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.

Part 1. The Genesis of My C-PTSD – Mother as Source: The Hostile Womb

Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash

In her book, The Emotionally Absent Mother, Jasmin Lee Cori cites ten faces of a good mother, which I’m considering as I finish writing my trauma memoir. Her list of ten are Source, Place of Attachment, First Responder, Modulator, Nurturer, Mirror, Cheerleader, Mentor, Protector, and Home Base.  Unfortunately, my mother – as her mother and grandmother before her – did not succeed in any of the ten areas. Not even close. As I finish writing my book, I’m going to examine each of these in their own post over the coming weeks, first with Cori’s definition, followed by how I experienced my mother.

Mother as Source

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link):

“Mother” is what we come from and what we are made of. In mythology and religion, this source is often depicted as some kind of mother goddess, often an ocean goddess. Just as life is said to have evolved from the ocean, human life evolves from the mother and, more specifically, the womb. Thus, at both the mythological level and the more mundane, the source of life is Mother.

When the child has a positive experience of Mother, he gets the sense, I am of Mommy. I come from her. I’m part of her. I’m like her. This becomes a building block of identity.” (pg 22)

Source was definitely not a positive association for me to the point where the phrase “knit together in my mother’s womb” makes me nauseous. It was not an inviting place and she did not want me. She drove that point home, taking me to tea every month with her abortionist when I was a kid. That behavior even shocked a very experienced trauma therapist.

My mother did not have a warm, nurturing relationship with her mother and so it went back through generations. What happens when you are rejected and humiliated or, in her case, simply not loved by your earthly source? In my family’s case, it meant neglectful and outright abusive behavior. It meant sexual abuse. It meant ridicule and humiliation. It meant a dearth of emotional resources. It meant the kind of chronic trauma that results in Complex PTSD.

I don’t remember ever feeling a sense of pride being her child. When I was 21 or 22, I was visiting my brother and one of his childhood friends said I looked like her. I didn’t understand why he felt the need to insult me other than he was always laughing at someone else’s expense. He knew who she was and the dig was intentional. Appalled and mortified, I replied that I looked like my dad – something everyone else said. That “friend” was the outlier and though he’s been dead for decades, I still hold it against him.

Not identifying with her as Source meant feeling adrift growing up. I never had a strong sense of belonging in my immediate family. I suppose it’s fertile ground for the creative life, but at a cost. My strongest sense of family came from the theater, film, and my great escape was books. Victor Hugo’s Paris, Edgar Allen Poe’s colored rooms, and Thoreau’s Walden Pond were far more real to me than the house I grew up in. Books, art, music, theater, and film became my Source, along with the ocean. Staring out at the ocean I was lucky enough to have nearby was a balm in a way my family never was.

Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash

Next week, Place of Attachment.

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.

What trauma does to you: Muscle Armoring

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

We’re always tense, always on guard, those of us with CPTSD.

Braced.

Tight.

Clenched.

Muscle armoring goes along with hypervigilance. The body is perpetually preparing for flight, preparing to fight, or stuck in freeze. There’s often pain when the muscles are constantly tensed and overworked. There can also be body imbalances, fibromyalgia, and breathing problems due to the ribcage muscles being locked up. Muscle armoring is another coping mechanism developed in an unstable childhood where you never knew when or where the next attack, verbal, physical, even silent, was coming from.

Photo by Andrii Podilnyk on Unsplash

According to Urbanfitt.com:

FUNCTIONS OF MUSCULAR ARMOR:
* Keeps potentially explosive emotions contained

*Acts as a protective coping mechanism resulting from the fight or flight impulse being continually inhibited into a state of freeze often experienced in victims of abuse. See Polyvagal Theory 

*Wards off the emotions of others and provide a physical barrier to external stress or threat like a protective container.

*Creates a sense of physical safety and containment as a coping mechanism to deal with chronic stressful life events

Body armor and character armor are essentially the same. Their function is trying to protect yourself against the pain of not expressing things that society says you may not express. Muscular armor is character armor expressed in body, muscular rigidity.

Armoring is the sum total of the muscular attitudes which a person develops as a defense against the breakthrough of emotions, especially anxiety, rage, sexual excitation. Character armor is the sum total of all the years of the muscular attitudes that have also been incorporated in the person’s character through a more stimulated habitual nervous system response.

An armored person doesn’t feel their armor because it develops over time and, as such, we wouldn’t notice the accumulation of muscular tension, fascial adhesions and blocks.  What is body armor made of?  Hypertonic fascia.  We accumulate denser connective tissue (that is, fascia) when we engage in body armoring.

http://urbanfitt.com/the-bodybraid-somatic-healing-and-body-armoring/

Urbanfitt.com offers the Body Braid as a way to reprogram body armor. I have not tried it, but it sounds very intriguing.

What is self-love?

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Here are 22 components of self-love that was published anonymously in the UK a few years ago. I edited some of the definitions because I don’t believe it’s about worshipping yourself, but rather breaking old trauma patterns and silencing old voices in order to learn how to value your unique self and treat yourself with loving kindness:

1. Self-acceptance:

A sense of comfort and ease with yourself, accepting all that you are, your strengths, weakness to understand that you are of singular worth.

2.  Self-appreciation:

Acknowledgement, recognition, and admiration of your individual qualities and that there is only one precious you.

3. Self-awareness:

A clear understanding of your personality, strengths, weaknesses, qualities, and flaws.

4. Self-care:

Looking after yourself. Taking care of your physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental health. Increasing your well-being through healthy self-care.

5. Self-compassion:

Being gentle, empathetic, and showing loving kindness to yourself. Being understanding of your current situation.

6. Self-confidence:

Trusting yourself and relying on your own judgment. The positive image you have of yourself and the courage of your convictions.

7. Self-empowerment:  

Taking full responsibility for your life. Taking actions to create the life you want. The degree to which you exercise your power over your perceptions and emotions in order to do what is necessary for your own self-growth.

8. Self-assured:

The ability to relax and employ your abilities and strengths in any given situation.

9. Self-worth:

A healthy, balanced opinion of yourself with the knowledge that you have every right to be here and express yourself.

10. Self-esteem:

Holding yourself in healthy regard. Being a friend to yourself.

11. Self-belief:

The deep knowing that you are worthy and deserving of the good things that you are bringing or can bring into your life.

12. Positive self-image:

Feeling good about yourself, having a positive view of yourself.

13. Self-honesty:

Unwavering commitment to the truth about yourself and how your actions, thoughts, and choices affect your life and the people around you.

14. Self-forgiveness:

Clearing out negative self-judgment and negative self-criticism. Remembering that you are human and will always making mistakes, which is all part of the learning process. Allowing yourself to let go of past hurts and disappointments you have endured when you felt that you let yourself down or didn’t have access to the resources, knowledge, or the support you needed when you made the decisions which hurt you.

15. Self-trust:

Ability to look inside yourself for the answer. The confidence you have in your intuition and knowledge.

16. Self-respect:

Making choices that honor your soul, having pride in yourself, and behaving with dignity.

17. Self-pleasure:

Consistently choosing to create opportunities to allow yourself to receive and experience play, pleasure, and fun. Inviting opportunities for happiness and feeding your soul with joy.

18. Self-expression:

Allowing yourself freedom of expression, being unapologetic, allowing the real you to shine.

19. Self-resilience:

The ability to bounce back from setbacks, adversity, and other negatives. The ability to get yourself back up after being knocked down.

20. Self-honor:

Having integrity in your own beliefs and actions and the determination to do the right thing.

21. Self-realization:

Fulfillment of the possibilities of your character or personality. The ability to distinguish your true self from your ego.

22. Self-approval:

Liberation! No need to wait for others approval or feel you have to prove yourself. Accepting who you are and where you are now. Appreciating and being in agreement with yourself.