Squidgy

I mentioned I have been struggling with depression the last several months. One of the issues is how I feel in my home and how I feel with myself. The typical pattern is that I leave school on Friday and sometimes Saturday excited about my free time, and then I get home and kind of collapse. I can force my way through it, but this doesn’t change the nature of the collapse. I can get things done when I really try, but it’s joyless.

In the US, I used to walk home and begin to feel I was losing my mind as I approached it. My thoughts no longer seemed to make sense to me, and the usual feeling of having opinions supported by evidence appeared to unhinge itself.

I’ve thought for a while it must be that my home is a source of comfort to me, and how I feel.when I reach home relates to how I understand other sources of comfort. In other words, although my home is nonliving, I ascribe to it the characteristics of an attachment figure.

So I’ve been trying to make sense of my reaction through the lens of how (most likely) my mother behaved towards me. I think it may begin to help soon, but it’s difficult to think clearly enough to trace what I am reacting to and then also figure out how to help myself.

Last night, I began to think I feel like a black, squidgy ball. So I wondered to myself how I would help a black, squidgy ball, because if I can bring down the intensity of the bad feeling just a bit, I can start to think clearly enough to understand the sqidginess.

I don’t have a great arsenal of comforting activities, but in the wintertime, getting warm enough to actually feel hot seems to do the trick. I got under the covers with a hot water bottle and pondered the nature of the squidginess.

I feel, reflexively, that no one will believe me, if I describe the nature of the squidginess more precisely.

The sqidginess is submission. My parents lived in a hostile world, as traumatised people often do, and consequently had a seemingly relentless desire for control because, in the short-term, it makes people’s motives appear more transparent and less potentially upsetting. They determined what we would do and therefore presumed they knew the meaning of what we did.

But also they behaved in frightening or threatening ways purposely in order to evoke submissive displays so that they could, in comparison, feel strong. We live by comparison, as human beings. It’s in our DNA.

I now see both of my parents as lacking empathy, and empathy as a brake on human behaviour. No brakes on how cruelly they behaved…so I was flooded by the impulse to submit. It wasn’t a mild urge, but a deluge.

This is my expectation based on my working model of attachment. The flood of submission does not feel good. It feels very bad. So I approached a potential source of comfort knowing I was more likely to feel bad than good.

To a narcissist, anything you have represents a loss to themselves. If I got their attention, this was time spent not getting attention for them. Comforting me represents that kind of threat. All the more reason to be threatening or rejecting: I might, in some sense, steal their attention.

I don’t really know what to do, but it makesit easier to understand.

The toady

Another idea relates to how traumatized people make sense of their traumas and the way this impacts future relationships, such as with their children–me, for example, or my mother.

If you think, as a very young child, that terrible things happened to you because you failed to keep your parents’ attention, then you are likely to grow up seemingly irrationally terrified of abandonment and compelled to stay engaged, but you may also be afraid of the power those you engage with have over you and or have impairments in your ability to process emotions or make sense of motivations and you may compensate by seeking control.

At the same time, you may be able to empathise with the desire other people have for control and surrender for the sake of avoiding abandonment. You may not always insist on being on top.

This dynamic of avoiding abandment at any cost along with maintaining an imbalance of power explains, really, most of my life with other people.

How do I get to the heart of that? What I mean is that The Boy once lay listlessly on the bed until I became alert and interested in something C was saying, and then he began to blow on a high-pitched whistle. I mean that’s one example, but I could listen thousands of them over decades with different people. He couldn’t bear the feeling of abandonment he had when I paid attention to someone else.

It explains one of my complaints in my long-term relationship, which I could never clearly articulate in couples’ therapy, which was that my ex wanted me to carpool with her, but she didn’t want me to talk in the car. Why sit in a car with someone and listen silently to talk radio?

Because a radio show will not make you stressed or anxious. It won’t make you wonder what to say in response. You won’t get your feelings hurt or have to follow a story that’s overlong. It’s distant and predictable in a way. But she wanted me there because abandonment terrified her.

It leads to families that crave proximity, but feel afraid to interact. It’s the core of many types of abusive relationships, and it also sets you up for more.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Loose ends

I said I felt better. I actually do. The grumpiness has lifted. I have stopped hating everyone. It usually does lift eventually. Mine seemed linked to personal traumas that surface in the springtime, but I think patches of discontent happen to all expats. Culture shock isn’t a single moment, but a process of adjustment that is sometimes easier and sometimes harder. There is no one here to talk to about it, but I think it happens to other people for different reasons.

I have been thinking about those times when my brain seems to kind of break apart, when I can’t seem to identify why I feel so bad but I really do feel very bad.

Children with abusive parents are not able to form a coherent model of their parents’ minds or themselves. The best that can be done is to form discrete images of multiple attachment, somewhat like how to talk to your parents in a bad mood vs, in a good mood.

I think my models are of the neglectful parent who might pay some attention to my problems if I exaggerate my emotions and express them very forcefully and the abusive parent it’s better to do without.

The times which are really difficult are when the parent seems neglectful, but help is possible, and I intensify my emotions to the point where they cause me pain. The “parent” is not my actual parent, because we have no relationship but the dynamic occurs anytime help seems possible or necessary and sometimes is me.

I also think our ways of attracting the attention and support of our parents becomes how we attract our own attention, and the ways our parents taught us to control our impulses becomes our own way of regulating them.

So what goes on in my head is much like my relationship with my mother only I am not her. If my mother knew mainly negative means of influencing behaviour, then I am likely to use punishment, criticism, invalidation and contempt to keep control of myself, which creates this spiral of needing to alleviate negativity, as my attempts to control my urge for comfort or support increases my need for it.

I was thinking about this partly because C’s cousin has begun to experience something intense when he sees me, whereby he catches sight of me and pretends not to see me, looking down or away with a look of despair on his face, and then is lit up with delight when I acknowledge him. I think he can’t decide if I am the neglectful parent who can be persuaded or will enforce the neglect with punishment.

Of course, I am not his parent either, but children with traumatic backgrounds so badly need support and feel so chronically frightened that the attachment system is easily activated and the small degree of support I give him may be enough. Or something.