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.



On Writing, Climbing, and Resilience

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-female-climber-rapelling-off-cliff-image28558900A number of years ago, I did something I thought I’d never do: I scaled a forty-foot inflatable climbing tower, jumped into a net, and was belayed down to earth. How did this happen? I was with my daughters, one of whom was on the Outward Bound team that had set up the towers on a cross-country bike tour to raise awareness for girls Outward Bound expeditions. We were in Chicago’s Waveland Park, and I was standing around watching teen girls grab the rubber handholds and scramble up the towers like monkeys.

A curious thing happened. As I observed these limber young women, I suddenly felt my own body get juiced. Inside my head a voice was prompting me to go for it. You can do this, Dale. Never before had I been propelled to take this kind of physical risk. And heights? I don’t even like to look down from high-rise windows! Then how to explain what came next? I turned to my astonished husband and said I am doing this! (Spoiler: climbing that tower was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it sure helped to have a squadron of my daughters’ friends yelling, “Dale rocks!”)

Anatomy of an Angel Damien Hirst IMG_7213Every angel is terrifying. I find myself quoting this line from Rilke’s Second Duino Elegy often because it clarifies so many situations. It seems that when we come face to face with the magnitude of who we are and the vast possibilities inherent in our lives, we often retreat in fear. But that breezy summer day I latched my harness and donned a helmet, I wasn’t thinking about angels, symbolic or otherwise. I was focused on which footholds to place my feet and how far to extend my arms. I wasn’t looking up at the clouds or down at the ground. Earth and sky had dissolved. What existed was my heartbeat, the burn in my calves, my breath in gulps.

After the climb, my daughter Jessica, who with her partner, Troy Gosz, now runs an amazing non-profit program called FLYY* which serves youth-at-risk through wilderness programs, explained that the towers are used as educational tools to teach confidence and climbing skills, but also provide a concrete, physical metaphor for how we face life’s challenges.

Climbers who try to race to the top of the towers often handle their fears the same way, rushing through difficult situations to get them over with as quickly as possible. Other climbers start slowly and cautiously, but speed up at the end gaining confidence as they go, while yet others begin energetically and poop out at the end because they haven’t paced themselves and have run out of steam. That’s what happened to me. A few feet from the summit, my strength failed. Arms and legs splayed against a swaying rubber cylinder, for several long minutes I could move neither up or down and so hugged that blasted tower with everything in me and prayed I wouldn’t fall off.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-rock-climbing-image24416860During the pause, something shifted. My mind refocused, veering away from fear toward the shouts of encouragement from below. Excuse the cliché but soon onward and upward I went, one step up at a time, until, voila! miraculously I’d made it, panting but victorious. At that moment, I couldn’t have guessed how frequently I’d return to my climbing experience as a touchstone when I’ve needed to unfreeze from fear. Here I’m thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous aphorism: You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Writing a novel is more like scaling Mt. Everest than climbing a rubber tower: bravery, resilience, and unshakable determination are required. How many times did I despair that I would never finish The Conditions of Love, or if I did, never sell it. How often did my self-confidence flag? Doubt is one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment in Buddhist thought and I can see why: doubt is a contagion of the mind that infects the creative spirit, an energetic equivalent of a mind on strike. While writing my novel, when self-doubt buckled my knees, I’d pull my climbing achievement out of my back pocket and remind myself that without practice and a strong inclination to vertigo, I’d climbed a forty-foot tower. I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t do. I could also write a book.

doubt6aI don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish. I don’t believe we can do anything we set our minds to. Accepting one’s limitations seems paramount to maturity. But… but…especially when it comes to creative work, for most of us discouragement, doubt, and stasis plague the process. But – what if that’s not a bad thing? What if, when we feel stuck, we think of it as a pause rather than an end stop, a reminder to see how far we’ve come? What if we take some deep breaths, push away the demons and attune to the encouraging voices? Hand over hand, foothold after foothold, ever so slowly if need be, we climb to the summit.

Afterclimb

*FLYY is a community-based non-profit that offers wilderness expeditions, intensive parent/guardian skills and support groups, and ongoing community-based aftercare for teens and families. FLYY serves as a catalyst and resource for youth and families to transform their outlook, their capacities, and their contributions to others. For more information, you can visit their website at www.flyyexpeditions.org.