Questions for myself

Slowly, I am chugging along with making better sense out of what happens in my head. I don’t know that I am necessarily coping better as a result, but the hope remains that perhaps someday I will.

I am a few posts behind in trying to explain what I’ve come up with. It’s possible there will be holes in this post as a result. I’m sorry for this, but I also think we’ll live to tell the tale.

I read a study about “cute aggression:” that urge to do painful things to babies because they are so cute, like pinch their cheeks.

The more participants responded to a baby’s cuteness with an urge to caretake, the more likely he or she was to feel like hurting the baby. It seems to be a regulatory strategy, not unknown before now, in which a strong feeling in one direction is countered by a strong urge in another direction deliberately called up to get things a bit more under control. Over intense emotions are unpleasant–even positive ones.

This is the person who cracks jokes at somber moments, the Girl who punched kittens and dogs in the nose, even C who seems to get angry most of the times I see her. It’s not that it’s okay to make babies cry by pinching their squishy cheeks, but that the crying is not the actual intention of the urge. The crying is the regulatory strategy gone wrong.

I think about this as I go through the difficult moments of the day: is this me trying to regulate an attachment impulse? I don’t have that worked out, but it’s something I’ve started to think about.

I’ve also been thinking about how the formation of self-image intersects with abusive relationships. Not in the obvious way: that abuse diminishes the positive feelings you have about yourself. Instead, I’ve been thinking do I use abusive strategies to try to control the urge to reach out to people or situations?

And, finally, is the sense of borderline’s description of feeling empty inside caused by the strategy of shutting down the experience of the self to control intense emotions, but simultaneously prompting responsiveness in other people so that one seems still to exist and to have an impact on the world. Only they stop reacting.

There is normally an interplay between how I feel inside and how I impact other people which contributes to feeling oneself. What if one is more than usually reliant on having an impact to do that and then that person is not available or not willing to respond in the desired way? And does something like that happen to me?

Last, I have been considering the social aspect of my trauma. My father’s abuse was intentionally demeaning, not because of something about me, but because this fulfilled some desire of his own. How did it feel to me to do what one normally does and imagine myself from his perspective–as an object to be used or to feel superior to? There is a sociological element involved in family-based mistreatment. It is not merely frightening in the way of a lion attack.

Gradually, I think I have to become more adept in understanding my traumatic experiences from the perspective of a small child. There is an element of horror to what happened to me. I don’t quite know how to describe it: the abuse I suffered was so visceral and graphic. The sense of “get this off of me” is so overwhelming that the horror feels consuming, like all of me. I end up horrified myself, because the horror is so strong, it feels that the horror is  me. That’s how little kids experience things.

We love to see joy in children, because it seems to consume them. We have learned to keep ourselves on a more even keel by the time we reach adulthood. It can seem that our emotions have become blunted, but it also means we don’t need someone to remove us from the birthday party before we have a meltdown because we got too wound up. (Most of us.)

When that overwhelming emotion is horror, it’s awful. I think I need to figure out how to regulate these overwhelming emotions as an adult trying to make sense of a child’s trauma. I think I may need to learn to recognize that wanting to self-harm means I need a way to calm the feelings down. Self-punishment won’t do it, but it may remain my first instinct for a long time.

Meanwhile, tomorrow is the worst day of the year.

 

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.

 

Coherence

The brain seeks coherence. It looks for continuity and applies previously learned knowledge.

I have this idea that rejection is so painful for some people, because the search for coherence calls up previously learned negative information about the self. Rejection is always painful, but some rejections hurt more than others.

I had a borderline/narcissistic mother. My informal diagnosis–it’s the best I can do to make sense of things. I’ve started to realize she was very stressed for many quite real reasons, she had few strategies for coping and few reliable resources, and she fell back rather heavily on anxious (expressive/emotional) strategies.

Anxious strategies signal but don’t strategize. So if a parent is using anxious strategies to seek care from a child, the child is left wondering what to do. Something must be done. The parent is clearly distressed and escalating signals of distress, but the child is left without solution. The parent’s confusing, dysregulating distress prompts flight in the child.

And then there is this intrusive phenomenon, which I have witnessed, but don’t understand in which the parent directs attention towards herself in the face of the child’s distress. When the child signals distress to the parent, the parent overwhelms the child with her own signals, rather than the child activating the parent’s strategizing capacity.

The take-away from the borderline parent is the feeling in the child of being inadequate. The parent, who eventually gives up in despair, leaves the child feeling abandoned.

I don’t remember any of this consciously and yet, at a feeling level, I think this is exactly what happened. The sense of being discarded in favour of someone or something else who can provide comfort to the parent, because I was unable to meet my parent’s needs seems utterly familiar.

I think it means that all separations are first considered through this lens. It’s like assuming if it’s light out, probably the sun came up. Sun leaking though the curtains has happened so many times, it just seems like the most likely explanation for lightness.

The thing is that I think this is also passed on, and that my mother was triggered by my distress as an infant because she experienced the same dynamic with her own mother as I experienced with her. She had to stop my expressions of distress, because they triggered in her overwhelming, confusing and unintegrated memories of her own mother discarding her after she failed to provide adequate comfort.

This has very, very serious implications. If I learned during infancy, in the process of signalling everyday needs and desires, that I will be either silenced or overwhelmed by my parent, then in times of emergency, that’s what I will remember.

I can’t run for help when there’s a dead body on the ground, because my experience has been that asking for help means I will be expected to comfort the other person rather than be helped myself and, moreover, I will be abandoned for failing to provide that comfort.

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.

Embarrassment

The rose has bloomed and now stopped, but the day lily has taken its place.

I weeded yesterday. It was the first day in three weeks that I felt well enough to do more than plod through the necessities of survival.

This is progress.

I have been working at identifying the emotions I have during triggered moments. I think one of them is embarrassment. This is somehow distinct–at least in my mind–from shame. Shame is attached to identity: a bad thing happened because of something about my character or personality or the group I belong to. Embarrassment is mere exposure.

But the combination of regulation struggles and family who used embarrassment as a weapon has made embarrassment difficult to tolerate. So I have been working at normalising embarrassment, taking into account the things a child might find embarrassing.

There are webs of associations for each trigger–it’s not a single traumatic event, but many. There is usually one that persists in being difficult longer; you might think of this as the core issue.

The sink is one of those. So many traumas, but the core event seems to be one in which I decided to “wash dishes” while my mother was sleeping and either wasted tons of water or made an enormous mess or both