Thursday, June 27, 2013

Life in a House of Mirrors

There are three things I remember about my one and only visit to a world's fair:  the revolving restaurant at the top of a tower, bumper cars and the fun house.  After tiring of the long lines at the first two attractions and in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat of a South Texas summer day, I wandered into the fun house.  It was full of mirrors that reflected my image in a distorted way--in one I was short and fat, in another tall and lean; one reflected a nose that dominated my face, in another I had no nose at all; in one mirror I was far away, in another I was up close and personal.  And many years later, it occurs to me that much of life is often spent in front of funny mirrors; our internal world is often a house of mirrors and we do not realize that the reflections they are providing are distorted and manipulated and do not reflect reality at all.

Fun mirrors make small things larger, large things smaller, distort and contort and make the grotesque appear normal. According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, "Betrayal and exploitation are like being in the fun house.  It makes the abnormal and the grotesque appear normal.  Trauma distorts our perceptions just as sure as the mirrors in the fun house." (Betrayal Bonds, p. 199)  But it seems to me that the vulnerabilities that make it difficult to resist those internal fun house mirrors are created quite early in life.  Even in healthy, fully functional families, shame thrives and children are inevitably wounded.  A child is always less than their parent developmentally so shame is birthed quite innocently, amplified culturally and fully operational before a child enters pre-school.

Our internal house of mirrors has shiny surfaces that distort our view of self in relationship to others and the world.  They may include:
  • Mirrors that reflect abusive treatment as normal.
  • Mirrors that scream "not enough!"
  • Mirrors that assure us we are the center of the universe (narcissism)
  • Mirrors that convince us that our worth is found in what we do for others (codependency)
  • Mirrors that distort trauma, betrayal and exploitation so that they appear to be our fault.
  • Mirrors that persuade us that _______ isn't so bad (abuse, betrayal, exploitation, maltreatment, toxic relationships) by employing denial and minimization.
  • Mirrors that convince us that we are bad and somehow responsible for whatever is happening that is painful but absolutely not responsible for whatever is good.  These "mirrors" rely on shame, blame, internalization and magnification to distort our inner reality.
My almost 8-month-old granddaughter has discovered mirrors and absolutely loves to stand in front
of one and play with the baby she sees.  She laughs as she pats the mirror because the baby in the glass pats back. She has learned to talk to my image in the mirror but then to turn her head and look at me directly as she pats my shoulder.  I would love to know how her fertile and imaginative brain is processing the mystery of mirrors and the images that she is seeing.  My hope for her is that her internal mirrors will not become too distorted as she grows and matures.  My promise to her is to be a mirror that reflects back love, acceptance and value to her, especially when she grows critical of the image she sees in her mirror.  Mirrors that reflect distorted and manipulated images belong in a fun house, not in our internal home.

But, if I am to be a positive influence on my sweet Gracie--if I am to be a true mirror for her--I must continue to dismantle and destroy the distorted mirrors in my own internal home.  My favorite shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, recently stated that for her, God is a divine reminder of her inherent worthiness.  I love that idea!  My worthiness has never gone missing; I am loved unconditionally and lavishly and I am learning to live loved.  As I continue to learn this important life lesson, I will communicate it to my children and grandchildren by my attitude and actions--by my example more than by my words. So,  I've packed my bags and am moving out of the fun house.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Healing Communities in Unlikely Places

Several days ago, I took a chance on a novel by an author I was not familiar with and the story she has woven has captured my heart and my imagination.  Don't Let Me Go by Catherine Ryan Hyde, is a masterful piece that perfectly illustrates the value of community in personal healing.  The story is set in a rough neighborhood apartment complex in the greater LA metropolitan area.  Grace, the main character of the story is a nine-year-old child of a relapsed addict. The motley tenants include an agoraphobic, an abuse victim, an elderly lady an angry pedophile and a marginalized Latino. They band together in an effort to help Grace and in the process become a community of healing.

At the beginning of the story, each character is isolated from the others, hostile and fearful.  The world they live in is not safe and they are not trusting.  They know nothing about each other but because Grace is their unifying concern, they slowly lower their personal defenses and allow themselves to be seen by the others.  Grace sets the frame for their interactions; her unconditional acceptance of each adult becomes the norm for the way they interact with each other and with her.  And in doing so, they step out of isolation and into community.  And healing flows through the rooms of the apartments.

According to Dr. Brene Brown, "Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives:  secrecy, silence, and judgment." (The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 40).  She goes on to state that "Shame happens between people, and it heals between people." (p. 40).  When we isolate and keep our shame a secret, it thrives but it loses its power when we speak of it.  Billy, the agoraphobic, hides in his apartment though he once danced on Broadway.  Rayleen, the abused manicurist, won't allow anyone to get close emotionally because of the shame she carries over her childhood sexual abuse.  And Mr. Lafferty, the angry man struggling with pedophilia, keeps everyone at bay by his explosive anger.  While they live in close proximity, they are separated by a universe called SHAME.

But not all communities are able to be healing communities.  In fact, many communities become toxic by their demand that everyone look perfect, act perfect or maintain a lifestyle that is congruent with the community's standards.  These communities are extremely judgmental so in order to survive, each member must remain in hiding and isolation.  They may look good on the outside but are rotten to the core on the inside.  Healing communities often are found in the most unlikely places--like a seedy apartment complex on the wrong side of town or in the rooms of a 12-Step program.

But grace--kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness, approval, favor, mercy, esteem, respect--is a prerequisite for any community to become a healing community.  It is the life force that transforms a group of wounded neighbors into change agents in the life of a little girl and unleashes healing in their own lives.  It is grace that enables genuine connection between individuals and it is that connection that provides healing for shame.  And once we have experienced grace and healthy connections, our heart cry, much like Grace's, will be "Don't ever let me go!"  I need you in order to heal and survive and you need me.  We need each other, we need a community.  Get the book!  Read the book!  Be grace-filled individuals reaching out to another so that together we can heal from the shame that is destroying us.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Legacy of Trauma

My uncle died this week and we are grieving.  He lived a long life--one marked by tragedy, loss and struggles.  But he is now at peace.

So today, my thoughts are sifting through the histories of my extended family and I realize anew that it is a family with a legacy of trauma.  I an struck afresh with the many ways that untreated psychological trauma impacts others in the family tree--children are raised in an atmosphere where suspicion, hostility and resentment are as common as the endless coffee brewing whenever and wherever the family gathers.  Hypervigilent behavior on the part of a parent impacts a child in ways I am just now beginning to appreciate.  The notions of rehearsing tragedy and foreboding joy becomes part of the family DNA.

But I am also thinking about the many addictions that flow through this family, including sex addictions.  My mother and her siblings were raised by a praying mother and a philandering father.  The stories are legendary but the thread no one talks about is trauma and relational wounding.

I think about my grandmother who in family lore was a saint but who had a proclivity for harboring resentment.  And how could she not?  Her husband had numerous affairs, some in her own house while she was dying from leukemia.  How did the relational wounding of that first affair impact her?  How did the trauma of finding out that the father of her children had betrayed his marital vow change her?  In her era and religious climate, women were instructed to accept this aberrant behavior as part of their "cross to bear." So there was no real substantial help for the pain she experienced and the trauma that changed her world.  How did that impact her parenting?

And what of her kids when they grew old enough to know what their father was doing?  Did her bitterness color their view of life, relationships and what it means to be a man or a woman?  How were they traumatized by their father's behavior?  How did they deal with the trauma?

Since all of these events occurred prior to the time when psychologists gained an understanding of psychological trauma and its lasting impact, I am confident it was never addressed.  So the legacy of untreated trauma has manifested itself down through the years as:
  • very high rate of cancer
  • a number of tragic and senseless deaths at an early age
  • substance abuse and process addictions
  • staggering divorce rates
  • criminal behavior and incarceration
  • pervasive resentment, bitterness and judgmentalism
  • childhood molestation
And these are just the manifestations that one can see--the hidden cesspools of shame, fear, anxiety, anger and resentment are unmeasurable.  And the thought occurs to me that trauma brings its own form of living death.  So many of us walk through life almost like zombies because of the unrecognized, unacknowledged and untreated wounds inflicted on us--the traumas left untreated.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Trauma: Big "T's" and Little "T's"

In my professional life I deal with victims of trauma so understand a bit about the lasting impact a traumatic event has on an individual.  In a nutshell, a traumatic experience occurs when something/someone threatens your sense of safety and well-being.  As such, it is a very subjective experience; that is what is felt as trauma by one individual may not be so for another.  Big "T" traumas are easily recognizable:  childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, acts of violence, natural disasters, rape, profound betrayal by a loved one, etc.  Little "t" traumas are not any less significant but generally occur repeatedly over time and build on each other.  Examples would be name-calling on the playground, ongoing emotional abuse, shaming, deception, etc.

Dr. Judith Hermann authored what many consider the bible of trauma and asserts that "Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless" (Hermann, 1997, p 33).  Healing from trauma, according to Hermann, involves three important steps:
  1. Establishing safety
  2. Remembering and mourning
  3. Reconnection
Healing from traumatic experiences takes time, often a lifetime.  It is possible for the intensity of the experience to diminish but some research suggests that trauma makes permanent changes in the brain. For the fortunate, big "T" traumas are rare but little "t" traumas are more widespread for a greater percentage of people.  However, past traumas are hooked by new traumatic experiences so the cumulative effect can be overwhelming.

Fifteen months ago, I experienced a big "T" trauma when my front door was broken down by the police and I awakened to officers with drawn guns ordering me to "Come out with my hands up!"  My sense of powerlessness was profound and quite accurate.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent the devastating events that were unfolding around me.  It has only been in recent months that I have felt myself relaxing into safety once more.  Until three weeks ago when my bank account was drained by criminals who counterfeited my personal checks, forged my signature and got away with it.

Initially, I was more irritated and frustrated by the experience than traumatized, although I felt incredibly violated.  I worked with the bank to close the impacted account, order new checks, process the fraud claims and wait for justice.  The bank opted to not file criminal charges even though they had surveillance video, thumb prints and identification from the thieves.  But they returned the stolen money and while I was cautious, felt that the danger had passed.  Until I woke up to an email from my bank yesterday, informing me that my account had gone into overdraft protection.

Someone walked into one of my bank's branches and presented a check for several thousand dollars.  It was the same counterfeited check drawn on my closed account and the bank honored it!  They then went into my savings account to cover what was not in my checking account.  I spent the day at the police station filing a report and at the bank, closing my account.  Basically, in my state, this is a crime that is not prosecuted, which is incredible to me.  The officer who took my police report was very empathetic but also very realistic in what would happen with the report--it would be buried somewhere with the many thousands of others.

After doing all I could to protect my money, I came home and crashed in a very big way.  Emotionally, I went back in time to the instant my door came crashing down.  I knew that I was safe in my new home but I didn't feel safe.  Someone had crashed down the door to my bank account and robbed me and my sense of personal safety vanished.  I felt violated and powerless to prevent further violation and I thrashed around emotionally trying to find a safe place to land--a refuge from danger.  This world is not a safe place and my sense of that was overwhelming.

So what did I do?  I took a nap (good self-care), cried and cried and cried and cried and then cried some more (and drank lots of water to replenish my depleted body).  I talked to a friend who as a survivor of interpersonal partner violence was smart enough to just listen emphatically--to be present with me in my grief and fear.  She didn't give me platitudes or tell me to "buck up," or "stay strong."  She was just present, even though physically she was several thousand miles away.  According to Dr. Hermann, "Recovery [from trauma] can only take place in the context of relationships, it cannot occur in isolation" (p. 133).  So reaching out to a trusted friend was a recovery step that was incredibly helpful.

So, while my banking experience probably can be considered a little "t" trauma, it drew its energy from a big "T" trauma as well as other little "t" traumas from the past fifteen months.  I have been very powerless over the fall-out from my ex-husband's criminal activity but have to remind myself that in this episode of little "t" trauma, I advocated for myself, took positive action to change my situation and sought help from a trusted friend.  And I know that this too will pass.  This season of re-opened grief and fear has an expiration date and I am surviving.