my day-to-day experiences coherent and comprehensible. Getting up in the mornings is difficult for me. I wake up early, I feel like doing things, but physically getting started is really hard. It’s painful and upsetting. For years, I’ve mostly noticed attachment pain, but sometimes I’m angry or despairing.

If the question in my childhood was, “Who gets to exist today?” then this makes total sense. I’m terribly scared. I think I might need help. I may be angry at an anticipated struggle over who gets to exist. I may even be angry that there is no one there to do my bidding and make me feel that I exist by doing what I want.

I don’t know what to do to solve the problems this is causing me, but I think it’s a start.

 

Questions for myself

Slowly, I am chugging along with making better sense out of what happens in my head. I don’t know that I am necessarily coping better as a result, but the hope remains that perhaps someday I will.

I am a few posts behind in trying to explain what I’ve come up with. It’s possible there will be holes in this post as a result. I’m sorry for this, but I also think we’ll live to tell the tale.

I read a study about “cute aggression:” that urge to do painful things to babies because they are so cute, like pinch their cheeks.

The more participants responded to a baby’s cuteness with an urge to caretake, the more likely he or she was to feel like hurting the baby. It seems to be a regulatory strategy, not unknown before now, in which a strong feeling in one direction is countered by a strong urge in another direction deliberately called up to get things a bit more under control. Over intense emotions are unpleasant–even positive ones.

This is the person who cracks jokes at somber moments, the Girl who punched kittens and dogs in the nose, even C who seems to get angry most of the times I see her. It’s not that it’s okay to make babies cry by pinching their squishy cheeks, but that the crying is not the actual intention of the urge. The crying is the regulatory strategy gone wrong.

I think about this as I go through the difficult moments of the day: is this me trying to regulate an attachment impulse? I don’t have that worked out, but it’s something I’ve started to think about.

I’ve also been thinking about how the formation of self-image intersects with abusive relationships. Not in the obvious way: that abuse diminishes the positive feelings you have about yourself. Instead, I’ve been thinking do I use abusive strategies to try to control the urge to reach out to people or situations?

And, finally, is the sense of borderline’s description of feeling empty inside caused by the strategy of shutting down the experience of the self to control intense emotions, but simultaneously prompting responsiveness in other people so that one seems still to exist and to have an impact on the world. Only they stop reacting.

There is normally an interplay between how I feel inside and how I impact other people which contributes to feeling oneself. What if one is more than usually reliant on having an impact to do that and then that person is not available or not willing to respond in the desired way? And does something like that happen to me?

Last, I have been considering the social aspect of my trauma. My father’s abuse was intentionally demeaning, not because of something about me, but because this fulfilled some desire of his own. How did it feel to me to do what one normally does and imagine myself from his perspective–as an object to be used or to feel superior to? There is a sociological element involved in family-based mistreatment. It is not merely frightening in the way of a lion attack.

Gradually, I think I have to become more adept in understanding my traumatic experiences from the perspective of a small child. There is an element of horror to what happened to me. I don’t quite know how to describe it: the abuse I suffered was so visceral and graphic. The sense of “get this off of me” is so overwhelming that the horror feels consuming, like all of me. I end up horrified myself, because the horror is so strong, it feels that the horror is  me. That’s how little kids experience things.

We love to see joy in children, because it seems to consume them. We have learned to keep ourselves on a more even keel by the time we reach adulthood. It can seem that our emotions have become blunted, but it also means we don’t need someone to remove us from the birthday party before we have a meltdown because we got too wound up. (Most of us.)

When that overwhelming emotion is horror, it’s awful. I think I need to figure out how to regulate these overwhelming emotions as an adult trying to make sense of a child’s trauma. I think I may need to learn to recognize that wanting to self-harm means I need a way to calm the feelings down. Self-punishment won’t do it, but it may remain my first instinct for a long time.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is the worst day of the year.

 

Stasis

I said I’ve had some ideas, but then I didn’t really write about them.

One of them is about how the parent, in a sense, trains the baby’s brain what state to aim for. Of course, there is something inherent–no one likes to be unhappy all the time, no one can stand overwhelming pain. And yet we learn what only seems dangerous and it isn’t, what must be accepted even though we don’t like it. We learn how much stimulation to seek, what level of alertness to maintain. We are born with a temperament, but our parents also modulate it.

In the staff room, I think about it this, because I suspect some of what I don’t like is an attempt to increase the degree of alertness in other people, because some teachers are accustomed to hyper-vigilance. It’s attention-seeking, but then I wonder if there’s a deeper purpose.

We talk about becoming habituated to drama, and yet I also wonder if this happens because, in fact, the trait is passed down because evolution assumes it enhanced your parent’s survival and will enhance yours.

Anyway, it’s a thought to try on for a while.

I had another thought about relationships, and about the kinds of relationships I may be accustomed to. The thing is that over the years I have ended up with maybe fewer harmful relationships, but generally I think they may be of the same type and that something fundamental in how I relate to people has not changed.

I had talked about the baby developing a sense of “badness” as a result of a parent’s trauma or depression. The parent looks at the child and appears to feel pain or fear or anger, and so the child experiences herself as a source of danger and learns to cope by avoiding self-reflection and situations in which she might begin to put herself in someone else’s position and imagine how they see her. Self-monitoring is in some ways impaired as a result. Attention is not split between the self and the other, but compartmentalized. Either I see you and what you intend and desire, or I see what I intend and desire, but a child like this grows up unable to see as clearly how her efforts to communicate her desires and intentions might be experienced by others.

A sense of the self develops in which others are assumed not to want to care for the child. If I am bad, why would someone want to care for me? The mother must be forced, and so the child develops controlling attachments: this is not always the outcome of disorganized attachment, but it often is. Controlling attachments may be punitive/controlling or caretaking/controlling. Punitive/controlling is self-explanatory, I would guess. The child maintains the parent’s attention through punitive means. In controlling/caretaking relationships, the child adopts the role of the parent and keeps the parent’s attention and maintains proximity by attending to the parent’s needs and desires.

I think what’s absent in the parent-child relationship in these cases is a sense of having someone concerned about you (as the child in the dyad). You are forcing the parent: there’s no concern. Why would they feel concern for you if you are bad, anyway?

And, indeed, if your parent is a narcissist, she probably does not feel concern. That’s what narcissists are known for. They can understand your feelings, but they don’t care.

I think a sense of starvation develops. It probably works both ways, because these patterns of relationships are learned. The parent may also worry that the child does not care about parent.

What is substituted instead are displays of power. For an instant, I can believe you care about me, if I force you to do something you don’t really want to do. Sacrifice is demanded, but it’s fleeting, because even sacrifice may not come from concern. At some level, we know this. Sacrifice may result from coercion.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I was doing some research for something I didn’t end up writing about and I read about a serial killer who claimed to “love” his victims. Well, they are dead, so obviously what he felt was not concern. But I don’t doubt he felt affection. They gave him something he wanted, and he had a feeling of fondness as a result, but he didn’t feel concern. There was a distinction between affection and a consideration of consequences.

I am reminded especially of my father, in this regard. He may have felt affection for me at times, but this didn’t mean he felt concern. But concern is the backdrop for trust.

To return to the point, though, it seems to me the outcome of a negative view of yourself is an anxiety about concern. Not just, “are you still available to me?” but “are you concerned for me?” Not merely, “will you hurt me?” but “do you care?” And care is so hard to pin down. I think I recognize it, especially in myself. There are times when I can see that I care about myself, and others when I just want my discomfort or unhappiness to stop. There is some kind of difference.

When a sense of care is gotten by forcing someone into doing things they don’t want to do and extracting compliance or sacrifice, then relationships are going to end up being over-involved (because the sense of care is so fleeting). If you grow up with this, and I suspect I did, then the “normal” sense of how a relationship should be will also be over-involved. You might call this enmeshment, but I think enmeshment doesn’t imply the kind of power dynamic I’m talking about as the root of the over-involvement, nor the sense of malignancy about relationships that it leads to.

In other words, if you have this kind of relationship in which the other person seeks to fulfill an emotional need that can’t be effectively filled in this way by demanding something that’s harmful to you, then your reaction to that person over time is likely to become distrustful. It’s self-reinforcing. It comes from such a deep, negative sense of the self that concern seems impossible and leads to a lack of concern that’s real.

If you constantly interfere with my goals, constantly interrupt me, constantly take things away from that give me pleasure, I’m not likely to feel much compassion for you. Your bids for interaction, in fact, are likely to be met with dread.

In myself, I think I seek to fill my brain up with the involvement my mother led me to expect. Someone ought to constantly demand my attention, even if I no longer trust anyone real to do that demanding. I think this is an unconscious signal to others about my expectations of relationships, and the reason I bring the same kinds of relationships into my life even I don’t actually want them.

The ideas, I can see, still require some hammering out, but it’s a starting place for now.

 

 

Yuri

I had another post in mind, and I’ll get to that still, because those ideas are important for me, but there is something else on my mind today that is making me dizzy with dissociation. If it makes me that scared, it must be important.

Although the two ideas are perhaps connected, so I’ll start with the first one after all.

The primary issue for someone like me is a conditioning regarding seeing the self, which distorts what is seen when you look.

We learn how to feel about a lot of things from other people. This is part of the purpose of empathy, and it allows for very efficient transmission of information via people who may have learned things the hard way. We learn to be disgusted not always because someone tells us it’s gross, but because they wrinkle their nose in a universal expression that says, “Don’t touch that.” Our body imitates their emotional reaction, and I may continue to react that way to the same stimuli later. I have “learned” how to feel about it.

Now what happens to someone like me is my mother (probably my mother) had an emotional reaction to seeing me as a baby.

Maybe she was reminded of her own relationship with her mother or she felt inadequate, but I think probably what happened is she had a very punitive approach to getting what she wanted and she was unconsciously trying to get me to help her. So she was angry. She looked at me and felt angry and as a little baby all I saw was she’s looking at me and feels angry.

So ai learned to feel angry and frightened looking at myself. This has all kinds of implications. One of them is that this was likely passed down from my mother in the first. She felt this way too. She felt angry and frightened looking at herself.

You have to be able to to look at yourself when you face problems of any kind. I get sick and I have to think, “How sick am I? Do I have a fever? Is there a rash? Are there unusual symptoms I don’t recognize?” And so on. Self-examination is necessary to plan a response.

If it’s frightening to look at yourself, that’s difficult to do. One way of coping is to get other people to look at you by behaving dramatically, and they may be able to help you figure it out for you . That may have been my mother’s way of coping and the outcome was that attention couldn’t be on someone else. In other words, not me. That would be competition.

If I couldn’t get attention, and there is already this very early and primal sense of being threatening, then my mind–which seeks coherence–is likely to connect that. I can’t get attention, because I am somehow not good. I am not likely to connect it to my mother’s desire for attention, because I don’t know about it. That’s beyond me. But I know I feel a sense of not being good. It’s easy to connect that.

Well, now I don’t see a connection…

But I have been watching old Russian TV shows for language practice and I’ve started to really enjoy them. I really like police and detective dramas and I ran out of those, so I am now onto spy stories set during World War.

I find the shows so relatable. I feel they explain part of my upbringing, although it’s a much earlier generation.

One piece is that prisoners were sometimes given a choice to serve in the military, so you have companies of soldiers who were previously criminals. I think this practice continued, and Yuri or his friends may have seen combat. The war then would have somewhere else–Afghanistan is likely.

Vory-V-Zakone were not supposed to take this option. They did not bow to any legitimate authority. But the Suki (bitches) did.

Then there is the harshness of Soviet authority. POWs in Soviet territories were not welcomed back, but treated as traitors for surrendering. Many of them ended up in Siberian gulags. I’ve seen lots of men shoot themselves rather than be captured by Germans. It’s only TV, but there is a taste of what society hopes for or expects. I can’t see a Western audience wanting to see that or perceiving it as heroic in any sense.

It reminds me of Yuri. If I imagine those are the kinds of expectations and experiences which shaped him during his early years, he makes total sense to me. And my father would have been drawn to him–my father who was dressed as a girl until the age of five. My father would have seen Yuri and thought, “Now this us a real man.”

Study

I’ve had some inter-related ideas these days about the mental illness in my family, disorganized attachment, trauma, and about how precisely they converge. I’ve been very quiet, in a way. For years, I’ve done the Julia Cameron thing and written in a journal every morning, or very nearly every morning, and lately I haven’t. I’ve decided it starts my day off badly and there are other things I could do that might help me. Sometimes I write in the evening instead and sometimes I don’t. I haven’t written on here either, but I’ve been going about my mornings and my days and nonetheless have moments of insight which interest me. I’ll follow up in a separate post on that.

What I have been doing for the last few weeks is studying the languages which interest me, or some of them. Part of this has to do with a sense that I have some kind of block about the National Language, and I am not progressing in it beyond what I learned in the first year I came because I think I can’t learn it. And I think I can’t learn it, because I think I can’t learn a language.

And I thought if I turned to languages I have tried before, I might get past this or at least discover the root of the problem. I’ve been doing this for about two weeks. I didn’t start out with a particular goal. I just thought, “Well, let’s see.”

At first, I spent 15 minutes each on five languages in the morning, mostly using Duolingo, but also using a flashcard program and watching videos on Youtube–3-G has changed our lives here in Y-town, and this year I have resigned myself to spending more on data, because it’s the easiest way to stay sane. In the past, the fee structure was just prohibitive and the network wasn’t stable or fast enough to invest time in using.

Then in the evening, I spent more time on three others. This was much harder to do, because I’m tired and there are more interruptions, but it also emerged that I was interested in more and more languages and I gradually began to think this is just too much.

The thing about it was that something very interesting happened as I learned languages which are related. There was interference, as I struggled to find the right word in the target language instead of, say, Russian when I was studying Ukrainian. Or French when I was studying Romanian. But there was also a sense of an order and a sorting out of things developing, as though I was dusting off old files and returning them to the proper place.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I wonder about my past quite a lot–what really happened and what have I imagined to fill in the gaps? In the memories I do have, what was going on in them? What do the pictures and the sensations all mean?

So one experience that resonates for me, and the resonance seems to me as though it has meaning, regards something I read as a child in a book from my grandmother’s house. I suppose I was around 8. I’m not really sure. The story involved a child survivor of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto who was adopted by Americans, and after he started school in the United States, at some point after he had learned some English, a visitor who spoke fluent German came to the school.

He had told all of the other children at his school that he spoke fluent German, and he was excited to show off this exotic talent of speaking another language in the midst of a culturally monolithic farming community. But the visitor was not really able to understand him, and it turned out the boy did not speak German. He spoke a kind of pidginized amalgam of Polish, German, and Yiddish which had allowed him to communicate in an environment where these three languages were widely spoken, but was totally incomprehensible to someone who knew no Polish and no Yiddish.

I think this story resonated for me, because maybe I didn’t speak Russian. Maybe I knew some Bulgarian words and some Polish and a bit of Russian and a smattering of Ukrainian and this allowed me to communicate basic needs and desires as well as catch the gist of what people said, but did not lead to my separating out what I knew into separate, full and complex languages with their own grammatical rules and consistent sound systems.

But I let the pleasure of that separating-out process go, because I thought I had better focus. I thought I needed some goals. What was I trying to do, aside from entertaining myself in a positive way? Which is also okay, but it’s clarifying to have some goals.

It was hard to narrow my studying down, and I’m aware if I spent more time on a single language, I would get farther in it, but I can’t let them go. So I spend 20 minutes on three languages in the morning, and an hour on one in the evening, although this has predictably turned out to be harder to do even though, theoretically, I have more time. I’m more tired. There are more interruptions.

I’ve been doing this for a week, so it’s too soon to say how it will go, but I will tell you that my own activities tire me out. Some people talk about needing to set boundaries with other people, and certainly there are things I’d rather not do and I need to decline. But I can spend all of my time alone, pursuing only my own pleasures, and I exhaust myself.

I think the exhaustion is related to fear, and when I do things I like, I am actually afraid the whole time I’m doing them, and it’s the fear that wears me out. And I also think I probably can’t do things I enjoy without feeling afraid, that I can perhaps kill time in an inoffensive, fairly mindless way which is neither upsetting nor very pleasurable, or I can do things I like and feel scared. And those are really the choices. Feeling refreshed and energized is not really one of the options.

 

Attention

I have been thinking for a long time about the desire for attention. It seems a crucial part of the dysfunction which runs in my family and preoccupies me.

Naturally, we all have a desire for attention. Traumatized children may feel they need more attention than non-traumatized children because they have a heightened sense of the world as dangerous and themselves as at risk and in need of protection.

But I feel there is something more to it. The Boy, when I suddenly pricked up my ears because C was talking about her father to her grandmother (which she rarely does), immediately began to play with his whistle beside me. (This was a year ago, but I still wonder about it.)

VP Ma’am, when C suddenly began to text something urgently, asked if I was bored, and sought to re-engage my attention.

As though I became suddenly more noticeable to the actors when I became engaged in something else, in contrast to having diffuse and unfocused attention. It wasn’t so much that they wanted my attention, but they noticed the loss of my attention when I paid attention to something else.

I have students who make noises or whistle when I write on the blackboard or look down at the textbook. You might think they are just trying to get away with something, but they tell me with an air of contriteness that they feel lonely.

This seems so much my mother as well, lying in bed reading the whole day, but suddenly angry at me for “burying my nose in a book” when she finally came out of her bedroom and noticed me.

I have an explanation today. I was thinking about it, because they have something going on at the Holy Site again–I don’t know what. There’s an archery or lawn darts tournament going on as well. It’s loud, because the monastery has invested in a powerful sound system so that religious rituals can now be heard throughout our small town.

I began to think noise didn’t used to bother me so much. It’s true the sound system is new, but the staff room is a torture chamber as well, and I used to put on headphones and carry on with life. (At least there was only one sound then.) Now headphones are painful too. So I rooted around the internet for information on sound sensitivities and I thought, “I think this is about my sinuses.”

My allergies have been worse than usual this year as well–kicked off perhaps last year by the mass burning of poplar, cedar and cypress trees because they can cause allergies. No one thought burning them might cause the particles to become airborne and aggravate the allergies of sensitive people like myself….

The thing is coming around to thinking my ears hurt more in response to loud noises because they are swollen made them hurt less. It was like the song you can’t get out of your head until you complete that bit of melody you had forgotten. It required sustained attention to myself.

“It hurts like this, in response to that, there is a ringing at these times, but not at others…” This is what VP Ma’am and The Boy and the whistling kids will not allow me to do, and is part of what has become my working model of significant others: they don’t want me to pay attention to myself.

And the reason they don’t want me to pay attention to myself is because it makes them noticed I’m not paying attention to them, and the reason they want all eyes on them all the time is that they are using other people’s brains to compensate for a deficiency in their mentalizing system caused by abuse.

The result is a tendency in myself and people like me to either ignore potential problems within the self or exaggerate them.

But to get back to the root of it, the problem is transferred intergenerationally. The parent and child mirror each other’s perceptions. It begins with a parent whose interactions with the child prompt intense fear or pain within themselves. The child sees this and understands themselves as the cause of the fear or pain: they internalize an image of themselves as horrifying or frightening. The sense of the self as horrifying leads to an avoidance of seeing the self or one’s own intentions.

It is not possible to get through life this way: what is necessary, then, is someone else to be there to see your intentions. To put it in a simple way, if you cannot see that you are thirsty, you need someone else to be there to know that you need to get a drink of water. However, you cannot begin to see that person’s perspective, because then you will imagine they see you in the same way that you see yourself–as horrifying, evil or frightening. You need to get a drink of water without thinking they noticed you were thirsty. There is a starvation for attention, in that case, because you are borrowing their mentalizing capacity, while at the same time an avoidance of a sense of awareness.

I have been thinking recently about my feelings, especially my feelings under stress. I have been trying to re-state my interpretations of self-states as emotions rather than my being. For example, when I perceive myself as worthless, I feel helpless. When I perceive myself as bad, I feel guilty. I have been wondering how these ways of understanding my own state developed in the first place and I believe now I know: because I wasn’t permitted to see my experience from my own point of view. I needed to maintain my mother’s mentalizing capacity within my brain. When I felt helpless, it was because she saw me as unimportant. When I felt guilty, she did think I had done something bad. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

It’s not that I hadn’t considered before that I was doing this, but I hadn’t been able to guess at the reason. Now I can, and it’s the same thing as my noise sensitivity: like the bit of forgotten memory I have now remembered.

 

Fearful Attachment

There is a dog that comes to school. He belongs to VP Ma’am. Keep in mind, she has mixed feelings about pets and feels sorry for animals and feeds them, but doesn’t really like them. So it’s her dog, but don’t imagine great affection between them.

He comes to school, as  lot of dogs, and it’s probably partly about company and partly about free food, because whatever the kids don’t eat, they just dump on the ground for the dogs. Since parents here are often worried about their kids getting enough to eat (an era of starvation probably remains lodged in their subconscious), our dogs are well fed.

What strikes me about the dog is that, unlike other dogs around here that are kept as pets, he won’t allow anyone to touch him. He does not believe anything good can come of physical contact.

It brings home to me how, in human beings, dysregulated parents too unpredictable to decipher create children who have worked out what distance it is safe to be from other people to stay safe while getting enough of their needs met to survive.

I wrote in a previous post about something I read regarding abused children, especially children taken into care having intrusions during the Strange Situation Procedure in which they approach the stranger for comfort and then, en route, collapse in confusion and fear. They really are caught between two instincts: to seek proximity and to flee.

When I think back on C’s simmering anger, sometimes it was because I had crossed that line of what felt safe or, in some cases, she had crossed that line: she was braced to defend herself. I don’t know how to describe the change in my perspective. Declarative knowledge of how traumatized children experience the world alone lacks sufficient detail to be convincing. You need to know how feelings feel, what it makes faces look like, and the kinds of experiences which lead to those reactions. I had not fully grasped the reality of it.

In college, I had a much older friend enrolled alongside the rest of us emerging adults, and she was caught up in a destructive relationship with one of my classmates. Once, she described the classmate as, “Come here, Now go away.” Traumatized people can rely on exerting inappropriate or excessive forms of control, but I don’t know that giving conflicting messages about closeness was exactly a form of control. Equally likely, she was responding to her own instinctive responses to needing support, but feeling afraid during an approach.

I also think maintaining the distance that kept you safe as a child is likely to be taught to the next generation, however distance is maintained–whether you skate lightly over the surface in conversation, or strive for perfection so as not to have any vulnerability, or avoid in-person or real-time interaction. I think the child who finds the right balance between need and fear grows up to be a parent who teaches this same balance to her children, because memories of parent-child interactions surface when she is with her own child. Fear of her parent colours into fear of her child. It’s also carried into romantic relationships, because these are support-seeking/support-giving (attachment) relationships.

It may look and talk like independence, but it is not. It is fear.

In couples therapy, we once completed an exercise in which we drew our personal space in the carpet with our fingers. Mine was so small, I couldn’t stay inside it. What the therapist missed was my wish that at least my own body might be safe. It’s not that I don’t want any buffer space between me and the rest of the world, but I had never had the right to any space at all.

My partner at the time said that we would both need to leave the room for her to feel safe–not even a bedroom-sized therapy room was enough.

I realize now the default for mentalizing other people’s desires and intentions on her part was so determined by previous, abusive or exploitative experiences that she really could not contemplate what anyone might be trying to do in the present. Which, of course, makes it even more scary and confusing, because if you aren’t trying to harm or exploit her, you become an inscrutable mystery.

One of my realizations a few years ago, which sounds slight, but has massive implications for my social life, is that I am unlikely to be the only one in any group to have been traumatized. It’s not me in the midst of normal people. It’s me with a scattering of people who have psychological issues similar to mine, and I had better get it worked out what’s going on with all of us, because I can’t just excise all of them out of my life.

Even if I don’t want to be close to other people with my issues–and they are the ones most likely to understand what I am going through–I work with them. They sit in my classroom.

It helps a lot to understand why people might be acting on instincts to move forward or flee (or fight) and to be mindful when it’s happening so that I can recognize it and react in a gentler way. It should also be helpful to see when I am caught up in these conflicting instincts myself.