Perhaps investigating what a person of any age knows about CHOICE would be an extremely useful ‘diagnostic’ assessment tool for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). It might be that the most troublesome and toxic aspect of RAD is that the element of ‘ordinary’ abilities to choose, or to even really know what choice is, are missing. Looking back on my own life I could certainly say that this has been true for me.
My first encounter (believe it!) with a dawning conscious knowledge of CHOICE did not happen until after my 29th birthday. I had entered a 7-week in-patient treatment program for alcoholism (and drug use although in 1980 nobody would talk about the addictive nature of marijuana use).
The women-only program I attended in Minnesota was very thorough and very strict. There were clear rules with clear consequences if the rules were not followed. One day I CHOSE to break a rule, and here is where perhaps the most important lessons I learned in those seven weeks began (I see as I look back).
I knew virtually NOTHING about myself. I mean this literally: I knew virtually nothing about my SELF. I didn’t even know what a self was. I didn’t know a lot of things.
This program was housed in one of the many buildings that were part of a very large brick complex that used to be a ‘mental institution’. All these many buildings were connected by a vast underground network of spooky long narrow tunnels.
I had been created through 18 long years of severe abuse from my mother to be someone designed to do my best to BE GOOD and to please others. These patterns were so built into me they were both instinctive and reactive. On this mid-November day, however, my reactivity took me outside the bounds of ‘behaving’.
I didn’t know I was missing social right-brain interaction abilities due to terrible unsafe and insecure attachment relationships when this part of my brain was forming birth to age one. I COULD NOT bond with peers in anything like a ‘normal’ way. I didn’t know what a want was, what a need was, and I certainly did not have the awareness that it was possible to ponder decisions, to weigh outcomes, and to make choices. Therefore, I had no ability to take responsibility for choices that I made.
On this day I did make a choice — which of course I was confronted with by my therapist later.
On this day I broke away from ‘the group’ which was against the rules and CHOSE to walk to lunch alone and above ground in the brisk, open fresh air. I hated the tunnels! They were scary for many reasons. I did not like being enclosed as part of a group in the first place. I did not like being confined within dimly lit mazes of tunnels. After my experience with the 3-minute long 9.2 Alaskan earthquake when I was 12, I sure didn’t like being underground!
My therapist confronted me with the choice I had made – and this was the first time this word – CHOICE – entered my conscious awareness. I had absolutely NO IDEA what she was talking about!! None! It took several intense sessions with my therapist about my infraction before I could begin to understand (1) what a choice even WAS, and (2) that I had made one.
EVERYTHING I had done in my life up until this confrontation had been – yes – an action I had taken, but never had I recognized this fact. In my universe as a severely abused child and as an adult survivor everything I had done was an instinctive REACTION to the conditions within which I lived.
Yes, looking back of course I had made ‘choices’ of some kind all of my life. Every crayon I had picked out as a child to add to every picture I ever drew involved a choice. But did I really have the ability to CHOOSE if I didn’t even know what the concept involved?
I again refer readers to this most important information:
The human higher cortex planning and decision-making region of an abused, neglected and traumatized infant-child is most likely NOT ABLE TO form in a ‘normal’ way.
As you read Teicher’s article notice where he mentions that ‘our’ brains never finish forming this most important part of our brain. Rather, it ‘atrophies early’. This is a tragedy beyond description – and Teicher’s description warrants some serious considerations.
At the end of this article as Teicher describes a survivor’s ‘evolutionarily altered brain’ – and writes about how people built in, by, and for a malevolent world never adapt completely to a benevolent world once they are ‘free’ from their early traumatic environment — part of what he is describing involves the diminishment of our ability to make informed choice.
BUT WAIT A MINUTE HERE!
As one of these survivors I do have another take on this ‘informed choice’ thing. Looking at it this way — IN-FORMED — I understand that the way I way I make choices is DIFFERENT from ‘normal’, as are the TIMES I make decisions, what I make decisions about, the kinds of choices I make….
To me, “in-formed” means that what I do mostly when I make choices – even the rapid-fire reactionary ones — is use in-formation of which I am in-formed WITHIN MY BODY-SELF. The form (formation) of my choices comes MOSTLY through my right brain. Part of how I know this is because researchers describe how ALL the important information we receive from our BODY comes to us through our right brain.
Being a ‘reactionary’ I know that my choices and decisions will most often be in response to stimulations/challenges in my environment that I detect and ‘act’ upon from my body first – instinctively, RAPIDLY and automatically. It is my job to become as aware as I can be about when these rapid ‘un-conscious’ choices are being made — and here is a clincher.
Am I ONLY making a choice if I take action in the slower fashion that runs the whole process of deliberation-before-action through my higher cortex (trauma-altered as it is)? Am I actually making a decision if what I do has run through my BODY so fast I am ‘reacting’ without conscious awareness?
Because I now know I have a differently-formed brain all the way around because of early severe trauma – which certainly includes my higher cortex — I HAVE to understand that what ‘ordinary’ people know about CHOICE is NOT what I have known, do know, or will EVER KNOW!
In other words, as with so many other aspects of being a trauma changed person, I have to attempt to TRANSLATE what well-intended people say about choice and choice making.
I have to translate what they say about determining consequences BEFORE HAND in order to make ‘informed’ decisions and choices. (What’s known as the ability for ‘future thought’ happens best in a well-formed, non-traumatized higher cortex.)
My way of being in the world — as I use the ‘in formed’ method of gathering information from my hyper-survival prepared body-self means that I know ALL KINDS of things — very very quickly — I am a supersized detection wizard!
Every single reaction I had for the first 18 years of my life kept me alive. That these patterns were built into me deeply and thoroughly enough to BE — not WHO I am in the world but HOW I am in the world — is a critically important fact I need to understand.
When it comes to translation of information back and forth between survivors and ‘the rest of the world’, we also have to understand that only early-in-life severely traumatized survivors will know what we know.
We therefore are in danger of sabotaging our self if we denigrate and demean what we know because what we know, how we know it and how we ACT based on all of this is different from normal. Nobody is WRONG here! We are DIFFERENT!
Again, as I have said many times before on this blog, researchers like Dr. Teicher can describe the technical aspects of how trauma changed us. But they do NOT describe what it is actually like for survivors to be alive in the world living WITH these changes.
As we hone our abilities to KNOW what we know as survivors we will at the same time actually be coming up with our own language, our own vocabulary of terms and words that DO HAVE TO BE TRANSLATED by someone who has not been trauma-changed if they truly care enough to wish to know HOW we are in the world.
My 1980 therapist gave me my boost up onto the steed of learning-about-myself-in the world. That was over half my lifetime ago. I am very much still learning — but like being blindfolded, turned in circles and being left in the dark to pin a tail on a paper donkey or hit a wildly moving pinata target — somebody has to point us in the right direction.
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