If I try to look at myself objectively I would wonder that I refer to my mother as having been mentally ill but I do not consider myself mentally ill. I would ask myself what criteria do I use and apply to myself that is different from the criteria I use in my thinking about my mother?
There seems to be a level of desription regarding the operation of a person’s brain-mind and nervous system that means to outsiders that mental illness is present. With today’s advances in brain imaging techniques I believe that if our culture wanted to, we could actually see in actual brain operating pictures the distinction that I evidently make about mental illnesses within my own mind.
I can visualize my thinking about mental health and mental illness in terms of a growing tree with branches that relate to my descriptive categories. Once a person is set off onto one of the branches related to these categories, they can never ‘jump branches’ by changing the basic origination point that leads into development along one of these branches. What is done or happens to a person before the age of two is the determining factor and cannot be changed.
It is important to realize that there is a fifth branch that I can visualize on this tree. It is actually the one that grows straight up to the sky without deviation or interruption. It relates to people who are optimally designed and who were raised from conception in a ‘good enough’ optimal caregiving environment. These people’s bodies and brains were not forced to change their development in adaptation to malevolency within the world. I only talk about these securely attached individuals in this writing as comparison points for how the rest of us ended up having to develop in one of these other four directions.
In the process of my own writing I have determined that there are four main levels leading to four different branches of this imaginary tree. They result from brain-mind-body changes that lead, in my thinking, off in one of these differing directions. Each of these categories, or types of mental illness that I recognize stem from altered brain development. I can understand that some mental illness occurs strictly through extreme genetic combinations that existed from conception and would have manifested as mental illness no matter how well a person had been cared from during their early lives. I include within this category serious changes that occur prior to birth or at birth through severe traumas to the fetus or infant that can also completely change the way a person develops. Obviously and fortunately I don’t fit this category and did not have to develop along the lines of this branch.
Now I will describe other three categories that do apply to my life personally. I also believe that in the future medical experts, including those working in the mental health fields, will recognize the accuracy of what I understand about these categories. At this point in time I believe that an understanding of which branch we grew into, which one our parents grew into, which ones our siblings grew into, etc. will help us determine what realistic changes for the better we can expect in our lives.
My personal understanding is that for any one of us that grew and developed in some form of a malevolent world during our early years were forced to adapt in some way that has placed us on one of these four ‘deviating’ limbs. We therefore experience some form of very real disability in comparison to the securely attached who grew up without severe harmful influence and who were not forced to adapt to a harmful environment.
The other three branches I am going to describe all entail the presence of some form of insecure attachment disorder. I agree with Dr. Allan Schore that every insecure attachment pattern results in some form of an empathy disorder. The toxic, malevolent, unsafe and insecure experiences we had as we developed created the breach in our ability to form secure attachments in the first place. Changes an individual was forced to make physiologically in our bodies and brains as we adapted in our development is what sends us off into one of these other three branch directions.
If we are of the luckier ones, we ONLY had to develop an insecure attachment. These manifest as what experts call dismissive-avoidant or ambivalent-preoccupied insecure attachment patterns. The FACT is that these patterns are built into the operation of the body, brain, mind and nervous system of the individual who has them.
These people have been forced to develop along an alternative branch of the tree, but do not usually end up with what we, as a society, would term a mental illness. They will, however, experience life differently than a securely attached person will, and are at risk for all kinds of ‘social’ disabilities due to the fact that their early forming social emotional brain development has been effected. They are ‘wired’ for insecure attachments.
It is here in my description of the next two branches of the tree that I deviate from the commonly accepted ideas about mental illness. Early development within an environment of severe trauma so often leads in the direction of the development of some form of ‘mental illness’ that it would be the rare, rare event to find an exception where this does not happen. Current thinking on ‘mental illness’ would therefore demand that we accept what I describe as two separate branches as being only one single large branch. Along this single branch are placed all currently used mental illness diagnostic categories.
As we become very clear regarding the facts, we will know that what creates this branch in the first place is exposure to severe traumas during early development in an environment that does not contain enough available resources to prevent serious adjustments within the infant and young child from having to be made. Once we leave our magical wishful thinking behind about the causes of so-called mental illnesses, we will see that disorganized and disoriented insecure attachment from birth (or before) create the deviation point from which what see as two separate branches originate.
I am forced to use currently accepted thinking and terminology to describe what happens from that origination point on our visualized tree. But I believe that the two branches result from very different and distinct adaptations to trauma and into some version of what we currently consider to be mental illness. While we might magically wish that these two branches are the same, I do not believe that they are.
In my own world of ‘fact’, I know these branches are different from my own experience. My mother was forced to grow along one of these two branches while I was forced to grow along the other one. While personal knowledge is not the stuff science is based on, it can still inform our individual and collective thinking. Larger changes may well come from the bottom-up, grass root, experience based real world knowledge that those of us who have experienced and survived severe abuse from birth have within us. It is from this base that I describe the differences that exist between these last two branches as they originated from adaptations within early malevolent environments.
Do not get me wrong here. Any consideration of mental illness, either as it might currently be accepted as occurring on one single branch, or as might exist in two separate categories on two separate branches, still means that a person’s brain, mind and body has been devastatingly altered during early development. The distinction matters to me because it influences the ability to live with the resulting dis-order and helps our efforts to heal be more effective.
Of all the varying cultural and religious belief structures that exist on our planet, I am going to pick only one to illustrate my point here. In fact, I am only going to pick one sentence from one of these belief structures. I encourage anyone who cannot relate to this one sentence because of its origins to please find a related, similar thought within your own belief structure that will allow you to understand what I am trying to say here.
This one sentence is, I believe, a statement about our species’ condition that can be understood through any spiritual belief system, certainly not only from a Christian point of view. It belongs to the final “Last Seven Words” that Jesus Christ uttered from the cross of crucifixion.
Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).
I cannot personally find it within myself to argue with these few simple words. Nor can I really understand what they mean. All I know is that situations exist between people on this planet that often come back to this fundamental concept of forgiveness.
I will never argue about religion, nor will I ever defend my own beliefs whatever they might be (and many might say they are eclectic). But I will say that every time the topic of forgiveness arises in relation to my experience of 18 years of nearly constant, terrible insane abuse heaped upon me by my mother, my thoughts always return to the above 10 words. By doing I pass the issue of forgiveness on up the ladder in an understanding that it originates from and in my case belongs to Powers much greater than me.
I introduce the concept of forgiveness here before I describe the two branches of mental illness because believe forgiveness is ultimately about accountability and responsibility. One of the two branches I do hold both accountable and responsible for their actions and the other I do not. I belong to the first branch while I believe my mother belongs to the second.
As I have already mentioned in other posts I am ‘diagnosed’, through the current existing mental health system’s structure, as ‘having’ posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder including severe recurring depression, and dissociative disorder. Within a more enlightened system I would also be described as ‘having’ a severe disoriented-disorganized insecure attachment disorder, if not an adult version of the childhood version of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). In the MOST enlightened system I would be considered to have logical physiological changes caused by adaptations that had to be made in order for me to survive in a devastatingly hostile world.
My mother was never formally recognized by anyone as having severe mental illness, so any attempt to ‘diagnose’ her happens in retrospect as a ‘best guess’. She appears obviously to have suffered from a psychotic break, from serious Borderline Personality Disorder, and probably had some Bi-Polar characteristics, as well.
What do I see as the main difference between the two of us, and why would I describe myself as being on one branch of mental illness and place her on an entirely different one? What do I use as the final determining factor for the difference between us?
Returning to the originating point of both of these two branches in their common source of developmental adaptation to a malevolent early environment, and to my description of disorganized-disoriented insecure attachment disorder, I can say that both of us have the same roots to our mental illnesses in the same kind of brain operation: DISSOCIATION.
The distinction I make between the two branches and the mental illnesses that are found on each one, is that in some forms of mental illness such a dissociative break occurred during their development that the survivor has had the ability to connect to their self removed.
Continued survival necessitated that this break occur to prevent the overwhelming nature of their exposure to trauma, as experienced by a self in connection to a mind overcome by that trauma, to continue their lives hopefully without destroying their bodies. As we know, this break is not a guarantee to continued life in a physical body because some still succumb to self destruction.
This fundamental dissociative break between the experience of ongoing life and the self results in brain and body changes that protect life itself at the same time the more advanced and developed abilities to experience consciousness are interfered with. As a consequence these people lack real self reflective abilities, do not appear with what all the rest of us would consider a conscience, and have had the exercise of free will and choice based on self consciousness removed from them. Theirs is a different, and often dangerous, version of reality.
Those of us that do not have the genetic potential to take this detour during our developments that results in a single, profound and fundamental dissociative break in our connection to self — the operation of self and a connection to self being the result a very real (and visible through advanced brain imaging techniques) physiological brain operation — develop along what I see as the other branch.
Both branches, again, involve dissociational patterns as they occur in the brain’s function. Those of us that I would place on this branch I see myself on as different from the one I see my mother as being on, have NOT suffered a fundamental break that prevents us from having access to our self. Having some access to our self is still in the operational loops within our brains (most of the time) while theirs is not ALL of the time.
What do I mean by ‘most of the time’? It is the nature of dissociation when and as it occurs to create some kind of breach between the ongoing experience of being alive in a body and the self. For some, I believe, the dissociative breach happened once and for all and can only be said to be ‘a pattern of one’.
For the rest of us, dissociation can happen thousands and thousands of times throughout our life time, caused by exposure to a million trauma triggers. In between these triggered reactions those of us on this different branch can access some version of a connection to some version of our self while the others cannot.
A very graphic, though not disgustingly bloody, image just popped into my awareness as I finished writing my last sentence. I see those on the one branch where I would place my mother as having a head completely severed from their body. This head hovers closely above the body and follows where it goes but there is no connection between the two. Those of us on the other branch have a head that is partially severed by that is connected through the equivalent of vital main arteries and nerves. Strange image, I know…..
If I go outside to start my car and find the battery is dead, it does me no good at all to forgive my car’s battery for failing me and for making my life more difficult. I think about my own abuse history and my mother in the same kind of factual way I would think about a dead battery. No amount of magical wishful thinking involving denial or forgiveness is going to get my car started. Neither do I see that it applies to my thinking about my mother. If an individual is forced through conditions of early trauma to severe their connection to self they are just as cut off from their power source of consciousness as my car would be from the power of a working battery.
By thinking in terms of this tree, and by identifying how a person ends up on one branch or another, we can begin to separate out what really is the magical wishful thinking process of denial from the more helpful process of learning new facts about how our brains develop. Brains CAN and DO develop in such a way that the more advanced abilities related to having a self and an operational connection to this self are left out of the picture.
It might seem like an odd assessment to make, but I consider that the term and topic of ‘forgiveness’ is often tangled up with magical wishful thinking that is actually a denial of the facts regarding the risks and consequences of severe maltreatment as it affects human development.
I have no desire to protect my mother, excuse or justify her horribly abusive behavior toward me. I equally have no desire to forgive her. I see both my mother and her behavior in the light of fact, not magical wishful thinking that leads to denial. I think we have to be very careful in our thinking about forgiveness because of the risk we take in involving forgiveness with our denial of the very real physiological causes and consequences of severe maltreatment during early brain formation stages.
As long as we keep forgiveness tangled up with our denial of the facts, we will never truly find ways to heal the very real damage done to our perpetrators, to ourselves and being done to others on an ongoing basis. If we continue to apply magical wishful thinking to the real conditions of our existence, we will be at the same time also denying that we have a very REAL problem that has very REAL solutions — a problem caused by factual conditions that we can factually address, heal and resolve.
This is, to me, simply a helpful clarification process. It is a form of inventory taking that can help us identify both our possession of specific resources and our lack of resources.
I aim for realistic rather than wishful thinking. As children, we all moved through a Theory of Mind developmental stage during which we processed, incorporated, and integrated outsiders’ thinking into our own brain-mind. It can feel uncomfortable to have our final thinking structure ‘threatened’ by the introduction of thoughts that do not seem to match the Theory of Mind that we came up with.
Our individual and collective cultural Theory of Mind is always open to learning, growth and change if we are flexible and wise enough to let this happen. This growth requires of all of us that we allow new information to enter our thinking process, and as we do so we change who and how we are in the world. I see this as nothing more than a ‘reality checking’ process that allows us to continue to move past the childhood stage of ‘magical wishful thinking’ in some new way every day of our lives.
I believe that as we do this ‘work’ we can — individually and collectively –push ourselves further and further away from the EVENT HORIZON of trauma and the effects traumas have upon us throughout our adult lives. The literal meaning of an event horizon has to do with what happens near a Black Hole in space.
we read: “In general relativity, an event horizon is a boundary in spacetime, most often an area surrounding a black hole, beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. Light emitted from beyond the horizon can never reach the observer, and anything that passes through the horizon from the observer’s side appears to freeze in place, with its image becoming more redshifted as time proceeds.”
I believe that this image applies to our work related to healing trauma. I believe that degrees of childhood magical wishful thinking that remain within our individual and collective Theory of Mind constructions put us at increasing risk for being sucked into the hole trauma can create in the fabric of a good life filled with well being. The good news is that we can always learn more about what is real in the world, and each time we do learning, we are replacing an immature magical wishful thought with some new fact. Facts are based in the real world as best we can understand it. Continuing to grow our Theory of Mind as it informs our actions is what I think healing is all about.
How do we know what magical wishful thinking is? I see the image of my son when he was three to four years old as he ‘plays’ with my well used tall metal kitchen stool laid down on the floor. His favorite ‘game’ for many moths was to sit on the floor inside it with his legs straight out in front of him between the stool’s supporting cross pieces. His hands were constantly moving around the top round seat piece ‘as if’ it were a space ship’s steering mechanism he had to use to maneuver himself through all of his ‘imaginary’ spaceship adventures.
When adults see young children engaged in this kind of ‘play’ we know that what is happening within the child’s mind is very different than what is happening inside our own as we watch. If we try to tell the child that their world is ‘not real’ they will look at us blankly, walk away and do something else because we have ruined their experience, or simply ignore us and go on with their game. We cannot, at this stage of their development, actually change the way their mind is perceiving their world, though how we interact with them does influence the growth process they are involved in.
The fact that the old metal kitchen stool was not a spaceship meant absolutely nothing to my son. In fact, my true concern eventually had nothing to do with his mental state. I became, as the months went by and his body continued to grow larger, became worried about his body. And I was right to worry. There DID come a day when he wedged himself so tightly into position within the legs and cross pieces of that stool that he couldn’t get out. I couldn’t get him out, either.
He started screaming in panic and terror. It would not have been helpful for me to become involved in my son’s magical thinking world, even if I could have. I needed to be in the real world of fact so I could effect a solution to this very real problem. I left his older sister beside him on the floor while I ran for the apartment manager to help us. It was only through a process of him using a crow bar and force to bend the legs of the stool that we were able to extricate my son from in between the steel pieces. Obviously, that ‘game’ was over.
It had not mattered before that time what I said to my son regarding my concerns. He had to really learn the facts by getting himself so stuck within the stool that he needed serious help to get out that he was forced to finally leave behind his much loved child’s game. Before that time arrived he was not only perfectly capable of retaining his state of magical wishful thinking, but self determined to do so.
How, when, where and to what degree were we able to pass through our own Theory of Mind developmental stages so that we left some part of our magical wishful thinking behind us? How willing are we to continue in our adulthood to exercise our brain’s infinite abilities to learn, grow and change?
Nobody is going to magically appear and sweep us away from the dangers of the event horizon of ongoing effects from trauma, no matter how much we might wish that they would do so. This is something that we all must do together. Learning the actual facts about how trauma changed our bodies and our brain-minds during development in malevolent conditions can lead us to new facts, and is it not the truth what will actually set us free?
As long as we continue to keep magical wishful thinking a part of our Theory of Mind related to the causes and consequences of severe early abuse during developmental stages, we are NOT going to find the very real facts we need in order to prevent this disaster from occurring in the first place, or to find realistic hopes for healing once it has occurred.