Part 8. The Genesis of My CPTSD: Mother as Mentor

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

Here Mother is teacher not simply of some isolated subject but of a much bigger curriculum. She orients the child to successfully living in the world. She teaches her child how to get along with others, how to make good decisions, and how to manage time, meet responsibilities, and pursue goals. Mother is in this sense the first “life skills coach.” Each of these capacities is huge, and any particular woman may be better at teaching some of them than others.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the woman who hissed “Saggy Tits” and “Chicken Chest” at my increasingly slumped teenage shoulders was perhaps not the best mentor on how to make my way in the world.

My mother had good skills for nursing, household tasks, as well as all kinds of handwork, including counted cross-stitch, crewel embroidery, and knitting. Self-worth, managing emotions, navigating interpersonal situations? Not her strong suit. The three of us cringed, muscles tensed, faces carefully neutral, on the rare occasions we dropped something on her antiseptic kitchen linoleum. There were no mistakes, only catastrophes that made her mouth form a tight line and her pale eyes harden.

Between the outright neglect during the decade of her Valium addiction to the general absence of verbal assurance, she was not equipped to teach anyone how to hold a conversation, pursue goals, or make good decisions. Time management meant two things: never be late and work without ceasing. The first has served me well. And I do have a strong work ethic, but it took me decades to feel okay about time off and relaxation.

Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

Two incidents were a revelation that there were other ways to live. The first was when I was 12. A friend’s parents drove us home from the movies and interrupted my normal staring out the window reverie to ask me what I’d thought of the movie as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I tentatively offered my opinion and held my breath. The dad agreed and elaborated as in an actual conversation. I exhaled. Years later when I saw Little Man Tate, I was equally amazed that the mother (played by Jodie Foster) did not berate her son for spilling his milk. She was more concerned with him than the mess. She gave me a new model to break old patterns.

Part of breaking these multi-generational cycles has been learning some of these life skills and passing them on. At a round table, my kids and I shared dinner conversations, working out problems, being silly, learning from each other. Sometimes we solved the world’s problems, though they had to pick up navigating office politics on their own. We all have our limits. It’s about opening up more than we were allowed to with progress, not perfection. They’ll do even more for their future children.

Next week: Mother as Protector

Part 7. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Cheerleader

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Mother As Cheerleader

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

A mother may have difficulty cheerleading for several reasons. She may be so undermothered and unsupported herself that she doesn’t know about cheerleading, she may be more focused on her own needs for support, she may be unaware of her child’s needs, or she may be threatened by her child’s achievements and growing autonomy. She also may be too harried or depressed to have the energy to cheerlead.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

My mother had no capacity to cheer anyone else on, including herself. She sought healing most of her life to no avail. She was definitely undermothered and certainly unsupported when she tried to get help against her stepfather’s rapes. She responded to her own children with abuse and neglect, continuing the generational cycle. She swung between feeling threatened and betrayed by any autonomy shown by her children and being too depressed to leave her bed. When her two sons left home, she took it as a personal betrayal.

Here’s one small example of my mother’s version of cheerleading: when I was 12 or 13, I was practicing in the backyard because I couldn’t do the splits or a cartwheel. I was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to make progress. She responded by doing a bunch of cartwheels around me, mocking and denigrating me the entire time. It felt like the opposite of cheerleading. She did not pause to teach, much less encourage me, and I gave up.

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

Feeling unsupported is lonely.

Decades later, I learned that it’s not unusual for abuse victims to have tight hips. All the trauma and emotion is stored in the body. The body remembers everything. Thanks to the work of Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Pat Ogden and others we’re finally learning the importance of discharging old trauma stored in the body. Learning to do so is one more tool in healing from abuse and breaking familial cycles.

Part 6. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Mirror

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Mother as Mirror

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

A mother’s role in providing reflection is one of her most important. It is how children feel known and come to know themselves.

Mirroring happens both verbally and nonverbally, and there are several levels to it. The first is one where children feel contacted, met. When a child feels seen, she can recognize herself as a developing person. If the child feels invisible or not seen, often that child will feel not fully real. So the most fundamental message of mirroring is “I see you – and you are real.”

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

For most of my life, I never admitted this even to myself, but I check mirrors, photos, and film of myself to see if I exist. It’s part of why I did some modeling for photographers and a painter. It’s why I’ve watched film of myself – to see myself or, more accurately, to see that I have a self, and to try to figure out how I might seem to others. Now I know that being an “invisible child” to avoid my mother’s wrath came at a price. As a result, I’ve been invisible to myself. Even when I have seen myself, it’s like looking in a funhouse mirror after all the public humiliation, ridicule, mocking, and other abuse from my mother. I wonder if childhood abuse is why some artists paint self-portraits. It’s not always narcissism. Sometimes it’s to confirm one’s own existence.

Photo by Kaleb Nimz on Unsplash

Not surprisingly, mirror work is difficult for me and I resist consistency. Some prefer to use an internal “spirit mirror.” Either way, you literally face with all those voices that are normally white noise in the background of your life: denigration, hatred, mocking, etc. in order to counter them with positive affirmations. Louise Hay says it’s the most effective tool she’s found for learning to love yourself:

Because the mirror reflects back to you the feelings you have about yourself. It makes you immediately aware of where you are resisting and where you are open and flowing. It clearly shows you what thoughts you will need to change if you want to have a joyous, fulfilling life.
As you learn to do mirror work, you will become much more aware of the words you say and the things you do. You will learn to take care of yourself on a deeper level than you have done before.

https://www.louisehay.com/what-is-mirror-work/

For those of us who did not get the healthy mirror we should have had as a child, it’s another tool in the arsenal to well-being, peace, and self-love.

Part 5. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Nurturer

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Mother As Nurturer

From The Emotionally Absent Mother by Jasmin Lee Cori [affiliate link]:

Since a child’s first language is touch, much will be communicated by the mother’s holding and handling of the infant as well as by the way she continues to touch her growing child. Does the touch communicate real caring and love, or is it simply accomplishing the task at hand?

The main message associated with this function is “I love you.” This is crucial to the development of self-esteem. When it is present, the child thinks, Mommy loves me, so I am somebody.

It is my father who holds me in the photos from my childhood. I don’t remember any loving touch from my mother. She was in many ways a human cactus. My mother’s mother didn’t love her and my mother didn’t love herself. I’m not sure my mother loved anyone. A few dogs perhaps. My daughter maybe. African violets definitely. The rest of us were bystanders.

Her touch was utilitarian. Checking temperature, accomplishing the task at hand, punishment. My late brother and I never had the sense that she loved us. She presented one face to the world and a different, meaner one at home. According to her, everything wrong in our families was the fault of our respective fathers. My mother’s family had a long tradition of tall tales meant to obfuscate serious problems within the family. My grandmother lost her favorite daughter in infancy and all of her nurturing – if she had any – vanished. My mother was not nurtured and her nurturing only came out in her nursing career. Not at home. All we as her children could do was nurture our own children, giving them what we wished we had.

Photo by Joseph Pérez on Unsplash

Part 4. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Modulator

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Mother as Modulator goes hand in hand with the First Responder role, this time, teaching the child emotional regulation that in time becomes self-regulation.

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

When Mother is modulator, she helps us transition from negative emotional experiences to positive ones. One way she does this is by first empathizing with what is going on, and then leading us to more comfortable territory. She shows us how to let go of one emotion and move on to another, and in her own cheerfulness gives us something brighter to join with. We see this in the mother who meets her child’s tears with a sad face and soon has her child laughing.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

Or not.

As a survivor of incest and other abuse, my mother could not regulate her own emotions, let alone teach that to anyone else. She never once told any of us “it will be all right.” She didn’t believe it would be, not for herself, not for us. She didn’t much care about the emotional states of anyone around her, unless they were one of her patients while she was a nurse.

This hole in our learning as trauma survivors means we are wide open to triggers that can shut us down, prevent us from thinking clearly, or cause dissociation. Self-regulation can of course be learned, but the road there is often bumpy and painful. Access to a therapist trained in complex trauma is incredibly helpful and something we need to focus on if we’re to improve overall mental health, given the alarming statistics on child abuse.

My mother was ambivalent at best about her role, about having children. She was born in 1919, before birth control was an option. She aborted her stepfather’s twin boys, presumably before attending nursing school. I was not ambivalent about my own children and perhaps that’s the difference. Mirroring and modulating their emotions, guiding them from distress to calm came far more easily to me than to my mother. Given that my mother’s mother was never warm to her, my mother never received that comfort as a child. And that is how generational cycles continue.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Next week, Mother as Nurturer….

What trauma does to you: pain

Photo by Asdrubal luna on Unsplash

Many people who were abused as children experience pain symptoms, either acutely or chronically. Most common are headaches and back pain. Now it is suggested that in both cases, patients who experience migraines and/or chronic low back pain be screened for child abuse.

My experience with pain as part of the fallout stems from CSA (child sexual abuse). I’ve written about the most dramatic manifestation that appeared while I was in college.

From my upcoming memoir, Baggage Claim:

When I’m a freshman in college, after a year of the stabbing agony of sex not getting better, I see the doctor at the clinic at UCSD. She mentions that she has one other female student my age with the same complaint and no answers for either of us. There is nothing physically wrong.

Later that week, I sit in my parents’ front room, unchanged from when we moved in, on the Naugahyde sectional, and tell my mother about the pain. She’s not only an R.N., but our own personal medical expert. No matter how strained things get, all three of her children rely on her to answer all medical questions.

I’m on one side of a large handmade lamp with a base made from a plain Balthazar-sized green wine bottle with a beige shantung shade handmade by our former neighbor. My mother sits on the other side in her brown and tan lounge chair doing counted cross-stitch as she calmly tells me that one of my half-brothers molested me when I was three. I am surprised to find that I am not surprised. I’m mostly numb, the hot anger of “how could you let that happen?” does not arise. It’s not safe to show emotion in front of her. I know somewhere hidden inside of me it does not make sense that she, who prided herself on being a nurse and caretaker, who was an incest survivor abused for a dozen years by her stepfather, would allow it under her roof.

  Baggage Claim by Diane Sherlock

After my mother told me about the abuse, the pain vanished. I still experience low back pain when I’m dredging up the past to write and mid-back pain when I go through extended lonely periods and feel unloved. My trauma therapist taught me that self-compassion goes a very long way in healing mind, body, and spirit.

Here’s Peter Levine on traumatic memory and the body (it’s only 4 min):

Emotions are stored in the body and when there’s been trauma, the body does what it can to signal there’s a problem and one of the most common signals is pain. Thankfully there are somatic therapists, rolfers, physical therapists, and yoga instructors who have been studying trauma and how emotions become locked in the body, developing a number of ways to release them. One of the most common releases is to complete the gesture that was originally ineffective, such as the motion to push away a stronger person. Completing the entire motion is often effective in allowing the emotion to leave the body. Here’s another case study using running and temper tantrum gestures. As the case study notes, caution must be exercised in cases where there’s dissociation, psychosis, or BPD and then only proceed with a trained trauma therapist or find other solutions.

More generational cycles to break…

I’ve lived and researched and thought about breaking unhealthy generational cycles of sexual abuse in families. Now another wave of abuse in the Catholic Church has surfaced, this time in Pennsylvania (warning: graphic sexual content). I’m a convert (RCIA ’99) and still new to the Church when it came to light in Los Angeles around 2002. While shocking and disgusting, I did not find it particularly surprising. When attacked for my faith and/or decision to join the Church, I kept asking, “Where did you think you’d find them?” They will always be found among the most trusted people in society, in positions of contact with minors. That is how they get access. That is how they get away with it. What I did not stop to consider is that, as with families, there are generational cycles in seminaries as well, passed down through the years from one group to the next.

priest (1)

The effects of childhood sexual abuse are lifelong. It returns with these kinds of revelations whether from politicians or priests. Triggers are real and they remain, whether or not the source of one’s own abuse was the same. The act is the same or similar and the body knows it. These priests not only committed one of the most heinous acts against the vulnerable and powerless, they did so as representatives of God. That is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That is an unforgivable sin.

There is a saying that the pain continues through families until someone decides to fully feel it. However it happens, it takes a conscious decision to stop sexual abuse.

Here’s how one priest addressed being abused when he was 15 and what he did to stop his molester.

shhh
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

We can put an end to most childhood sexual abuse if we make up our minds to do so. One of the main obstacles is denial. Confronting evil is messy and scary and once again – despite the lessons of the past (and they weren’t that long ago) – we see men who are supposedly trained in good and evil making excuses. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin told the press that the abuse was outside his responsibility. He is no different from my grandmother who looked the other way as her second husband molested her daughter for a dozen years. Tobin, now in Providence, RI, was Auxiliary Bishop in Philadelphia while the Church was covering up the abuses:

“My responsibilities as Vicar General and General Secretary of the diocese did not include clergy assignments or clergy misconduct, but rather other administrative duties such as budgets, property, diocesan staff, working with consultative groups, etc. Even as an auxiliary bishop, I was not primarily responsible for clergy issues,″ Tobin said in an email to The Providence Journal.

When my mother told her mother what was going on she was accused of stealing her mother’s husband. When she went to her grandmother, she was slapped and warned against saying such awful things about such a fine man. Versions of what too many bishops and priests are saying this week.

The common attitude: Nothing to see here, move along. We must preserve the status quo. Don’t rock the boat.

The bishops would do well to repent publicly in sackcloth and ashes. Yes, literally. My sense is that the All Patient is losing patience. Their time to declare a Holy Hour of Reparation, A Year of Penance, to donate their ornate robes to make First Communion clothes for children in favor of a cilice, is running out.

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Photo by Aron on Unsplash

Speak up

child on bench
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

When the Trump administration began to separate children from parents at the border, I knew some of those children would be sexually abused. It’s happened. Inevitably. And to a six-year-old girl. Any time you isolate children from the adults who love and protect them, disaster is inevitable. It doesn’t matter if it’s being done by a coach or teacher, church or government – separating children, isolating them, is key to abusing them.

In the case of people fleeing the horrors of their country to make the dangerous journey to the US, the abuse of the children isolated by our government is our tax dollars at work. If you were (rightly) incensed over the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Nassar at Michigan State, Sandusky at Penn State, or any of the too many other cases, this time, you have the tools to do something about this. This time, it’s being done in our name with our tax dollars. This time, call your reps, vote, clean out the House and Senate. Demand change. If you were outraged over any of the other abuses, yet somehow think this is okay as part of a deterrent, you need to check your soul and your racism.

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Photo by annie bolin on Unsplash

When the Catholic abuse victims voiced their displeasure with Cardinal Mahoney’s patronizing apology, I decided to add my voice to theirs. I wrote to Archbishop Gomez that, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the damage Mahoney was doing, the pain of his statements, was not confined to those directly abused. Cardinal Mahoney’s self-serving comments affected all of us who were abused as children, not only the direct victims. There are more of us than you know.

Amplification.

Solidarity.

Two weeks later, the Archbishop stripped Mahoney of his administrative and public duties and publicly criticized him. It was unprecedented. Did my letter make a difference? Unlikely. I don’t know that it got to him or whether he read it. However, Gomez reading the accounts and listening to those directly affected did lead to his actions. But I felt better adding my voice to theirs and maybe someone did take note that all abuse victims are impacted by public statements thanks to Complex PTSD, something I’ll be writing more about in the coming weeks.