Asphyxiating Toxic Cycles

As a childhood trauma survivor, I learned some years ago that we often hold our breath. It’s a way of not feeling when so much of what we feel is bad. It’s a way of disconnecting from our body because our bodies were hurt and abused. For me, it was due to incest, terror, humiliation and more.

Breathing has been recently highlighted in horrific ways including Covid killing nearly 4 million people by turning their lungs into cement, the breath being snuffed out of Black men by police officers, and the continued destruction of our coral reefs, rainforests, and oceans that are the lungs of the plant.

What can we make of these global messages on breathing from so many sources?

Breath denied cuts us off from ourselves, even from life. We have polluted parts of this earth to the point where people have great difficulty breathing there. I saw it in the slums of Kenya where many have eye and lung problems from the huge dumps like Dandora and Kibera. As director Peter Sellars has noted, we see the state of injustice is so bad that breath itself is denied as in the cases of Eric Garner and George Floyd, along with those unfilmed. Child abuse traumatizes us to the point where we deny ourselves breath — just enough to stay alive but not enough to feel or be in our bodies.

This pandemic ‘time out’ we’ve been given isn’t looking like it’s going to make as much of a difference we might have hoped when it began. We seem incapable of breathing together, of realizing we need to work together, of loving together. But love, work together, and breathe we must.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that when we make the choice to heal ourselves and our family line, to break toxic familial cycles, it matters, it makes a difference. It can mean one less incest survivor, fewer child abuse victims, which leads to fewer problems down the road for all of us.

To break these cycles means facing your own shadow and we humans are generally loathe to do that. As a society, we’re even worse at telling ourselves the truth about the atrocities of the past. This means first we must tell the truth which violates Rule #1 of a dysfunctional family: Do Not Tell.

I never said any of this would be easy. Most of it is hard as hell.

These are some of the things that helped me break the cycle for me and my children:

  • Make the decision to do things differently, not perfectly, just better
  • Tell the truth
  • Do your shadow work
  • Breathing exercises will strengthen your diaphragm and intercostal muscles that have likely been underused. This can be triggering, so proceed with caution.
  • Learn your triggers
  • Get trauma informed therapy and try different approaches for what works for you. EMDR works for some, not others.
  • If you cannot afford therapy, read Pete WalkerPeter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Stephen Porges, Pat Ogden and others or watch them on YouTube. There are also interesting episodes on This Jungian Lifepodcast.
  • Return to your body: somatic work, yoga, breath work, grounding, qigong, etc.
  • Try medication and be aware you may be hypersensitive to it, so discuss this with your trauma-informed psych. There is no shame in medication.
  • Eat clean and exercise
  • Sound baths
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Explore support groups online or as things open up, in person, including 12-step, DBSA, Survivors of Incest Anonymous, RAINN, and more
  • Journal
  • Do something to improve society, whether it’s getting out the vote, cleaning up a beach or park, food drives or something else. It feels good to help others, get out of yourself for a bit, and it can keep you from ruminating
  • Realize the shame belongs to the perpetrator

I also have spent much of the past six or seven years writing my trauma memoir — after a couple of years of trauma therapy and more years off and on in regular therapy — which allowed me to see recurring patterns, including dates, ages, anniversaries of events. I was also finally able to see my parents more fully as damaged people — in my mother’s case severely damaged — at a time when there was no trauma-informed therapy or medications. They were mostly reactive rather than relational. Writing BAGGAGE CLAIM was the hardest thing I have ever done and I pray that it helps others.

Instead of holding our breath, instead of suffocating each other metaphorically or in reality, let’s instead cut off the oxygen to bad behaviors of all kinds. If we reduce child sexual abuse by only 5%, that is over 2 million people. 2 million who will have a better quality of life with better mental and physical health. There are similar statistics for the environment and social justice. We all benefit, but we will have to give up some comfort and considering the current political discourse, we will have to give up a lot of fear.

Breathtaking

Blind_Justice_(2830780815)
By Tim Green from Bradford (Blind Justice) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The news out of Alaska shows that the public outrage over Brock Turner’s light sentence  (and similar cases) made no difference. It’s like they’re doubling down on letting these creeps off the hook.

“Judge Michael Corey accepted the deal, noting the outcome of the case could be described as ‘breathtaking.'”

Interesting word choice.

Justin Schneider was let off with time served. 1 year. Guidelines restricted sentencing to 2 years because they’d accepted sex offender treatment. They do this in order to get the cooperation of the offender. I hope it works. I am skeptical it will. I know the victim will spend years, if not the rest of her life, dealing with the fallout from the trauma. He changed her and she doesn’t get off with “time served.”

BREATHTAKING.

We trauma survivors often hold our breath, “Chronic breath holding and effortful breathing are not healthy because the muscular effort, coupled with the effects of stress on the nervous, hormonal, and immune systems, can impair both physical and psychological function.” It’s a classic symptom of PTSD and Complex PTSD. Breath taking indeed. She has a life sentence of coping with strangulation – he literally took her breath – kidnapping, and sexual assault. He lost his job. Okay, he has a felony on his record. The overconcern with what the attacker has to cope with as he goes on in life, well, that is breathtaking.

I was in a therapy group for women molested as children and the therapist who ran it was the first person to mention holding my breath as a symptom of what had happened to me. At the same time, I was taking improv and met Tamara Silvera, vocal coach and a distant cousin by way of our Jamaican dads. I worked with her with the added bonus that when we were in class at the now-defunct IO West, she could signal me when I was holding my breath. I did it a lot. Now I’m more aware of it. I still hold my breath when I write about what happened to me. I started writing before #MeToo and am feeling an increasing sense of urgency knowing first-hand how many cannot or will not tell their stories and very much want and need those of us who can tell ours to speak up.

The news cycles since October 7, 2016 and that infamous Access Hollywood tape have been a nightmare for anyone who has been sexually assaulted as an adult, as a child, or both. It got worse in October, 2017 with the Weinstein revelations. Coupled with the injustices from ignorant judges such as M Marc Kelly (Kevin Rojano-Nieto sodomized a 3 year old and Kelly cut 15 yrs off the mandatory minimum in 2015; the 4th District reversed the ruling & resentenced), Aaron Persky (recalled over Brock Turner), and Michael Corey in Alaska have caused immeasurable distress and despair from all of us who’ve suffered from sexual assault we’re now seeing in #WhyIDidntReport: “I say our, because I am included in this. When I read Trump’s tweet this morning, first I stopped breathing. When the most powerful person in the land denies your lived experience, it feels like someone punching you in the diaphragm.”

Blind justice is legal concept meant to point to neutrality when dispensing justice. Remember justice?

justice

n. 1) fairness. 2) moral rightness. 3) a scheme or system of law in which every person receives his/ her/its due from the system, including all rights, both natural and legal.

Moral rightness takes into account the effect the assault had on the victim, the sufferer. Fairness adheres to minimum sentencing requirements. There are strong indications we do not want a more just society, let alone a kinder one. But if we do, we’re going to have to fight harder for it, consider the victim’s POV, and have a much better understanding of trauma and its fallout. Because #TimesUp