Angel chapter 24
XXIV. One mind in two bodies
Is there an antithesis to shame? I have never yet written about shame in Mother or directly about how her broken shame hurt me. The topic of shame is too important for me to butcher it with my ignorance about its true nature and purpose. It is also too central to life to ignore.
Developmental neuroscientists are the people who have given us the starter kit we need to have in order to even begin to use the word shame correctly because humans are not born with the physiological capacity to experience it. As we grow from conception to age one we form the required body, nervous system and brain patterns, circuits and pathways as physiological channels that we need to have built within us before shame can come online within a human being.
In the same way that our empathy abilities are directly tied in their development to the way our earliest caregivers interact with us, so also are our shame abilities. I am not even sure it is possible to think about shame without also thinking about empathy as they share much of the same physiological structures.
In the absence of “good enough” earliest infant-caregiver interactions – most centrally between an infant and its mother – faulty patterns created by unsafe and insecure attachment will change the development of our shame abilities just as they change the development and operation of empathy. If approximately half of our population leaves their first year of life with some degree of insecure attachment disorder built into their body-brain, this means to me that this same group of little people also have both an empathy and a shame disorder to one degree or another. These two disordered patterns within the body-brain are directly connected to one another in the way our body-brain was built in the first place through our unsafe and insecure inadequate earliest attachment relationships.
Both the empathy and shame patterns within our earliest caregivers impacted how our self developed, how we relate to our own self and how we relate to other people and to the world we live in. Both empathy and shame are words that can only be fully and accurately understood when the processes these words represent are grounded in an understanding of their physiological operations within us as they govern our empathy and shame abilities.
Most simply put, shame abilities have been built into an infant’s body-brain by the time the infant can release itself from very close physical nearness to its caregiver. As an infant begins to travel into the bigger world on its own away from its attachment person to explore with excitement all the possibilities it can now discover on its own, the biologically driven attachment it has with its caregiver will come into play in new, expanded ways. A safely and securely attached infant will be able to govern its actions in response to communication signals it receives from its caregiver who tells the infant through facial expressions, tones of voice and through actions if what the infant is doing is safe = OK or unsafe = not OK.
Because the thrill of exploration in a naturally interested, curious, exuberant young infant-toddler has no brakes of its own, it is through high quality attachment patterns of communication long since developed between the infant and caregiver that regulate the infant’s actions and reactions. Patterns of “rupture” and “repair” help the young one come to understand what is safe and what is not safe as it moves out into the world within a social environment.
A smile with warm words of affirmation from a caregiver encourage further movement in a given direction. A frown accompanied by a quality of words from the caregiver that do not encourage the infant to pursue its current explorations tell the infant to STOP. These patterns rely upon nervous system (calm-stress response system) and brain development at the same time they further build these systems within the growing infant-toddler.
In a little person who has safe and secure attachment built into its body-brain, the STOP signals it receives from its caregivers create an instantaneous degree of rupture, or CRASH in its ongoing experience. This is normal and reflects the biological shame reaction. It is up to the caregiver to repair this shame/rupture/STOP reaction appropriately through warm, loving, firm and clear responses to the infant-toddler so that based on this repair in the ongoing relationship between the infant and its caregiver the little person can GO on again into its safe and secure interactions between self and the world. If the young one experiences distress during its explorations it can also trust that its caregiver will be there to help repair whatever conditions have caused this rupture.
This process is not unlike learning to drive a car. The infant begins to move itself around in the bigger world being completely blind. It must rely on the insights provided to it by its caregiver through the patterns of attachment to find its way around safely. It is not, however, merely our physical safety that mattered to us when we were so new and small.
Because we are members of a social species we are designed to operate both in a physical world and within a social-emotional world filled with other people. Healthy safe and secure early attachment experiences accomplish ongoing safe and secure internal relationships with self, with others and with all aspects of being a self in relationship with the world in general. These patterns build our body-brain and build themselves into us before we are two years old.
It is far beyond the scope of this book to present the kind of detailed information needed to understand how all these attachment-related processes work to build our body-brain in the first place. A reading list on this topic is included in the back of this book for readers who would like to explore more accurate ways to think about humans in the world. We are all living in a new era in which the scientific facts about how the most important aspects of being human are designed and built in response to our earliest attachment experiences on all levels of our physiological development are being discovered. HOW we are WHO we are as a self in a body is fundamentally shaped by the patterns within our first relationships. Nobody escapes the impact of these forces.
On the personal level of my writing about my abusive mother and myself, I am left trying to disentangle Mildred’s completely broken shame system from how I was forced to experience HER broken shame. This is an entirely new area of exploration for me. Because I use the word “shame” as carefully as I use the word “evil” I find myself slowing down to a crawl in my thinking. I have to take apart the pieces of the picture I have in my mind formed by what I think I know about Mildred so that I will be able to reform a new picture based on what I might learn about how Mildred’s broken shame system operated as it hurt me.
Mildred’s psychotic break happened inside her mind as her mind manifested the operation of her brain and nervous system. It is through my poetic metaphor that I can say Mildred’s mind split in two as it created two entirely separate conflicting realities for her. From the instant her psychotic break established her all-good and her all-bad worlds, every aspect of her experience was then correspondingly filtered, sorted, sifted and assigned to one of these worlds or to the other one. These processes took place in Mildred’s physiology completely outside the reach of her conscious awareness or conscious control.
Words are poetic metaphors that point to what we believe they signify. Can a mind that has broken in two then break words – that we usually think of as representing a one unbreakable concept – in two, as well?
Certainly the minds of people suffering from the mental illness of Borderline Personality Disorder are known to struggle with ambiguity and paradox. Certainly these minds seem to utilize alternative pathways in the brain to process how polar extremes relate to one another – or don’t. I provided my metaphoric description of how I think my mother’s brain-mind broke and reformed itself in my book, Story Without Words. Her psychotic break cemented together the widest possible array of opposites into a matrix mind that no longer had to put forth any effort to decide what belonged where. One half of her matrix mind held all that was blamelessly perfect while the other half held the opposite.
At this point I am beginning to examine (metaphoric) particles that are far too small to see with any ordinary tools we may have to study the human mind. Just as we know now that an atom can be split apart, we can also know that a psychotic Borderline Personality Disorder mind can break apart words and the concepts they point to – that we ordinarily think of as being impossible to break.
The two most significant words that I can identify as having been broken when Mother’s mind broke are HOPE and SHAME. In ordinary minds broken hope becomes hopeless and broken shame becomes shameless. In both of these cases the relationship of one polar opposite to the other one is preserved through the root word held in common as they relate to both ends of the spectrum involved. This only works, however, if the main reference word has remained intact within a person’s mind. As I see it, Mildred’s mind broke apart within the main word HOPE and within the main word SHAME.
An ordinary mind is not capable of breaking these two words apart. A Borderline Personality Disorder psychotic mind is.
I do not see this to be any kind of “chicken before the egg before the chicken” kind of circular paradoxical reality. Because both hope and shame stem from physiological operations in the body-brain that were formed during very early rapid developmental stages through the quality of infant-caregiver interactions, it was the actual breakage of physiological “connections” that govern the operation of hope and shame in Mildred’s young body that eventually manifested in the psychotic breaking of her mind.
I am not likely to find myself participating in easy verbal banter with anyone else about the experience of being born to and raised for 18 years by a severely abusive psychotic Borderline Personality Disorder mother. I am left alone with my own metaphoric thinking processes to try to find words I can use to describe what happened to Mother to cause what happened to me.
The process of nuclear fission splits the nucleus of an atom thus releasing massive amounts of energy as two nuclei are created: One becomes two. When Mildred’s psychotic break happened her one mind split into two minds. She identified herself with the all-good part (nuclei) and me with the all-bad part (nuclei). She had no way to know anything about this split (or about a smaller third one that was created in her mind when she gave birth to my sister, Mildred’s “God’s child.”).
What triggered my diversion into this topic at this point in my writing was the appearance of the world “only” in Mother’s letters in the previous chapter. As I finished that chapter I was faced with my own inability to understand the significance of the appearance of that word as I know she used it repeatedly in her writings. I was not satisfied with my lack of clarity and decided to turn toward an exploration of that word.
Webster’s online dictionary gives straightforward meaning to this word:
1: unquestionably the best : peerless
2a : alone in a class or category : sole <the only one left> <the only known species> b : having no brother or sister <an only child>
3: few <one of the only areas not yet explored>
Origin of ONLY
Middle English, from Old English ānlīc, from ān one — more at one
First Known Use: before 12th century
The word “one,” whose first known use was before 12th century, is directly implicated in my current study. Its origin can be traced to a relationship with the Sanskrit word, eka. This is where I needed my thinking to take me so that I am again in verbally familiar territory so that I can reassemble my picture of Mother.
One person, a mother, becomes two people, a mother and her infant. It is evident to me that much went terribly wrong for Mother from that point forward ending in the disastrous breaking of her one mind into two minds during her birthing of me. In Mother’s mental illness goodness could ONLY exist if BADNESS did not exist in the same place at the same time.
The splitting of her mind simply created a place ONLY for goodness in the “place” of Mildred’s body as it created a place ONLY for badness in the “place” of my body.
It was within this malevolently-based universe that I resided as the bad half of all-good Mother. Although the operation of the matrix of her broken mind required that I remain alive as a “place” for all badness to exist, my existence could not include my existence as my own self (person) separate from her. I was ONLY the manifestation of “only badness” so that Mildred could exist as the ONLY manifestation of “only goodness.”
How is it possible for one mind to occupy two bodies? The “how” in this question defined all of my childhood as far as Mother could manage to “own” me. Only one of us could exist as a “good” person. That one was Mother.
In her broken mind some part of her was continually filtering her ongoing experience as broken pieces of both hope and shame were assigned to one of her minds or to the other one. Even the most trivial, ordinary and insignificant of events such as taking a nap or watching TV were forced through her psychotic filtering process. When Mildred used the word “only” she was either exonerating herself from any shame or she was injecting me with all shame.
The continual message given to me by Mother and reinforced by Father’s complicity with her was that the world (our family) would be perfect if I wasn’t in it. The only reason the world wasn’t perfect was because there was always something wrong/bad with me. My being alive and my being wrong/bad were synonymous. I could not be alive without being wrong/bad because I had no way to NOT be wrong/bad – because I WAS alive. Such is a perfect madness.
I was born into this reality. I was told I could change my reality if I wanted to and if I tried hard enough. That nothing ever got any better for me was, therefore, my own fault and my own choice. I did not know it was the design of Mother’s broken mind that dictated I was permanently doomed.
I was given impossible hope that I could improve the impossible conditions of my life at the same time I was continually berated and “punished” for the impossible shame of existing as the impossibly all-bad child that Mildred believed (and as she convinced her husband) that I was.
Were my parents “only” doing the best that they could do? While I think the answer is “yes,” I know that what I think doesn’t matter. In my belief their eternal fate lies where all of our fates lie – only with God.
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