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.



[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.

Flowing streams of consciousness

Readers of this blog have very likely noticed that there is a seriously long lag time between postings. In fact, after starting this blog in April of 2009, only 44 postings were made in that year. The main reason for this is that, as a beginning blogger, the time it takes to compose a blog can be considerable and in a life that is full of fun and responsibilities, that time is too great to justify the ends. One thing that really increases the time it takes to write a blog, has been the desire to keep things as impersonal and humble as possible. This is a hard task. One method was to avoid the use of the words “me”, “mine”, and “I” following the method used by a friend and fellow blogger who is known as the Permanent Pilgrim. While he has perfected this technique and manages to write his blog faithfully, using only 45 minutes of time each day to do so, this was not possible for me. The technique requires so much thought and finesse that it increases the time it takes to write this blog considerably. Yesterday, it was necessary to travel to town to buy groceries and pay property taxes and the land trust (fideo comiso). The Permanent Pilgrim accompanied me on the trip, so that he could replace a broken tea pot and provide company on the long trip to Cabo San Lucas and back. A lively conversation is pretty much guaranteed when these two bloggers get together and the drive seemed to take a tiny fraction of the time it actually does because the mind was engaged as we traveled across the desert. Eventually the conversation turned to my writing. And how the blog writing was not being particularly successful, in large part because it takes so long to write a single blog. The Permanent Pilgrim suggested that my background as a scientist and academician was stifling my creativity. “’Strangling it’ might be more accurate,” was my thought. The Pilgrim, who is an artist and not a scientist, considered this some more and suggested that a writing exercise should be undertaken. One in which the writer abandons all rules and notions about “how to write” and just writes nonsense. He pointed to the author Dylan Thomas, of whom he had recently written, and how this famous author had often written in a manner that was nonsensical. Admittedly, this was in part due to his extreme alcoholism. But it seemed like an idea that had merit. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The results were posted last night on this blog. Two examples of what turned out to be stream-of-consciousness writing rather than actual nonsensical writing. A manner of writing which requires that every thought regardless of its origin or content be written down quickly and without consideration. Like vomiting on the page really. As a technique for writing it has been employed by many writers. As a means to harness creativity, overcome writer’s block and to convey thought processes in fictional characters. A well-known example is Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch is a personal favorite. The human brain is incredibly fast. It can be difficult to get thoughts down on paper as quickly as they come. Jack Kerouac, writing in the age before the computer, taped together strips of tracing paper to make a sheet 120 feet long that he then fed into his typewriter, allowing him to write uninterrupted. The manuscript for On the Road is one long uninterrupted sequence, without paragraph or page breaks. Stream-of-consciousness writing was discovered to be fun and exciting. A little bit intimidating from the letting-go-of-control standpoint. And the results? Well, I leave it up to the reader to decide what you think of the results.