I am about a month and a half shy of my 40th birthday. The week prior to this day the girls had 7 meltdowns (I counted) and my husband had a full blown panic attack (his first) that I helped ‘talk him down’ from. I’m sitting on gravel, leaning up against a pole, listening to the band The Screaming Orphans just after a mini-meltdown. It was 90 degrees, I had a weird out-of-body type of experience on the car ride over (probably from all the stress I absorbed with no outlet), the girls were hot and whiny and didn’t want to be there, I couldn’t at first find my dental hygienist friend who told me she’d be there, and I walked in on some guy in the porta-potty when I had to pee really, really bad. Walking in on that guy was the last straw.
I flipped out on my husband and told him we probably should get a divorce just so we can enjoy at least every other weekend without kids. It was awful. He took the girls on the rides, and I called a friend up but realized I couldn’t even talk much without crying so I hung up and I just sat and bawled my eyes out. A little boy came up to me and he caught my attention. He looked at me, smiled and waved. I smiled and dried my tears and waved back.
Things have recently come to a turning point and what happened last Sunday was no small event. It precipitated a whole lot of new discoveries.
It’s my humble hope that by sharing these resources I might help another struggling parent.
I had still been struggling in my role as mother (particularly being a highly sensitive mother raising highly sensitive children), and have not been quite so certain why I can’t meet the needs of my daughters very well when they are having multiple days of meltdowns. I have been struggling for years and have been wanting to know why. I think I have come to the reasons.
I’ve been reading Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel M.D. and Mary Hartzell. I picked it up because it gave me hope that I could find out why I have had trouble fully meeting my daughters’ needs when they are in distress. He writes:
Implicit memory results in the creation of the particular circuits of the brain that are responsible for generating emotions, behavioral responses, perception, and probably the encoding of bodily sensations. Implicit memory is a form of early nonverbal memory that is present at birth and continues through the life span. Another important aspect of implicit memory is something called mental models. Through mental models our minds create generalizations of repeated experiences. For example, if a baby feels consoled and comforted when her mother responds to her distress, she will generalize the experience so that the presence of her mother gives her a sense of well-being and security. When distressed in the future, her mental model of her relationship with her mother will become activated and lead her to seek her out in order to be calmed. Our attachment relationships affect how we see others and how we see ourselves. In the example above, the child views her mother as safe and responsive and herself as capable of impacting her environment and getting her needs met. These models create a filter that patterns the way we channel our perceptions and construct our responses to the world. Through these filtering models we develop characteristic ways of seeing and being.
I don’t have to imagine what happens when the child views her mother as unsafe and unresponsive and herself as incapable of impacting her environment and getting her needs met…I’ve lived it. I discovered that I had no mental model of my own mother comforting me in my distress. After talking with my step-mother, I found out that it was my father who comforted me and my older sisters while we were sad or sick while my mother left the house to do her own thing. Then my mother divorced my dad when I was 2 years old. I discovered that my attachment difficulties to my own children is partially a result of that insecure relationship to my own mother.
The fascinating feature of implicit memory is that when it is retrieved it lacks an internal sensation that something is being ‘recalled’ and the individual is not even aware that this internal experience is being generated from something from the past. Thus emotions, behaviors, bodily sensations, perceptual interpretations, and the bias of particular nonconscious mental models may influence our present experience (both perception and behavior) without our having any realization that we are being shaped by the past.
But there’s more. I’ve recently started couple’s therapy with my husband and had it confirmed for me that I’ve been trying to be a mother while suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. I’d recently experienced a very upsetting sequence of events that triggered a bit of a breakdown before our last visit with the therapist and she gave me the idea that I was experienced PTSD, at least a physical response that was not accompanied by visual images. This alludes to the implicit memories being triggered by present stressful interactions with my daughters.
But it’s not just the initial failure to bond with my mother that has caused lasting damage. After the session, I looked more into it and found a more specific form of PTSD called complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
C-PTSD is characterized by pervasive insecure, often disorganized-type attachment. DSM-IV dissociative disorders and PTSD do not include insecure attachment in their criteria. As a consequence of this aspect of C-PTSD, when some adults with C-PTSD become parents and confront their own children’s attachment needs, they may have particular difficulty in responding sensitively especially to their infants’ and young children’s routine distress—such as during routine separations, despite these parents’ best intentions and efforts. And this difficulty in parenting may have adverse repercussions for their children’s social and emotional development if parents with this condition and their children do not receive appropriate treatment.
I had NO idea there was a name for what I was dealing with. I thought I was simply being selfish. I didn’t realize I was actually suffering from something pretty serious with pretty serious consequences. I mean, I suspected that the gaslighting and all the family fights that occurred couldn’t possibly be good for me. But I had no idea how deep the trauma went until recently.
Sometimes when I tell people in my real life a few of my stories, they are amazed at how I managed to turn out so ‘normal’ despite having gone through what I have. Well, I realized I turned out so normal looking because I found a way to cope – through my intense devotion to my career and then later my daughter’s selective mutism. I was certainly too busy running around the labs to actually sit, remember and feel what I’d gone through. I spent time re-telling the stories, even laughing at some of them, but never felt the real horror of it. I was able to separate out what happened to me from how I felt about it, to record the events but not feel the pain.
But the ever-present sadness mixed with guilt, my recent flare-ups of anxiety and stress have shown that I’m not really ‘over’ what happened to me. And instead, my anxiety had been actually increasing since I started couple’s therapy with my husband.
It was only just in the past few days that I have gotten confirmation and validation that I’m on the right track. And that I could have benefited from trauma therapy years ago. I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess throwing myself into my work helped me ‘cope’. Until I didn’t have work anymore to escape to and then had another child too soon after quitting. Since then, accompanied by this summer’s impending trip to see my real dad and step-mother, whom I haven’t seen for 29 years, I’ve been, well…unraveling.
I’ve discovered, (thanks to that Wikipedia entry of all places), that there is help for someone like me.
[Judith] Herman believes recovery from C-PTSD occurs in three stages. These are: establishing safety, remembrance and mourning for what was lost, and reconnecting with community and more broadly, society. Herman believes recovery can only occur within a healing relationship and only if the survivor is empowered by that relationship.
Complex trauma means complex reactions and this leads to complex treatments. Hence treatment for C-PTSD requires a multi-modal approach.It has been suggested that treatment for C-PTSD should differ from treatment for PTSD by focusing on problems that cause more functional impairment than the PTSD symptoms. These problems include emotional dysregulation, dissociation, and interpersonal problems.
It’s taken me a while, and the support of a trusted internet friend who’s accompanied me on my journey as he is walking along his, to come to this place. I’ve mentioned numerous times about synchronicity. That people have been placed on my path for a reason. They’ve been listeners, and supporters, and mentors. It seems that each significant person has had an important piece of the puzzle.
I finally made an appointment for individual therapy specifically to help me with my trauma. I’m going next Tuesday. I can’t wait. I’ve ordered Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. I found a summary of her book from University of Illinois at Chicago.
- Difficulties regulating, including symptoms such as persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, explosive anger, or covert anger.
- Changes in self-perception, such as a sense of helplessness, shame, guilt, stigma, and a sense of being completely different from other human beings
- Varied changes in the perception of the perpetrator, such as attributing total power to the perpetrator or becoming preoccupied with the relationship to the perpetrator, including a preoccupation with revenge
- Alterations in relations with others, including isolation, distrust, or a repeated search for a rescuer
- Loss of, or changes in, one’s system of meanings, which may include a loss of sustaining faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair
I guess I know also why I’ve been having a crisis of faith – at least in the organized religious institutions. I lost trust a long time ago and have been struggling with hopelessness and despair. I’ve even gone to different churches with the hopes of finding relief from my burdens, and could never quite adopt the right attitude one requires for belief because it’s too far gone. Not that I haven’t wanted to. I go to a Christian church sometimes and after hearing the sermon just start crying. I’ve started avoiding church because it got to be I was crying every Sunday and started getting embarrassed by it and having the distinct feeling that it wasn’t the right place to share my troubles.
But in addition to finding the Judith Hermann’s Trauma and Recovery book, I also found this great resource from Jim Hopper, Ph.D. Mindfulness and Kindness: Inner Sources of Freedom and Happiness.
Psychologist and mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn has simply defined mindfulness in this way:
“paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
- Paying attention mindfully is not about detaching from your experience and failing to emotionally engage with your life. It does not cause apathy. It does not kill passion. In fact, mindfulness allows one to engage more fully with one’s emotions and other experiences, rather than simply reacting to them with habitual patterns of avoidance or acting out.
- For positive emotions, this means having more access to them and greater ability to put them into beneficial action.
- For negative emotions, such direct and open engagement is a foundation for making them more manageable, a protection against attempting immediate escape or impulsively acting out. (Of course, more access to negative emotions can be difficult, and requires emotion-regulation skills, as discussed below, in the section, “Caution: Mindfulness Includes Pain, and Requires Readiness.”)
- Non-judgmental awareness is not the same as passively accepting whatever happens, including harmful things. It does not mean failing to evaluate whether others’ actions or your own are harmful, or failing to protect yourself from victimization, or failing to prevent yourself from causing harm. Quite the opposite: non-judgmental mindfulness enables one to respond to such situations from awareness and thoughtfulness rather than habit, over-reaction, compulsion, addiction, etc.
I made an appointment with a nice sounding therapist for individual counseling in addition to couple’s counseling with a different therapist. I’m so looking forward to getting some help.
I recently shared some of what I learned with one of my overseas pen pals. She sent me a link to this most exquisite Sinead O’Connor song that I so needed to hear right now.