Helen Frankenthaler, Flood, 1967
cw: mental health, mental illness, diagnosis, c-ptsd, borderline, bpd, ptsd, abuse, neglect
When a child experiences a traumatic incident or lives with chronic trauma, the trauma disrupts their development, preventing them from achieving many of the competencies of adulthood. Without these adult skills---planning, organizing, paying attention to (and remembering) detail, regulating emotion, and managing everyday stressors---they are likely to adopt behaviors that help them manage the traumatic memories but which are otherwise destructive to themselves and others. These behaviors and coping mechanisms will set the stage for ongoing difficulties in adulthood, as survivors of trauma deal with feelings of fear; an inability to trust other people or ask for help; feelings of isolation, anxiety, anger, and helplessness; and a sense of inferiority and shame.
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To have a successful relationship with another person, an individual must be able to share their thoughts and feelings: about their life, the world around them, their past, and the future. Dissociation, mistrust, hopelessness, and fear of the future undermine a person's ability to relate to others, preventing relationships from forming and destroying relationships already in progress. A child whose emotional needs are never met will grow up to see other people as sources of terror or pleasure---people who might control them, or people who might look upon them with favor if they are "good"---but they will not see other people as individuals with their own needs and desires. This disrupted pattern of attachment will also have damaging effects when they attempt to parent a child.
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Becoming fully human is about risking connection.
--Suzanne Methot, Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing
I've been reading Suzanne Methot’s Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing for school and so many chapters have hit me in the gut, but this week’s chapter really brought up stuff for the younger version of myself. I found myself highlighting and underlining and writing fuck as I read and so much of it felt like my own experience with complex PTSD. Just reading about the intergenerational trauma passed down to Methot and how it affected her parents’ lives and subsequently how they related to and raised her was chilling because although I’m obviously not Indigenous, the experience of inheriting trauma from your parents and being neglected and abused as a result of neglect and abuse they themselves experienced in childhood is so sadly universal even when it’s also specific in each different instance. I knew little about the reality of my parents’ childhoods and backgrounds until I was an adult and it shed so much light on their actions which for years had made me feel like I was somehow deserving of mistreatment. Knowing those histories and understanding those relationships is so necessary to healing but it doesn’t make any of it less painful or completely debilitating sometimes.
When I was a teenager first away at university, my mental health suffered greatly as I had no life skills to really take care of things or to regulate my emotions, even though I was relieved to be away from my family. Seeing campus psychiatrists and psychologists, I was treated for depression and anxiety and believed to suffer from borderline personality disorder. It felt like I was a shattered mirror of a person and all of these diagnoses were the equivalent of pushing the pieces back into the frame without really taking the time to see if that’s where they were meant to go. My sharp parts harmed me and those around me but I was technically back together so I could focus on getting good grades and being "productive" again. I didn’t really consider that I had undergone trauma, I just thought that there was something wrong with who I was at the core of me. A chemical imbalance or something inherited or just maybe not being a good enough person.
I was 30 when my therapist gently suggested to me that perhaps what I had been dealing with all of my life was complex PTSD. I remember frowning and saying something like “but I don’t think my childhood was abusive” only to then see the memories flash through my brain and realize that I hadn’t been able to name what had happened to me. To see that so many of the parts of me I just thought were my failings were direct results of these experiences. It’s been almost five years since that day and every day since then has been a path to connecting with myself for the first time, meeting who I am and learning how to soothe the little girl who was so scared and so deeply hurt, who had no one to defend and help her. For so long, I was stuck in my traumatic story, as Methot puts it, isolated and powerless and unable to connect with others. I think about my parents who are still stuck in their traumatic stories; my mom dying still in that place, my dad living with it now and unable to see his way out.
There’s parts of my lizard brain that are still freaked out by kindness and safety. I know it’s that overactive alarm trying to keep me safe because it used to be that nothing ever felt safe but that alarm isn’t needed in the same way as I’ve taken years to carefully glue together that mirror piece by piece. The way this chapter ended felt so familiar to my experience over the last five years and really resonated with the work I've done with myself and the work I hope to do with others in the future:
When we connect with our inner selves---with what we think and feel and with the experiences that created those thoughts and feelings---we build a sense of self. When we find a voice, we become brave enough to share that self with others. When we connect with others, we unlearn the normalization of trauma. We unlearn our belief that the world is unsafe and that no one will help us, and we learn instead how to express what we need. We unlearn the internalized hatred that stems from self-blame and our consequent feelings of inadequacy. When we connect with others, we begin to believe that we are lovable and worthy. We begin to imagine a future.