C talks

C has taken her phone to school after midterm. They aren’t supposed to. There is a good chance it will be a major source of distraction. But I don’t comment on it. I just end up as a source of distraction myself, because I miss her.

She is on her third boyfriend since March, so that may have something to do with her choice to keep her phone.

I think more about the kinds of controlling relationships children with disorganized attachments have. Because of The Boy and The Girl, these are on display in my house. They aren’t sustainable, and so the loss and rupture and sense of being unwanted are perpetuated. In the absence of skills in understanding the inner states and intentions of oneself and others, people fall back on coercion and to sustain a sense of connection and use dominance to protect themselves from falling into the role of the one who is controlled. It’s horrible.

I see them and I consider my own tendency to withdraw from relationships: I anticipate this kind of control.

To get back to the point, C and I were chatting recently and she opened up just slightly. She suddenly posted pictures of things that interested in her, and because she hardly ever speaks up, I was surprised at the content.

She sent me a short video of pasta. The video was of the pasta being brought towards her mouth. The hostel matron had given it to her. She seemed in a part: happy baby.

Later, she sent me a picture of a mosquito coil, saying they had gotten a new stand. I was struck by how physical and tangible these things were. Children with disorganized attachments have a primary attachment style that they rely on. The disorganization occurs when an organized approach breaks down. She is not disorganized all the time, and it seems to me that C relies a lot of the time on a dismissive style, or maybe she becomes more dismissive around me.

The thing I recall about dismissiveness is that people’s language for describing emotion-laden experiences becomes impoverished. They may leap rapidly between topics because there seems to be little to say about any one thing.

I think being given food–being singled out as a favourite to be nurtured physically–is fraught with emotion, but what I got was merely a picture. I think the picture was meant to communicate all of the emotions that go with it, but without words they actually are not communicated. I can’t very easily summon up an image of her internal state at all, although I try. I had guesses about what the pasta meant.

Without an awareness of one’s own internal state, you don’t know what needs to be communicated to someone else–what needs to be said, for example, because it is unique to you and not shared. I would guess C presents the pasta and for her it communicates her internal state.

I remember a point when I mostly thought in pictures–my emotional experiences had been separated from language, perhaps because I did not communicate my emotional experiences to others. They were my own states, which I knew about, so there was no need to. It took a long time to be able to tease apart these images into elements that someone else could understand.

Socially, there is a balance between processing one’s own inner state and the states of others. When the parent is so emotionally dysregulated and fragile, the balance tilts toward processing the states of others for the child. It becomes paramount to decipher the state of the parent and to try to manage that state. What comes out of it later for the developing child is a presumption that one’s own experience is not important or interesting or worthy of consideration, and you miss out on the practice of communicating it, so that when it comes time to try, you actually don’t know how.

 

 

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Incoherent

I woke up crying this morning. Actually, I woke up and wasn’t crying and within a few minutes, I began to cry. I don’t know why.

I find this so difficult. Why do I feel the way the way that I do? What goes through my head is usually me trying to guess why I feel that way or trying to imagine what would help. Sometimes my mind wanders completely and I am crying, but I am thinking about something ordinary and everyday, or some interesting thing I read.

I envy people with organized attachments, whose minds perhaps race towards bleaker and bleaker catastrophes and must be slowed down. At least they have a strategy. They have something in mind which once helped them–to exaggerate their emotions and express them so forcefully someone eventually pays attention to them. It no longer works, but it’s a place to start.

I don’t have anything. I am like that new mother, “Do you need a new nappy? Are you hungry? Do you need a cuddle?” And the baby just keeps crying. Hell if I know what’s wrong.

I had coffee with VP Ma’am yesterday. The floor of her house has somehow been rotting for the last few years. It was an issue when I left, and it is still an issue. It’s not a new house, so I am not clear why the floor began to rot in 2016 when it hadn’t before. She had a room added to the house during a brief period when more people were living in the house and from that point, the rot began. So since the boards insist on rotting, she is replacing them with concrete.

The house is somewhat in shambles–she’s an impeccable housekeeper–and she has had to take a loan to cover the costs. I don’t think she’s especially worried about the loan. In Country X, there is not this expectation that anyone be independent, so there is less shame about borrowing money.

But she is worried, and she talked to me about some of my worries, and the thing about VP Ma’am is she has, I now recognize, a preoccupied style of attachment and her mind races when she is stressed, turning over and over the same material. It means she likes to advise me on how to keep this from happening. She does not understand I don’t do this, and stress has a different effect on my mind. I have told her it doesn’t, and she cannot grasp this. I don’t think most people realize not everyone has the same kind of mind. I am 45, and I have only just begun to realize it myself.

I have these students who, when having interpersonal conflicts, will tell me as long as I am willing to listen how wounded they are, how the other child started it, and everything is the other child’s fault. They will never move into a place of examining their own role in the problem or consider a solution. They will never consider what will happen if they continue to hit the other child, which is what they have usually done. Only recently I realized these children are preoccupied. They actually cannot link cause and effect, which is what allows for reflection and problem-solving. They are trapped inside the experience of their own minds at the moment of woundedness, because in the past what has helped is to express this more forcefully. They cannot be comforted–preoccupied children have difficulty being soothed–but they cannot get out of this place of exaggerating their emotions. I had not been able to understand why they do this until very recently.

I once had a couple’s therapist who said something about this: she said we begin to ruminate. I wondered what ruminating actually was. She was convinced everyone does this, because she does it. She never considered that some people don’t. It’s a preoccupied strategy. People with a dismissive strategy don’t. I generally don’t.

I don’t know what happens to people with dismissive but organized strategies. I suppose they bury themselves in activities or in work. My mind just falls apart. Thoughts fail to lead anywhere. I begin to ignore my own thoughts, because they lack coherence. I envy people whose minds are faulty, but can at least maintain coherence.

Why I was exploited

I read something interesting about what can happen when abused children grow up. The self can be so distorted and persecutory that parts of it must be externalized. These parts cannot be tolerated within the self, and so the person who does this in order to cope must have a relationship with someone who fulfills this function in order to maintain a sense of coherence, so the intense reaction of someone who has borderline personality disorder is a reaction to the anticipated loss of coherence.

At the same time, the unevenness in the development of mentalization skills caused by being unable to grasp the malevolent intentions of the abusive parent makes it difficult to form connections through mental closeness. Lack of mental closeness increases the pressure to achieve physical closeness.

The only way to create a sense of closeness or safety is to coerce or manipulate someone into doing your bidding, because the person remains trapped within a mental world which ignores intention. Only if you do what I want can I feel I know what you intend. Intentions and consequences are conflated (the teleological stance).

One of the interesting aspects of teaching here in Country X is that the level of conflict among students is extremely high. Classrooms often feel like tinderboxes which ignite as soon as the teacher walks out of the room. It’s a small town, but the family trauma is huge, and I suppose that’s the reason. The behaviour of students often feels extremely immature to me–not needy, but delayed. My ten-year-olds frequently seem reminiscent of toddlers, with lots of using force to get your way.

A common source of conflicts seems to come from a sense that false beliefs are not possible. Someone who is mistaken must be lying. If someone says the homework was on page 77, and it turns out to be on page 78, he is lying. Intentions are often ignored. I was in fourth and fifth grade classes a fair amount last year. So many things seem different.

Anyway, to get back to something more serious, I have in a nutshell why I was sexually abused. A child is naturally seen as likely to be submissive and non-threatening. If you are having trouble feeling safe, a child companion may seem unlikely to hurt you. In the absence of an ability to imagine reflectively thoughts, feelings, and motives, the world is unbearably lonely wasteland. The emotional starvation is profound.

If the only escape from this is to create the illusion of understanding by coercing someone else into doing what you want them to do, then a child who is particularly vulnerable an lacking in protection may seem like the right person to coerce.

If the pressure to be physically close is intensified because mental closeness is not possible, then I can see how in an adult, this could be interpreted by the individual to be sexual attraction.

And that’s why I was sexually abused and exploited.

Shame

I am really struggling this week. There are external causes for this. G wants to be a boarding student, which means changing schools. My phone broke and I can’t afford a new one, but I managed to arrange this without my own phone. For a while, I was able to send texts from the phone SIM in my dongle. Then that stopped working and I don’t know why nor do I know how to fix it.

I can’t really afford the boarding fees–he was a day student, because that’s what I raised money for him to do. But he’s having a hard time living with his relatives, and he feels resented. I don’t know how much this is paranoia and how much this is true. He also doesn’t quite have the discipline, I think, to avoid the distractions of city life, which are all new to him. So, I am sending him, because I think it is better for him, but it’s a worry.

Then, over vacation, The Boy went back to stealing as a coping mechanism. He stole money from me, he stole cards from C, and he stole a watch from The Girl. The major issue is the watch, because this is an expensive and valuable item, and The Girl is vindictive. It is not likely to end well. Having extracted a confession from the Boy last night, I think I will need to go to the principal today and get her advice on the situation. It is not a school matter–it happened in my house, during a school holiday–but this is going to blow up.

I am worried, generally, about the trajectory of my own life. I had thought overall, I am healing. I don’t how events themselves will work out, but I am healing. Now, I don’t know. I feel I have opened up only to form relationships with people who replicate the damage I grew up with.

But it means I woke up feeling ashamed. I associated it with images of being soaked in blood. After a while, I began to think when that happened, I felt ashamed. I know the idea is to go back and “correct” one’s thinking. I have this other idea that it’s helpful just to be able to form these connections–as in, “Oh, that’s shame,” and what this does is connect emotions to experiences rather my being.

Borderline

Peter Fonagy is the pioneer of Mentalization-Based Therapy, which is primarily used to treat borderline personality disorder. Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy is the other method that’s been shown to be effective at least in increasing functioning and decreasing symptoms. DBT has been around for a long time now. There are many times I wish my mother had seen someone who was aware of it. She started seeing a therapist in 1975, and at that point, I don’t think anyone had any idea what to do for her, but in the 80s, people began to have ideas. However, her therapist–although he saw very wounded people–did not seem to. He was one of the other helpers who did not help, and sometimes I feel so angry at him, because my mother needed help so badly. We needed help.

I read an article by Peter Fonagy which explains my mother’s behaviour as someone with BPD better than anything else I have ever come across. I think it will take some time to digest it, but it was powerful yesterday as I was reading it to have my experiences reflected in something someone had written. There is something immensely powerful about having something you have lived and experienced be something someone else has seen.

The loneliness begins to recede when what is in your mind is found to exist in someone else’s mind also. as though what is inside you is suddenly real and not a ghost. We call this validation, and yet when people say validating things, it is not always accompanied by any common experience held within our minds. It is mechanical and unreal.

There were a few small moments when I felt understood in therapy last year–not many, but maybe three–and there was an immediate sense of value I felt at being understood rather than merely heard. This was like that for me, only on a larger scale, because it explains a very significant portion of my childhood as well as many parts of why I am the way that I am.

What is in my mind is sometimes a fossil of what was in my mother’s mind: we learn how to understand the world, including ourselves, from other people. During traumatic experiences with my mother, I remember intense feelings of shame, but also a sense of monstrousness–of being frightening and evil as well as frightened. I remember arguments with her when she told me I was a monster.

Now this doesn’t entirely make sense. Of course, in reality, extremely dysregulated and out-of-control children are frightening and can seem monstrous. Parents of adopted children with attachment disorders will tell you this. An 8-year-old who is frightened out of her mind can be more dangerous than we might expect when what normally contains fear (the authority and comfort of the parent) is absent. But I remember this from being quite small.

What I am getting at is that I have memories of my feelings and self-states during traumatic experiences that do not seem to make sense. In the past, what I have been told is that this is a product of my own mind: children blame themselves. This has not ever felt adequately explanatory, nor does it make moments when the memories surface feel any better.

Following the principles of Kurt Fischer’s “dynamic skills theory” of development (Fischer, Kenny, and Pipp 1990), we may assume that maltreatment is associated with a fractionation or splitting of reflective function across tasks and domains…

At the same time, the child’s understanding of mental states is delayed by the avoidance of thinking about the malignant intentions of their parent and remains stuck in a teleological (concrete) stage rather than moving towards an intentional stance (one in which false belief is possible as a motive).

The person who grows up like this can understand behaviour only when the outcomes are predetermined (you care about me only when you do things I have already identified as caring actions). They must be controlling, or the person they are with becomes frightening and unpredictable very quickly.

At the same time, the abusive caretaker becomes split into to entities: there is no way to integrate abusive intentions from those which are more benign. This is extended to other relationships.

At its simplest level, people are “good” when they do what you want and bad when they other things. The good and the bad person are not seen to occupy the same body or to have the same mind. This is my own idea, but another kind of prementalizing is pretend mode, where thoughts and reality are uncoupled. I would presume in moments of stress, this can play a role.

If my mother savaged the “bad” me, she did not understand this as damaging the body of the “good” me she was trying to frighten into returning. She did not realize the “good” me had the same brain as the “bad” me and later remembered being frightened by her behaviour. Her thoughts had become partially divorced from reality.

But as a child what I was left with was a sense of myself as someone who was sometimes, unpredictably monstrous. When I understand this monstrousness as something which existed in her mind, then I am no longer confused by my traumatic experiences with my mother. They are coherent, and the mind seeks coherence.

My unprocessed memories of my mother’s abuse are of me being deeply afraid or ashamed and also sometimes angry, but having no access to or connection with her mind. She feels machinelike to me, like someone with a body and no consciousness, because I could not fathom her internal experience. For me, there wasn’t one.

But actually there was.

(PDF) Attachment and Borderline Personality…. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12119541_Attachment_and_Borderline_Personality_Disorder [accessed Aug 05 2018].

 

Desperate

I had a pretty decent summer, and I came back from it–somewhat surprisingly–feeling secure and confident.

Most of the summer, The Girl was gone. She went home to her parents or stayed with one  of her brothers who is grown up and has his own children. She came back in the afternoon the day before yesterday and kept it together for the rest of the day. Yesterday, she did not.

First, she made a plan with The Boy to hide the lunch boxes in the house and then appeared before me at lunch time asking for the key. She did not seem to register that maybe hatching a clever plan is not such a good idea.

I told her I needed to run an errand in town anyway (which was true) and that I would bring the lunch boxes. I told her she would need to wait at school for them. (The consequence for leaving your lunch box at home is that you will need to wait to eat.)

I found her at home. I asked her why she had come and if she remembered she had been told to stay at school. She wanted to leave her (nearly empty) backpack at home. I told her she would need to carry it back to school, as I had explicitly told her not to do this. (The consequence for coming home when instructed to stay at school is that you get to carry everything back.)

She was very angry about this and did not want to carry her lunch box to school. I told her I woke up at six to prepare it for her. The very least she could do is carry it for herself. She relented, but I had lost my temper a bit.

After school, she ran off to play before washing the lunch boxes. (It happened to be her turn.) So when she came back at study time, I reminded her that she had forgotten to wash the dishes before going out to play (and also mentioned I had forgotten to remind her to wash them before going out) and I sent The Boy to study.

Now, she had in mind that he ought to help her dry them, although it was not dishwashing time–she had forgotten to wash dishes at dishwashing time or perhaps intentionally neglected doing them in order to avoid studying, and the consequence is that The Boy had other work.

She kept calling The Boy to help her until I finally had to raise my voice to tell her that he was studying. It was study time, and that was what he was going to do. Which scared The Boy.

So she put the dishes away wet. When I later saw this, I sent her back to dry them again. All of this took about 20 minutes. It does not take very long to wash and dry lunch boxes, but she spent a great deal of time trying to do something else.

She was again terribly surprised when The Boy’s study time finished but hers hadn’t, she had spent 20 minutes expressing her anger over not being allowed to control things–because, of course, this is really about control. The schedule helps make life predictable and safe for The Boy: there are no surprises. He knows terrible things won’t happen, even if it may be unpleasant to study math (for example), but it’s only for an hour and an hour ends. He knows what’s expected and how to be successful. This may eventually be true for The Girl. But she’s still in the stage of thinking the only way to make life predictable and safe is to control it herself, not realizing she can’t. We never have that kind of control over our lives.

I arrive at school at 8:15, because that is when the bell rings. I teach fourth grade, because this is what worked out for everyone concerned. I did not choose the students in my class. I teach them all, whether I like them or not, whether they are intelligent or not, whether they are well-mannered or little monsters. Math is my choice. Country X is my choice. We get some amount of control over our lives, but control cannot be our go-to method of coping with the unknown or with stress. Especially not here, where the electricity goes out unexpectedly, the stream of water inevitably disappears just when you want it, and where you are caught in a net of family which supports you but also places demands.

The morning was equally difficult and she packed her bags to leave. (She needed to go home to get her toothbrush anyway, but packed as though she did not plan to come back.) Which is what she does.

I used to think The Boy was much more damaged than she is, but I no longer believe that’s the case. They are damaged in different ways, and he has been with me longer and is probably also a bit more like me and so easier for me to understand, but I think the damage may be equal. Her way of coping with life will certainly not allow her to have anything resembling a supportive or helpful relationship. It’s not her fault, but she is old enough to begin to make some conscious decisions about this.

I know, perhaps, what she is doing. Because the internalized voice of the parent is so cruel, so harsh, so punitive and so unforgiving, she is striving to drive out that voice with the voice of a living person. However, her ability to mentalize is impaired both by a developmental delay and by the transferance of malignancy from the punitive voice in her head, and she does not know how to keep her interpretation of the motives of this exterior voice loving and compassionate and kind and present except through controlling their actions: The presumption being if I dictate someone’s actions, then I can also allow myself to believe I know the motives behind those actions.

Thus, she wanted help drying dishes not because she actually needs help, but because otherwise she is left with the cruelty of her own mind. Someone must be there to drown out herself, because herself is cruel, critical and hateful.

I do not actually have any idea what to do about this. I know, or think I know, what the underlying problem is, but I don’t know what you do about it. It must be the underlying problem for every abused child, but I don’t know what you do about it. I don’t know what I have done about it. I don’t hear that voice in words, but I know it is there from how I feel. I am working at becoming aware of people generally as intentional beings, including myself, in hopes that reality itself will modify the voice.

I don’t know.

 

 

The social worker

Mornings are hard, as I have written about many, many times. Sometimes they are harder than others. This seems to have to do with events in the rest of my life and not anything I am doing. I do not actually know what might make mornings any easier on those mornings that are more painful. I think about what to do and I have no ideas. I can get up and function and get on with life, but I am merely compartmentalizing the pain so that it does not get resolved. When I don’t compartmentalize the pain and I try to deal with it, I am not sure I am able to resolve anything either.

But I did have an idea today. I began to consider that I felt I needed help with my emotions. It’s very difficult to try to do it all alone. And I also began to consider that in the mornings my mind often begins to wander over this well-traveled territory of the helpers I feel have failed me, and I put that together with this recent idea that the pain I feel in the morning is a change reminder: I am still processing the loss of foster parents when I was a toddler. Here I am in a different house. It is not their house. I am still grieving, because the pain has never become manageable enough to do the kind of thinking necessary to resolve it.

I began to think this is about the social worker. The social worker is the helper who did not help me.