Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?

Multiple Personality by Kamil for Trauma blog post

Have you ever been at a family gathering and someone shares a memory and, as you hear it told, you say to yourself: That’s not the way it happened! The truth is that our memory is an unreliable narrator, a literary term that describes a person telling a story who is not telling it straight. In fiction, an unreliable narrator can be a clever deceiver, as in many crime novels, an innocent lacking self-awareness, or a charming raconteur simply happy to spin entertaining tales.

The unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s fabulously gruesome horror story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is mentally unstable and can’t be relied upon to give accurate information. Wuthering Heights has dual narrators, both of whom have biases about Heathcliff and company. Some unreliable narrators seem to have all their marbles, like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, but when he kidnaps the precocious Lolita, we conclude he is what he says, a psychopath. In reading a book, there’s real delight in figuring out who’s lying, who’s manipulating, who’s speaking the truth—but what happens when our own psyches present us with multiple narrators, each with a different set of perceptions and interpretations of reality?

"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Virgil Finlay for Trauma blog postHow we see and react to the world is prompted by different parts of the brain. Sometimes, we act on “a gut feeling,” sometimes, we critically think through pros and cons. Both aspects of consciousness, and the spectrum of subtle and complex hues in between, are necessary for decision-making, and thus, ultimately, necessary for survival. Recent research indicates that in people who have experienced trauma and for whom survival, past or present, is an issue, the split between conflicting prompts can manifest in a split sense of self. An abused child, for instance, may exhibit paradoxical behavior, simultaneously clinging to and withdrawing from her abuser.

In her newest book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, Dr. Janina Fisher helpfully presents a neurobiological map of early trauma’s negative effects on the communication between the right and left brain hemispheres and shows how this can lead to a lack of integration between the functions of each. This functional “splitting” can make us feel as if we have two brains, one under the direction of a traumatized part that originated in a painful experience, the other part guiding us toward normal responses to the day-to-day world.

Dr. Fisher has observed that many of her trauma clients speak of being “hijacked” by responses triggered by memories or perceived threats in the present moment. She writes:

“Characteristically, while the going on with normal life part tries to carry on (function at a job, raising the children, organizing home life even taking up meaningful personal and professional goals), other parts serving the animal defense functions of fight, flight, freeze, submit, and “cling” or attach for survival continue to be activated by trauma-related stimuli, resulting in hypervigilance and mistrust, overwhelming emotions, incapacitating depression or anxiety, self-destructive behavior, and fear or hopelessness about the future.”

Marci Gittleman, a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin who works with trauma in her clinical practice, asserts: “Trauma often raises parts of ourselves, pushes other parts down, and separates parts of ourselves from each other. Recovery from trauma helps to welcome all of the different parts of ourselves into consciousness—even if we like some parts better than others!”

The traumatized “part” might be considered an unreliable narrator, pumping us with stress hormones that distort our awareness of reality. Trauma corrupts the telling consciousness that has been damaged by tragedy.

In a mindful approach to healing inner fragmentation and compartmentalization, we might acknowledge our multiple parts and discern who is telling the story (some research indicates that we are all multi-conscious rather than uni-conscious); acknowledge the source (traumatized child, veteran, shooter survivor); and ask if the information being given is valid.

Looking at fiction can help us understand how who tells the story shapes the narrative, and therefore shapes how we feel about what has happened. As we read, we might ask ourselves, who owns this story? How is reality being filtered through this consciousness (narrator)? Using one of the foundational stories of Western culture as an example of how meaning and interpretation vary with differing points of view, let’s look at different versions of the story in Genesis of the first human couple.

The Expulsion from Eden by Schnorr von Carolsfeld for Trauma blog postAdam’s version of the expulsion from Eden might include a description of the satanic snake, despair and betrayal over a temptress mate, his remorse and anger at being duped. Imagine Eve’s version as a woman pissed at taking the blame.

The same sequence of events narrated by the snake might emphasize Adam and Eve’s naiveté and the snake’s desire to wise-them-up by offering up a bite of fruit. Now imagine the story from a third teller, the archangel Jophiel, who led the couple out of paradise. His tale might be packed with the difficulties of being God’s messenger, his questioning of divine authority, his sympathy for the banished pair. Each version of the story would be accurate according to the experience of the teller, their truths part of a larger truth.

So, too, all aspects of the self, including the shameful and wounded parts, are worthy of having a voice; each deserves respect. Injury and self-harm occur when emotional pain is shunted into the borderlands of consciousness. To speak and to be heard, to be witnessed and bear witness is to shed the mantle of victimhood and embrace agency, dignity, and self-empowerment. These abstract words take on life and meaning when dramatized through characters in a story.

As an experiment in relating mindfully to the storm of conflicting impulses within us— with the goal of externalizing troublesome inner voices—try this:

  1. Grab a pen and notebook, or sit at your computer. Close your eyes and breathe. Center yourself in your body. Open your eyes and begin.
  2. With curiosity and playful creation as your guides, choose a specific troubling event in your life (you needn’t choose the most painful or difficult episode) and tell the story from your own point of view.
  3. To objectify the narrative, consider using your name in place of “I.”
  4. Now tell the same story from another person’s perspective, someone engaged in the situation, or a bystander, or even from an observing inanimate object like a tree. Use as much sensory data as possible: what is seen, smelled, touched, heard?
  5. Compare the stories. What differences do you notice? What has been emphasized or left out in each? Can you name the prevailing emotion in each story? What feelings come up as you read them? What have you learned?
  6. Take 15 minutes to write your responses beneath the stories.

Walt Whitman portrait for Trauma blog postThe influential and ground-breaking American poet and essayist Walt Whitman wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Elsewhere, Whitman wrote,

Stop this day and night with me and you shall
possess the origin of
all poems . . .

You shall listen to all sides and filter them
from your self.

In healing from trauma, we might take our cues from this great poet by gathering our inner tribe, including the exiles, and validating their worth.

Psychologist Gittleman offers hope:

“I think of trauma like a perfect storm—it’s random, surprising, time stops, and life becomes different after the trauma from what it was before it happened. Trauma rocks the heart, body and soul—sometimes more, sometimes less, and different for you than for me. It can be hard to feel safe, and the impact reverberates into the present and future in ways that are both known and unknown—even if we decide we are not going to let it! Our best shot as survivors, however big or small the traumas, is to own our stories, and all of the different parts, over time, when we are motivated and ready, by ourselves and with others whom we have come to trust.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

 



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.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



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.