Traumas Public and Private: What if the Inner Child Grew Up?

Is it time to give up all hope that this pandemic and its mandatory pause might help us build a better society? Seems like it. We’re literally coming out of this pandemic guns blazing in the United States. 45 mass shootings in 30 days. Then today, Kenosha and Austin, with Austin mere hours after Ted Cruz ranted on Fox that “Biden wants to take your guns.” Meanwhile he rakes in hundreds of thousands in gun lobby money. Station KHOU-11 reported, “…during the 2018 election cycle Ted Cruz was the biggest recipient of money from gun rights backers with $311,151. For comparison the next highest recipient was Martha McSally in Arizona who got just over $228,000.” OpenSecrets.org reports he was the third highest all-time recipient with $749, 317. Mitt Romney was first with over $1M. The top 20 recipients of gun lobby money are all Republicans. When a politician is interviewed about an issue, we could at the very least put the total dollar amount they received from pertinent lobbies on the damned TV screen.

This week also meant another Black man, only 20 years old, killed by a police officer about ten miles from the Chauvin trial in Minnesota. A 13 year old boy with his hands up shot dead by a Chicago police officer. And the interconnectedness cries out for our attention. As The Sparrow Project pointed out, “George Floyd’s partner was Daunte Wright’s teacher. US Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario’s uncle was Eric Garner. Fred Hampton’s mother babysat Emmitt Till.” We keep saying, “Enough is enough,” but clearly that is not the case.

In examining my own outrage, I’ve discovered something that is tied to my own trauma. It’s easy for those of us who grew up with a lot of trauma to get incensed over injustice. We experienced our caretakers not taking care of us, causing pain and chaos instead of protecting and nurturing us. Childhood trauma is massively unjust and unfair. But what I’ve seen in myself — the past few years especially — is my use of the current political climate to quench the primal need to ride the adrenaline storms I experienced as a child in a traumatic, unpredictable household including the crash that comes with not being able to do anything about it. With social media, I keep riding that roller coaster. I cannot always get my adult to stop the ride. Outrage, anger, helplessness… it’s a familiar cycle and profoundly unhelpful without meaningful action. It doesn’t solve anything and it keeps me too distracted to work on the problems or pay attention to what I actually need. Emotionally, it keeps me mired in the past. Many of us are the embodiment of the New Yorker cartoon that noted, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” Perpetually so.

This realization arose during the thrice weekly conversations I have with a close friend. We each came from households with quiet, passive fathers and caustic, abusive mothers. Our current working solution (in addition to longer social media breaks) is to concentrate on small acts of self-love and on the inner work with the hope that it makes a difference in the outer world. And she had the insight of coaxing the Inner Child (IC) to grow up. She’s on to something. My IC was sexually, physically, and emotionally abused and is often sad, hurt, withdrawn, angry, and sometimes in collapse. My IC can also be sassy and joyful and fun and spontaneous. But bottom line is my IC should not be running the show. Or staying on that roller coaster all hours.

What if my Inner Child grew up within me to match where I am now? What if I lived a heart-centered life instead of my old coping mechanism where my head tries to figure out everything in an attempt to feel safe? What if my IC grew to feel safe and not have the same repeated reactions wielding the same unconscious subterfuge in my life? What if I didn’t spend all that time flooding my adrenal system with outrage, no matter how justified? I might even discover enough bandwidth to consider how to help with the societal problems.

I don’t have answers. Not yet. I just know that what I’ve been doing individually and what we’re doing collectively isn’t working. We need to consider new possibilities, new viewpoints, new questions while we still can, beginning with an act that is radical for trauma survivors: self-love.

Maybe my CPTSD can help you in the time of COVID-19

I’m calm. That might be annoying if you’re not during this pandemic. I’m trying to work out why I am and how that can help others who aren’t.

First, why am I calm? I grew up with a lot of abuse: incest, ridicule, public humiliation and so on, primarily from my mother. As a result, I have Complex PTSD and that means life-long hypervigilance. I’ve always been on high alert for danger around me, scanning the environment, other people, you name it. It’s exhausting, but it’s second nature. It also means I’ve been imagining worst-case scenarios all my life. I’m 63 = sixty years of thinking about what to do if everything goes to hell. Let me put it this way: THE ROAD was my go-to long before the book was written.

In my trauma recovery, I found the videos from NICABM helpful. Here is their latest. There I discovered Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory and more. I’d already read Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score (both excellent and highly recommended).

So what are some keys in addition to what’s already out there about limiting your news and social media exposure, structuring your days, getting fresh air, and building community online?

* Stay in your body. Use grounding exercises – there are thousands on YouTube. Some are more woo woo and some are more concrete ones if chakras and cords aren’t your thing. Watch Donna Eden’s energy work. Try her 5 min routine to start your morning and see if it makes a difference for you. The key to my trauma recovery was to learn to reinhabit my body after decades of dissociating. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is.

* Stay present as much as possible. This is where mindfulness practice shines. When you eat, take your time, take extra time! Use all of your senses when preparing and enjoying your food from the sound of bubbling, maybe the sun through a window shining on your plate or candlelight, the smell, how many different tastes you can identify, the feel of different textures. Suggested reading or viewing: SALT FAT ACID HEAT

* Breath work. This helps with grounding. If you’ve had trauma, especially over time, chances are you hold your breath a lot. Breath is key to so much in the body and polyvagal theory explains the benefit of the long slow exhale.

* Practice limiting negative self-talk and runaway thoughts. You can literally say STOP when you notice it happening or you can go the other direction and set a time for 3 or 5 minutes and let yourself fully indulge, but you must stop when the time goes off.

* Journal. Get out your worst fears, worries, irritations, frustration on paper. Balance it out with an equal or greater amount of gratitude.

* More gratitude. If you are sheltering in place with others, go around the table and say three things you’re grateful for at dinner every evening. You can only use food-clothing-shelter once, maybe the first day, then stretch yourself! If you’re alone, set it up online or by phone with friends. If for some reason that’s not an option, yell it out your window. I’m not kidding! There was a guy singing something at the top of his lungs – at first it sounded like a fight was starting up the street, but he was alone with headphones on. No judgment (cut down on the judge-y stuff while we’re at it) – do what works (at least six feet from the rest of us).

* If you do not love yourself, this is the time to learn how. If you have pain in your body, ask it what it is and why it’s there, then sit quietly and listen. There are lots of self-care lists out there. Pick on and do one a day. Repeat until the self-hatred loosens. Act as if until you can feel it for real. Do your shadow work: read Robert Johnson’s book. Do your Inner Child work. Change the stories you tell yourself about who you are and why you do what you do. If you’ve been blaming others for a long time, it’s going to be difficult. Do it anyway.

* Give to others as much as you can. Money is going to be tight for awhile. If you’re in a good position, donate to your local food bank or favorite charity. Send takeout or a grocery order or Amazon gift baskets to your local hospital for the health care workers. They cannot get out often to get fresh fruits and veggies and when they do (see the teary nurse on Twitter), markets may be sold out. If you cannot give money, give encouragement, give wisdom, give advice. You have an expertise so offer it up! If this continues for a long time, people are going to need advice on how to pivot, how to redo a resume, how to keep going, how to homeschool, how to garden, can fruits and veggies, cut their own hair, trim their pets’ nails, how to dance! and more.

That’s it for now. I’m running around after my 11-month-old grandson full-time during the week and he’s gone back to waking up during the night now and then. Will be back when I can. 😴

photo Diane Sherlock

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

Photo by Rajiv Perera on Unsplash

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

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

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

Photo by Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash

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….

Part 2. The Genesis of My C-PTSD – Mother as Place of Attachment

Photo by Emma Frances Logan on Unsplash

I realized that stating “The Genesis of CPTSD” in the title for this series was open to misinterpretation. This is very much about how mine started and so I made that adjustment. Your mileage may vary.

Mother as Place of Attachment

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link):

Jasmin Lee Cori writes:

Here we focus not on Mother as the ocean we come from, but as the more immediate place where we are attached….

When you watch securely attached toddlers and young children with their mothers, they are in constant physical contact, climbing over, pulling on, sucking, and hugging the mother’s body.

I don’t remember any contact even approaching that kind of intimacy with my mother. As with her mother, grandmother, and all the female relatives on her side of the family, there was no physical contact. No hugs, no kisses, no leaning up against them. Holding hands was rare, usually a means of yanking us into submission or crossing the street. The only pictures I have of anyone holding me are of my father or brothers. There was always space around my mother in family photos as in real life and there were unpleasant consequences for breaching that space. Not unusual in an incest survivor/victim, but still detrimental for her children. My brothers and I were very affectionate with our own children, having missed out on it growing up.

Attachment for the young child brings the feeling I belong to you. And because I belong to you, I have a place. Without this, we are untethered, adrift well into our adult years.

From The Emotionally Absent Mother

Driftwood is an appropriate metaphor since I grew up near the sea. Floating on unpredictable waves, adrift well into my adult years is a very good description of my experience. The thing about driftwood is that it’s had all the life sucked out of it and lies dormant, lifeless. It took years of work to recover my creativity and sense of fruitfulness.

Photo by Gonz DDL on Unsplash

Next week – First Responder.

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.

Breaking Generational Cycles: Forgiveness

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash 
white tulips are symbolic of forgiveness, purity, and serenity

Emotions tend to run high around the idea of forgiveness when it comes to child abuse and especially child sexual abuse (CSA). Understandably so. I am not advocating that you forgive your abuser(s), especially if you are in the early stages of coming to terms with what happened to you. There are so many things to factor in including the relationship to your abuser, the severity of the abuse, the timeframe, your resilience, other illnesses, advice from your trauma therapist, and whether you have a support system. When you read stories about parents forgiving their child’s murderer and other profound acts of forgiveness, there are almost always certain things present such as a long and deep faith tradition with years of healing, pondering, and counseling.

It is not to be taken lightly. Here’s a quote from a good article on what forgiveness is and what it is not:

True forgiveness means acknowledging that our suffering matters—to us, the one who’s lived it—whether or not the other person ever agrees with us.  We say, you matter—to our own heart.  And it bears repeating… we do all this with or without the other’s awareness.  Forgiveness is an inside job.

Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.

 And here are 5 myths about biblical forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not something anyone else can tell you to do, much less tell you when you are ready for it or if it’s right for your mental health, your family, or your situation. It is a profoundly personal decision and should be respected as such.

All that said, I do suggest that you forgive yourself for thinking any of it was your fault and for your mistakes. Those who cannot carry their own shame are more than happy to shift it onto their victims. As far as mistakes, you were likely hampered by changes in your brain and brain chemistry. Chances are that if you experienced childhood trauma, you made some mistakes that were driven by forces that you were unaware of. Trauma research is fairly new. Be gentle with yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn, apologize, make amends when appropriate, and move on.

You have to have a strong support system and it helps to be in trauma therapy to tackle this stuff – to open Pandora’s box – especially while raising children. If you can do it before you have kids, that’s fantastic. That was not the case for me. There were few therapists who understood trauma when I was raising my two, plus I didn’t understand all the implications of my own abuse and so shoved all of it aside for a couple of decades.

The worst mistake I made was leaving my son with my mother for five days while his sister and I were out of town at the Betty Ford Family Program. He was too young for the children’s program. Knowing what I know now, I would never have done it. At least it came after my threat that we would cut her off entirely if she was not kind to him. She changed her behavior (and I was seriously, though still privately, angry knowing she could control it after all those years). There was no difference in my son before and after, but in light of what I’ve learned, it was still a mistake. We just got lucky.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

You always think abuse is personal. It is personal and it also is not. Abusers abuse. That’s what they do. It’s not specific to you – or rather only to you – you were close, convenient, and powerless. Believing it was only about her was why my mother left me with her mother and stepfather when she went to Vegas with my dad for a week. Years later, when I was finally dealing with the fallout from my abuse, I realized that something did happen to me that week, but by that point, my trauma therapist advised that since it fit with the family pathology, there was no reason to dig it all up. I’d already processed plenty in order to see the patterns and to heal.

I chose to forgive my mother and my family because to me that seems like the true completion of the full cycle. She never forgave her stepfather and ended up bitter and alone, full of hate. I do not want to end up the same way, so forgiveness is the difficult last step to truly break the cycle. It does not mean that any of it was okay, but rather it unhooks me from the situation and frees me from it. I still feel anger sometimes. I certainly still feel the effects of the abuse. I am also able to place the blame and shame on them instead of me. Forgiveness means I am free to be in this moment, unshackled from the past. Finally.