What is this?

My blog is really a record of what I am doing to cope with complex trauma. Very few people read it. I do have readers, but they are not reading my new posts. They are reading old ones. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to continue with the blog at all–actually what is the point, when I am my most faithful audience?

But here I am anyway.

Today was especially difficult. Anyone who reads regularly knows I find most mornings difficult, and it’s a frequent topic of posts, because I wake up and try to cope with it. Some days are better. Some days are worse. Some days I don’t cope at all and just get on with life, because that’s what needs to be done.

Today was worse.

I have been thinking recently about the multiple, incoherent models of attachment that come into play when I need support, because this clarifies my experiences for me. I think a common way to cope with these incoherent models is often to try to stay within the “good” one: the worthy, lovable support-seeker and the loving, competent rescuer. I think I tried to do that for a long time. I think I was encouraged by those around me to keep doing it.

I am working actively against that now, but instead to try to create coherent models of myself and others. It is not particularly easy.

My other thought recently is to consider that the times when I feel especially bad may be because I have a bad feeling–so I aim to particularize the badness so that it feels smaller and more manageable. I felt bad this morning–like my whole self was bad–and I thought perhaps I am having a negative feeling. Maybe I feel ashamed or maybe I feel guilty. I have been doing this recently: thinking, maybe this is a feeling, and maybe I feel that way about something in particular. Maybe I did something I feel is wrong and feel I guilty about and then to wonder what that is. This emphasizes myself as an intentional being, as a person actively making sense of the world.

So this morning I began to think that perhaps the experience of abuse taught me to misidentify my emotions. In an abusive family, if you do something wrong or that your parents don’t like, they generally do not tell you what you did wrong or what they didn’t like. They tell you that you are a terrible person, so that you feel guilty about your existence, rather than about something you did. One step away from that is to mistakenly think that you are guilt itself, because that is what feels bad to you.

Your parent tells you that you are bad, because of a family structure which does not support mentalizing and sees people the way the parent sees themselves–as creatures buffeted about by overwhelming impulses, rather than humans who can make decisions about what they do. The problem then becomes what impulses you have, not recognizing that we have thousands of impulses every day, and there is this layer of the person which is intended to decide which impulses to act on and which to restrain. Without that layer of choice, you become whatever idiot thing pops into your head to do.

What I am getting at is that one cannot control having urges, wishes or desires. If the parent sees the child as being their urges, then the child is likely to feel pretty ashamed. You feel guilty (for example) for wanting cookies–and who doesn’t want cookies?–rather than sneaking into the kitchen and eating 20 of them, when you could probably choose not to do that.

 

 

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Go away, don’t leave me

I learned something interesting today. Peter Fonagy has these very short videos on YouTube about mentalization, borderline personality disorder (which I think my mother has) and childhood maltreatment. They are short, so I find myself thinking I can spare the data.

In one of them, he says what we didn’t know before was that the attachment system shuts down our ability to think about other people’s thoughts and feelings–to mentalize. In other words, when we need support we stop being able to think about whether other people are trustworthy or not. Evolution banks on the idea that in times of stress an unreliable companion is better than no companion.

So the maltreated child feels constantly frightened, constantly in need of support, constantly compelled to seek proximity to a parent who hurts them. I began to think about C and how she is very often extremely fearful once she is with me. Not all the time. There was a point in 2016 when I used to visit her at our local high school where she was a boarding student and she seemed to feel safe.

But at other times, she has been very disorganized in her behaviour towards me. Emblematic of this for me is the time I first came to see her at school to tell her that her request to be given a place as a boarding student (she was already at the hostel, but without the formalities completed). She came running down the starts to see me, and when I actually made eye contact, her eyes seemed to tremble in fear, and she looked away and began to talk to VP Ma’am, who scolded her for not talking to me.. But C was trying to manage her fear by disengaging from me.

So when I was far away, she felt pulled to come closer, and when she was close, she felt like running away. It is disorganized attachment at its very essence, but it struck me, listening to Peter Fonagy, that this makes sense. The biological imperative to seek out an attachment figure for support demands proximity, but once proximity is achieved and the attachment system is deactivated to some extent, the defense system begins to notice that this is someone potentially harmful. This is someone who sometimes hurts me or who, based on my mental model of what attachment figures do, is likely to hurt me.

Once proximity is achieved, the defense system comes back online and I think this is that feeling you have as you begin to get close to someone that maybe you cannot trust them, and you start to back away again.

At midterm, this really troubled me, C seemed to be very fearful of me, and it really made me think maybe this is something about me. Maybe I am actually harming her. I am far from a perfect person, and I have my own trauma I am struggle with, and it does have an impact on the children. But Fonagy’s idea that the attachment system shuts down our ability to evaluate the trustworthiness of our support sources explains why she is more open when is physically far away from me–she wants to come closer then. She is compelled to seek out support.

Come closer, and she begins to take my perspective again, to be able to think about how she sees me and how i might see her, but this is shaped by other experiences that predate me and that I don’t actually even know about. There is this sort of fossil in her mind, a record not consciously but implicitly remembered, of being harmed by other caretakers and these memories cause her to want to flee or to fight.

The fragmentation of the self and others that seems to cause is terrible. You imagine the person from a distance and they seem wonderful, because attachment does that. Attachment causes us to anticipate the reward of proximity.  We get there, it quiets a bit, and our defense system starts to tap into experiences of danger and along with it the view of ourselves and others experienced during abuse. So, in my case, and I think in the case of other people with disorganized attachment, a view of myself created when my caretaker saw me as a threat.

Jogging

I started jogging again. I used to do this when I was younger, before I started teaching. I stopped when I began a new career, because I lived very far from my school and I was taking a hour or more bus ride and then walking a mile and a half. I suppose at the time I began, I was also still quite sick. I don’t know why I was sick, actually.

I think I may have had typhoid, not known what it was for a long time, and consequently not known how to take care of myself and then spiraled into a physical decline. But I may not remember the sequence of events correctly.

(Incidentally, I have had typhoid since, been properly diagnosed, given advice and medication and learned what you do is rest. Rest and eat right and you get better. Push through it and eat badly and you will stay sick for a very long time.)

I started jogging again because Country Xers have become more fitness-conscious and I thought I won’t look like the weird foreigner yet again. (It gets tiring.) And I don’t walk a mile and a half to school one-way.

Another reason I began to think about exercise again is that I have been thinking that I may have, fairly early on, disengaged from the physical world in favour of a mental world, because the physical world of mortal bodies encapsulated so much grief and pain. My body was not dead or in pieces. I don’t think it’s possible to consider my own body being alive an healthy without touching on all of the emotions that I have about dead bodies.

And actual death is only the start of the body-related trauma I could summon up.

Now I feel a little like I can tackle a little more of this pain surrounding mortality and loss, and I began to consider my body. I don’t have any particular feeling about my body, but movement can bring pleasure.

So I went jogging on Sunday and again on Monday. I took a break on Tuesday, since I am just starting this up after years of inactivity. I went again today.

It’s a nice way to start the day, and Sunday and Monday, it brought energy to the morning. Tuesday I had a bad day generally–I don’t know if this had anything to do with jogging or not. Today, I went, but I didn’t want to especially. I felt sad. I wanted to lie under the covers and cry until it was time to start cooking.

I considered this when I was jogging–and I think this is something similar to what DBT encourages. I thought it was possible for me to wrench my attention forcibly away from my negative internal state and notice the birds chirping and the trees and the clouds hugging the mountain tops, and I would feel more cheerful. I didn’t think it would be a real cheerfulness though. It would be something more of a mask, and the sadness was likely to remain as though shut up in a room.

I thought about my reading lately of the pathway disorganized attachment can take and that some children become overbright and cheerful with their parents in an effort to conceal negative feelings the parent cannot soothe. I thought maybe forcing myself to see how nice everything was is a kind of controlling/caregiving attachment with myself. Nothing wrong with caregiving. It’s the element of papering over negative feelings.

I also thought about my internal state, this kind of whining, clinging toddler feeling of “I don’t want to….” And I thought it’s the kind of difficult-to-soothe behaviour of a child with anxious/resistant attachment: I am not able to feel better, because I don’t trust the soothing. There seemed to be these two poles: I can’t be soothe, and I am tempted to paper over the distress because I don’t believe it can be soothed.

This would happen if I hadn’t learned enough about myself to know what would soothe me, which makes sense to me. It makes sense that i would lack an internal trust in myself because having my inner state be forbidden for so long has prevented me from learning enough about how I feel and why to know what would help me. I tried things that were supposed to help and didn’t for too long.

I have gathered that the benefit of security is that it fosters reflection: we are able to stay with problems long enough to adjust our behaviour, but not so long we drown in the emotions of it. Preoccupied attachment exaggerates emotions, while sacrificing the cognitive ability to consider sequence or cause and effect. Dismissive attachment moves past the experience too quickly to learn anything from it in order to avoid stirring up emotions the individual may not have the resources or support to manage.

I have been working at my ability to remain reflective and in a balanced mental place for a long time. I don’t know if I am actually better at it or not. I do think in order to work through the trauma I have, I will need to be extraordinary good at staying in a balanced place.

I thought all of this and as I came to the end of the run, I did feel better

IWM

People use memories of previous experiences to plan their action in the present moment–whether consciously or unconsciously. Over time, they form an internal working model (IWM) of others and of themselves–an image of the most likely other and an image of the self.

In Disorganized Attachment (DA), the child’s attachment and defense system (fight-flight-freeze) are activated simultaneously, so that the child is in the untenable position of being seemingly pulled to the caregiver as though by a magnet and also compelled to defend herself against the caregiver.

It means that children with DA do not develop a single, coherent model of their parent or themselves, but multiple models which are activated when in later life they need support. The majority of children with DA learn to suppress their attachment system, so that these confusing, incoherent and painful models are not repeatedly activated. They sometimes do this by learning to rely on other, competing behavioural systems so that they do learn an organized way of relating to their parents.

The two common evolutions of DA is toward punitive/controlling attachment in which the child criticizes, humiliates or embarrasses the parent or caregiving/controlling attachment in which the child takes on an adult role in relating to the parent. The first style relies on the ranking system in which dominance and submission are sorted out through competition. The purpose of all of the criticism is to indicate superiority and higher status. The caregiving system is separate from the attachment system, which has as its goal careseeking.

When I learned this, I imagined to myself that DA is frequently inherited. It is very common in high-risk populations, such as my parents. I imagined, specifically, my parents relating to me in punitive/controlling ways and relying on a ranking system to avoid activating their own incoherent memories of attachment.

The feelings of shame and worthlessness that I sometimes struggle seem to me to come from these moments when my parents rejected my need for support and relied on their ranking systems to push away their own incoherent models of attachment.

It’s painful when your parent belittles you in times of need, rather than supporting you. But what I mean is that my dad silenced his memories of attachment so forcefully through the over-reliance on his ranking system that I felt I wasn’t even a human being. Shame is about an expectation of a lack of connection. It is not the same as guilt. It comes from feeling there is something about you other people will not understand or have compassion for. It is a sense of submission in the face of isolation–because a human alone is vulnerable.

My father did not have compassion for my sense of being subhuman. It makes sense I felt shame.

I’ll tell you something else. I feel, in retrospect, that many of the therapy experiences I had (whether group, couple or individual) reinforced the incoherence of my internal working models. The goal seemed to be, not to integrate these incoherent images of myself and others, but to try to stay within the “good” part of the split.

So I felt discouraged from accepting or having compassion for myself during abusive experiences when I felt shame. Feeling shame has nothing to do with causation. That is guilt. Shame results from isolation, sometimes only a mental isolation. “I don’t think you will understand my story or what happened to me. I didn’t feel understood at the time. I felt isolated and misunderstood.”

I felt so painfully inhuman that I can only think how to show you that kind of pain by harming my body. Only a physical wound seems to be something others might understand.

The experience itself of telling the story is likely to be shame-inducing. I felt the therapist may not understand or have compassion for the pain of the experience, and so the feeling I was likely to have would have been one of submission: imagine telling the story like a dog with a tail between its legs, sneaking into enemy territory, hoping for the chance at a scrap of food.

As we get older, shame begins to become associated with guilt: our developing conscience causes us to believe that others won’t understand moral failings. They won’t know why we drink too much or lose our temper. But a child is not at such an advanced level of thinking: the child is ashamed because they seem to be the only one in a situation and other people are being mean about it. Shame becomes moral because we share a set of expectations about how people should behave.

It feels freeing to accept shame as a part of myself.

Unfairness

I took a nap yesterday. This is always somewhat of a risky thing to do because, however tired I am, what happens when I wake up is sometimes worse than being sleepy all day. I usually wake up disoriented and with incomprehensible emotions. It does not always go away before bedtime.

So I woke up like that. All evening, I felt bad. I felt very, very bad–so confused I felt almost sick. And The Boy made high-pitched noises while I felt very, very bad. I wanted to pay some attention to myself, to process what I was feeling so that I could feel better, but my energy mostly went to controlling my temper.

I have found he does this. When I am intent on something else, he begs for attention in ways he knows will make me feel angry.

The evening was painful and difficult, but uneventful. I kept my temper.

I was cooking dinner and I had to be near the sink, which is difficult for me anyway. The tap leaks. I have heard the men who work at school can fix this, but I don’t have any money right now to pay them.

I felt very, very angry, and I tried to pay some attention to this. I had actual thoughts about this, which is rare. I don’t usually have any thoughts about my emotions. There is a disconnect that develops between my thoughts and my emotions when I am stressed.

I knew I was angry about waking up. The tap and the high-pitched noises didn’t help, but it began with waking up. So I began to think about that.

I thought about foster care, that I was angry about it. Why did I have to go somewhere when my parents were being bad? Why didn’t they have to leave. I missed my dolls and my toys and probably the cat–there might have been one.

Knowing myself, this kind of thinking makes sense–that I wouldn’t connect people with care, or understand these new people were intended to care for me. I wanted my possessions so that I could use them to care for myself.

Controlling attachment

I read some interesting things today. Fonagy’s research ties together the most interesting and resonant theories on trauma and mental illness I have found. Reading one article opens up a rabbit warren of new and interesting ideas.

I read them with some degree of desperation, as I am trying to figure out how to help The Boy, who pretended he was sick on Friday so that he could bring his friend to my house and play rather than sit in class. Then he stole money from me. I had to attend an event at school last night for 3 hours and he disappeared, taking the key with him, leaving the house unlocked.

C’s fear of me at midterm I still find difficult to understand.

The Girl goes through various odd and intense expressions when she sees me, but has not returned.

I don’t always feel prepared to stay in my right mind. There is a purpose behind my reading, although I also just like it.

Fonagy researches what happens to infants with disorganized attachment symptoms as they grow up. Most of them don’t continue to show signs of disorganization: they develop what are called controlling strategies instead, where the child works hard to direct the parent’s attention in ways that seem more typical of a parent directing a child.

He speculates this is because the child suppresses the attachment system (which has care-seeking as its goal) by activating other behavioural systems that compete with attachment.

Researchers have divided these controlling strategies into two types: punitive (where the child humilates, criticizes and embarrasses the parent) and caregiving (where the child is overly cheerful and solicitous in interactions with the parent).

There are several other behavioural systems which govern the behaviour of all mammals: ranking (dominance/submission), caregiving, sexual reproduction, and cooperation. The child using a punitive strategy is relying on the ranking system in order to avoid invoking a terrifying and confusing internal working model of the self and others which is contained within attachment experiences.

This explains to me some of the strange ways that C sometimes interacts with me: where she orders me around, for example: “Sit here.” “Go inside.” It also explains The Girl’s chronic irritability and dissatisfaction, in which she seems to imagine life as a struggle in which (for example) some people win in the contest over the window-seat and some people lose and, if there is not enough salt in the lunch, it is a grave transgression.

They are trying desperately to control the impulse to seek support by doing something else instead. It isn’t just that they don’t know whether I will be dangerous or not, but maybe that they think I am not dangerous, and what happens in the mind when they give in to the urge to seek safety is too terrible. In other words, it’s not the outer world that feels dangerous, but the inner world.

Abuse

Pretty much every morning, I feel bad. Not every morning, but many mornings. What I try to do at these times is to keep my mind working in a balanced way. The theory (my theory) is that the mind naturally seeks resolution and coherence and it will find them if allowed to do that, but stress creates problems in the integration of mental systems, so that emotions and cause and effect become disconnected. This makes resolution and coherence impossible. So I have been doing that for years in hopes that my mind will learn to work better, and I still feel shitty in the mornings.

This morning I felt terrible, and I tried to keep my mind working in a balanced way and I thought when this happens (mornings, I mean), I feel worthless. I feel like merely a body whose consciousness and intentionality does not matter. I imagined waking up as a child and wanting to reach out to the other people and it seemed that way–as though I could expect to be ignored.

Well, I don’t think my mother was particularly happy to see me in the mornings.

Anyway, I thought about actual abuse and how that felt. I had to do something at the sink, and the running faucet (which leaks) creates all kinds of stress for me. And I felt that–I felt that sense of being only a body without intentionality, and I thought that’s because when my mother abused me, I could no longer understand her state. She was expressing herself in her actions about as intensely as she could by nearly killing me, and I could not grasp what she was trying to communicate. A sense of anyone having any intentions was lost. Not because they didn’t exist, but because I couldn’t understand them.

And I thought she was pseudomentalizing at these times. She was trying to express to me her anger and frustration, but what she wanted to communicate had become uncoupled from the real world. She no longer recognized that expressing her frustration in that way was going to kill me. She wanted to express her desire to kill me without my actually dying.