Fight, flight, freeze

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

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

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

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

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

The self-directed rage is fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s deeply frightening to write about this.

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Day

Exams are on now. The students take a 2-hour exam in the morning and then in the afternoon, the teachers work in groups to correct the papers. This is dictated by the powers that be.

Country X-ers value doing things together, and there is tremendous pressure against autonomy. There is an intrinsic bias towards believing if we are all doing the same thing, then there is something inherently better about it. It is not an environment in which creativity is fostered. And yet people at times rebel against the authoritarian nature of this kind of set-up: they become fed up with proceeding in lock-step, and start just not attending required activities.

It is not an element of the culture I like.

So we are all taking the same exams throughout the area. We are following the same schedule. We are all sitting in the same room and marking the three exams taken that day. Meanwhile, some people are singing. Some people are yelling. Some people are ridiculing the child whose exam they are marking. Twenty or thirty people with attentional difficulties trying to focus. It is my idea of hell on earth.

This year was somewhat better. I’m getting better at responding to the people most aggressively demanding attention. One thing that has helped me is to realize that they are, in fact, demanding attention. Their behaviour is purposeful and not random. The person singing wants something: they don’t just like singing while they work.

I started to realize this when I observed one teacher who was forgotten in the process of serving tea loudly start banging something. I can’t remember what. His pen or a stick or a spoon or something. Rather than asking the server for tea, he made noise to see if the server would notice he wanted tea.

I don’t get this kind of behaviour, but it is not abnormal here: just attract attention, see if someone else can sort out what you need.

For me, recognizing that someone making a lot of noise is creating a situation in which we are in conflict helps me figure out what to do. They want some kind of attention. I am trying to check papers and, in many cases, I am trying to keep my focus and I don’t want to give them the attention they are looking for. When I maintain that focus, I am setting a boundary and what I can expect from that point is that they will aggressively challenge that boundary by getting louder.

This is a conflict. This is not just annoying or inconsiderate behaviour.

If I continue to set that boundary, they may turn to someone else to get what they want. They may eventually give up. But ff at that moment I actually don’t mind being interrupted, I can also try to see what they want. Sometimes the other person is just bored. I like concentrating, but many people don’t. A joke or a brief exchange can help. It can help to be a little less rigid in pursuing my own agenda.

The day before yesterday, I was sitting between two people who do this, and one of them in particular was much quieter and less yell-y, because I understood what he wanted. Mostly, he wanted something to do. So I gave him work. I became his executive function and managed his work flow. This was Art Sir, whom you may or may not remember, and we are friends.

Yesterday, I was between one very quiet young man who also sits next to me in the staff room and Lead Teacher who always has very odd interactions with me. She kept putting papers on top of my arm or moving the paper I was writing on to put the paper she was finished with underneath it. It felt odd, like she didn’t know I was actually a person doing things and not merely a collection of body parts. It wasn’t terrible, but it felt very uncomfortable.

There was also one of the teacher’s children in the staff room. She is in 2nd grade, and she was studying by chanting out loud and for a while she banged on the table while she chanted. She wanted attention (Look, mom, I’m being a good girl and studying.) She’s not my child and I didn’t need to respond. She wanted her parents’ attention. But I noticed that while she was doing this, I made mistakes in correcting the exams and my partner after me had to send the papers back. Not paying attention to someone who demands attention is very difficult for me.

I came home especially hopeless, and the urge to lie down was overwhelming. So I did. I finally went out to collect the National Dress I dropped off last week for stitching, but the shop was closed by the time I managed to do that.

The strange part is that I came home and listened to a lot of Albanian music like it was some kind of drug and cried a lot. I don’t think I have listened to Albanian music before and I don’t know where the sense of resonance came from.

































































































































A handle

I think I have a handle on something. It isn’t everything, but it’s one thing I have been wondering about. It has to do with the sadness children seem to feel with me sometimes–mysterious kinds of sadness that happens to me too. 

My thought today may not be all of it, but I think it is an important part of it.

To get on with it, I think it has to do with the image of the self developed because a parent is not processing social information well, and the child’s emotions are not reflected with marked mirroring. What is presented to the child is the parent’s emotions, but babies don’t know these are about the parent’s inner state. We learn about our own state from other people.

Because the parent has unprocessed trauma and few internal or external resources to cope with stress, the parent is frequently overwhelmed by their own states and cannot adequately take in or think about the child’s state. This isn’t to excuse abusive behaviour, which is part of it. Being an asshole is one way to have few social supports. But it is to say that abuse need not be part of it. Indeed, we see that: children whose parents don’t abuse them have disorganized attachment too. The link is unresolved trauma.

Abuse in this environment just adds to it and creates struggles for children who have no stable parent to turn to for support.

So the parent is frightened by the child’s demands, because the parent has very few internal resources to cope with ordinary stresses, and what the child sees is fear. Thus, the child internalizes an image of himself as being a frightening person. The parent feels ashamed at their poor parenting or for any number of reasons and the child internalizes that shame as their own shamefulness.

Other things happen too, in these kinds of families, but this is an early, core piece that sets the stage…I think so, at this point, at least.

In situations when these children become aware of themselves, they are confronted with this reflection later, even if the other person displays something else, because we see ourselves as we imagine they see us. We imagine they see us as it seemed other people saw us in the past

The sadness is about this image of the self as being frightened or frightening or shameful. There is this craving to be seen and known and felt, to be real through someone else’s eyes, and yet the image of the self invariably feels bad, so that the child grows up learning to avoid knowing that they have been seen.

Shame Shower

The Sister is in the midst of a shame shower. I am not sure what to do about this, or if what I am doing helps.

We went to a festival for a rare bird that only lives here. She didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay home alone. Well, this was after going through all my things while I was at a meeting in the morning. It wasn’t an option in my mind. Anyway, I don’t leave children alone who have experienced trauma if I can avoid it. Loneliness makes them lose their minds.

So we went. She was sick in the car. Most Country X children seem to get really car sick unless their parents have cars and they are used to it.

She played with some friends there and might have had a decent time. Then she got sick coming back.

This was after having a nice morning making pancakes together.

Then when we got home, I had to talk to her about going through my things. That is not ok and I am pretty sure she knows it. I asked some questions and she mostly cried. I told her it said to me I couldn’t trust her to be in the house alone.

There are consequences for violating trust.

It’s all quite reasonable, but undeniably painful. There is no way around feeling ashamed if you did something you know is wrong.

After a while I went to check on her after our talk. She was packing her things. I asked her what she was doing as though she were going something mysterious. I don’t know why I went with that approach. She didn’t answer and so I went on with the fiction. She seemed to be looking for something, and I asked her about it. Her pencil box. So I helped her look for it, but it wasn’t there and then I remarked that her school uniform was still wet and hung it on the line. Then I unpacked her other things and told her gently where they belonged. Then I made toast and tea for her, because that is the kind of thing that settles my stomach. I know I am trying to restore a sense of goodness to her to offset the shame. Here, your things go here. You don’t need to throw yourself out, because you are incurably bad. But when feelings seem to be out there, it is so much easier than trying to change behaviour.

So much of what people with disorganized attachment go through seems to be about socialisation and being able to process boundaries: when to accept them, when to push, and when to agree to disagree. I include myself in this.

Accepting boundaries means accepting loss, and disorganized attachment deprived the child of the chance to gain the skills to cope with loss.