Yesterday, I showed some episode of the National Geographic show Brain Games to the students. Being more or less entirely out of touch with popular culture these days–in nearly every regard and in every arena–basically, because I am leaving anyway, so I find it hard to feel any investment–I had never seen this program before. It was interest.
It made me think about trauma, and how complex trauma many times feels like a switching problem, like I can’t effectively switch between taking in sensory information and my emotional response to it, and also imagining different courses of action. Things seem to get muddled, wires are crossed. The actions that result don’t always make sense. This happens in small ways many times: I get stressed and the wrong word comes out of my mouth, a word that does not even make sense, I turn left instead of right.
The prefrontal cortex does that kind of coordinating, and it shuts down during traumatic experiences. Essentially, we focus on short-term goals (living through the next five minutes) and forget about longer term goals. But I have many sensory indicators of potentially life-or-death experiences. I have to continue to be able to consider longer term goals while my brain is flooded with the urgent necessity of surviving the next five minutes.
One of the episodes talked about multi-tasking. We are never really focusing on multiple tasks at once. We are switching our attention between tasks when one of them becomes uneventful.
I thought about how many tasks I must be attentive to: maintaining my social presentation so that it is appropriate for the situation when that is not actually what I feel, writing something or explaining something (and here I am thinking about stressful situations at school), resisting an impulse to act as though I am in an emergency situation when I am not–to run away or cry for help. No wonder things end up scrambled.
I had some other thoughts, not entirely related to this. It turned out C wasn’t responding to my calls around the time of her birthday, because she had a cold. She thinks I might get worried if she is sick, so she just doesn’t talk to me. Of course, I end up more worried, because I know something is wrong, but I can’t figure out what it is.
Well, I think it may not be exactly that. I have been thinking about the concept of concern. What is concern exactly? How does concern actually feel? It’s more than an impulsive, helpful act. I think it requires some executive function, some ability to plan in addition to having an emotional response to someone’s distress.
I think it might be what happens when I see C is sick and ask her whether she has a fever or not or if she has vomited and then dole out advice accordingly. I think concern might be what happens when I recognize she is in distress and then formulate a plan around that distress.
When you have chronic misattunement with a parent, I think this might feel like something that is not allowed. I have been thinking about this: I have seen parents in Country X who act playful with their children until the child cries–actually that does not feel good for the child does it?
Attunement requires taking in information about two people’s emotional states, organizing it, and planning an action. You work at regulating both of your emotional states together. When you are a baby, you have few strategies to maintain your own state of regulation. You have your gaze, and that is mostly it. You can direct your attention away from what overwhelms you.
Play and exploration and social interactions help you expand your repertoire as your motor skills develop.
But what if you cannot use your gaze to increase your degree of stimulation, because your parent is depressed or chronically angry? What if your parent doesn’t allow you to look away when you are overstimulated, but keeps grabbing your attention until you cry?
You never learn how to manage your own internal state or even that you can.
I think about this with C a lot. I think she has few strategies to manage her internal state other than her attention. She doesn’t know she can influence the people around her to behave differently when she doesn’t like it. When I overstimulate her, she says she is busy or tired, but she doesn’t know she can change the subject to something less intense. She probably doesn’t know why she just told me she wants to sleep when she then doesn’t sleep for a long time later. She knows she lied to me and that she may be hurting my feelings, but not that something has become too intense for her or that she may have a variety of choices for making things less intense for herself.
I sent C a photo of myself when we were chatting and she immediately said she wanted to rest. Too stimulating.
I think it is sometimes the concern that is too stimulating for her. There is cognitive dissonance involved. At this time, I seem to care but in other situations other people did not care. Cognitive dissonance is unpleasant and we often deal with it by discarding the input that seems to be in error. In this kind of situation, I don’t think you can. You have to form some kind of idea about people that allows you to understand that people seem to care at some times and not others. That’s very difficult to do.
So C wants to sleep instead.
For me, it sometimes brings up my own issues. When she ignores me, I often find myself thinking that I am worthless. Now, when I have felt understood by my therapist, I have had a rush of feeling worthy. So this worthless feeling I think has to do with someone taking the effort to try to understand. I think I most often feel I have been rejected because it is not worth the effort of trying to listen to or understand me.
I think about my babyhood, and I imagine my mother may have been depressed after I was born. There are scores of pictures of my sister’s first year of life, but probably only three of me until I was about two years old. I have in the past simply assumed my mother was too busy to be snapping photos, but I have started to think she was depressed through a lot of my childhood. She may have very well had postpartum depression as well.
In addition, I had this huge red birthmark in the center of my forehead when I was a baby. It went away when I was a toddler, I suppose. As I started to grow some hair, it started to become possible to hide under bangs and it also lightened and disappeared.
Now, my mother may have looked at me and every time she saw me felt she had not been able produce a good baby. She may have felt like a failure as a baby-maker every time she looked my way.
How might that have affected me if my mother despaired of life when she saw me? Or if she despaired of life all the time? I would have felt despair every time I looked at her despairing face. I would have had an overwhelming sense of some endeavour being too difficult or not worth the effort, because that is what depression is: this endeavour is doomed. If it happened enough, and it likely did, I may have felt I myself was not worth the effort.
My brain looks for patterns. Why is C ignoring me? I am not worth the effort is a deeply learned pattern, easy to grab at and use to explain the present. One of our fundamental needs as human beings is a comprehensible reality. I do need to be able to understand how the people around me behave and why things happen the way they do.
To discard that pattern as not fitting the present situation, I still have to look at, but it’s terribly hard, because it’s so painful.