My call to others is that we need to expand and widen our considerations of what immunity is, what it does, who it includes, and how it operates.
The abuse that happened to me happened because my mother was not protected against the deprivations caused within her environment. Her body, which in her case refers to her brain-mind, had to make its own adjustments to survive what threatened her because there was nobody around her when she was small that paid adequate attention to her needs. As a result, her malaise was passed onto me through abuse.
It is NOT a stretch of the imagination and therefore a waste of time for us to begin to think about how critical every form of immunity is to our continued survival and well being. Because we now live in an increasingly more complex world it is easy for us to lose track of and sight of what matters the most.
We are a social species. That means that our survival did and does depend on connections between one another. The smallest circle of protection might happen in regards to what threatens us inside our own skin. But our need for immunity, protection and defense does not stop there. We are vulnerable both individually and collectively to all kinds of threats that exist within our environment. For an infant and a young child, if that threat is happening to it as a result of inadequate and harmful care of lack of it, from its immediate caregivers, its immune response team must come from outside of the immediate family.
When we consider, for example, the current conditions in our global environment that are putting us at risk from swine flu, we can easily see how this expanded immune system from our connected relationship to ever expanding circles of other people affect us. We, of course, try to avoid and prevent contamination using whatever means at our disposal. I don’t personally make surgical masks. I would have to depend on someone else to manufacture, distribute, etc. a mask I might choose to wear. But once I might have that mask attached to my face, do I ever think of all the people that were involved in the chain of protection that made it possible for me to have the mask in the first place?
How about government involvement? That’s a part of a larger circle of protection. But actions taken by that larger circle affect me, too.
Government attention to threat
Use of surgical masks
Flu spreading, kills US toddler
Knowing the symptoms
Officials saying swine flu cannot be contained
Protection of other members of our species is our responsibility, and one we will not take seriously until we realize and accept the fact that we are all connected and must participate in an immune system process that is much larger than the one we are taught to believe is ONLY important — our own personal one that exists within our own bodies.
This link provides us with an example of how interconnected actions on behalf of at risk children can impact these same children’s immunity — meaning their well being.
Protection of little ones always circles back to the well being of the caregivers who take care of them. If a child is being neglected, abused, molested, it is because an opening exists for toxic challenges to REACH that child in the first place. The only protection a child can offer to itself is contained in a very small developing body that is, rather than being able to protect itself, actually developing a body that includes both the trauma experiences themselves and their body’s trauma reactions and responses that are being built into their bodies from the start.
Isolation from one another puts as all at risk of ‘infection’ from toxic interactions with our environments — wherever those toxins come from. If the circle of protection and immunity is broken, a whole new level of emergency is created. Our efforts always need to aim toward avoiding and preventing traumas from happening in the first place. I do not see a difference between the threat of swine flu infection or threat of ‘infection’ from maltreatment, violence, deprivation or abuse. It takes a healthy, whole, fully connected and operational immune system to address any threat of harm — to us individually and to us collectively.
Attachment on all levels is a protective factor. Risk of harm and extinction for any species corresponds to the degree that healthy attachments within that species are damaged or obliterated. I believe that for our advanced human species it is not only what we might DO that matters, it is also about our awareness and what and who we include or exclude in our thinking.
As we separate ourselves from one another we are creating gaps in our ‘atmosphere’ of protective immunity from all threats of harm. We are ALL a part of one another’s immune system because we are members of a social species. Every living organism defines itself according to its boundaries. Degrees of health and well being operate according to how competently — and that means adequately and successfully — any organism can protect those boundaries.
Because it all boils down to resources, it is the availability of, access to, and utilization of resources that determines the quality of competence any organism has to stay alive. As members of a social species we are each a part of that resource system. We also have to remember that social species has a main continuum of behavior that lets us interact with one another. This is a continuum that contains cooperation at one extreme end and competition on the other.
This is all about the most important operation a living system participates in — control over its environment through manipulation of resources. This is nothing but basic resource management through some form of manipulation. For a social species this operation usually appears in some form of dominance and submission. Who is the most vulnerable to any kind of threat and who is not? Who has access to vital resources and who does not?
At this point in human evolution I suggest that competition will soon become a cancer that will eat up our species from the inside. Cooperation, on the other hand, has the capacity to balance out all the ills our species currently suffers from, and is the immune system reaction that has the ability to heal us. Competition creates a state of war. Cooperation is the state of peace. Where do we see ourselves on this continuum? At what point does our ambivalence become cruelty to somebody else?
Human boundaries are formed through attachment. The more strong, safe and secure our sense of attachment is — I would add as adults, the wider that circle is — the better our resource of having empathy for one another is. Empathy is what connects us together. What we choose to do in participation with others is another matter.
If our interactions between our genetics and our early caregivers forced us to avoid the experience of emotion, we will correspondingly be unable as adults to access them adequately, understand them, or to take action according to the information they provide to us. We will also not be able to detect the full range of expressions other people use to communicate with us.
And again, experts suggest that all versions of attachment disorders result in a corresponding empathy pathology. I believe this is about the formation of healthy boundaries and all ongoing operations that protect and defend these boundaries. It is possible that humans can form a brain that prevents access even to their own self, and from there, access is denied as a fully functioning member of the species as a whole.
We will always choose what we think is best for ourselves. It will only be to the degree that we expand our perceptions of ourselves that we will realize that we are all in this business of life together. It is therefore our part as members of a species that relies on one another for all levels of immunity that we can offer our individual efforts to the betterment of both our individual selves and our collective community.
When it comes to something as obvious as threat from what might be a rampant virus, we can all see what that threat IS. Yet it becomes a matter not only of our body’s individual immune response to protect us. It also becomes a matter that involves a wide circle of our connected community. Our protection and defense on all levels always depends on one another.
Protecting infants and children is no different. As one who was NOT well protected from harm from birth, I can say, “Wish you were there!” Assuming, of course, that if you HAD been there you would have acted as a part of a fully functional immune system component and would have made sure, in some way, that the abuse had stopped.
As always, thank you for reading — your comments are welcome and appreciated.
PLEASE NOTE THIS WARNING: This post contains triggering material which may be difficult for anyone with a history of trauma and abuse to read. Please either do not read this alone without a support person at your side, or stop reading immediately if you become uncomfortable with yourself as you read it.
I received the following comment today related to + About this site
“Linda, I did not pick this up in your writing ( which is amazing ). Is your mother still alive and did you ever have an opportunity to confront her or make peace with her.”
My reply was that I would write about this in today’s post. Not an easy task.
The first image that presents itself in my awareness (from my right brain’s storehouse of wordless images) is one of being in a store shopping for flower and vegetable seeds. I see a well stocked large four-sided display rack that I can turn around in circles so that I can see the entire display.
Suddenly I see that all the packages are ripped open and the seeds are dumped in a pile on the floor. All the seeds are mixed up and it is now my job to sort them all out ‘correctly’ so that they can be resealed in new packages and put back where I found them in the first place.
I know more now about what this image is showing me than I ever could have before. All my memories regarding my mother are sealed into separate ‘packages’ and stored according to my survival brain’s wisdom. They are not linked together in any sort of order based on a timeline according to when these experiences happened in the first place. Never in my childhood was I able to connect them together and it is only with great concentration and effort that I can attempt to do so today.
Every single memory I have of my mother is linked to trauma. To continue with my seed package image, it is like every single package and every single seed is contaminated with poison, and if I touch any of them my brain tells me I could die. In order to “go back there” I have to apply a level of thought that can allow me to do this.
I have to find and put on a ‘safe suit’ of protection that allows me to go back and handle my memories. That safe suit is barely adequate and consists of a mental effort I must make today to understand that there was and is no reason for what happened to me. I use this word, reason, on many levels. My mother’s mind was broken so she had no ability to use reason regarding anything that involved me — ever. She was mentally ill and therefore everything about her was irrational.
Her psychosis regarding me was complete and indissoluble. Because I do not have a mind like hers, even though she influenced nearly every thought that was built into my brain until I was 18, I cannot look into my past from a reasonable or rational place so that I can describe my experience from ‘my side of the fence’. That is probably the final trauma of unresolved trauma. It cannot be translated, on any level, into the realm of reason.
Yet I have to think about reason because it is the only ‘safety suit’ I have. Everything about my relationship with my mother was, from my first breath, about the reason I needed to be hated and continually punished. I was the devil’s child and therefore absolutely evil. My ‘poor’ mother was given the curse of having to be my mother, and therefore she must do the best that she could to ‘deal with me’ and try to accomplish the given, hopeless task of making be ‘better’. She applied herself to her task with vengeance.
In her mind, she had failed miserably in her mission by the time I left home at 18. In her mind that failure was absolute and her belief in that lasted to her final breath.
In order to ‘stack the deck’ in favor of reason I will mention a few concepts used by experts as they work with people who have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (This is a diagnosis which I ‘have’, along with dissociative identity disorder — without the identities, which I will discuss later) and major reoccurring depression.) The term ‘flashbacks’ is used in relation to the unresolved traumas in PTSD. Another term used is ‘flashbulb memories’. What this means is that the experiences of trauma have not been integrated into the ongoing experience of the person who endured them.
This lack of integration happens for many reasons, including the fact that nothing has useful, that can lead to an increased ability to survive future related terrors — by the individual or by the species, has yet been learned as a result of these experiences. When abuse begins from birth, before the infant has any possible capacity to ‘process’ its experiences, the very foundation of memory formation is altered within the forming and developing structure of the brain. Having the traumatic memories ‘stuck together’ in any meaningful fashion is therefore the exception, not the rule.
Memories of the individual experiences are therefore like millions of seeds in a pile on the floor. To even have some of them organized and sorted out into a small group of related experiences — so that they can at least be stored in separate packages — requires extremes of applied effort. To assign them meaning is nearly impossible because they happened in and belong to a malevolent world without cause and effect and without reason or rationality.
I believe that it takes an extremely creative and intelligent mind to survive experiences like mine and be able to come out on the other end being able to even remotely ‘act normal’. This intelligent mind has to have had opportunities to form some active coping skills that allow this eventual ‘gluing together of the pieces’ in any meaningful way to happen at all. I describe some of the assets that existed for me in my post THE RESILIENCY MYTH.
While the following might be a controversial statement, it is my current assessment of the relationship of ‘mental illness’ to survival. Had I received the potential genetic combination that could have resulted in a mental illness such as my mother had, and if my body could have taken that detour in order to have survived without the self reflective abilities of a mind that was not given this detour, I would have turned out like my mother did. I do not believe that she had a choice because whatever neglect and maltreatment she received during her brain developmental stages triggered the manifestation of her mental illness and there was nothing she could do about it, either.
Please make no mistake here. I was born in 1951 and raised during an era when child abuse was still not recognized and addressed by our society at large in any meaningful way. In today’s ‘enlightened’ era, there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for outsiders of the family not to know and understand the symptoms a terribly abused child will manifest openly, and no excuse for them not intervening on behalf of the child. Information on this topic will be presented in future posts.
Because my writing is always a process connected to me and to my life as I write the words, and because I am always learning about myself and how I process information related to my personal experiences, I will share with you what is happening in my mind as I attempt to get closer to telling the truth about the question posed in the reader’s comment: “Is your mother still alive and did you ever have an opportunity to confront her or make peace with her.”
In my brain of brains and mind of minds, yes, my mother IS still alive. I do not have a basis for placing anything to do with my mother on a logical timeline and for keeping it there. The reasonable fact is that she ceased to exist in her body in the spring of 2002. I did not shed a single tear. I’m not sure if any of my five siblings shed one, either.
I lack the ability to accomplish the action of finding every single separate ‘seed’ memory that involves her, facing them face to face, and making any of the equally dissociated Linda’s understand unequivocally that THEIR mother is dead. The image that is in my mind now is that each seed has turned into a dandelion seed, that a powerful wind has come up so that each seed with its attached bit of fluff is now dashing away from me into the blue sky — and yes, to a place of safety for themselves — also leaving me in a place of safety as I sit here and write these words.
I will make the effort of trying to grab perhaps one of those seeds or a handful of them before they vanish from me today. (By the way, future posts on attachment disorders, particularly about disorganized-disoriented attachment disorders, will describe how the lack of the ability to tell a coherent life story is one of the clearest marker that indicates these attachment disorders exist for a person.)
Moving on in my writing as I work to answer this commenter’s question, I see that I actually have a fistful of seeds grasped in each of my hands. I guess fortunately for me I only confronted my mother once (seeds in my left hand) and disowned her once years later (seeds in my right hand).
Now I tell myself, “It’s OK Linda.” I slowly open my left hand and protect those seeds from being whisked away before I can write the following:
(“Organize your thoughts, Linda. Let the seeds put themselves in order. Believe that there is a beginning and an end to this group of thoughts. Now begin writing.”)
As I mention elsewhere on this blog, I completed 7 weeks of inpatient alcoholism treatment in 1980 and was then sent to ongoing therapy and given antidepressants. I followed every piece of advice anyone gave me about how to ‘recover’ as avidly as a starving bird would hunt for seeds. About a year after my exit from treatment, following the advice of my therapist, I DID call my mother to confront her.
All I knew at that time was that she had not been nice to me while she raised me, and that there was some discrepancy between her treatment of be back then and her treatment of me as a married adult mother of 2, as she sent me cute little cards with lovey-dovey I love yous enclosed. I can return to that phone call with difficulty. Like two powerfully opposing magnets the me in this chair writing attempts to move closer to the me I see standing in the dining room, sunlight streaming in the windows, cream colored phone in my hand, long twisted coiled cord draped around my feet as I stand there talking to my mother.
What happened? I courageously told her that I was not willing to have a phony (no pun intended) loving relationship with her in the present (“Let me try to think here. I got the first part out… Catch that seed, Linda. Hold onto it, look at it….”) — if — (“Come on, Linda, you can do this. I know there’s all kinds of pain here, but you can find the words and not let the pain appear now. Separate them out. Let the words come but not the pain.”) — (“Is that possible?”) (“Yes, trust me it is possible.”) (Here comes the wind. Stop this argument now.) (“Who are you that I should trust a damn thing you are saying”) (Stop this argument NOW.)
IF. Getting back to the IF. IF we can’t talk about the things you did to me while I was growing up. That’s what I said to her.
She instantly switched to her ugly screaming rage filled voice and attacked me as she launched into the litany she had been building for me from birth. SEE: *Litany from Start to Finish. “You were a horrible, terrible, vile child! You tried to kill me when you were born! You deserved everything I ever gave you and even that was not enough! Even your kindergarten teacher agreed with me. She had been teaching for 35 years before you showed up in her class, and she told me you were more trouble and a worse child than any she had ever had in her class.”
Now, this is the GOOD part. As she streamed and screamed through her litany of abuse I moved the phone receiver away from my ear, lifted up right finger and moved it to the telephone and dropped it with a sense of accomplishment, empowerment, finality and pride onto the disconnect button and I hung the receiver up on her in mid word.
I stood stunned for a split second and then experienced a flood of joy. I started hopping up and down, and then began to skip around the house yelling in song, “I did it! I did it! I hung UP ON HER!”
Now the tears are here pushing against my eyes. No, that wasn’t the end of it. I wasn’t ready. It wasn’t time. Within a matter of days she called back with her sweet voice and I apologized, and the phony loving relationship was reinstated and maintained until the spring of 1989. That is when I had a realization (too much for me to write about right now) that allowed me to write her a simple letter thanking her for being the mother that brought me into the world and telling her directly that because of the abusive things she did to me as a child I could no longer have a relationship with her in my lifetime.
She did not respond though she continued to bemoan the curse of being my mother to my siblings for years after that until they one by one quit listening to her. I only saw her once — out of the corner of my eye as if she were a fleeting mirage of the shadow of a ghost — after that in 1990 as she passed through my desperately ill father’s hospital room. (He had finally divorced her by then).
My father died in 2001. I never confronted him. I ignored and avoided him in my adulthood just like he did me in my childhood. I believe that both of my parents had to make internal adjustments that allowed them to ‘go on being’ while having unbearable, overwhelming pain and sadness at their core. I would also say that both of my parents died of a broken heart.
This is all I can write today. I have to do my ‘Linda in today” things. I cannot describe to you right now how she died, either.
I want to say here that the reason I do this writing is not in hopes of healing myself. I am nearly 58 years old, and things will not get much better for me than they are now. I accept that fact. I write because I now there is value in sharing my experience so that others ‘out there’ with histories related to mine can perhaps see in my words a reflection of their own experience so that they can become empowered to own the fullness of their own traumatic lives. I trust this is possible because I do not write from the top down — not from a place of put-together security based on secure attachment patterns that would create all kinds of benefits those that have them probably don’t recognize.
I write from the bottom up. I write from a place of humiliation, terror, confusion and trauma. I write from an incredible place called ‘the miracle of survival’. I write from what Dr. Teicher of Harvard calls “an evolutionarily altered brain” formed in, by and for existence in a malevolent world.
But for now I am going to watch my blue parakeet bathe itself in its small dish of drinking water as I think about and then DO the act of finding it a better bathtub. I am going to work on the little hand made paper cross earrings I am figuring out how to make so that I can add them to my inventory of crafts to display and sell at this Saturday’s farmers market in town. They will be pure white with silver glitter. I will eat the last of my homemade banana bread muffins, made from my grandmother’s recipe. I added grated apple, dried currants and lots of walnuts. That’s good for me. That’s where I am going next.
But first, I am going to stand in the wind with my fists open and my palms facing the sky and let all the bits of dandelion fluff, memories of myself and my mother, blow away.
As always, thank you for visiting this site and for reading this post. Your comments are welcome and appreciated.
This is how the cycle of life best works from my point of view:
Draw a simple plus sign — ‘+’
— ‘HAPPY’ on the left tip
— ‘ANGER’ at the top tip
— ‘FEAR’ at the right tip
— ‘SAD’ at the bottom tip
Draw a small circle at the center and place ‘COMPETENCE’ there
Draw another circle around the outside of this ‘COMPETENCE’ circle and place ‘PROTECTION’ there
(Please note that I will not be presenting information on the happy state in this post because I consider it a bonus that we can access directly from our safe, secure, calm, optimal state of competence. This post is about the survival process that results from a threat to our state of competence. Very few of us experience happy as a result of having our life threatened — though for some the exuberance of challenge is stimulating and a positive experience because they feel absolutely confident that they can meet the challenge successfully.)
We can complicate things all we want to, but even though this is a two dimensional simple image , I believe that it can be used to describe and visualize the operational pattern of life.
One thing missing from this simple image is something we have to visualize in our minds. Picture this little ‘+’ you have drawn in the center of a bubble, surrounded and encased in the ongoing processes of life itself which I believe can best be described with one word — ‘CHANGE’.
What connects the ideal optimal state of perfect competence — or calm equilibrium — to all other life factors represented by the word change, is something that we can recognize in ourselves as the ‘STARTLE RESPONSE’. This response ALERTS us on some level (I believe through interactions that occur within our immune system) that a challenge to competent equilibrium has occurred (as I described in yesterday’s post). Startle can vary from low level surprise to extremes of traumatic shock. However a life form detects this challenge, it matters as a central factor of existence.
Now because I am writing as a human being to other human beings about our unique experiences of life, I have to add another bubble that contains the patterns I just described — ‘SENTIENT’
Latin sentient-, sentiens, present participle of sentire to perceive, feel
1 : responsive to or conscious of sense impressions <sentient beings> 2 : aware 3 : finely sensitive in perception or feeling
– sen·tient·ly adverb
Because I am limited to writing from my own point of view, I will direct you to two pieces of my previous writings so that I can place what I am going to say in context:
This post describes an experience I had when I was 14 that allows me to entertain a certain degree of mystery regarding the possibility that all life has a conscious awareness of its own. In my ‘vision’ was I sharing with a blade of grass what its own experience of its existence is like, or was I simply experiencing a human version of what a blade of grass experiences? In other words, which ‘bubble’ was I in?
In this post I describe a chicken behavior that defied my explanation of it, and again introduces the possibility that humans have no real idea what other species’ experiences are like to them.
With those qualifying concepts out of the way, I will write about what I think humans know about how to endure as our experience operates on the sentient level of being as we include both emotions and thoughts into our survival patterns.
Please go back to your ‘+’ image. I want to describe how I believe this simple pattern operates.
I consider ‘AVOIDANCE’ of harm to be a part of the inner defense and protection circle. If something happens in the environment that penetrates a life form’s defense circle of protection, it is experienced as a challenge and an adjustment involving resources has to occur to reinstate the equilibrium.
I must now introduce another word — ‘COPING’. Coping can occur along a continuum from active to passive coping. What it involves is the resource access and utilization process. If everything is optimal, the transition process from challenge to adequate adjustment back to a state of harmonious competence happens so fast we hardly need to consider it on any level — except to witness it in our minds with awe and appreciation.
If, however, the transition stage of adaptation requires some more noticeable action for adjustment to occur, we move far enough away from the competent center to notice what might happen next as a life form responds to a challenge.
The startle response always requires an ability to accurately assess threat. Once that assessment happens, resources have to be accessed in balance with the assessed risk and applied. Coping skills are resources, and they require available resources.
I believe all of our most effective human coping abilities lie first of all within what we usually might think of as the anger arena and relate to the ‘GO’ (sympathetic) arm of the autonomic nervous system. A threat to life or well being does not first elicit a lazy response. A first response will involve the application of enough energy to meet the demands of a challenge.
Our most constructive responses originate, I believe, within this anger arena because it is here that we have stored all of our effective learning about how to actively defend ourselves against harm. Our species very often experiences this as an instantaneous adrenaline response that we recognize as the ‘FIGHT’ response.
Good! Recognize the threat, identify it, assess it, and respond appropriately and adequately to get rid of it as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible using known and proven active coping skills so that calm equilibrium of optimal competence can be restored as quickly as possible.
OK. But what if that doesn’t work? What if the immediate response based on past learning experience (and remember that all genetic survival knowledge is contained in our active coping skill category) still leaves us at risk and under threat? Now comes the move from the anger place to the fear place on our ‘+’ drawing.
I believe that for humans fear is always about the threat of being overwhelmed so that our life might be extinguished. Our initial anger response is not related to fear because we first use resources that we are confident will do the job based on our competence abilities. Only when those coping responses fail and our confidence becomes shaken do we move to the fear place. This movement only takes place if our active coping responses were ineffective and/or overwhelmed.
If we feel anger on any level that means we are in a state of using or hoping to use everything we know with success. When we feel fear we can know instantaneously that we need to learn something new and find/use additional resources to meet a challenge, but we have to find a way to stay alive long enough to do this.
The fear state also involves active coping responses, most usually what we think of as the flight response. I consider the freeze response to be a version of flight because it is also designed to remove one at risk from threat. Both involve trying to be ‘out of sight’ from the threat and invisible (and therefore immune) to it. They are retreat coping mechanisms designed to escape to a place of safety and security.
If one survives threat by using fear state resources and then is able to return to a state of competent equilibrium, most usually something new was learned in the process. This ‘something new’ may then be available as a resource during the anger-fight stage next time this or a similar threat occurs.
If we continue to live but the fear state actions do not result in a return to the center state of competence, it is possible that the sad state may be the final resting point. If we do not acquire knowledge of a new coping skill as a resource, we can end up completely stuck in this sadness state on our ‘+’ drawing until we do learn. I believe this state is where depression manifests itself. It is where helplessness, hopelessness, discouragement and demoralization feed into an incompetence cycle and the optimal state of calm and safe competence is never reached.
I believe that the state of sadness is a place of hiding….
Because we do not get to the sad state without first passing through the fear state, fear is literally carried through and combined with sadness. When sadness from, for example, a ‘legitimate’ grief stemming from any kind of loss, becomes contaminated with fear, all sight of learning a way out can be lost. This can result in giving up the fight, and only through teasing apart fear from sadness and examining each of them separately can we begin to see how to overcome both.
I believe that some of us are born naturally closer to the sensitive end of the human continuum, and that this puts us at greater risk of experiencing anxiety states that do not result either in effective and appropriate survival responses or in the learning of new adaptive actions. In addition, what we identify as posttraumatic stress disorder also involves a failure to learn new responses to apply to future threats.
I believe this can happen to anyone if the actual experience of the trauma was more than any single member of our species could ever surmount alone. Because we are a social species, we have been designed throughout our evolution to advance the survival potential of our species by sharing new learning about how to both avoid harm and to respond to it adequately once it occurs. This is part of the reason that social support following a traumatic event is such a critical factor in recovery.
It is crucial to understand that our brain is a part of our nervous system, and that all these described reactions to a challenge from the environment that threatens our optimal state of calm well-being of competence involve reactions that occur in our bodies, including our experience of the emotions themselves. A central point in my writings is that abuse and trauma during early fetal, infant and toddler stages of development prevent this state of competent well-being at the center from ever developing in the first place.
If the stresses of trauma become built into a body from the start, their corresponding threat reactions will NEVER be the same as they are for a body that developed in an optimal environment. We need to know this for a fact because every interaction a person has is connected to whatever state lies at the center of their body. If overwhelming threat occurs before a possibility of active, competent response exists, this incompetence will be built into the body from the start.
This fact makes anyone who experienced severe abuse, deprivation and trauma early in their development at the highest risk for inadequate or inappropriate responses to additional traumas and threat for the rest of their lives. I speak from personal experience on this one. My trauma reaction bucket was filled to over flowing from the first breath I ever took, and there is no possible way to empty it out because the trauma built itself into my body from the beginning.
Everyone has a threshold of tolerance for traumas. Compared to my mother, I was not genetically given the option of breaking under the burden of my traumas as she did. I believe that what we call ‘mental illness’ exists in our genetic heritage to ensure that the human body can survive in the worst possible conditions so that there remains a hope that offspring will find their way to a better world in the future. The cost of this survival can mean that the distortions required of a developing child in order that it CAN survive result in a broken relationship between the child and the self, and the adult person and the world around them.
What lies at the center of a person severely maltreated from birth is an overwhelming sadness. (Because males are destined to develop differently from females, their sadness can very easily be replaced with rage.) When conditions become humanly unbearable, alternatives for survival have to be found or death will be the result. Suicide is being tied through research very clearly to a genetic base. If actual death does not become the outcome, then we have to expect a natural reaction that results in dire future consequences for those whose bodies do continue to endure. Having a balanced calm competent center of equilibrium will be a nearly impossible state to achieve.
Believe me, severe infant and child abuse can cause one to ‘go insane’ and/or die of a broken heart. The toughest survivors usually have to continue to endure the experience of ongoing, overwhelming, unbearable sadness for the rest of their lives while all the time being pressured to wonder why they cannot either catch up or keep up will all the others who have built into their bodies competence, calm and balanced well-being from their developmental experiences in an adequate if not optimal world.
For some of us life continues like one of those nightmares where you are falling and falling and never hit bottom. We just grieve for the love we desperately needed from our birth that would have let our brains and bodies develop based on benevolence rather than malevolence. Our hearts continue breaking and breaking until we die. This is OUR natural state.
Because we are members of a social species we know fundamentally that our survival and well-being depends upon our acceptance into our species. This information is gleaned initially from the mother and all other early caregivers. Misinformation becomes mis-formation as a body adapts to the crisis of remaining alive while being rejected (ejected) from one’s species.
Let me take for instance the present threat of a very serious spread from swine flu. If we as people could have done something to avoid this threat in the first place, obviously the threat would have been prevented. Once the threat exists, can we contain it? Can we adequately address the threat through taking steps based on preexisting knowledge we already have so that we can eliminate the threat and restore for ourselves a competent state without threat? If we don’t already have adequate resources to do these things, then the faster we learn something new to apply to our solution so that containment, elimination and restoration can occur, the better.
Avoid-prevent, contain, eliminate-destroy and restore. These actions might be motivated by anger and fear, but not by sadness. Sadness exists in the giving up-overwhelmed state. Sadness is NEVER a desired stopping place. If we ever find ourselves stuck in sadness, we need to know that this is both the most vulnerable state we can be in at the same time that it is most valuable because it contains within it the greatest potential for learning something new that is vitally important.
An escape from sadness back to optimal calm competence only happens a most important characteristic is accessed and applied — that of resolve. Resolve, to me, is a direct reconnection back to the competent experience of the anger state because it involves an awareness that competency is possible.
The problem for many people who are stuck in the sadness state is that they lack the resource of hope that would allow them to experience resolve in the first place. Hope is something that is built into our being through secure attachment experiences in our environments from the start. Hope happens because we learn that someone will be there to respond adequately to our needs, and is built into our foundation through these foundational experiences.
Hope is thus intimately and inexorably intertwined with the experience of growing and developing competence literally into our bodies. It stems from connections and linkages that exist (or don’t exist) between ourselves and others. If we were deprived of the development of hope through early abuse and trauma, it IS something we can learn to acquire later because the potential for experiencing hope appears to be hard wired into our brains before we are born.
In the case of the swine flu, I might feel completely powerless to defend and protect myself and others from its threat (short of disappearing somewhere?), but I have hope that there are people out there with the competence and resources to take adequate care of the threat for us. These others are thus a part of my immune system resources, and I am dependent upon these others for a solution.
This last statement would lead me in the direction of a discussion of dominance and submission, of ordinate and subordinate conditions — but I will address this in a future post.
As always, thank you for reading — your comments are welcome and appreciated.
Everything about being alive is about having control over one’s environment. I believe that it is essentially our immune systems that direct our ability to maintain our lives by using all aspects of our body’s operation to ensure that our lives continue. If we were a much more primitive species, we would only be able to count on what this immunity provided to protect our cells for us. Because we are an advanced species, we also can use what resources our advanced brains provide.
We are not taught to consider that our nervous system, including our brain, is directly connected to our immune system. From my point of view, with emotions being direct indicators to us of how our conscious experiences are affecting us through immune system reactions, we can learn to recognize what these emotions are telling us. Because we are a complicated species, boiling down what we feel to the core emotions they are connected to, can be hard for us to do. We more often get stuck cycling the emotions and not accomplishing much of anything related to what they are telling us needs to be done to make our life better — and to give us more control over our environment and our interactions with it.
I found my way into ‘recovery’ through a 7 week inpatient alcoholism treatment program in 1980, and from there found my way through 12 step programs. I am aware of the controversy that continues about potential problems related to CONTROL. OOOHHH! The big bad “C” word, control. AND, the big bad “M” word, MANIPULATE.
Well, let me give you some important insider information. Without the ability to utilize both control and manipulation for our own self preservation we would, quite simply, be dead. It is not possible for us to delete these two words from our vocabulary and still be able to consider how we not only stay alive, but how we can be alive more efficiently and effectively. These are not peripheral or abstract concepts. They are at the core of everything about us.
I see the problems we might have with control and manipulation being related not to these fundamental operations themselves, but with our own degrees of denial of their essential existence and our resulting lack of conscious awareness of their life sustaining (well-being) or life obliterating (ill-being) powers. Because I am in my thinking always looking for the lowest possible common denominator, I can say that what we are really talking about when we consider both control and manipulation is a simple process of addition or subtraction.
If our bodies detect that we are under some form of threat they are essentially telling us through our immune system reactions that an imbalance is present in the form of a subtraction of resources, and that this depletion needs to be addressed. Something needs to be added to the equation to balance out the threat so that we can continue living, and to live more abundantly if at all possible.
If we have become so ‘advanced’ that we cannot recognize the signals our immune system gives us, cannot decipher what they mean, cannot take responsible self action to change the triggering situation and make things better, then we are at continual risk of keeping ourselves in environments of escalating threat and danger. In other words, we are forgetting what being a being in a body is all about.
We need to stop thinking of our immune system reactions as being handy but nonessential components of our existence. We cannot continue to separate and divide one part of our being from other parts of our being, and think we are somehow sophisticated because we can conquer our basic nature as living beings. Our bodies, brains, emotions, needs, wants, desires, illnesses, etc are not all separate parts of who we are. We are not worms. These parts we have divided from ourselves cannot go off and live satisfying lives on their own. Nor can we think we are disconnected from the entirety of the living environment. Such perspectives are not wise. Rather, they are destructive fantasies of childish minds.
Infancy and childhood are not states we are designed to remain in. We are designed to mature into reproductively fit adults so that we can proginate and then take adequate care of our progeny so that our species will endure. I believe that what is at the center of this wheel-of-life and what is at the hub, is simply — COMPETENCE. We are either competent members of our species or we are not. Dead center is dead center. It is the optimal state for any species, and there are no degrees of gray there.
If we are NOT at the dead center of competence so that we can live the best life possible, then everything we need to do is about making adjustments to get there so that we can become more competent. Control and manipulation are simply tools we use to get to center and to try to stay there and maintain that state. Because the living environment is constantly changing and being alive is not a static state, this moving toward (or away from?) dead center of optimal competence is the continual work of every organism.
The dead center of optimal experience, of being optimally competent, does not exist in a vacuum. Nor are we supposed to be navigating in pitch darkness, guessing randomly how close or how far we might be from this center. Reproductive fitness indicators of any species are the clear and definitive signs regarding the relationship an organism has to this center, and these indicators never lie.
If we have, as a supposedly wise species, so confused ourselves about what our reproductive fitness indicators are, what they mean, what they tell us, and what adjustments we are supposed to make regarding the information they tell us and our corresponding relationship to optimal, then we have little choice but to either inform ourselves and make required changes, or suffer — individually and as a species. Unfortunately, because we have such advanced powers to control and manipulate, we also cause the whole of the world to suffer right along with us.
Fortunately, we don’t have to twist ourselves into a never ending tangle of knots trying to figure out how to attack any problem that we might identify as keeping us from the optimal state of competence. We only have to look at the one thing that can tell us about the quality and condition of our reproductive fitness indicators: ATTACHMENT. Floundering around lost on any level will affect the quality of the attachments that we have to ourselves, our body, to one another as members of a social species, and to the world we are a part of. Degrees of incompetence manifest as corresponding impediments in the strength, quality and state of being attached — or not.
I do not make this argument metaphorically. The fact of the matter is that even before our conception the chemical interactions occurring within our mother’s body affect whether or not a sperm becomes fertile, whether it finds any particular egg and becomes attached with it, whether or not attachment occurs within the uterus, the quality of attachment the fetus experiences to the mother as it grows, and the nature of attachment to ‘what kind of world’ every step of the journey that individual experiences until its death.
The quality of attachment manifests itself in reproductive fitness indicators, which are themselves signs pointing to the quality of competence any organism experiences within the environment of its own body and within the corresponding environment of life itself.
Life is an interchange of resources occurring as a part of the particular context of the limitations and possibilities that exist in relationship with one another as a part of our planet. In this way we could say that all life that has been a part of this planet are its reproductive fitness indicators, each particular form sharing in the process of exchanging available resources.
Trauma is a part of life on our planet that occurs when any event causes a disruption in the ‘usual’ pattern of resource exchange among life forms. Any life form that has living cells will manifest an immune system response to the challenge of trauma. This response is an indication both that its preexisting competency state has been disturbed within its environment and that a competent adjustment to the challenge is required.
Because life occurs within the context of resources, either a life form has access to resources to adjust to changes within the context of their environment or they suffer — and/or die. Obviously resources are, well, resources themselves. Having the right resources to access the right resources is itself a resource. Having the ability to use the existing resources competently is also a resource. If the needed resources don’t exit, or if they aren’t available to you, or even if they are there but you don’t have the resources yourself to access and use them, the results are the same — a big “Uh Oh!”
This sounds like a circular process because it is one. Life forms can advance due to utilization of adequate resources as they have the resource of being able to competently utilize those resources, or they retreat in the opposite direction if the opposite situation exists. If a retreat is possible until conditions improve, life may continue. If not? You know the answer to that question.
Life is a DOING process. Life is sustained through what any life form does with resources. Competency is about controlling and manipulating resources for a life form’s best survival purposes. This process has been ongoing in balance because life’s corresponding interconnections through a mutual attachment to continued life has not been interrupted on a level that deprives ongoing life of its necessary resources.
Now enters the development of our human species. It is to the degree that we detach ourselves and unattach ourselves from life promoting processes that we upset ourselves and all of life that our actions thus affect. Pardon me, but I think we are rapidly approaching a point where our supposed advancement as a species is indicating that our incompetency is showing!
If we pay attention we will notice that all manner of our reproductive fitness indicators are telling us that we are mismanaging resources. Our incompetent mismanagement of resources is being reflected around us in the deterioration of reproductive fitness indicators within the context of life on this planet on ever increasingly levels and in ever more serious ways. We can try to remain children engaging in the wistful magical fantasy thinking of ignorance and denial, but that will not change the fact that all of us are being affected personally, as well.
If we pay attention on the personal level, our immune systems are telling us what this imbalance and mismanagement of available resources feels like. Yet we seem to be using what has evolved as one of our best resources against ourselves rather than for ourselves. Every evolving species has stored a capacity to remember how to survive in its genetic code so that ongoing members do not have to relearn the important big things every time a new generation comes along. As a result each generation can then avoid many sources of trauma and harm by acting according to the learnings remembered in their genes. The operational term here is AVOID.
Avoiding trauma, harm, distress and destruction is a very efficient way of manifesting competence. It seems to work well on every level of life except the highest one. Humans possess the most advanced brain on the planet. Yet its evolution has provided us with the most dangerous tool of all. We now have the ability to FORGET that which we have already learned by using the life sustaining ability to avoid remembering in new and creative ways.
This, to me, means that we have taken ourselves just about as far down the detachment road as we can safely go. Because we have this ability to ignore and avoid remembering (and competently acting upon) all the information we have gained during our entire evolution about what to avoid so that we can continue living, we are destroying whatever degrees of well being based on wise management of resources to sustain life that we worked so hard to get in the first place. We are so busy making ourselves stupid with forgetting that we are rapidly diminishing our powers to discover better ways of being in the world.
I started out writing today thinking that I was going to present the topic of courage, discouragement and encouragement. As I headed off into my woods of words the writing led me off in another direction. Yes, I am always surprised when this happens and never sure where exactly I made an alternative turn. But here I am, and here, too, are you if you have read this far. Did I forget where I was going?
I intended to say that saddened, despondent and rage filled people are having a difficult time accessing and using resources. I was going to say that feeling discouraged is meant only to be a short stopping place on our road of life. I was going to say that from there we can reconsider our goals, desires and intentions and then find new and creative ways to access and use available resources to forge ahead. I was planning to write about how we can encourage ourselves and one another in this process.
Now I see that I didn’t start out in the first place headed into a simple little wooded glen, nicely packed picnic basket in hand, to enjoy a sunny breezy spring day of meandering. I found myself on a wide road of stripped forests and polluted waters with garbage thrown, spread and littered all the way into space. I found death and deprivation and depletion along the sides of the road. True, there are little places of pretty glens of woods where portions of our world’s populations are able to tarry.
But on the larger scale I see that our species in in danger because we are using the available resources of our highly evolved brains to circumvent our ancient wisdom by forgetting to remember to avoid what will harm us. By abusing our most precious resource that is meant to sustain us, by incompetently mismanaging ourselves, we are at risk of creating a situation where we will have to learn what we are forgetting all over again.
It is important to remember that the best resource humans have to protect ourselves from the harmful wake of trauma is to avoid it in the first place. The next most important protective factor is the support of others close to us. As we alienate ourselves from the first we begin to deprive ourselves of the second. Unfortunately, we are well on our way to doing both.
Thank you for reading. Your comments are welcome and appreciated.
Not to miss a post today, will just say that I braved the wind and set up a ‘booth’ at the farmers’ market today — and taught the art class in the afternoon — so will write tomorrow
Why did I sleep so poorly and wake before dawn today? What do I do with the millions of thoughts, swarming around like gnats, each untouchable? I try to swat them away. I do not want to hear them. I don’t want them to be a part of me.
I used to have an inner directive about my research and writing that I could in the end say things about the consequences of severe abuse from birth that I knew no therapist would ever tell a client — because they didn’t know them. Now I laugh a macabre laugh. Nobody can afford any therapy any more. There is no access. How do those of us who had such a terrible mess made of the first 18 years of our life get help for anything that happened to us, let alone for the difficulties those experiences back then cause for us now?
Or is none of it supposed to matter? Do we just need to do what my sister calls it, “Put on your big girl panties,” and get on with our lives, moment by moment, the best that we can?
I get the feeling that I have so much information buried, hidden just below the surface — but I am supposed to leave it there? Leave it untouched, waiting for future generations to discover in their own time, because we have too much on our plates in the world right now and it is all too much for anyone to hear?
I have a very clear idea at this moment about how this all can work. I walked away from my research and my computer and my writing and remembering 5 months ago. I simply pushed back my chair, got up, walked away and didn’t turn back — until now. It happened the instant I knew I had found what I was looking for: ‘substance p’.
Substance P is a neurotransmitter related to the sensation of pain. It works the same way if we are feeling something as physically wrong for us as it does if we feel something as emotionally wrong with us. That means to me that our sadness is not something to spurn and discard. It is a part of us we need to cherish and learn from.
Partly my mission up until that point was to show that our nation’s reliance on pharmaceuticals to treat ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ was no different than a reliance on anything that we use to take away our perception of pain. I knew there really was no difference between psychological pain and physical pain because both are indications to the body that there is something hazardous affecting an individual within their environment, and both elicit an immune system response.
I knew that we run the risk of basically saying to one another and to ourselves, “That’s OK. Go ahead and keep your hand in the flame. Take these pills. You will not feel it. But by all means don’t take the pain seriously as a signal to you that there’s something wrong with your life. Don’t try to find out what it is, what caused it, how it affects you. Don’t change anything. Just ‘remain productive,’ get on with your life, quit whining and complaining. Nobody cares and neither should you.”
So in my own life I turned away from my studies and from my writing, and tried to create a sanctuary for myself, tried to forget everything I am and everything I’ve become as a result of early, chronic, consistent, terrible abuse. After all, our society tells us, “That’s all in the past now.” That’s a lie. It is NOT in the past. Everything that has happened to us remains right here in the present instant, accumulated in our body, in our body’s memory, and affects every interaction that occurs all the way down to the molecules in our body and how our genetic code is continually manifesting in our bodies.
We are not supposed to ask the questions. We are not supposed to know the answers. Thinking is supposed to be carefully modulated so that we avoid knowing the truth. Be a nation of smiley faces, plugging along, separating the good from the bad, letting people ‘get what they deserve’. Don’t pity ourselves? Don’t ever think you had it worse than anyone else because we all know how much worse other people have it?
The more we don’t know our own reality the more we separate ourselves from ourselves, and hence from one another. Are we simply a glamor culture founded upon the powers of distraction and the pursuit of not knowing the truth? Every time an important question bubbles to the surface of our awareness we are supposed to turn away and forget it. If we can’t do this by ourselves, then we better go get some kind of pill to help us.
Where’s the salvation in that? Where’s the learning? Where’s the connection to reality and to what is really going on? Where is the taking of new information and using it to create a better world? Are questions and wondering forbidden?
For example, what if I were to ask important questions like, “What is the difference between the experience of abuse for the child that is singled out in a family as the chronically abused one, and the siblings who are the witness abuse survivors? What is the difference between them in regards to the long term brain and body changes they each receive as a result? Is there a possibility and risk that by our unwillingness to ask these questions and to look for the answers on the bigger level that we are saying there is no difference between them, and that a witness and a victim are in effect ‘the same thing’? Where, in this picture, do the perpetrators fit in?”
By being willing to pay close attention to the lessons of trauma we can become crystal clear about cause and effect, culpability and accountability. Both witnesses to abuse and victims of abuse have their shared portion of experiences related to peril. In addition, they each also have their own experiences that are distinctly different.
Is there in effect a forbidden zone, a boundary in our thinking and learning that says, “STOP here, beyond this point there is no passing?” Is that part of what continually keeps the after effects of trauma alive and well, running just under the surface of our culture like a poisoned and toxic ground water that remains so close to the surface that the well being of at least half or our citizens is being jeopardized on some level daily — and nobody is really supposed to care? Does the adage, ‘pay lip service’ apply here as we all like to decry violence and abuse but will not do anything individually to stop either the actions or the effects — not even within ourselves?
“Chin up. Suffer in silence. Don’t admit the truth. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Don’t make such a big deal of it.”
Is this really all about not wanting to separate the victims from the not victims because somehow the not victims carry some sense of guilt, shame and responsibility for what victimized the ‘others’ in the first place? Or is it that we live embedded within a culture that insists it is right in saying that “People get what they deserve?”
That leaves the not victims exonerated from whatever guilt they might be carrying so that they never have to dig down and take the guilt out and look at it. It leaves the victims holding the bad bag feeling as if somehow they deserved what happened to them and they have no right to complain. Not ever. “Don’t rock the sinking boat?”
That leaves us with a vast gray area where people who really do suffer somehow just have ‘bad genes.” When all else fails and there is no other logical explanation, blame genetics. Who cares that research is showing how nasty early experiences trigger most of these genes to misbehave as they had to and continue to adjust for a person’s survival in a hostile, toxic and malevolent world?
We make choices as a society just like we make them individually. If nobody calls anybody on their behavior, where is the balance, reason and health in that? Pharmaceutical companies who make billions off of the results are the monster engines powering health research — physical and mental-emotional health. We don’t question this. We literally BUY their results as if they came straight from the God of the universe. The power is in the pills?
The word ‘pharmaceutical” stems from the Greek word ‘pharamkos’, which was the chosen sacrifice that was killed after all the ills of a people were projected onto it. Kill the pharmakos, all troubles of the people are vanquished. Blame the victim, ‘de-capacitate’ the victim, shut them up, make them go away and all will be well for everyone else.
What if the sacrifice doesn’t want to BE the sacrifice? What power do they have to resist? True mental health and well being is being treated like an obsolete technology itself. Who cares if vinyl records disappear off the market as they are being continually replaced by newer and better recording technologies? All that matters is that we have access to the music itself. Well being for the masses? Who cares if it has been replaced with tiny pills in throw away (well, maybe in some places recyclable) bottles?
Shouldn’t we all just be so grateful? We don’t have to suffer. We don’t have to work at well being. We don’t have to ask the tough questions and find the tougher answers. Access to well being has been equalized and guaranteed to all? And if we refuse to take the pills? If we dare to question Big Brother’s machine? Well, who first asked “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there to hear it does it make a sound?”
I have always thought that question was ludicrous. A tree falling and hitting the ground makes vibrations, dislodges and upsets all manner of life that exists within its branches, etc. Only egocentric humans would assume that the world revolves around us. I can personally say anything I want to about how the abuse I suffered was preventable, that I would rather it had never happened in the first place, that it changed the development of my brain and body into being one geared for the most efficient survival in a life-and-death threat world, and that this childhood created a lack of well being in me that operates on my molecular level. Who wants to hear this noise?
Better that I either suffer in silence — which is what I am doing if nobody hears a sound I am making — or shut up, pop my pills, and get to work fitting in here. I mean, how productive is the truth?
I am moving very slowly through the article I cited in yesterday’s post. The realization that I am better off as a result of my mother’s beatings than I would have been without them is a tough fact to understand. I’ve heard that before, that abuse is not as bad as neglect, but only right now do I begin to realize why that is so. This article I am reading documents research about what brain and nervous system changes occur due to isolation of rats after they are weaned — and the effects being seen parallel schizophrenia and depression, consequences that would not have occurred to these rats if the isolation had not occurred.
Beatings at least stimulate the brain, I guess. Isolation has an entirely different effect. In actuality, I had both…… these are not things any therapist has ever explained to me –unfortunately, I have to figure this out for myself….
I have been able at times in the past to read research articles and process the information intellectually while remaining detached from my feelings, from my memories, from what particularly my body knows about what I have experienced. We are not trained in our culture to be able to process the information we hold personally about ourselves in our lives. How do I combine the two ways of knowing? Right now I cannot dissociate the two….
I imagine that researchers can write about topics such as this one without being ’emotionally involved’ with their topic. If so, then this is what makes my writing different from theirs. The condition they write about is one I have intimate experience with — only my isolation began at birth, not at post-weaning.
What follows here are my ‘pre-notes’ for the following article that I will be considering in depth in following posts:
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008 Aug;32(6):1087-102. Epub 2008 Mar 18.
Institute of Neuroscience, School of Biomedical Sciences, Medical School, Queen’s Medical Centre, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2UH, UK. email@example.com
ABSTRACT: Exposing mammals to early-life adverse events, including maternal separation or social isolation, profoundly affects brain development and adult behaviour and may contribute to the occurrence of psychiatric disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia in genetically predisposed humans. The molecular mechanisms underlying these environmentally induced developmental adaptations are unclear and best evaluated in animal paradigms with translational salience. Rearing rat pups from weaning in isolation, to prevent social contact with conspecifics, produces reproducible, long-term changes including; neophobia, impaired sensorimotor gating, aggression, cognitive rigidity, reduced prefrontal cortical volume and decreased cortical and hippocampal synaptic plasticity. These alterations are associated with hyperfunction of mesolimbic dopaminergic systems, enhanced presynaptic dopamine (DA) and serotonergic (5-HT) function in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), hypofunction of mesocortical DA and attenuated 5-HT function in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These behavioural, morphological and neurochemical abnormalities, as reviewed herein, strongly resemble core features of schizophrenia. Therefore unravelling the mechanisms that trigger these sequelae will improve our knowledge of the aetiology of neurodevelopmental psychiatric disorders, enable identification of longitudinal biomarkers of dysfunction and permit predictive screening for novel compounds with potential antipsychotic efficacy.
First of all I will say that from my perspective as a survivor of severe abuse from birth, the consequences documented in this article go far beyond what the authors are describing. While I cannot change the official diagnostic criteria for depression or schizophrenia, I can suggest that all these changes exist on a continuum rather than belonging simply to such ‘gigantic’ main categories.
I suspect that in 45 – 50% of cases infants and young children receive less than the optimal quality of caregiver interaction which leads to some form of ‘attachment disorder.’ Not only are these disorders empathy disorders, but they are correspondingly reflected in alterations in the way young brains and nervous systems develop within these less-than-optimal environments. Consequently these degrees of alteration will manifest themselves along the continuum of difficulties these authors are describing.
The process through which these alterations occur should be no mystery to us. It simply reflects a flexible adjustment ability that allows an individual’s body to prepare itself for living in a less-than-optimal world as it develops in a less-than-optimal environment from its start. We don’t get to have it both ways in life. Tell a growing body that the world is hazardous and filled not with plenty but with deprivation, this body will change its developmental course to the best of its ability so it can survive in this same kind of world ‘later on.’
My friends and loved ones tell me that I am happier when I am not working on my research or writing. They are right because I can live in a different ‘space’ that I can create that is separate from the truth. But my being happier does nothing to help anyone else. It takes willingness, fortitude and courage — as well as an abiding faith that my interpretation of current research can help someone else with a background similar to mine at least understand why they’ve never seemed to reach ‘the top of their game’.
As it is this ‘work’ wakens the darkness inside of me, wakens my woundedness, hurts me. I cannot be detached, objective, scientific or write from some remote place where this subject matter cannot reach or touch me. I have to write from a place of reality within myself, a place where I know — personally — what these authors are talking about.
Practically speaking, I don’t believe that nature ever means for those of us who suffered in a malevolent environment from birth to do much more than survive until we can reproduce offspring. In the time of our harshest ancient history this is all that a member of our species could hope to accomplish. How can we wonder or be surprised when these abused infants grow up and recreate the same kind of environment for their offspring? They never knew any other kind of world, and even if they have experienced ‘better’ in their older years, ‘better’ is not what built their brains or their bodies in the first place.
I suspect that the DNA memories and their expression machinery that built us is far more ancient than the ‘happy, safe and secure memories’ that we expect in our supposed modern life. Those of us who were battered, beaten, neglected from birth had a very ancient set of DNA mechanisms activated because the very ancient memory of our species about how to endure and survive in a malevolent, hostile world is what we desperately needed in order to survive and endure ourselves.
So ours is not some long ago forgotten memory about being here on earth when hardship and trauma is all that there is. Ours is not only recent memory, but constant memory as this ancient survival genetic code is activated continually throughout our lifespan.
But sometimes this ancient survival memory does not manifest in a smooth useful transition into the relatively benign world most others live in. As a species we survived the hardest times of our history by taking the most extreme measures possible to do so. If rape, pillage, murder and mayhem was what was needed to guarantee our survival, then that’s exactly what we did. If times were truly harsh and there were not enough resources for a mother to ensure survival for herself and all of her offspring, very tough choices have always needed to be made. When we see those same ancient genetically-linked behavior choices being made by over-traumatized women today we are puzzled if not appalled.
And, yes, I am including my own mother — ALL abusive mothers — in this descriptional category — though the choice is not usually conscious and is based on information their own bodies received in their early lives about the condition of the world and how best to survive in a dangerous one. Certainly my mother was beautiful, if that’s what we choose to measure reproductive fitness by. She was voted the most beautiful girl in her high school graduating class. She had, when young, an hour glass figure, thick wavy auburn hair, emerald bedroom eyes, a perfect complexion, full lips and a ‘vivacious’ personality.
But if someone had paid attention and known what to look for, the indicators were there of terrible trouble in the long term in her own stories written when she was 10 and 11 years old. SEE: My Mother’s Childhood Stories. It is obvious in these stories that she was creatively gifted, that her mind at that time was processing complex interactions as she tried to build a working ‘theory of mind.’ But, then, read her last story and tell me what you think!
The younger we are when traumas occur the wider the range of possible choices a developing organism has at its disposal. As ‘windows of developmental opportunity’ close with age, the range of possible choices is equally diminished. A physiological response to trauma at a very early age (which begins to happen at conception if needed), I believe, activates the ‘worst of the worst’ case scenario genetic interrelationships that an organism has in its arsenal/at its disposal. Once these physiological choices have been made, a trajectory is established that is destined toward an ‘awful’ future. To the extent that these choices are force-made early in development, human higher level choice options will be replaced by faster, more automatic survival-based patterns that have been recorded in our genetic memory from our ancient experiences in a very dangerous world environment.
Windows of developmental growth opportunity are times of maximum flexibility and more open ended possibility. As time goes on and these windows narrow and/or close, flexibility is exchanged for ‘what works’ based on the nature and quality of early experiences.
Because all growth and development occurs in an interactional way, it is not possible to protect a developing infant from the consequences of extreme stress and trauma during the period of these growth windows EXCEPT to not allow the infant to be exposed to these experiences in the first place.
For those of you who detest the idea of playing a ‘blame game’, let me assure you that the consequences of keeping our heads buried in the ground of ignorance means that someone — meaning the victims of early neglect and maltreatment — will be paying the price of having an altered body and an altered life due to naturally occurring early developmental adjustments to exposure to a malevolent, hazardous and toxic world. I believe that as time goes on and as we begin to not only chew on but to digest the impact of trauma on developing people, we will find that about 85% of serious lifelong negative experiences in adulthood can be traced to adjustments bodies and brains were forced to make under stress of traumas experienced particularly up to the age of 2. That fact would lead us to the startling realization that much of adulthood negative experience could be entirely prevented with completely adequate early caregiving of infants and young toddlers.
The problem is complicated by the fact that approximately 45% of our current adult population was forced to make adaptations within their own inadequate or partially (and yet significantly) inadequate years of development themselves. That means these people often have no clue about what they missed because they don’t even know what they needed ‘back then’, and therefore cannot possibly know how to make it better for their own offspring.
It also means that trying to convince this 45% that there was and is a better way to build a human brain and body becomes an almost insurmountable task. Adequate parenting has far less to do with what we might intend than it does with what we actually do. Infants do not magically grow up and then receive the best human brain that our species’ advanced evolution might have to offer them. These advanced brains are consequences of the best early infant interactions caregivers can provide. And because we are a social species, the end product of our adult brain is formulated by our early social interactions.
To the extent and degree that ‘something is missing’ during these early growth windows of development, we are consequently ‘socially deprived.’ Believe me, when researchers translate their findings of any kind of animal research to the human realm, they are describing for us the possible (and probable) result of a range of isolation-based experiences and their resulting consequences. For the fullest possible range of advanced human brain potentials to be realized, early infant and toddler experiences must be of the highest quality, taking place in a dependably safe and secure setting. Anything less than this ideal will result in some form of genetic-memory alterations that are a depletion of the highest potential toward adaptation to life — in infancy and in the future — in a hostile world.
We can boil all of this down to the simplest of statements: Less-than-optimal infancy = less-than-optimal brain development in, by and for a less-than-optimal world = less-than-optimal adulthood.
Should all adults be equally free to tamper with the nitroglycerin-like explosive potential of genetic adaptations possible in our human gene pool? Right now, our society answers that question, “Yes.” At the same time we also say that we have no, or very little control over the societal ills of child abuse, domestic violence, rape, crime, addictions and the origination of a wide range of so-called mental illnesses.
Reproductive fitness indicators are NOT negative. They exist on continuums related to every single vital aspect of our species including such things as creative expression in dance, art, music, humor, verbal ability, memory, perseverance, focus, stamina, exploration — among all the others.
In my boiled down version of what ails adults I will simply state that all of the above merely represent degrees of well-being versus ill-being. All of the above are simply manifestations of how fit the world is and how fit we are to reproduce in it because all of the above are specifically linked to our species’ ‘reproductive fitness indicators’.
Early interactions with the environment from conception particularly to the age of 2, signal our entire genetic makeup to pick a direction of development based on incoming information. I see it no differently than if we were putting together a team to play a sport. Finding the best talent for one sport is different than finding the best talent for a completely different sport, but the choices still have to be made from a pool of available talent.
Each of us has a unique array of ‘reproductive fitness indicators”, but they are still linked to what is possible within our human gene pool. The problem comes when enough traumatic stress is applied during the developmental growth window for any one of our indicators so that indicator becomes a signal not of health and vital well-being for the member of the species in interaction with its environment, but becomes rather an indicator of reproductive unfitness in a less-than-optimal world.
All of our so-called ‘mental illness’ genetic and gene expression combinations seem to be directly linked in their origin to reproductive fitness indicators. Remember above when I mentioned that I believe 85% of our adult problems could be prevented if early experiences were optimal for optimal development of the individual before the age (at a minimum) of two? That would leave what I would guess is a 15% group that would end up with some kind of reproductive fitness indicator deficit no matter what the quality of early care would be. That is because we carry within our human genome a collection of fitness indicator genes that can appear and combine in such a way that results will never be optimal. That still seems to be a fact of life, though genetic research may well be able to mitigate those factors in the future.
We can celebrate the amazing potential adaptive abilities that exist for us as a species. At the same time we must realize that how we raise our offspring — in every way — affects how these abilities manifest and express themselves. We cannot bear and raise our offspring with impunity. The ability to flexibly adapt to our environment has always been our greatest asset. We need to understand what reproductive fitness indicators are and how they were influenced during the crucial stages of our development so that they reflect not only our individual fitness for reproduction, but also directly reflect the fitness of the environment we are bearing our young in.
We can ‘zoom in, zoom out’ all we want to as we consider these factors, but we cannot escape the fact that how a fetus, an infant, and a toddler is treated on all levels will affect the trajectory of their development with the end result that a deficit of care will reflect a deficit in development. The only way we can change our perspective is to admit to ourselves and accept the fact that if we allow deficits to occur in early development, we are perfectly willing to accept the lifelong negative consequences that originate as a result. We can never completely isolate ourselves from our species or from the total environment we all life in.
Your comments are welcome and appreciated. Post to be continued….
Tomorrow’s post on Social Isolation will be back to the tough, serious stuff of life… based on the following:
Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008 Aug;32(6):1087-102. Epub 2008 Mar 18.
Institute of Neuroscience, School of Biomedical Sciences, Medical School, Queen’s Medical Centre, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2UH, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org
Exposing mammals to early-life adverse events, including maternal separation or social isolation, profoundly affects brain development and adult behaviour and may contribute to the occurrence of psychiatric disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia in genetically predisposed humans. The molecular mechanisms underlying these environmentally induced developmental adaptations are unclear and best evaluated in animal paradigms with translational salience. Rearing rat pups from weaning in isolation, to prevent social contact with conspecifics, produces reproducible, long-term changes including; neophobia, impaired sensorimotor gating, aggression, cognitive rigidity, reduced prefrontal cortical volume and decreased cortical and hippocampal synaptic plasticity. These alterations are associated with hyperfunction of mesolimbic dopaminergic systems, enhanced presynaptic dopamine (DA) and serotonergic (5-HT) function in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), hypofunction of mesocortical DA and attenuated 5-HT function in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These behavioural, morphological and neurochemical abnormalities, as reviewed herein, strongly resemble core features of schizophrenia. Therefore unravelling the mechanisms that trigger these sequelae will improve our knowledge of the aetiology of neurodevelopmental psychiatric disorders, enable identification of longitudinal biomarkers of dysfunction and permit predictive screening for novel compounds with potential antipsychotic efficacy.