Tackling More Fears

Last weekend, I tackled cleaning house. Today, I’m thinking about writing.

They are the two activities that seem to frighten me the most, after taking a shower. And I think I’ve finally gotten the shower thing under control.

My mind is a funny place. Maybe all minds are, but I would hate to speak for your mind if that weren’t true. What’s funny about it is how literal it is. I seem to have grown up in a culture that expected metaphor and “deeper” meanings. But the shower scares me because I don’t want to be six and have to give a man a blow-job in there. Cleaning scares me because I don’t want things thrown at me while I’m doing it. And writing scares me for very similar reasons. It’s not really all that complicated. It’s not deep or metaphorical at all.

You might expect writing to scare me because I am afraid I will fail at it, or I think people won’t like what I write.

Perhaps all I needed was a brief knot-tying tutorial.
Perhaps all I needed was a brief knot-tying tutorial.

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but I have failed at a lot of things before. You have no idea how many times I failed at tying my shoe. I still have scars from falling down and skinning my knees. As a runner, I was an utter failure. Walking didn’t always go well for me either. (I had the broken arm to prove it, when I tripped in a “walking race” in second grade. I lived through that. I can live through a blank page. I can even live through 200 pages of absolute crap.

And as far as what everyone thinks? It’s nice, of course, to be liked. It’s nice to be thought well of. But let’s be real for a second here. I don’t like everyone else out there either. Why should everyone like me?

No, my fear of writing is entirely about a fear of physical assault.

My mother had two obsessions when I was growing up: cleaning house and reading (which later became writing). More specifically, that I should be cleaning and not reading (or writing).

It’s not that the house had to be clean. It wasn’t. It was, in fact, a total disaster most of the time. It was about controlling my time. She was obsessed with my cleaning. If she was unhappy about something, it was probably because I hadn’t cleaned the bathroom. Or taken out the trash.

A good book takes you out of reach.
A good book takes you out of reach.

If I didn’t allow her to control my time, I didn’t love her. And that led to screaming, and then throwing things, and sometimes real physical violence. Or suicide. The reaction looked like this: You didn’t clean the house -> You don’t love me -> I should die.

Of course, there was a deeper problem. There is some degree of depth and metaphor here. I won’t deny all of it. Cleaning represented my enslavement and the extent to which I was merely an object used to accomplish tasks–either domestic work or prostitution. In a sense, there was no real difference between them. My parents simply had different ends to which they preferred to use me. But use me they did.

So, I actually spent more time trying not to clean than actually clean. But either way things got thrown at my head.

It may be harder to see what she had against my reading and writing. She actually started it all: reading to my sister and me at night, taking us to the library every week for years and years, keeping books by the dozen all around the house. But what I did was different. Non-sanctioned. Rebellious even. It had to be stopped.

Because if I was lost in a good book or writing a really great scene in a story (according to me, at least), then I obviously had a life and mind of my own. I was more than just an object if I had thoughts worth writing down or was spending my time imagining things she didn’t even know about. My mind made me something more than merely a slave, available to serve her. It made me a human being.

That had to be stopped. And it was. Usually with a command to go and clean something. And that’s how the throwing things comes in.


Walking Away

The lousy thing about trauma, and maybe especially complex trauma, is that you find you have to keep returning to it. It is never neat, tidy, or orderly. Instead, you scrape a layer off, leave it, go back to scrape off another. Onions come to mind. But onions are orderly. Their layers come apart so neatly.

The story is important with resolving trauma. You need to be able to tell that story. But you also need to retell it. I don’t know why. But you do. A different bit becomes important, I suppose, so you have to tell it with that part told more prominently.

This is the same story I’ve told on here before. With a different bit.

I don’t like telling this story. Some stories I tell thinking this story might help someone else. This story has a value.

I don’t feel that way about this story. This story reveals to me the very worst side of human nature. It says nothing to me except that some people are simply unspeakably callous. There is nothing uplifting in this story, no indication of redemption or hope. I don’t feel brave telling it. I feel that I am doing nothing more than adding to our already considerable knowledge of the darkness that lies in the human heart.

But listen. I have to tell it anyway.

I told the story first here, in The Scent of a Lion, Trauma and the Brain, but briefly. And again, in more detail, here: The Thought of Death in the Morning Goes Well with Tea. I seem to be good at telling stories in little bits.

But here, this is another bit. After my mother hit me over the head with a chair, and I fell to the floor, unconscious, in a widening pool of blood, she turned away and walked upstairs.

I didn’t see her go, but I know that’s what she did, because I found her there later.

I was a toddler. She did not go for help. She did not check to see if I was still breathing. She left me there to die.

I have another memory of her strangling me with her bare hands. I suppose I was about five. I remember coming to on the same kitchen floor.

She would have let me die then too.

I don’t know what to tell you about that or about her. But I cannot, simply cannot imagine doing that. I can imagine being angry with a child. I can imagine losing control. I can even imagine doing something I terrible that I would immediately regret. But I cannot imagine just walking away.

My mother did.

Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance is a component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It’s just the idea that there is a value in simply being with a feeling–not thinking about the feeling, not analyzing the feeling, just naming it and then being there with it.

I did a lot of that today. I cleaned my house. I like to do this on the weekends. I suppose a lot of people do.

But it’s complicated for me. House-cleaning is intimately tied up in my mind with suicidal ideation–my own, and my mother’s. Doing the laundry makes me want to cut my wrists. Dusting is enough to get me thinking about buying a gun. Cleaning the toilet is a dance with death.

So it’s tough. And some weekends I spend the entire time just trying to cope with the fallout of that, and still end up with unfolded laundry on Sunday night. It’s tedious. And for someone who prefers order and tidiness, it’s frustrating.

So, today I thought, “I’ll just do it for ten minutes. If I can handle that, I’ll do it for another ten. If I can’t, I’ll stop. “I set a goal for myself I believed I couldn’t fail, knowing that success is always more motivating than failure.

And I could handle it. Again and again, I could. I did think about suicide. I did feel I couldn’t keep doing washing the dishes or folding laundry. But I made it to the end of ten minutes every single time. My house is swept, dusted, wiped down, clean. I have clean dishes to eat with and clean clothes to wear. And it’s only Saturday. Early Saturday evening. I haven’t done this well in months.

In fact, after about 30 minutes of setting the timer in 10 minute increments, something magical happened. For the first time in my life, I felt in control of my own mind, my own feelings, my own life. I thought, “This is terrible. This is absolutely horrible. But I can stand it. I can stand my feelings. I can stand the memories. I can stand the thoughts that go with them. I can stand it all for ten minutes, and I think I can stand it for hours. I am free. Absolutely free.”

My trauma didn’t disappear. That wasn’t the magic. I still remember dishes being thrown at my head. I still feel consumed by despair at my life having no meaning or value. I still have visions of my mother slicing her wrists in front of me. None of that has changed. The magic was only being able to stand it. Because what you can stand no longer controls you.

The Long Dark Tunnel

Most of getting better for me has involved sitting with memories and simply being with them, being with myself while I relieve them in very intense and seemingly real ways. This kind of being with them can feel like ascending into the Underworld or entering a long, dark tunnel.


Sometimes, I come back from these little trips with bits of understanding. Other times I am just exhausted. But going there and coming back into normal life again, with the cat on the bed grooming herself, and the dust on my shelves and the laundry and things really not being so bad seem to be part of the process.

I set aside time for this–less as the years go by. It is a part of my weekend routine most certainly, and it used to be part of my daily routine. Not pleasant, I can tell you, but necessary.

I made one of those little trips down that long-dark tunnel into horror this morning and I came back with this little treasure. I thought perhaps others might be able to relate to it, so I thought I would share. And there is also an irony to it, so I thought I’d share that as well.

To so many people, I was only a body growing up. A hollow vessel, suitable for shoving things inside, capable perhaps of doing things also. I was, after all, enslaved. But for the people who used me, there was no expectation that anything existed inside me–no soul, no will, no feelings of my own. Only a body.

A lot of survivors of various kinds of abuse feel a split from their bodies, a distance. The body is the site of such intense pain, sometimes shame. I suppose I feel that too. But mostly I feel a profound desire to be more than simply a vessel, more than only a body that can do things. I want to be what I really am: a person, with a soul, and desires and feelings.

The irony I mentioned earlier is that the religious cult I grew up impressed upon me the same kind of split, but from the other direction. We were expected only to be soul, to deny our bodies, but also our individual will, desire, feelings, and ego. I’m not really sure what is left after that, or what is really meant by the soul in that context, but the fact is we were spoken about as empty vessels who also denied the importance of bodies. But still vessels.

I know I don’t want to be a vessel. I don’t think we were meant to be vessels. I think we were meant to be people, all filled up inside.

Trauma and Betrayal

The old idea about amnesia about traumatic events is that it is caused by the mind protecting itself from an unbearable knowledge. Since the symptoms of post-traumatic stress can be so debilitating, I just don’t buy that. Ultimately, memory of the event is easier to cope with than forgetfulness.

Echo, standing protectively in front of her family.
Echo, standing protectively in front of her family.

My contention, as I’ve stated before, is more in line with Peter Levine’s theories about trauma: the dissociation that leads to amnesia is about the mind protecting the body by shutting down unnecessary parts of itself in order to better focus on the task of survival. The switched off functions include those involved in constructing coherent, narrative memories (namely, the prefrontal cortex.) You don’t “remember” in the usual, episodic sense until you stop interpreting reminders of the event as being life-threatening, although you may remember in an implicit, procedural sense (wanting to run away every time you smell bleach, for example, or freezing up around men with beards.)

According to Jennifer Freyd’s trauma theory, individuals faced with betrayal by trusted others are more likely to have difficulty remembering the trauma. She posits that amnesia makes maintaining a relationship with the perpetrator easier. That may be true, but I would suggest the amnesia stems from the intensity of the trauma itself rather than anything related to the future. Being betrayed by someone you trust places you in greater danger than an attack by a stranger, and so the experience is exponentially more life-threatening. Consequently, the traumatic response is intensified.

I say this because we rely on each other so much for survival. Specifically, we rely on people we know and trust. Without them, we are doomed.

A few years ago, I watched a fantastic nature special about elephants called Unforgettable Elephants, Echo and the photography of Martyn Colbeck.

You can see a short clip of it here:

During the course of the documentary, a hostile group of elephants attempts to kidnap one of the parade’s calves. The calf’s mother, grandmother, and aunts organize a charge and are able to rescue their little one. But what if, instead of a hostile group, it is your own relatives threatening you? Unlike the elephant calf, who was saved, you would not be. You would die.

So it is not really a surprise that problems with memory, part of the sequelae of trauma, would be heightened when the events involve those we trust or are dependent on. It is not that we need to not know what happened, but that we need everything we have fully focused on staying alive. And that doesn’t involve forming everyday, episodic memories. In the short run, we don’t need to remember what happened. We only need to remember how we stayed alive.

It’s only in the long-run that the need to remember begins to haunt us.

PTSD and Nervous System Arousal

After traumatic experiences, our nervous systems are on high alert. In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the nervous system remains that way. Symptoms of hyperarousal include exaggerated startle responses, difficulty sleeping, impulsivity, and a general sense of being “on edge.” (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), NIMH.)

Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Other sources contend that the periods of hyperarousal alternate with periods of hypoarousal and parasympathetic dominance.  Unlike the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for activities that need to be done immediately (fight or flight), the parasympathetic system takes care of necessary but less urgent bodily functions such as digestion and sexual activity. According to Robert Scaer, “[t]his may well be an innate biological reflex designed to reestablish homeostasis, the rhythmic and balanced fluctuation of all biological systems, be they endocrinological, neurophysiological, metabolic or immunological (Antelman et al, 1997).” If IBS is part of your trauma symptoms, then you know what I mean.

So, a part of the persistence of PTSD symptoms may be the mind and body attempting to find a happy medium again, but instead remaining trapped in cycles of arousal and stasis. It isn’t just that we are overwhelmed by excessive emotion during traumatic experiences, but our nervous systems are overwhelmed by too much arousal and too great a response to stimuli.

Because hyper-arousal is often part of the traumatizing experience in the first place, the symptoms of PTSD can mimic the original trauma and contribute to an ongoing sense of powerlessness. Just as we were unable to control the traumatizing event, we can feel unable to control our minds afterwards.

Being able to reset our level of arousal to a more comfortable–and functional–level may be part of the cure for sufferers of post-trauma symptoms. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises can help us to lower our levels of arousal when we are too keyed up. Exercise, social interaction, and some hobbies can help us raise our arousal when we become too depressed.

What can be difficult for long-term sufferers is that these states of extreme nervous system stimulation and suppression can become what we are used to. Being constantly on alert can feel normal, but it isn’t good for us. It isn’t good for our bodies, and it isn’t good for our minds. So sometimes we are left to guess at what might be comfortable if circumstances had been different. Learning how to be still, how to relax, and even how to sleep have been some of my greatest challenges in this process of getting better.

Feast or famine...Photo credit: Getty Images.
Feast or famine…Photo credit: Getty Images.

Another hurdle in maintaining a more optimal level of arousal is just that we, as a culture, have a tendency to manage stress and over-stimulation in a “feast or famine” kind of way. We work like crazy and then take a day off. We spend the holiday from hell with our toxic families and then stay in bed the next day. But that isn’t necessarily how it’s done best.

What we need most is to keep ourselves at a level of arousal that won’t burn out our pituitary glands. We need frequent “tune-ups.” I wrote recently that I’ve started doing some “gentle” yoga in the mornings when I first wake up. (It’s mostly stretching–which my body badly needs given how tense it so often finds itself–and deep breathing.) And I do some progressive relaxation every few hours throughout the day on most days.

I used to think these kinds of activities were stupid. They aren’t a cure. They don’t address the underlying trauma. But it makes ordinary life a little bit easier to manage. It makes the harder work of really healing more possible. And in our overstimulating, always “on” world, I think more of us need to do this than ever.

Unbearable Truths

I’ve just finished reading a really fantastic book. It is called Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy. The author, Rebecca Coffey, recounts the stories of a number of people with trauma issues who are trying to get better, including their stories of trauma. Her main point is that the rest of us need to be better listeners. Trauma survivors need to tell others what happened to them in order to again feel part of humanity, but so many people fail to do so because of the distress that listening to these stories causes.

Hearing about traumatic experiences leads those who haven’t been traumatized to question their own understanding of the world as a relatively safe place mostly populated by relatively safe people.

In a word, trauma precipitated by the cruelty of other human beings forces us to confront the capacity for people to be cruel. In order to recover from trauma–and in order to hear the stories of trauma survivors–we need to confront the human capacity for evil.

Throughout her book, Coffey returns to the stories of survivors she introduces early on, probing them, expanding upon them, reconsidering them. Madeline Goodman (not her real name) was gang-raped as a teenager by 27 young men at a party and then left for dead. In trying to heal from her trauma, Madeline must both confront the evil of those 27 young men who perpetrated the rape as well as other victims who were released and failed to go for help.

In other words, she must confront not only evil but the indifference of others to it.

Those have been my struggles as well. I can, in fact, come to grips with the sadism and lack of empathy of my father and my mother’s dangerous emotional dysregulation. I can accept that there are others in the world like them. Just as no two cheetahs have the same pattern of spots, the souls of human beings are not the same either. And some people want to harm others–either because they enjoy it, or because harming others helps them cope with their own pain.

But it is difficult for me, just as it is for Madeline, to confront people who might have helped but didn’t. In some cases, given the limits of the courts and justice system at the time I was abused, people who cared and wished they could help were powerless to do so.

But later, when all I needed to do was to heal from what had happened, people continued to not help. I am thinking here specifically of the years I spent in psychotherapy–more or less just spinning my wheels. There was a marginal benefit of spending an hour a week with a therapist, but it did no more than take the edge off. I did not get substantially better until I gave up on the power of the outside world to help me and began to read.

It took me about 7 years to figure out what I needed to do to get better. After that, I was able to improve substantially quite rapidly. I do see a therapist now, but I no longer expect her to know how to help me. I go in for each session with a purpose and I consider ahead of time whether what I want from that session is something that we both have the tools to give me. Anything we can’t do together is homework. And I have a lot of homework.

There isn’t a lack of knowledge in the field about how to help people with intense and complex traumas, but the individuals I have looked to for help didn’t have it–and haven’t sought it out when it should have been clear that I was not being helped by what they knew.

It bothers me that I don’t trust anyone to be able to help me. It seems an unnecessarily negative and pessimistic view of the world. But people haven’t. I spent a decade waiting around hoping someone could help me. No one did.

What I am left with is wondering why. Because I am thinking here of people who did care–unlike the original perpetrators in my life, they did care. They didn’t want me to suffer. They wanted to help. But they didn’t know how and they didn’t try hard enough to find out that they learned.

I am left thinking they didn’t because it was easier not to. The pain of witnessing my continued suffering was easier to manage than the pain of confronting the gap in their knowledge. And I suspect the largest part of that pain was the pain of accepting the world as it is: a complex place, full of both good and evil, in which we are sometimes powerless.

And although I was in more distress, I had more tools to deal with it than they did. although they were not sufficient, but I lacked their choices. Not confronting my helplessness or the powerlessness of others to help left me in the grip of unbearable memories. Not accepting the human capacity for cruelty left me in a state of unremitting fear. It was easier for me to accept unbearable truths than to wrestle with them.

But for others, who haven’t directly experienced life in that way, there are different choices. And among them is the choice to simply close their eyes and refuse to see.