I intended today to write a post about dissociation when I went outside to sit with my morning cup of coffee. What greeted me there was a trauma-drama in full play, and not a pleasant one for me to watch. Yet I know that life, and nature itself shows us things that often allow our right brain to watch visually as drama and image at the same time our left brain is offered information to THINK about.
I am going to separate my two ‘streams of information’ this morning. This post is about how a severely abused and traumatized infant-toddler’s body-brain is forced to absorb information about the world, and about itself in the world in relation to its early attachment caregivers. The information I am going to present in my NEXT post will be the scientific, rational, logical and far more abstract information. We NEED this more technical information, but as survivors we will not be able to really understand it or make good practical use of the dry information that developmental neuroscientists provide for us if we cannot ASSOCIATE this information with our own ongoing experience.
People often use this term in the English language, “a game of cat and mouse.” What I watched this morning as one of my cats toyed with a furry little mouse could have looked like a game from her point of view. But what was this experience like for the little, tiny mouse? Its life was at stake, and there was anything BUT a game going on from its point of view.
Those of us who were raised especially by extremely hate-filled abusive and traumatizing mothers from the time of our birth were like this little mouse. Yet we were even more helpless against our giant predator. At least this mouse was fully developed and could use all its possible defense abilities – not that they would in the end be effective at allowing it to escape and go on living.
I knew how this ongoing drama would end. Yes, my cat WAS playing with her prey. She was fully focused and concentrated on her ‘game’. The mouse was fully focused on trying to avoid being killed. And there I was, the bystander at the same time I was the only hope that little mouse had for staying alive.
The mouse was quick, but the cat was quicker. Every time I tried to sidetrack the cat she out maneuvered me, grabbed her little ‘toy’ and ran off to continue her ‘hunt’ somewhere else. How could I help to give the mouse a chance to escape – to where? There’s nowhere in my yard that mouse would be safe and secure. There was no way I could catch the mouse and move it somewhere out of danger’s way, either.
There are a lot of mice here. Part of the reason why, I know, is because my east neighbor whose property I just fenced off from my yard visually, continues to heap all his garbage for a family of seven against that fence, thus encouraging rodents to multiply. Where there are rodents, there are rattlesnakes to eat them in this country. Elimination of mice is normally a good thing. I just didn’t want to WATCH the elimination happen. Not today. Not as I prepared to write a victimized-survivor post about dissociation!
But what I thought about as I continued to try to dissuade my cat from continuing her mission was how that little mouse, in the midst of the insecurity and lack of safety involved with its ongoing trauma, would NEVER do anything else but focus on its own survival.
These thoughts became entangled and intertwined with the technical information I was thinking about for my post on dissociation. Because my mother was a predator, and because I was just as much her ongoing prey as this mouse was to my cat, there was NEVER a time in my infant-toddler-childhood that I was assured of enough safety and security to do ANYTHING ELSE other than survive.
At the same time I was more powerless and helpless than a mouse is under the attack of a cat, my brain, my nervous system, my immune system, my entire being was growing and developing in interaction with the experiences I was having in my early environment. Nothing else but surviving the trauma of my mother’s attacks against me mattered. Never was there a TIME when trauma wasn’t immediately threatening and impending, happening in the present moment, or just having finished happening – so that it could happen again.
My childhood was spent in a state of heightened trauma alertness from the beginning of my life. As I watched my cat, she periodically caught the mouse in her mouth and carried him to another ‘play ground’ where she then let it go long enough that it could run a short distance and do what a little mouse will do: Hide itself in an area that it thinks MIGHT best conceal it.
Of course the cat knew exactly where the mouse went, and right where it was. She poked her paws into the spaces in the hiding places, batted the little creature, pushed and prodded it, and when it didn’t come out at a full run, she’s simply stick her head in, grab the mouse again, and move it on to another (to her) intriguing hiding playground. Of course the most obvious places for this game to go on were in amongst my flower beds, a process which of course would have eventually led not only to the death of the mouse but to the destruction of my much-loved plants!
Yes, watching my cat’s play-filled species determined extermination of this mouse was a trauma trigger for me. I could not help but try to intervene on behalf of the little one who was going to lose its life if I didn’t. I couldn’t catch my cat, so I sat out there for a long time chasing her away from the vicinity of the hidden prey. I opened the back door thinking she would eventually get bored with out-waiting me and venture into the house. Nope, that didn’t happen.
Instead, two of my other cats wandered out of the house. They could tell immediately that Goldilocks was after prey, and all I could think of was, “Oh great! There’s no way out of this. I’ll take some pictures and then exit the playground so I don’t have to watch what I know is unavoidably going to happen.”
So here are some pictures. It’s been about an hour since I stopped watching the trauma-drama outside my door. I just went outside again to see another one of my cats sitting under the Oleander bush satisfyingly smacking its lips and cleaning its jaw daintily with its paw. “Mouse gone. Game over.”
So, now in thinking about dissociation as the experts like to write about it, I have to say that nobody, absolutely nobody actually knows what dissociation is, what it does, what it feels like, how it operates, or where it came from like survivors do – particularly and especially those of us who endured and survived repeated, ongoing predatory attacks in our very early life of infancy and toddlerhood by our mothers.
If we then continued to endure trauma, abuse and attacks into and throughout our childhood, there is (in my thinking) no possible way that so-called dissociation did not build itself into our growing and developing body-brain.
I will never believe that dissociation is a so-called ‘defense mechanism’ for such survivors. Our dissociation is simply HOW our brain regions, circuitry and networks were forced to grow and develop.
The mouse I watched today was in an ongoing peritraumatic state which was broken up A LITTLE TINY BIT by the moments the cat allowed it to nestle within its hiding places. But these periodic reprieves from direct terror and assault were not enough to ever allow this mouse to go on about its life in anything like an ordinary (safe and secure) way.
Everything that mouse experienced both during direct assaults upon its life and during its reprieves, demanded that trauma-based body-brain operations continue to happen. Those experiences are completely different in the midst of trauma and its trauma-based allowances of semi-reprieve than are ongoing experiences where trauma is not present or immediately threatened. When any creature is forced to adapt to trauma environments during critical growth and developmental stages, both the experiences of trauma and reactions to it build themselves in. The trauma in effect ‘moves in to stay’.
What this means to an early abused and traumatized human is that the emerging self goes into and remains in hiding as surely as this mouse did. I don’t believe our parental-predators could ever reach our hidden self. Yes, they could reach our little bodies with the attack of their words and blows, but our inner own self remained protected simply because of the nature of being human.
Every single person is a separate, individual entity that can only be accessed from the inside. Even though everything that happens to us from the OUTSIDE profoundly affected our development, and could and did change the way our body that our self lives in, our self – its own self – remains ours and ours only.
The problem became one of us not being able to experience our self in our own life. Experts refer to alterations in memory capacities (which is what the next post is about). Dissociation means that we do not remember ourselves as being connected to our own ongoing experience in ordinary ways because our capacity to REMEMBER was affected PHYSIOLOGICALLY during our earliest development.
Enough said at the moment. As you look at the following pictures think of each one as representing an environmental context for ongoing moments of my cat’s life – but from the point of view of the mouse. No way was it important for the mouse (forget the cat here) to remember itself in one of these ‘pictures’ in any particular order. All the mouse could do was attempt to stay alive. The only way it could do that would be if it could find a safe enough place to hide and remain hidden.
Safe enough. That is what every living creature needs so it can continue to remain alive. But growing and developing a human body-brain as time moves on and the trauma continues means that the inner experience of being in the midst of trauma never leaves us. Trauma is not only what happened to us, but became how we grew a body-brain to remember ourselves with.