My Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know

child in tunnel for childhood trauma post

 

My father’s first heart attack was a rehearsal in loss. It’s August in New Jersey, the air an incense of mown grass and spent lilies, sunlight sizzling off the grille of our Ford. I’m nine, hot and tired from jumping rope. I saunter into the cool interior of our house. On the way to the fridge, I halt at my parents’ door. Why is my father sleeping mid-afternoon, his body skewed across the bed?

Once upon a time, middle-class Americans like us ate fried eggs, bacon, and buttered toast for breakfast, adults topping the meal with cream-thickened coffee and a cigarette. Malnutrition, not obesity, dominated public health concerns; polio, not diabetes, the public scourge. At fifty, my father’s arteries were filled with sludge, and on that day, his heart spasmed its distress. I shake his shoulders, shout his name. When there is no response, I’m frozen with dread.

brain diagram for childhood trauma postComing upon my father’s inert figure on the mattress that day has been a central trauma in my life. Since that time, I’ve learned that it’s not just the triggering traumatic event that can flatten us. Nor is it simply that the memory of the event causes anguish. Far more enduring is the exhausting hypervigilance and anxiety that becomes part of our nature. In The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, Jungian analyst and renowned expert on trauma Donald Kalsched tells us that in traumatized moments our entire nervous system is flooded with stress hormones. Our bodies and emotions revert to a primitive state of fear, charged by the brain’s limbic system, while our higher cortical functions like rational thought become mute, unable to be accessed. A traumatic situation throws us into a time-stopped and tunnel-visioned moment in which we might freeze or flee in panic—the well-known fight or flight response. Trauma initiates us into an irretrievable loss of innocence: not only do we feel exposed and vulnerable, we can no longer anticipate feeling protected and safe.

Most of us will never experience the extreme traumas of war or genocide or the murderous rage of an enemy, but coping with smaller traumas are part of human life. Kalsched asks how is it possible to live an ensouled life after trauma, or put another way, how do we accept our suffering and also find joy? The question points to both a psychological and a spiritual answer.

sculpture by Barbara Hughes for childhood trauma postMyoshin Kelley, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says there is a great movement within our hearts to be free from suffering. We may yearn that the hearts of all beings be open and free, but the wounds inflicted by trauma interfere—and persist. A first step in healing trauma is recognizing its presence within us. My own experience has led me to understand that trauma shapes us from below, from the unconscious, where the dissociated parts thrive in darkness. “After trauma,” writes Kalsched, “dissociative defenses are set up in the inner world and these defenses distort what we are able to see of ourselves and others.” These defenses protect us from feeling past and future traumas, and yet the defenses can cause their own problems. They create vacuums in which hope, creativity, and self-love cannot exist.

In her book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, analyst and professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary Ann Beldford Ulanov writes, “When we make an unconscious deal to cut off parts of ourselves, we swap aliveness for restriction in order to feel safer, avoid pain, survive some blow that seems to us unbearable, that would destroy us.” Dr. Ulanov suggests that whatever we are afraid of is asking for our attention. “We must go down into it, look around, not knowing if and how we will come out.” In this space of not-knowing, we assemble all the parts. “It is like collecting all our laundry, even the fugitive socks that seem to lead a life of adventure all their own.” Through this process of discovery, we compose a picture of our wholeness that is an ensemble of parts, a “completeness,” rather than “a seamless excellence.”

child in darkness for childhood trauma postThe thought of going into our darkness takes our breath away. It seems to require more than we can bear, and yet instinctively we know this is the path to healing. Acclaimed mindfulness author and teacher Sharon Salzberg tells us that “when we see our pain, whether mental or physical, as a single, solid, monolithic entity, unyielding and oppressive, it is almost impossible to bear. Fighting a consolidated enemy, we feel overcome, helpless, stuck. But when we can be mindful of exactly what is happening, we begin to see that everything we experience is composed of many ever-changing elements.” Our traumas are part of the rich texture of who we are, but they are not all of us. They are a summons to wholeness.

The power to make meaning of our experience, good and bad, lies within us. As my nine-year-old self stood in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, in the gap between blinks, I imagined I saw my father’s soul hovering above his body, a fragile blue shimmer similar to what orbiting astronauts report observing as a sort of halo around the Earth. Like the spacewalking Russian cosmonaut who was so awed by the universe he was unwilling to step back inside his cramped spacecraft, so too my father’s soul seemed to falter, trying to decide whether to reenter his flesh.

Years later, the memory still detonates strong feelings. We cannot willingly unremember. Nor could I have predicted how that moment would animate a lifelong investigation into the transforming power of fear. We all lose things — glasses, car keys, memories. Over a lifetime, we lose people we love. Loss and time pick us clean, which may well be why we like to accumulate things, pad our nests with stuff, even as time insists on revealing itself in natural cycles, bare branches slicked with ice later weighted with fruit, pencil marks on a wall behind a door to mark a child’s growth.

mirror with hands for childhood trauma postThe Buddhists say to see the flower is to want to possess the flower. Be mindful, they warn: observe the desirous self and let go. My sorrow, I discover, matches the dilemma of all beings: we fear change and loss. But aren’t we deeply attached to our attachments?

What if becoming attached to things is our way of praising earthly life? The great poet Rilke on the windy cliffs near the Duino Castle wonders: Are we perhaps here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window, –at best: pillar, tower. Rilke reminds us of the reciprocity between things and the soul: when we imagine a beloved’s bathrobe on its hook, her worn slipper beside the bed, we see the essence of the person contained in the thing, each object a star in our private galaxy. Here then gone: everyone I love.

We have our shocks, our terrors. However, inside the damage are seeds of change. Childhood trauma forges our identity, lending us our tics and insomnia, our depressions and panic attacks, but emotionally charged experiences also drive the quest for spiritual maturity as we reconcile the controlling part that draws a protective circle around what we love and the surrendering part that recognizes our helplessness. Our heads understand we don’t control the universe, but our hearts pine for a stable, anguish-free life. Head and heart wrestle, but the heart is the queen, the high priestess, the beginning and end of the world.

I sit now and breathe into my heart. Even the troubling memories arrive dusted with the aura of the sacred. What is buried is not lost. The past lives in infinite dimensions. Either way—sorrow is inextricable from joy. Grief itself isn’t a solid fortress, it’s porous. Light shoots through the cracks.



Nature, Time, Memory and the Childhood Experience of a “Cherishing Force”

Looking at the sky through oak branches for blog post on "cherishing force" in nature

Arriving at a new destination the first thing I notice are trees and sky. People, the details of their physiognomy, their manners and gestures, their clothing and habitations prompt my curiosity, but trees and sky are the welcoming agents that make a place home. This is a bit shameful to admit. As a fiction writer I’m obsessed by the unexpected beauties, swathes of ugliness, and confounding mysteries inherent in the human condition, but I must also confess to being an adoring student and humble acolyte of the natural world.

My attachment to trees began early in life. In a memory I am no longer sure is recollected or fabricated, equal parts invention and truth, I’m in our backyard on Elberta Road in rural Maplewood, New Jersey, washing dolls’ clothes in a galvanized tub. It’s late June, the air still clear of late summer humidity, the sky a pure jewel blue. I am between two stalwart friends: an ancient oak that marked the western border of our property, in autumn host to noisy conventions of migrating crows, and the younger but equally wide-girthed maple at the eastern corner whose winged seed pods we children stuck on our noses and ran around calling each other Pinocchio.

The leaves of both trees were deeply green, a hue more satisfying even than the edible green of Crayola crayons, the shadows they cast enclosing and giving texture to space as they filtered the light. Their overlapping branches created a vestibule of shade, a sort of room or entryway infused with its own particular vegetal scent within whose borders I experienced the pleasure of tranquility and happy solitude.

girl washing dolls clothesArrows of sunlight shoot through the branches and hang in dusty, pollen-filled columns shaped and reshaped by the whim of a breeze. My hands are wrist-deep in sudsy water. I swish the doll nightgown and party dress through the bubbles, then wring them to dry on the sunny flagstone path. Nothing I can remember prompts me to throw back my head and stare at the sky, but on this day when I do, I’m transported out of my body into a separate sphere existing alongside the known one, the familiar world morphing into a wilderness of new perceptions.

If I spin around I see what I always saw: the screened porch with its slider couch from whose safety my grandmother and I watched the gathering darkness of summer storms; the clothesline strung with sheets and jiggling undies; the webbed lawn chairs circling the patio; the ruffled edge of an organdy curtain billowing from an upstairs window—the ordinary is still intact, and yet the longer I gaze at my steadfast guardians, the maple, the oak, the imperturbable summer sky—each stone in the garden, the delicate purple of the petunias—wherever I look each thing is radiantly alive, gazing back at me with equal curiosity.

There was, as I’ve said, a gentle wind and also an astonishing silence, as if I were alone in an invisible walled chamber suffused with goodness and calm. The words reverie, immersion, liminal come to mind. No more than a few seconds elapsed in real time, and even the sensations that accompanied my experience did not linger. I must have immediately gone back to wringing out dolls’ clothes, or I simply left what I was doing, caught up as young children are with another curiosity, a bug I fancied nosing the zinnias, or I ran off to play at a friend’s call. I had no comprehension that anything extraordinary had occurred and attached no importance to the event.

800px-John_Keats_by_William_HiltonI forgot about this experience but the experience did not forget me. It sank to the bottom of consciousness awaiting my adult self to resurrect and examine its meaning. It was, I see now, one of my first memories of being fully alive, a person separate but a part of a palpably living universe. As Keats wrote in his Letters: “If a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.”

Certainly not then and not now do I make any claim for a visitation from the divine. In childhood, and my opinion hasn’t changed since, the God of the Old Testament did not fritter away His time spying on children. Wasn’t He much too busy smiting the enemies of Israel to care about me? Yet God knew everything you did without looking, so one could still be punished for bad behavior. The connection I felt was not to a personality—God, Jesus, angels, fairies—but to something ineffable and kindly nonhuman.

Nor can I reconstruct, as Barbara Ehrenreich does in her book Living with a Wild God, that perhaps I had succumbed to some form of dissociative mental illness or epileptic seizure. Neither God nor madness chose me. Enchantment might best describe the threshold I crossed.

For however briefly I was filled with gladness and the feeling of being less isolated, less lonely, as if I had entered my own fairy tale in which trees and birds and flowers whispered their secrets. The oak, with its giant’s torso substantial beyond injury from hurricane or gale, its extended humped roots evidence in my mind of a taproot that surely reached to the earth’s molten core, and the maple with its low-slung embracing arms, were benevolent sheltering presences that bore witness.

I am surprised at how much feeling bubbles up when I write these paragraphs. My self-aware adult self sees with sympathy the small child framed in her fleeting moments of bliss that will shortly be swallowed by chaotic family life; but perhaps it is precisely this duality of inner and outer experience from which we can take hope. It may be that I’m describing a kind of grace, those unwilled, spontaneous transcendent seconds in which we glimpse the eternal timeless.

I suppose now that my early experiences with the benevolent Other may have saved my sanity by providing an alternative to a world often dominated by cruel human motivations and laid the groundwork for a sympathetic imagination. It would be reckless as well as foolish for me to believe that glimpses of the eternal cure our fear of earthly horrors or of death, that end of everything we dread, but I can’t help wondering if we are eased by an experience of a cherishing force charged with maintaining the harmony of the spheres that includes us in its balancing act.

nabokovhuntIn his memoir, Speak, Memory, which is among other things a gorgeous elegy to loss itself, Nabokov writes about his experience of time, its treachery and consolation. Considering the latter, he says:

“I confess I do not believe in time….And the highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plant. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.”

It would have been impossible for my child self to have put any of this together—threshold experiences, love, death, immortality, beauty, solitude, loneliness, fullness, inner and outer worlds—but as I write these words sitting in my rented casita in New Mexico and race to finish a draft of my second novel, I see the timeline that exists from the backyard moment of long ago to this moment now. Newly arrived in the Southwest, I’m on the lookout for a special tree, a companion under whose boughs I can lose my ego-bound self, whose nonverbal teachings will be beyond my wildest imaginings.