Pause

So I am in Capital City for the annual ritual of immigration work. I don’t like most of this process, although there are parts of it I feel I am supposed to like and don’t.

This may be a whiny post. I’m sorry about that, if that’s what it turns into.

It is this little dip into luxury in some ways, but some of it makes no difference to me and some if it makes me stressed.

So there is this feeling of wrongness, as though I am wrong.

Let me dive into that for a second. Many people actually feel the same way as I do. The big cities here are exciting, because there is stuff. You can buy all kinds of things. I had an Americano this morning and back in Y-town, you can’t even find ground coffee. For $2.50, I can sit in a cafe that plays soothing music, sit in a soft chair, and be warm. In Y-town, my borrowed chair will be reclaimed by its rightful owner, because she’s moving away, and its cold all day long inside my house. I can drink Nescafe, because that’s all there is.

Luxury.

But I earn about $300 a month. $2.50 is a lot. The visa extension is about $80. My laptop broke and luckily it could be repaired for about the same amount. I bought a year’s worth of coffee because it seems to be a major comfort to me, and I need to buy new underwear. After 2 years, they are getting holes…I need to buy conditioner because in Y-town, it’s hit or miss. The stocking up for the year feels like I am just bleeding money.

And this is what other people complain about. I am not alone. So why the sense of wrongness?

Because it is only some people who feel this way. Rich people don’t complain about it. Even upper middle class people don’t complain about it.

I have mixed feelings about my expected role in society here. There is this assumption that everyone from a developed country is rolling in money and your contact with development alone will put you in the same bracket as their 1%. But I am not rich and I also don’t want to be rich. I have found wealth often spoils your personality and encourages people to lose their capacity for empathy and their resilience in the face of struggle. I am not interested.

For example, I got a lift out of Y-town with some important head engineer and I had the distinct impression he felt we were somehow the same, but we aren’t the same.

Imposter syndrome at its finest…

Being white is weird.

But I think this is also about my experiences of reward generally–i.e., attachment. Situations which promise pleasure may be risky or downright dangerous.

The thing about this all is that some people (maybe traumatised people, maybe those from narcissistic systems) is they reach out as though they intend to respond to you when in reality they are responding to themselves. As someone deprived of warmth or relationships, you seize the chance only to find put that what they want to do is something thay harms you or frightens you or humiliates you. That may not have been the plan, but the need for control or dominance or simply a stress-induced collapse of empathic capacity leads to this.

I think my past experiences lend themselves to this as a present experience, whatever the current situation: pleasure cannot be enjoyed, because of the degree of fear.

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.

 

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.”

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.

With my mother

I have zero contact with my mother and have not had any for decades, so when I think about how our relationship shaped, I have to rely on some degree of imagination. I don’t actually “remember” very much about her.

I do think our relationship is at the core of what happens to me in the mornings when I wake up. As an infant, I woke up, I felt separation anxiety, I cried. And then something upsetting and frightening happened between us.

What was it?

I don’t think it was exclusively acts of physical violence. Violence followed it. That’s my supposition, anyway.

And this is my idea about it.

Because my mother sometimes got it right, sometimes cared for me, and wasn’t entirely rejecting or unresponsive, as an infant I developed an anxious attachment to her. And I think what happens in situations of anxious attachment is that the working model of the self and others revolves around the idea that the caretaker does not want to care for you, but can be forced to do so. There is an underlying assumption of rejection.

The child exaggerates and intensifies signals of distress so that the parent cannot possible overlook the signal, but when comfort is offered, the child appears to reject it, because in fact the presence of the parent triggers feelings of rejection.

The closer the parent comes, the more painful her feelings of rejection are. Given that the parent seems willing to listen to the child, the child’s instinct is again to exaggerate and intensify this feeling: the child wants to communicate to the parent her pain at expecting rejection, and this desire to communicate strengthens the feeling. The child appears to reject the parent and expresses ambivalence about being comforted, because she is trying to regulate the intensity of her rejection pain by trying to get the parent to move away again, so that she is able to lessen this impulse to communicate her pain.

Due to the working model that the parent’s intention is not to offer comfort, and comfort is only being offered under duress, the child is overwhelmed by the pain of rejection. The child’s expectation of rejection is stronger than the reality of the comfort being offered. Anxious attachment emphasizes feelings, and in this mode, feelings strongly shape perceptions of reality. Even if the parent is not rejecting the child, the expectation of rejection is so intense, it will cause the child to perceive rejection even when it is not there.

At a sensory level, my intense expressions of distress overwhelmed my mother. More than that, my apparent ambivalence about accepting her comfort led her to feel incompetent as a parent. I think she saw me and saw failure, saw rejection, saw pain and so she learned to be afraid of me.

This became internalized as my view of myself. In moments when I saw myself, this is who I saw first: someone frightening, monstrous, malignant. Because that’s what my mother saw. I didn’t at that age have an ability to symbolically manipulate images of myself. If my mother saw me as frightening, then I was frightening. Monstrousness seemed to be who I was.

And I think I became frightened of self-awareness.

 

Dynamic

I have an idea kicking around about the dynamic which develops between a parent like mine–maybe very anxiously attached, maybe borderline, but someone whose cognitive functions are easily overwhelmed by instinct. Things seem to be a certain way, because it feels that way.

A parent like this is difficult for a child to decipher. In a more typical growing-up experience, patterns emerge. These may be stated or unstated, but most children can work out not to touch the hot stove whether or not the parent says “hot” or not, because when the child tries to touch it, the parent consistently acts in an angry way. A parent like mine doesn’t create these kinds of patterns for a child to begin to internalize, because the parent’s perceptions are so strongly biased by small elements of the experience or by traumatic linkages not evident to the child.

A sense of danger increases internal motivation to form judgments and make decisions based on less information: the man caught in the line of fire may only see the gun and not the shooter. A stressed parent’s mind may be especially likely to be biased towards making decisions based on little information, and an anxiously attached parent will do it based on the intensity of emotional experience, rather than its relevancy.

Because the parent’s perceptions of reality are so easily biased, the child has great difficulty interpreting when a situation is dangerous or not. Her task in childhood is to be able to cope more adeptly with situations of danger so that as she grows, everyday experiences are no longer dangerous for her. But, because she is unable to internalize her parent’s viewpoint, her ability to cope with danger is impaired. It becomes important to stay close to the parent, because the parent’s affect seems to be a more reliable indicator of danger than circumstances. Although it is the parent’s mind which is impenetrable, it seems to the child to render life inscrutable.

This need to stay physically close in order to get a read on life inhibits the child’s developmental need to play and experiment, and the exploratory system is impaired. He does not have the chance to develop goal-oriented behaviours: progress towards something desired is shaky. She may grow up to find frustration difficult to manage or inclined to give up too quickly. Or, she may perseverate and ignore signals which indicate maybe she should give up or try another tack.

It impairs the parent’s ability to function as well. The child’s need for constant proximity and interpretation of her experiences interferes with the adult’s pursuit of normal life. Last year, around this time, we had a day when dinner got on a bit late and we all decided we wanted French fries, which take a bit of time, and it was really stressful for me to do it, because one of the kids kept walking back and forth behind me the whole time I was trying to deep fry as though she thought I might forget she was hungry if I didn’t have her body constantly in danger of colliding with mine….It creates a dynamic in which intense closeness is both craved and suffocating.

Of course, it’s not always so benign. The parent’s adult goals may not be caring for the child and creating a stable life for the family, including themselves. The parent may find themselves blocked from lying in bed all day, unsuccessfully self-soothing (as mine did) ,or abusing drugs, or creating with an intimate partner the same kind of consuming relationship the child seeks from the parent.

The child with this kind of parent may grow up to turn this pattern on its head with her own child, simply because that’s the kind of relationship she knows. It serves no real purpose, as monopolizing her child’s attention in the way she attempted to monopolize her parent’s attention serves no real purpose. Her own child is neither unable to inform her of potential danger nor able to help. But it can be instinctive, deeply learned.

When we talk of attachment wounds, I don’t think that wound stems from unmet needs in the past which have left some kind of gaping hole in the self: I think it’s this instinctual craving for a confusing parent to come and make some sense out of life for you, because the parent’s brain was never lucid enough to pass on a reasonable understanding of the world to you.

Some of the layers of experiences with rejection stem from this: the child’s craving for constant attention is incompatible with the demands of modern life; The child must reject the parent in order to develop her own skills.

A more subtle pattern may also develop, in which either the parent or the child may come to avoid relationships altogether as these are experienced as activating this hungry mouth of attachment need.

I think it’s possible, with an adult mind, to undo this, and to develop an understanding of the world which is comprehensible based on observation. I don’t think it always has to be like this, nor do I think one necessarily has to continue to return to enmeshed, consuming relationships.