Target of Blame

I have been writing grumpy posts about my lack of productivity and direction during my semi-holiday. (We are working half-days). And then not posting them because they sound so grumpy.

I had a nap yesterday afternoon, and then slept soundly for more than 9 hours. I wondered about all of this, at my fatigue and the aimlessness and also, to be honest, the sadness, and then I had what felt like a Eureka kind of moment. And the aimlessness and grumpiness and sadness felt worth it. Who knows. Sometimes that happens and the “insight” which felt so life-altering evaporates the next day.

I was reading about high conflict personalities today. I can’t remember the reason. I stumbled across it trying to find answers to questions I had about other things.

I ran across a sort of pop psychology idea about high conflict personalities and Targets of Blame. You can look it up and read about it. Not very deep, nor very scientific, but useful descriptions of observable behaviour.

Targets of Blame sound very similar to extrojects and the two together helped me to understand some of the dynamic with my mother and that I have seen with other people around me.

They have elements which, taken together, interest me. First of all, the extroject is relied upon as an attachment figure to meet the needs of the other person. One of these needs relates to the person’s childhood experience of not being accurately mirrored or not having the mirroring “marked.” The result is that feelings appear to be “out there.” So, sometimes this relationship with the extroject is characterized by projective identification: the individual intentionally (but perhaps unconsciously) provokes or manipulates the extroject into feeling what the other person feels.

The frightened person behaves in a frightening manner so that his or her own fear shows up on the extroject’s face, and in that way the frightened person feels less alone: the fear is now “out there” and seems real and important again.

Or, the individual uses emotional contagion to accomplish the same thing. I used to wonder why VP Ma’am used to make me more stressed when I already felt stressed: I couldn’t get anything done that would solve the problem until I calmed down again. She was exaggerating her emotions so that I would feel what she felt. This had nothing to do with making anyone safer. She felt safer, because I felt afraid, just as she did. She felt less alone.

In the situation of the Target of Blame–that role has to do with the individual’s very fragile regulatory skills, but probably also a history of emotional or physical victimization, so that they have experienced chronic, ongoing danger as a consequence for wrongdoing. Shame and guilt then become frightening and one way to cope with a source of fear that you can’t escape, which is the situation you are in as an abused child or domestic violence, is to distance yourself from the danger psychologically.

That’s the case, I think, with parts. I won’t be punished–it’s not me having those feelings or that experience. It’s someone else. In the case of the Target of Blame, it’s a real person who has committed the “crime” and not an imagined part of the self. They are there to project wrongdoing onto and then to punish in the place of the endangered self.

I was thinking about all of this and thinking what all of that might have been like for me as a child, because I think my mother did all of that to me. The sense of badness partly comes from being a Target of Blame and then is reinforced by the “bad” things I had to do: that becomes connected in a child’s mind. It’s easier to understand that than to understand a parent’s emotional triggers.

I think this also creates massive anxiety and an obsessive kind of watchfulness: Is my parent okay? And am I being punished? Did I just commit some kind of sin? Did I open myself up to blame just now? How am I being perceived?

You never know when you will become the lightning rod for your parent’s rage over their own unresolved losses.

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Fight, flight, freeze

I ran across an article forwarded to me from my bloggy friend with adopted children. I can’t find it now, but it was about helping traumatized children at school.

I was in a long meeting, with mostly the same three men listening to themselves talk, which is kind of how meetings go. I am not sure if that’s true everywhere or just here. I don’t know exactly what they are saying all the time, but I sometimes feel convinced it’s the same thing they said last time. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the room is browsing nonsense on the phones…just as I was this time.

In the article, it struck me that it provided descriptions of how trauma responses actually feel. It had never occurred to me that they do, or maybe not in the depth or complexity it does. Of course, they do. Freeze feels like your brain is slowing down. No action seems to be right.

It hadn’t occurred to me that trauma responses feel like anything. It’s easy to talk about them mechanically, as merely impulses that move you towards behaviour which enhance survival. It hadn’t occurred to me that trauma responses can feel sad.

I had the idea to track this just in my own mind. I am rushing around, breathing somewhat shallowly, very actively doing things…I am actually in flight mode.

The self-directed rage is fight.

The article mentions a state called, “submit.” I connect this to the behaviour of dogs: we have a lot of dogs here, since it’s a town. Not mostly pet dogs, but native dogs. I went jogging yesterday and the dog who decided to go along with me crouched in a drain when another, larger dog aggressively approached. That’s submit, and I believe the emotion that goes with this is shame. It’s instinctive.

In the case of the dog, the transgression was territory. She had strayed out of her territory. The larger dog was asserting his right to it. I think the people I grew up with had their own ideas about what the rules were. They didn’t check in with other people enough.

The end result, for a child, is to grow up unsure of what the rules even are. If I think I have this particular right and I stand up for it, will I be supported?

This is helpful for me, because what everyone wants to say about trauma is, “You didn’t do anything wrong.” And then I begin to wonder, “Did I?” I don’t think the shame is about having done something wrong. It’s about someone big and scary being angry at you.

Another thought I have had recently is about the inaccurate emotional mapping I have because of my mother’s lack of empathy: I have been thinking when I feel worthless, I actually feel helpless and powerless. As a child, this may have been the feeling I had in “freeze” states and the thing is that my mother may have, in those moments, told me I was bad and worthless and so I may have begun to think that the feeling itself was the source of her lack of responsiveness, rather than the other way around. Cause and effect became confused, and I understood my helplessness in the face of her anger as the cause of it.

Of course, once you get hold of that idea, it’s easy to find support for it. We all have imperfections and failures we could call up as evidence. But it didn’t start there. It started with a mother who appeared to recognize your helplessness and to name it worthlessness

Albanian

Lately, we have been working only half days and life is fairly easy, but I manage to somehow get very little done at home. I began to remind myself that the “work” I am doing is not as straightforward as I might have led myself to believe.

I am learning Albanian as a kind of experiment in how exposure to it feels. I have had at times a sense of resonance, and other times there isn’t any. I’m just learning new words, different grammar. I am sure I never knew Albanian, if I am right in thinking I was exposed to it at all as a child, the way I knew Russian. And yet a child part of me has said in response to it: “Oh, now we can talk.” Maybe there is something there.

The thing is people talk to small children in their native language, whether or not the child understands that language, in a way they won’t to adults. So it’s completely possible I heard it from someone important to me without having much knowledge of the language itself, and it’s also possible that the sound of the language was something I associated with that person–in the way you associate a scent with someone–but it’s purely sensory. It’s not communicative.

On one level, I have this vacation kind of project–something to do with my free time–and at a more authentic level it’s really about how do I feel about hearing this? The learning is to occupy the rest of my mind that is not necessarily always so fascinated with emotions while I am doing that.

One of the thoughts that has crossed my mind is that the girls I remember–and I do think it was a girl who spoke Albanian to me–are not as uncomplicatedly positive figures for me as I might prefer to think. Their role in my life was to help me manage myself while I was abused. They may be frightening to remember, because they hurt me. They were my best hope and I had no other tenable option except to trust them, but they hurt me.

My other thought is that what I remember about Nata may, in fact, have been different people. My current image of her may be a composite of different girls. I have at times seemed to remember someone older (relative to me) than Nata ought to have been, and this may be because it was not her: it was someone older. This may have been the Albanian girl who, if she existed, was clearly important to me. (How’s that for uncertainty?)

I read in an article by a therapist who works with adopted children who have attachment difficulties that very often the grief must be worked through before the trauma can be, and this seems quite accurate. It seems possible, too, that for a long time, I tried to work on the trauma without addressing the grief, and that’s why I couldn’t make any headway with it all.

I may only be able to address some of the impact of being trafficked because I have already addressed some of the grief.

Stress

I fainted yesterday. I had had a nap in the afternoon, which was interspersed with some deep trauma-related reflection (like why my father sexually abused me). I was awake, but kind of drifting still, when the neighbour boy came to the door. He tapped gently and first and went on knocking until I opened up. This is something I have learned here in Country X. There is no point in ignoring a knock on the door. They will just knock louder until you come. The idea that you may not want to answer the door, that perhaps you are in the midst of a bout of diarrhea or even meditating and do not wish to be disturbed is not, evidently, one of the options. The only explanation for your lack of response is that you are hard of hearing.

After four years, I am trained at last. Someone knocks, I get up. So I went to the door. He wanted to know when students have to come to school in the next week. The announcements were in the National Language. He ought to have a better idea of it than I do.

The thing is that he does this. Once a day, most days, he will come to my door and ask a question about whatever is on his mind related to school or class. (I teach him. He is in fourth grade.)

So I wracked my brain a little to try to remember what the students are doing next week, It’s not the first thing that jumps into my mind when I wake up. And then I began to feel light-headed. I went to sit down on a chair near the door, and then there is a little gap there in my memory, as the next thing I remember thinking is that I didn’t know why I was asleep in the livingroom with my feet in the air.

Then I saw him, and gradually it kind of came together in my mind about the knock on the door, the move towards the chair. I don’t exactly know why my feet were on what seemed to be a different chair that what I presumably aimed to sit on.

I asked him if I had fallen down. He said he was frightened, and then went on asking about next week. I sat down, tried the best I could to remember, and sent him away. It was rather odd. Usually collapsing in the middle of a conversation is a sure way to change the subject, but no, not for him.

I am not sure what caused it, and it was already Saturday afternoon and the hospital was closed, so I’ll wait until Monday to go to the doctor. This has happened before, only worse. In 2016, some other little kid came to the door (that time to give me apples, I think), I started to feel a little shaky, but kept it together until she left. I woke up in the concrete hallway banging my head and all of my limbs on the ground.

In that case, I had been sitting down, considering Yuri, and I was at some particularly intense point in considering him when the little girl  happened to knock. I was also leaving the country for the first time in three years at some point in the not-so-distant future. (I cannot remember whether my departure was weeks or months away.)

At that time, I assumed it was stress, and I didn’t think about the medical end of it–although it seemed a concussion was a real possibility. Still, there isn’t much you can do about a concussion except be patient and wait for your brain to heal.

This time, I’m not under nearly as much stress generally, although it’s possible that a knock at the door is a specific traumatic trigger for me. I feel rather fragile, wondering what’s wrong with my body–if anything.

End of the school year

Exams are over now. The students have a few days they need to come back, but things are wrapping up. We are settling into a Country X style of working, which involves long stretches of doing nothing. It kills me. I feel my life ticking away. It’s not quite so boring for them. Part of this is language and part of it is what we might choose to talk about. Many topics are of no interest to me in any language.

For Country Xers–this is my theory–the balance of attachment versus exploration is different. In developed democracies, life for children is relatively safe, and they are somewhat free to explore their inner and outer worlds. They are not likely to face life-threatening problems very often. In developing countries, life for children is dangerous, and keeping them close to helpful adults is very important, because there may be a crisis at any moment. So exploratory behaviours are strongly discouraged.

It leaves adults with a life-long habit of avoiding newness–difference is strongly suspect and there is little tolerance for fresh ideas or perspectives. The impulse to get up and do something has been firmly suppressed. At the same time, although in the present, there is little that is likely to go wrong, the need to stay close is entrenched. They do not tolerate aloneness, so few people engage in pursuits that require sustained mental effort.

So I need to find something to do.

The Boy

I came home for lunch today, and the Boy was at the bottom of the steps, waiting for me to get home. He said he wanted to stay with me again.

I was mildly annoyed. Reflecting on it, it’s like Lead Teacher putting papers on top of my arm. We normally have about an hour between the exam in the morning and the marking in the afternoon, which is why I’ve been coming home, but it all works because I prepare my lunch in the morning, eat quickly, and walk back again. It doesn’t work if have to come home and cook.

I know the source of the annoyance is their respective lack of awareness of other minds–in the case of Lead Teacher, that I am a sentient being and not a table and in The Boy’s case that I have some kind of life aside from caring for him. He’s 13. It’s not completely unusual, but as I have learned about him over the past year, he has some complications. First, he believes his thoughts are real and if he thinks something, it’s true. When in doubt, he believes his own thoughts over even his senses.

I am reminded of Fonagy’s idea that in borderline personality disorder, the person’s entire social structure is unable to sustain reflective function. He recommends that therapists who see these clients enter into therapy themselves in order to maintain their own reflective function or the therapy may work in the other direction.

After being treated like an object, I think I begin to treat other people as objects as well. I become machine-like. It’s something to be mindful of. I don’t want to treat people like tables just because of Lead Teacher putting papers on my arms…not that it’s that simple, but I think you know what I mean.

Nëntori

This is a song. Arilena Ara sings it, and you can find it on YouTube in many different versions, including English. The words mean, “I hate you, November.” It’s about wanting time to pass, because in time things might get better. Nëntori means November.

Nentori

I usually hate October, because that’s when the trauma symptoms start up in earnest, but I was reminded there was a time before Nata died when October wasn’t like this for me and then a time after she died when it was November and I didn’t know what to do except allow the grief to subside. She died in the early hours of November 1 and then after that it was November. In October, she was still alive and in November she was dead. I cannot really remember a time before I grieved for her, but there was one.

So it makes sense to me that a song about hating November would resonate. It doesn’t completely make sense that the song would be in Albanian. I wonder about this.

In my mind, the sensory pieces are not connected to declarative memory. My executive function was not developed enough to sequence sensory information to form memories independently, and it was overtaxed by the experience of trauma itself. I have a feeling of resonance and I don’t know what to make of it. Nata was Russian, but I suppose not everyone was.

I have surprising thoughts about it though. The most notable of them is a feeling of a silence being broken, as though my tongue has literally been untied and I have been allowed to speak. My conscious mind remarks that words allow you to explain your experiences to someone else, who can then imagine what happened to you. One’s own words can create pictures in someone else’s mind that are similar to the pictures in your own mind. Words have the power to do that.

I suspect that because someone has said they hate November, just as I hated November after Nata died, it then seemed real to me that I felt that way. The picture in someone else’s mind which coincidentally matches my own mind makes my mind feel real. The fact that it was spoken in Albanian means to me that it has been spoken from a position of authority: the person who spoke Albanian to me was someone I trusted and believed and if she hates November, then it feels safe to me to hate November too.

None of this is actually real, but in my fractured way of making sense of things, it’s good enough to pass for reality.

It’s deeply frightening to write about this.

People with complex trauma have layers of trauma, and that’s what’s going on here. I have the trauma of a mother who was deeply impaired, and then the trauma of being trafficked, and the trauma of witnessing murder and the trauma of loss and separation all together.

One of my earliest childhood experiences was of being removed from my home: my experience of law enforcement was that they kidnap you and take you away from your home and all of your attachments. My later experiences with law enforcement was that you aren’t supposed to tell them anything and later still that if you do someone will cut out your eyes. It’s not actually words that are the problem, but the knowledge words have the power to give. There is an exchange value: with words, I can give you the knowledge I have.

So if Yuri said or the other girls simply believed, “Don’t tell,” there was already a mental structure for that in place within my own mind. There usually is for abused children, but I think mine may have its own flavour because people spoke different languages which I understood to only incomplete degrees. I may have subdivided my experiences into different languages along with the setting and concluded things can be spoken about and understood, but only in a particular language, except I don’t know the languages in which I felt free to speak about those topics—I never knew them well enough or I forgot them—so whole categories of experiences felt unspeakable to me.

The incoherent models of myself which I once had lost their ability to communicate about their experiences, even within myself. What happens when the part of me which has known tenderness and affection but only in Russian forgets Russian? What happens when the part of me who remembers how hard it was in Albanian does not know Albanian anymore?

Those elements of myself and of my experiences become doubly trapped inside.