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.

Mining During A Pandemic

For the past few years, I’ve focused on healing my relationship to money and of course the initial reason is never the reason. Money is a symptom of a self-love/care/esteem issues. It’s meant to flow – currency after all – and we experience problems individually and as a society when it doesn’t.

In the drill down, I expose what Julia Cameron might call a vein of gold. The rock formations of my protective mechanisms give way. The miner is a bit of wisdom that arrives from a friend: why other people do what they do is none of my business. At first I want to reject it, but these days I’m letting these things have a seat next to me. Quarantining will provide space for this if you let it.

Photo by Nicolas J Leclercq on Unsplash

With childhood trauma, one of the things I did to try to keep myself safe was to figure out why the adults around me were doing or saying the awful things they were doing or saying. If I could figure that out, then I might have a strategy to keep myself safe. It worked for a long time as a coping strategy. It’s great for writing and preparing as an actor. It’s also perfect training for codependency. A Frenchman once called me “Madame Psychologie.” It wasn’t a compliment.

It hit me in the shower yesterday as I was fighting the habit of deciding why a friend hasn’t been responding to calls, texts, or emails. The old scripts of combing through what I might have done to offend, what was going on in their life, what could they be thinking, etc. were running in full force. What if I stopped? What if the miner was right and the thoughts and actions of my friend were none of my business? What if I spent no time at all in this old familiar storytelling?

What the hell am I do going with all of this new free time?!

While this was going on, the answer to a question I hadn’t asked in years regarding a former friend’s behavior hit me: I’d triggered her in a massive way. I was so hurt by her rage, I couldn’t identify it for a long time after the friendship ended.

When I stopped asking, the answer was given to me. God has a funny sense of humor.

This kind of mining is one gift of the pause, of the time we all have now as we shelter in place. Time moves differently. There were at least a hundred days in March and there will be at least that in April. Or maybe April will feel like seconds. We don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know. Such as what others’ are thinking or why they do the things they do. I don’t know yet how this factors in my relationship with money, other than it’s time to listen in silence instead of spinning stories about the whys.

It feels like an antivirus has cleaned out a lot of my mental hard drive. Irony alert. As Richard Rohr says, “When we are willing to be transformed, we stop wasting time theorizing, projecting, denying, or avoiding our own ego resistance.”  

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Tragedy, trauma, turning

I’ve been thinking about 9/11 and Covid-19 and the difference between the deaths of each of my parents. My father was gone within 24 hours from a heart attack and my mother had a long slow farewell until she died of congestive heart failure and stroke at 90 (my grandmother’s was even longer one at 101). My father was in another state and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I made the drive from L.A. to San Diego every month to see my mother, largely unaware of the lifelong effects of her abuse on me.

Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash

9/11 was traumatic and horrifying but there was no warning for the general public. Bam. A plane into a skyscraper, and another, and the Pentagon, and one down in a field. Shocking, horrible, then the eerie silence as all the planes were grounded. Cities full of stunned people. Now we have cities of quarantined people with a sense of dread: how bad will it get, where’s the next hot spot, will I get it, will a loved one, and will we survive. It’s already touched the families and friends of friends. As I write this I get a text that my son may have it.

Dread. That’s one of the controlling methods in an abusive household. Someone (and I’m sorry I didn’t make a note of who) on Twitter noted, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in a relationship with an abusive man, you are with this president. Mixed messages, denying reality, telling you something then denying it later. I grew up with that. It’s familiar. It’s going on in individual households, but it’s also playing out on the national stage. It’s alcoholic behavior and that of a “dry drunk” who exhibits the behavior without the actual booze.

When they start pulling up semi trailers to haul away the bodies, those tactics fail. There’s nothing like the human body to bring us back to reality. Dead or alive.

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

For your own well-being, listen to your body. Everything is stored there and it is the source of much wisdom and all your intuition. I know I’ve taken a dark turn, but these are dark times. We don’t need sugarcoating. We’ve had way too much of that. So take care of yourselves. Stay healthy. Raise hell with your reps for Covid testing and mail ballots and tell damned Jeff Bezos to accept EBT from all states for Amazon and wave the Prime fees for low-income users. Let’s come out of this a more compassionate society that cares for more than the bottom line.

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

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

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.