The Legacy of Childhood Trauma

Emotional-Freedom-Quote-1.jpgThis morning I read a piece in “The New Yorker” by Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz called “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” and found that his words, his experiences, resonated eerily with my own regarding relationships. This came as somewhat of a shock considering that the trauma he describes was his repeated rape, at the age of eight, by a grown man whom he trusted.

Now before you click on the link and read what he wrote, which you pretty much have to do in order to appreciate the rest of this blog, let me be clear about the differences between his and my experiences: I was not raped as a child (note the caveat: “as a child”) and I have never tried to take my own life (unless driving recklessly, drinking enough tequila to induce a five-day hangover at the age of 16, or any number of reckless behaviors count). In other words, I’ve never consciously, in the overdosing, gun-to-head, or standing-on-a-cliff-considering-jumping kind of way tried to end my own life. I’ve never tried and I’ve never thought about it. Nevertheless, there were things about Diaz’s piece that spoke to me and that therefore gave me pause to think, “Was there enough “trauma” in my childhood to create the behaviors that he describes that I am also guilty of?”

I know. You want me to tell you in detail what those behaviors were. I’ve alluded to at least one above – the drinking. Yes, there is a lot of excessive consumption of alcohol in my past. And a lot of morally questionable behaviors wrought of that drinking. Another trait we share(d)[1] is the inability to stay in a relationship past a certain point, usually the point where it looked like it might actually go somewhere good, and especially if the man exhibited behaviors that suggested he might actually be willing to remain in a monotonous, I mean, committed monogamous relationship.

Then there is his reference to cheating. Many would quickly label cheating as classic self-sabotage behavior. For me it was a bit more complex. My first bout of cheating gave me the confidence to leave a not-so-healthy marriage (I discovered that I was, contrary to my insecure belief at the time, desirable to other men) and subsequently over a decade later cheating gave me the excuse to end the next and only other long term relationship I’ve had. At the time I rationalized, “I clearly don’t love him enough if I can sleep with another man.” Next I did the morally righteous thing – I called him up, told him we had a problem and very soon thereafter left him. Because leaving was penance for bad behavior and, I rationalized, released me from moving forward in life as a liar and a cheat to the person who’s opinion mattered most to me.

Diaz’s references to drinking, to bouts of depression, to not being able to look at himself in a mirror, the deep-seated self-hatred are all things I saw reflections of in my own experience.

Given the relatively mild nature of the traumas I experienced as a child, when I finished the essay, I wide-eye wondered how many of us walk around with these wounds, oblivious to how much they shape who we are and what we do.

When I would get into my navel-gazing, self-examination mode, the man I had my second and last long-term relationship with – seven-years to be precise – and whom I still refer to as my second husband despite our never having married[2] used to assert, “You had a roof over your head, food in your stomach. You were not abused!” He was a lot older than me – twenty-six years – with attitudes borne of a time when those were the only measures of abuse, when “spare the rod, spoil the child” was an oft-used phrase. And yet, with the exception of one particularly memorable spanking that employed a plastic brush,[3] my parents didn’t hit us and we did have three squares a day. Was the fact that my mother repeatedly sent me to school with tomato sandwiches that by lunch hour had morphed into a disgusting mess of soggy pink bread enough to call her abusive? Abusive, no. Uninspired-where-school-lunches-were-concerned, yes.

The abuses that many of us suffered as children I would suggest were often much more subtle than those experienced by the Junot Diaz’s of the World.[3] So subtle as to make them unutterable for completely different reasons than those that made Diaz silent, so non-violent that by sharing them we feel embarrassment or guilt knowing that others have experienced so much worse. But that’s what I am most struck by, what made me sit up and take notice – it’s the recognition that even the mildest forms of abuse induce in children and the adults they become symptoms of full-blown trauma the likes of which Diaz experienced. I was struck hard in my consciousness by the reality that as children we are fragile, vulnerable, and sensitive beyond belief. We have a belief in a kind and loving world until we are proven wrong and whatever it is that teaches us that the world is a far more cruel place than we had ever imagined is what creates the pervasive psychological “hang ups” that dominate so many of our adult stories. The point I guess I’m trying to make is that I’m not convinced that enough of us recognize the degree to which even the “milder” forms of trauma[4] experienced in our childhoods are the source of our adult so-called “hang ups.” That in the absence of loving affirmation that we are okay, lovable, perfect even, just the way we are, too many of us try to hide what we perceive as short-comings, to dawn our masks of self-protection against the pain and suffering that is unfortunately a part of life, and thereby subsume the beautiful creature we are meant to be.

I dunno…I’m not a psychologist. I’m just thinking out loud and over-sharing, as I tend to do. But what do you think? I have to wonder, are the vast majority of us damaged and the only difference is a matter of degrees? And what are you doing to undo the damage? See below for one technique.

Lisa Nichols with a way to GET OUT of the pain of trauma that we all carry within us.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The jury’s out on whether this is in the past or not.

[2] I liked to say that he was a better “husband” than the man I actually married a decade earlier.

[3] Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge and am humbled and saddened by how many children experience abuse on a par with or greater than what Diaz described in his essay.

[4] Emotional trauma comes first to mind.

Trust

Le Petit PrinceI’ve had a while to ponder this the third in a series of posts (to start reading from the beginning go here). I meant to write it soon after the previous one, but If life is a box of chocolates, then I keep getting the really bad ones…you know, the ones no one wants…the turd-filled kind. These shitty circumstances, and, it turns out, some deep-seated misgivings, stopped me from continuing after I came close to finishing a first draft of this. Circumstances included a trip to San Francisco to attend the annual writers conference and then yet another illness – this time the flu with a fever that made my eyes feel like they were on fire and my head like it would explode, the worst I’ve had since contracting dengue in 2003. It put me in bed for five days straight. My misgivings – the greater of the two obstacles – stem from the delicate nature of the matter at hand and, honestly, much like the illness, I don’t think I’m quite recovered. But like they say, there’s nothing like baring your soul to heal the wounds therein. So here goes.

After my existence was referred to as “Bukowskian,” I thought it high time I schooled myself on what exactly that means. I bought of a book of his poetry and stumbled across a piece, called The Crunch, that contained this excerpt:

there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock.

people so tired
mutilated
either by love or no love.

people just are not good to each other
one on one.

the rich are not good to the rich
the poor are not good to the poor.

we are afraid.

our educational system tells us
that we can all be
big-ass winners.

it hasn’t told us
about the gutters
or the suicides.

or the terror of one person
aching in one place
alone

untouched
unspoken to
watering a plant.

Charles Bukowski, Love is a Dog from Hell

Those last two stanzas punched their way home, leaving me slightly dazed, but determined to extinguish the loneliness my soul’s been steeped in. I was over being Bukowski’s poster child.

I returned to the online dating site. As you may recall from my previous post, I’d avoided putting any money on the line. Now when a check finally arrived for some work I’d done months earlier, I took it as a sign that I should pay for a full subscription. When push came to shove, I found myself hesitating though, going back and forth from the page that would take me to PayPal, to the page displaying the names of lots of presumably lonely men. It took me another day to actually click on the “Pay” button.

I know I’ve said it before, but I was surprised how scared I was, how much courage I had to muster to open the door fully to the potential relationships on that site.  I wondered how I could be so fearful of exploring the online singles world and I was pretty hard on myself. Only now do I remind myself that I’d never done this before and I hadn’t dated for going on ten years.

Tentatively, I began the process of seeing who was out there. The first thing I noticed was that without exception everyone was “outside my match parameters.” I recalled the wine-fogged night I answered the personality profile and wondered if that wasn’t influencing the results. I also began to feel duped by the wily marketers who got me to part with my hard-earned cash.

The second thing I realized was that there were almost no surfers to be found. Not being a surfer was a deal breaker, much the same way being a smoker was. Eventually, it became apparent that I was limiting my options by nixing anyone who didn’t surf and focusing on guys from the west coast, so one day I decided to look outside those limits. I clicked on the photo of a guy I’d been intrigued by, one part because of his blue eyes, the other because of his nice suit. Unlike the profiles of a lot of men, his was complete and well written. He sounded like someone who cared a lot about helping others. I decided to reach out.

The process of getting to know him couldn’t have been more different than anything I’ve experienced before. Where relationships are concerned I’ve historically been a two-feet-into-the-deep-end kinda gal, but in this case our physical separation necessitated that we take things slow. I reasoned that this was precisely what the doctor ordered. Maybe this time I’d see the red flags when they were waving, rather than being blinded by proximity and, frankly, lust. We exchanged long letters – I have to call them “letters” because they were far too carefully penned and poetic to be lumped in with the texting-influenced one-liners that so many emails have become – they were heart-felt, emotions-on-the-page, revelatory letters of the sort I imagine people once wrote while courting over vast distances, long before the internet sucked up vast amounts of our time, back when people were promised to someone they’d never met. This guy could write! And he was opening himself up and being vulnerable in a way few men, in my experience, have been willing to do. My excitement mounted. And before I knew it, we were making plans to meet. I was headed home for Christmas and would be flying through San Francisco on my way to Canada, so once the craziness of the holidays was over, we would finally meet face to face.

I’m limited to a really bad internet phone connection from where I live, so I called him for the first time en route to Canada. Hearing his voice was unexpected and special in a way that comes from knowing a man’s dreams and desires, his heart, long before those words are associated with a specific tone and accent. It felt like we were doing everything backwards, but I reminded myself that I hadn’t managed to get the relationship thing right yet and this might be the way forward.

We talked for several hours many nights in a row, adding to the romance of our writings our individual voices and laughter. We discovered shared histories, philosophies, dreams that grew with each conversation. We anticipated our first meeting, planned romantic forays to points around the globe.

Along the way, there were plenty of signs that our meeting was not meant to be: his family life slowly revealed itself to be more complicated and drama-filled than I was comfortable with; his professional life seemed overextended; the head cold I’d picked up in November moved into my chest New Year’s Eve; the weather turned from frigid to freaky with talk of the here-to-for unheard of “Arctic Vortex,” huge accumulations of snow and blizzards wreaked havoc on airline schedules, delaying my departure by four days, exactly the number we planned to spend together.

What frightens me even now is that I didn’t heed all these signs even when, standing in line at the airport, shortly before learning I wasn’t going anywhere, he texted to say he had to cancel our meeting due to a family crisis.

We agreed our plans were on hold, not cancelled, and our conversations continued. But something had changed and when I returned to Baja, a gap seemed to open between us in proportion to the distance keeping us apart. I felt the dreams we’d co-created slipping into that gap.

 Like I said, communication is tough from where I live. Email is easy, but phone calls not at all and something seemed to be swallowing up his desire to stay connected. Let me tell you, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to connect with someone who has decided to disconnect. I kept my frustration to myself, but I didn’t understand how or why all the promise seemed to be evaporating, I just knew the loneliness and its twin-brother sadness was oozing back up around my knees.

The days dragged on into weeks during which he sent only two communications: the first to explain how another family crisis was demanding his attention; the second, a week later, to say that recent events made it clear he needed to give his complicated family all his attention.

Yup, a “dear-Jane-I-don’t-have-room-in-my-life-for-you” letter.

To say I was disappointed is putting it mildly. I was disappointed and angry. I wrote to a friend I’d been keeping abreast of developments, “It would have been nice had he done the work to figure that out before I spent the better part of six weeks getting to know him!” But it wasn’t just the time invested. It felt like he’d just blown a hole in the bottom of my lifeboat and the dark flood waters were threatening my new existence. Our collective dreams were swept away in the deluge and into the void crept that familiar feeling of isolation, joined now by a sense of abandonment. You know that picture of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince standing on his tiny planet? That’s how I felt.

For several days.

Then reality crept back in and I realized how wrong this man was for me. How by clinging to him like a lifeboat that I thought could lift me out of my unhappy circumstances, I’d managed to turn him into what I wanted him to be rather than who he really was. I’ve known for many years and several relationships that I have a tendency to do this, but it was more than a little unsettling to recognize how easy it was for me to idealize even a relationship that hadn’t involved so much as a face-to-face meeting, let alone the intimacy of a kiss.

As I wondered how I might control this tendency, I remembered something that happened early in the process of getting to know him. I was walking down the beach, trying to discern if I should pursue a relationship with someone who sat well outside several parameters I’d discerned were important to me, when the word “trust” popped into my head. I decided then that I would trust in the intangible universal forces of good to take me where I needed to be, trust in the process, trust that I am exactly where I am meant to be. So I did. And in the process, I learned that it’s up to me to listen to my intuition and heed the red flags that tell me when someone is not the right person or this is not the right path for me. Yeah, 45 and still learning to trust myself.

Potential Energy

I’ve lost my way. I’m like a little girl out in a misty forest full of strange sounds and prickly bushes. I came here looking for something, but when the fear grabbed hold of me, I got disoriented and turned around. I’ve been wandering around looking for my destination, but all I’ve found is muddy holes, impassable creeks and a big patch of poison ivy. My clothes are tattered and my legs and face are covered in scratches. I haven’t given up though, and I know there is a way out of this tangled mess.

Once a week I am joined here in the forest of my life by Andrea Mauer, my wonderful and talented life coach. She takes my hand and walks the twisting paths with me. I show her the paths I tried and she helps me see where I went wrong. She points out the similarity between these paths and the ones I’ve already taken that led to impasses. She saves me from going down paths she is already familiar with or that she points out are rife with obstacles before I get too far along. Every once in a while she invites another wise person to join us in our search for my destination.

Andrea introduced me to Amy Oscar’s blog several months ago. Amy describes herself as a Soul Caller, an intuitive, a life coach and a teacher. Amy is deeply spiritual and connected to the Spirit World in a way that few people I know are. Like me, she believes in angels. But Amy has a connection to angels like no one I’ve ever met. You can read more about her here.

Recently, Amy invited readers to join her in a month long Writing Circle. I’ve joined in the hopes that her connectedness to the Spirit World and a connection to the other writers participating will help me find my way out of this dark forest of self-doubt, fear and resistance, to reconnect to my purpose in life and bring me to that place where my writing is full of inspiration and passion.

Yesterday’s prompt spoke to me and the eloquence with which Amy writes was inspiring. She wrote:

There is a place between here and there, between mystery and science, between staying and leaving, between choice and becoming: a place where most of us do not want to stay very long. We want to name and explain everything. We want to understand, to know – so we can put things in their places.

And yet, sitting in this space of not yet, of “I don’t know,” can be the most powerful place of all. For it is here, having departed the familiar and not yet arrived at the ‘who knows where,’ that anything is possible.

Not knowing is something I’ve never been comfortable with. It’s the reason I went into the sciences where the security of a “right” answer gave me something to hang on to and I did so for dear life. As a child, my greatest rewards – praise, love and attention – came from “knowing.” Naturally, it took me almost forty years to get more comfortable in the grey areas of life. The one area I was still severely challenged in was the realm of relationships.

I’m a serial monogamist – my whole adult life I’ve been in and out of relationships, but have been in them more than out. I moved in with my boyfriend when I was 18. I’ve been in a committed relationship for 21 of the 25 years that followed. I was 32 the first time I lived on my own for any considerable amount of time. I’ve been so uncomfortable with those in-between times that they have typically been filled with anxiety, depression and serial obsessions with first one man and then the next and the next, until something sticks and I’m back in a long-term relationship.

Not this time.

I find myself in that in between place now, the place Inyala Vanzant calls “the meantime,” that time between staying and leaving, between the choice I made and becoming whatever it is I will become. This time there is a difference though. I am still not completely comfortable here, but I notice I am more at ease than ever before. Anxiety is an occasional visitor rather than taking up residence in my soul. Andrea’s coaching has been invaluable in helping me find this place of acceptance and calm. When we started working together, I was already walking a path that hugged a jagged cliff-face overlooking a bottomless pit. She talked me off the cliff step by vertigo-inducing step, gently helping me figure out I was once again on the path to self-destructive relationship behavior, and then helped me figure out where to put my feet.

This is my chance to change the pattern of making choices that are not in my best interest and to stop hitting my head on the relationship brick wall. This time I am going to get quiet, turn inward and listen to my soul more. This time I’m going to take care of me more and worry about who “he” might be less. This time I’m not going to let myself fall head over heels in lust with someone I barely know. This time I think some “dating” and getting to know the person before I move in with him sounds like a good idea.

Perhaps more importantly, this time I’m not going to sweat the alone time. I’m going to use this time to work on me and my writing. When so many of my friends are juggling full-time jobs and kids, I am in the envious position of having only myself to worry about (six dogs and Felipe the caretaker hardly rate in comparison to 9-5 and a family).

Like Amy says, it is from this place that anything is possible. There is an energy in these in between times that is palpable – the potential energy of possibility, like a seed on the forest floor waiting for an opening in the canopy so it can to burst forth and grow. And so, I will be here waiting for the sunlight while I connect and create – me, myself, my soul.