Tips for Breaking Generational Cycles, Part Four

  • This will be painful. These abusive behaviors travel through families until someone makes the decision to feel the pain. That is part of stopping the cycle. You will survive it and a good trauma therapist or group can make it easier to bear. Consult with a psychiatrist about an anti-depressant. I found that bupropion (generic for Wellbutrin) gave me an inner platform to stand on in order to face the worst of what happened to me when I was a child. EMDR worked for me in that regard as well. 
  • A good therapist who has been trained in trauma is invaluable. You may have to pay out of pocket, but there are also some very good therapists in the Medicare system in the U.S. If you need help finding one, look for someone who has training in EMDR. Whether or not you decide to pursue EMDR, it is an indicator that they are familiar with trauma and its after effects.
  • Do not rule out medication in consultation with a psychiatrist, again, one familiar with trauma. If you’re a trauma survivor, you may have Complex PTSD. If so, you may also be hypersensitive to medication.I found that a tiny dose of an antidepressant gave me enough of an internal platform to be able to look at the worst of what happened to me. Exercise,diet, and so on only go so far and do not let yourself be shamed by anyone else into foregoing prescription drug(s) that might help you. Take ownership of your healing and what’s right for you. Advice from others on natural or prescription drugs is not helpful because each of us is unique in how we react and what combination is right for our situation. No one has your background, genetic makeup, biochemistry, circumstances, reactions, etc. Take all suggestions with a very big grain of salt.
  • Try meetings that align with your issues and maybe some that don’t: AlAnon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Debtors Anonymous,Gamblers Anonymous, etc. If 12-step isn’t right for you, there are the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA), and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Sometimes it helps to hear familiar stories and circumstances to not feel so alone. Also, just because one doesn’t work doesn’t mean another won’t.If you don’t like one, try another. For me, the 12-step concept of powerlessness didn’t work because with childhood trauma, I always felt powerless. My life was not unmanageable and I did not have addictions, so for me it was more helpful to go to meetings with DBSA, SIA, and NAMI.
  • Volunteer with your kids and teach them that there are many things larger than themselves and other people with an entire spectrum of problems and difficulties. There’s almost always someone worse off or simply with a different set of problems. Helping others helps you as well. It can help get you out of your head and out of the house. I would recommend volunteering with an established organization, either religious or secular according to your preference. One of the activities my children and I did was a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at our parish. All priests in residence (usually six) were in attendance as well as police officers. Most of the people are fine, but some have untreated mental health issues or character issues. With eight hundred to twelve hundred people being fed, having security was a necessary precaution. There unfortunately have been people harmed going out on their own. Please stay safe. And have fun. 

What Trauma Does To You: The Hippocampus

Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

The hippocampus is part of the limbic system. It is roughly the shape of a seahorse and, as with the amygdalae, there is one in each temporal lobe in the middle bottom of the brain and they are about the size of your thumbs.

Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA Professor Laszlo Seress

Stress affects the amygdala,the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, often with lasting changes. Given the complexity of the brain, there are no easy answers and it’s entirely possible that both things may be true. These areas play a major role in anger and fear, memory, and motivations and play a major role in the “fight, freeze, or flight” response. The hippocampus is believed to be responsible for the processing of long-term memory and emotional responses. Some with CPTSD will have trouble retrieving memories and others will retain vivid memories of trauma and abuse. The elements of the limbic system can shrink in the presence of persistent ongoing childhood trauma. There is ongoing research as to whether a smaller hippocampus puts one at greater risk of PTSD rather than trauma impacting the structure. It makes sense though that for young children,the trauma alters the brain chemistry and the structures of in the developing brain.

Fortunately for victims of childhood trauma, the hippocampus demonstrates an unusual capacity for neuronal plasticity and regeneration. Exercise can regenerate neurons in the hippocampus. Growing up in La Jolla with an active lifestyle, bodysurfing, walking up Nautilus Street every day probably healed some of what the house I grew up did to me at least as far as my hippocampi were concerned.

Series: What Trauma Does To You, The Amygdala

Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Complex PTSD results from prolonged or chronic traumatic exposure as is the case with child abuse. For a child, there’s no viable escape and the people who are supposed to love, protect, and care for the child… don’t. Most child abuse includes just enough carrots – good times – to be utterly confusing. The good times always seem like they will last… until the next insult, punch, grope, withdrawal…. Child abuse includes psychological abuse, such as threats of violence, gaslighting, game playing, name calling, insults, and withholding love. The silent treatment is emotional abuse and very destructive. Physical abuse and sexual abuse of children rarely exist without some form of psychological abuse and sometimes the additional awful uncertainty of someone under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.  

The amygdala is generally understood as the fear center of the brain. Amygdala comes from the Greek word for almond (αμύγδαλο or amygdalo) and there are actually two almond-shaped structures, one in each hemisphere of the brain. When amygdalae were removed in rats, the rats lost their fear of everything, including cats.

Wikimedia Commons: BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan.

The amygdala of an abused child experiences increased and persistent activation. The brain is a complex organ that we’re still learning about, but it is clear that chronic child abuse alters both brain chemistry and brain structures.

The alterations to amygdala can create problems with emotional regulation, a propensity to emotional extremes, as well as reactions to triggers, particularly emotional triggers. Essential to decoding emotions, changes in the amygdala affect one’s perceptions of one’s own emotions, emotional situations, and the emotions of others. Obviously, these kinds of misperceptions can make relationships, and life in general, difficult.

Childhood sexual abuse changes who you are. It changed generations of women on my mother’s side of the family. I’ve been on high alert all my life. I have trouble sleeping, I prefer to sit along a wall in a restaurant so no one can come up behind me, I constantly scan people, places, crowds for danger. I am forever imagining worst case scenarios and the means of escape. For decades, I was terrified of what people might say next if they paused in conversation. And on and on.

With constant fear come hypervigilance and anxiety. Hypervigilance, in turn, may be accompanied by muscle armoring, all of which (and more) will be explored in this series. Next up is the hippocampus, another crucial brain structure affected by child abuse.

This is your brain on trauma

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine is having an excellent free series on the brain and trauma that includes Peter Levine (Walking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, In An Unspoken Voice, and more) and Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score). Replays for the first session are today and tomorrow.

[Disclosure: Books cited above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I get a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. I’ve read them and they’ve been invaluable in my own recovery. Thank you]

TraumaBrainInfographic

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