Dear Dr. Dacher Keltner,
I have committed myself to the search for understanding about what goes so terribly wrong in early infant-child development in an environment of deprivation-trauma that can make someone like my mother end up being an extremely violent and abusive mother. I suffered from her malevolent treatment from my birth until I left home at 18, and I suffered Trauma Altered Development as a result. My mother completely lacked the ability to experience compassion.
I have read the work of Doctors Damasio, Schore, Siegel, Perry, Scaer, Allen, LeDoux and others but only discovered your work yesterday as I searched for the connections that might give credence to my thoughts about both the experience of being a survivor of severe abuse from birth and about the experience that leads some parents to be so absolutely abusive.
I discovered the work of Dr. Martin Teicher and ‘the Harvard Research Group’ several years ago as these researchers describe the ‘evolutionarily altered brain’ that severe infant-child abuse survivors end up with due to what I call the Trauma Altered Development that they experienced during their critical window periods of early development.
I have never believed that these trauma alterations exist solely within the brain. I believe every aspect of a young survivor’s body is changed, and I believe that these changes, including and especially the epigenetic ones, happen as a result of signaling from the immune system.
I believe that most of what we label (and stigmatize) as mental and behavioral ‘dysfunction’ and ‘disorder’ can be more accurately and helpfully understood in terms of the Trauma Altered Development that severely abused infant-children must undergo during their development in order to survive it. I believe the underlying mechanisms (including the opioid and cannabinoid systems) are all affected through deviations away from safe and secure attachment.
The Center for Disease Control is finally releasing statistics about the devastating lifelong consequences of infant-child abuse survivorship. I believe that our systems that ‘treat’ lack of well-being among all age groups need to first assess an individual’s level of deprivation-trauma during early development through tools similar to the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) questionnaires the CDC is using, along with an assessment of safe and secure attachment (or the opposite) of everyone before anything like a ‘diagnosis’ of a ‘mental’ or ‘behavioral’ condition is given.
I am a 58 year old severe infant-child abuse survivor. My body has within it a long and nearly unbelievable history of trauma from birth. This information informs my work and my thinking, but I must be able to connect what I know from my insides with what research is showing as a whole. Discovering your work yesterday let me know I am thinking in the right direction.
I am asking for any help in locating resources about the vagus nerve-immune system connection as it relates to the very earliest signaling within a deprivation-traumatized developing infant-child that sets into motion the cascade of evolutionary alterations within a survivor’s body. I believe that in many if not most cases of severe child abuse the perpetrator’s early development was changed within an early malevolent environment in such a way that the ability to experience compassion was erased from their range of response options.
Since the beginning five years ago of my attempt to understand what happened to my mother to turn her into a psychotic, violent, dangerous Borderline (and what happened to me as a consequence of the abuse I suffered from her), I have searched for what I call ‘informed compassion’. I work continually on my blog, Stop the Storm, to present my ongoing ideas in order to perhaps help others who have experienced the level of abuse that I did.
We were forced to become evolutionarily altered beings in order to survive our infant-childhoods, and while I can find in the developmental neuroscience literature many descriptions of how we are changed, I find nothing that specifically talks about how we experience ourselves in our body-brain-mind-self as BEING these trauma-changed people and what this means to the WHOLE of who we are.
What you write about is what we need to know to help us live good lives to the best of our ability in spite of the trauma changes we experienced in our early development that makes us into a different kind of human being. The response of our immune system, through signaling from our vagus nerve ‘system’ in a malevolent unsafe and secure early environment, gave us what we needed to reach our adulthood. But we suffer. We continue to suffer – and that needs to change.
Being stigmatized, labeled, diagnosed and given drugs is not our best solution! I believe that we are alive because of the incredible human capacity for resiliency that allowed us to so adapt to our intolerable early malevolent world that we made it out alive. But we did so by paying a price.
We need to lessen the cost of remaining alive. Severe infant-childhood abuse survivors with Trauma Altered Development (as the CDC research is showing) fill our prisons, our homeless shelters, our domestic abuse centers, our poverty ranks, our hospitals and our cemeteries. The unresolved trauma that we experience is most likely to be transmitted down the generations to and through our offspring.
We have a right to know the truth about what happened to us, how and why. If, as I believe, our vagus nerve-immune system response to early trauma in unsafe and insecure early attachment environments told our body that we had to change in order to survive in a completely malevolent world – we need to know this and no longer be told that we are ‘maladapted’, ‘maladjusted’, ‘dysfunctional’, ‘disordered’, ‘diseased’, ‘sick’, ‘mentally ill’, ‘genetically faulty’, ‘flawed’ and ‘inadequate’ human beings.
We have a right to be joined in our recognition of the gift of resiliency that the human body has retained to survive in harsh and malevolent environments and in our celebration of survivorship. We also need help in understanding what REALLY happened to us – what that means – and how we can truly improve our lives.
If there is anyone in the great academic institution of which you are a part that might be willing to assist me in my work I would be extremely grateful. I am in ‘a think tank of one’ over here!
I believe your work is at the connecting point of where unsafe and insecure attachment interacts with an infant-child’s immune system-vagus nerve that causes early trauma adaptations to occur. I ordered your book today and enthusiastically await its arrival.
I thank you for reading my letter and for any assistance you might be able to offer me in my work.
Linda A. Danielson
DR. KELTNER’S BOOK:
43 min – Feb 5, 2009
Why have we evolved positive emotions like gratitude, amusement, awe and compassion?
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