Chapter nineteen 19
Overwhelmed (see Siegel p 109)
I cannot begin to describe these attachment styles and states without first taking a look into the origins of the word “overwhelm” in the English language, along with its relatives – the concepts that are in our language connected to it. I think it is at this point that traumatic experiences with attachment caregivers has created a tipping point into chaos and incoherency. It is the point at which the system goes haywire and every basic need and its fulfillment has gone awry.
It is here, at this point, that the line is crossed between normal and ordinary, between abnormal and extra-ordinary. It is here, in a thorough consideration of the MEANINGS of the words connected to trauma, that we can get a sense – make some sense – of the nature of the world that trauma creates for those born into it – and of the nature of the consequences to an infant of being born into and remaining in this world through the crucial developmental stages of the brain-mind-self. We can begin to learn the MEANING of this predicament and what happens to an individual who survives peritrauma and is deprived HERE, as a result of this process, of its “right to life,” a right to its-SELF.
We can think of developmental stages as having to occur in a linear fashion. Yet growth, while linear, also possesses aspects of a cyclic process. If we consider the topic with a more open mind, and allow our awareness to also develop in a spiraling fashion, we can circumambulate both around in a circular fashion and as we move in a progressive line. (We can think of the image of the structure of our very DNA.)
And as I do my word origin searches, I am always looking for concepts as they appeared in English as images, for images form in the human brain and mind much earlier than do concepts. I am attempt to locate the image back to before the 12th century, which is as far back as my dictionary goes in assigning appearances of words into the language as they are noted in written works (rather than noting when they appeared in English as spoken words). In reading what follows, allow your mind some play, like with fishing, so you can “catch” the wider sense and imagery of these words. They create for us not only images, but also play among themselves through a sort of poetic process as we allow ourselves to experience this. (–poiesis from Greek word meaning creation)
When we need something physical, we can go to the store. When we need something mental, we can go to the storehouse of the dictionary. Our history is contained in our language, and dictionaries are archives for our thoughts through the recorded evolution of the words that we evolved and that we use. And just as words, as does the use of language itself, come to each one of us once our brains, and therefore our minds, have developed enough ability to handle and process complexities, so too do they reflect the growing complexities as they develop and evolve within a society. As words come into languages they leave us their tracks to follow backwards in time.
Because American English is such a young language, many of the invisible footprints of the origins of the words we use can be traced through the written language. This is the history that my dictionary uses in order to determine a words first appearance in current English. And words have genealogies, family trees, ancestors, relatives and friends. They are in this way not unlike the people who created them. They are mental representations, symbols for our invisible thoughts. They contain images and values, reflecting what he people consider important.
People use them to communicate their meanings to each other so that they can share what has meaning to them. Our languages are not separate from us. They express who and what we are. And they are not rigid. They are flexible, plastic, and their meanings stretch, grow and change. Just like we do.
[ME overwhelmen, fr. over + whelmen to turn over, cover up]
1: UPSET, OVERTHROW
2 a: to cover over completely : SUBMERGE b : to overcome by superior force or numbers c : to overpower in thought or feeling
No direct synonym is given for this word other than the ones contained within its definition.
1 : an act of overturning : OVERTURN
2 : a (1) : an act of throwing into disorder : DERANGEMENT (2) : a state of disorder : CONFUSION b : an unexpected defeat
1 : OVERTURN, UPSET 2: to cause the downfall of : BRING DOWN, DEFEAT
For an infant to reach the state of disorganized/disoriented attachment patterns, its life would have had to be traumatic up until the point outsiders begin to notice that something is terribly wrong for them, and with them. I do not mean just a little bit traumatic. I mean that the infant would have had to be embedded in an acute state of peritrauma from its birth in order for this to occur. The child’s “coping” abilities have been overwhelmed. Correspondingly, its about-to-bud SELF has also been overwhelmed.
When we are born our brains have very limited capacities to operate in what we would consider “human” ways. We know through common sense that if we remained in the womb long enough for our brain to fully develop, we could never be born. The brain’s more complex abilities evolve as the it grows and develops outside of the womb. We are not born with them. It is our brain that differentiates us from mammals. It is our ability to become conscious of ourselves so that we can have the experience of experiencing our experience that allows us to become adult “people.” But before our brains are fully functional, we are more dependent upon our caregivers for our survival and development than is any other living creature on this earth.
I believe it is the very nature of trauma itself that makes it so difficult for people to process and resolve it within themselves and within their lives. But when the trauma is forming an infant’s brain, and the infant has no other ability other than to “suck” the trauma into itself through the process of implicit memory, at a time in its life where there is no objective self, no sense of time passing, no sense of time or place or of itself in it, that the damage overwhelms the entity of the infant itself.
As a society I believe that we have yet even to identify the extent of this kind of trauma, its nature, or the impact it has on infants. When the infant grows into an adult we might say that they have “unresolved trauma” and “unresolved loss” which impacts their ability to parent their own children and to live a “normal” and happy life. What we don’t want to see and don’t want to admit to ourselves is that these traumatic infanthood’s, with their unsolvable problems and “paradoxical injunctions” have created a situation that is not POSSIBLE to adapt to and is not possible to resolve.
You can’t resolve a problem that is not solvable. It is the very nature of an infant’s peritrauma that infant has not been allowed to BE. I mean that their right to protection from overwhelming harm has not allowed them to just BE, and as a result they cannot ever BE in the way ordinary people can. They have never, therefore, developed or evolved into their own separate essence as an entity. They never get to develop themselves. As our wise literary giant once said, “To be or not to be. That is the question.” It remains so today.
[L submergere, fr. sub– + mergere to plunge – more at MERGE]
1 : to put under water
2 : to cover or overflow with water
3 : to make obscure or subordinate : SUPPRESS
[L mergere; akin to Skt majjati he dives]
1 archaic : to plunge or engulf in something : IMMERSE
2 : to cause to combine, unite, or coalesce
3 : to blend gradually by stages that blur distinctions…. to become combined into one
The image comes to me, through tracing the history of the word “overwhelm,” of an infant still in the womb, surrounded by its mother’s fluids. Whose fluid is it that the fetus is submerged in? At what point to we say that an infant is a separate entity, not combined or united with its mother? Brain research is really telling us that we cannot assume that the infant is a separate entity once it is born into this world. It’s growing brain just becomes attached to it caregivers through the invisible umbilical cord of the transfer of invisible nutrition between them. This nutrition is now in the form of the “energy and information” that is being transmitted directly from the caregiver’s mind into that of the infant’s through the organ of the developing brain.
The infant is not born with a brain that is fully developed. We must realize this. Not only is the infant dependent on its caregivers for all of its physical needs. Its growing brain is fundamentally attached to the brain of its caregivers through the interactional experiences it has with them. The human brain has to develop over the time of its infancy and young toddlerhood before it can begin to function on its own.
And what happens when an infant is overwhelmed by toxic, traumatic interactions with its caregivers? What happens if its emotional reality is not attuned to and reflected back to it in a consistent, caring fashion? What happens when its caregiver’s past unresolved trauma causes unstable and inadequate transactions to occur between these two?
I propose that the infant does not get the chance to truly exit the waters of the womb. It has done so physically, but without the proper interactions it needs to provide its growing brain, and therefore its mind and then its self, with the invisible nutrition that it needs, it remains submerged within the mental world of the mother. The entity of the infant is never truly born. It remains poised on the “event horizon” of life. And in this poised position, it is frozen. Turned to stone, as it were. It remains still and motionless, denied its very life. And when an infant is born into and remains in acute peritrauma, the adult that we may see still has its invisible self poised, still, on that same event horizon it was born to.
These word traces and tracks, related to the state of being overwhelmed, speak for themselves. All we have to do is care, pay attention, notice, and accept the reality. We are allowing people to be destroyed before they are truly born. He mere act of exiting the womb of the mother MEANS nothing if the infant is invisibly poisoned to death when it is born.
1: to cause to turn over : UPSET
2: INVALIDATE, DESTROY
[F deranger, fr. MF desrengier, fr. de– + reng place – more at RANK]
1 : to disturb the operation or functions of
2 : DISARRANGE
3 : to make insane
[ MF renc, reng, of Gmc origin; akin to OHG hring ring – more at RING]
1 : a: ROW, SERIES b: a row of people c (1): a line of soldiers ranged side by side in close order (2) plural: ARMED FORCES
2 : an orderly arrangement; FORMATION
3 : a social class
In light of the topic under consideration, it is interesting to note that the noun, rank, appeared much later in written English than did the descriptive sense of the word as an adjective.
[ME, fr. OE ranc overbearing, strong; akin to OE riht right – more at RIGHT]
1 : luxuriantly or excessively vigourous in growth
2 : offensively gross or course: FOUL
I am fascinated to see the appearance of the word RIGHT as it emerges here, but will wait a moment to explore that as I proceed in the more linear direction for the moment.
[L immerses, pp. of immergere, fr. in- + mergere to merge]
1 : to plunge into something that surrounds or covers; esp : to plunge or dip into a fluid
2 : ENGROSS, ABSORB
3 “ to baptize by immersion
In the description of OVERTURN we see the word INVALIDATE, which is a derivative of the word INVALID. This word, itself, traces back in our language to ointment, and to the salving of wounds.
[L invalidus weak, fr. in– + validus strong – more at VALID]
[MF or ML; MF valide, fr. ML validus, fr. L. strong, fr. valere]
1 : having legal efficacy or force
2 a : well-grounded or justifiable: being at once relevant and meaningful b: logically correct
3 : appropriate to the end in view: EFFECTIVE
4 : conforming to accepted principles of sound biological classification
came into English as a form of the word
[ ME, fr. MF & L; MF, fr. L effectus, fr. effectus, pp. of efficere to bring about, fr. ex– + facere to make, do – more at DO]
1 : something that inevitably follows an antecedent (as a cause or agent)
2 a: PURPORT, INTENT b: basic meaning: ESSENCE
I know that the word “DO” is a crucial connection, but first I want to take a look at another important word that appears here, ESSENCE.
[ME, fr. MF & L; MF, fr. L essential, fr esse to be – more at IS]
1 a: the permanent as contrasted with the accedental element of being b: the individual, real, or ultimate nature of a thing esp. as opposed to its existence c: the properties or attributes by means of which something can be placed in its proper class or identified as being what it is
2 : something that exists: ENTITY
[ML entitas, fr. L ent-, ens existing thing, fr. coined prp. of esse to be – more at IS]
1 a: BEING, EXISTENCE; esp: independent, separate, or self-contained existence b: the existence of a thing as contrasted with its attributes
2 2 : something that has separate and distinct existence and objective or conceptual reality
As we follow our circular, spiral pathway through the words of our language, the bigger picture is beginning to emerge. Note the appearance, for the first time on our word trek, of a reference to that most important concept that we are considering: a reference to the nature of the self. But we have skipped two very important tiny words that belong in our search: DO and IS. We return to our exploratory journey to find the most important connections.
[ME don, fr. OE don; akin to OHG tuon to do, L –dere to put, facere to make, do, Gk tithenai to place, set:]
1 : to bring to pass: CARRY OUT
[ME fr. OE; akin to OHG ist is (fr. sin to be), L est (fr. esse to be), Gk esti (fr. einai to be)]
The word has no actual definition! It just IS a form of the word BE.
[ME been, fr. OE beon; akin to OHG bim am, L fui I have been, futurus about to be, fieri to become, be done, Gk phynai to be born, be by nature, phyein to bring forth]
1 a: to equal in meaning: have the same connotation as: SYMBOLIZE b: to have identity with c: to constitute the same class as d: to have a specific qualification or characterization e: to belong to the class of
2 a: to have an objective existence: have reality or actuality: LIVE (I think therefore I am) b: to have, maintain, or occupy a place, situation, or position c: to remain unmolested, undisturbed, or unintrrupted – used only in infinitive form (let him be) d: to take a place: OCCUR
We are used to reading books where the words are placed in order in sentences. The author, therefore, has assigned a meaning to the words by the sequencing used in the writing. We, as readers, try to follow along. What I have presented above, and will continue to present, are the words themselves, with the meanings they contain within them. I am letting the words speak. I am letting the words BE.
Words and language are used to communicate “energy and information” mind-to-mind, as Siegel calls it. I am showing you the lineage of the words and the skeleton of the words themselves. They are important. Any time we mean to describe the necessity of a paradigm shift, we are talking about using words in a different order. We are re-ordering a reality. I am suggesting as such with the concept of trauma as a continual reality for a developing infant, and their corresponding emersion in a state of chronic acute distress in peritrauma. The words are important. We need to redefine our terms. And even though we use the words constantly, daily, when was the last time we took the time to think about what they MEAN?
Becoming a human being, developing from infancy into adulthood through stages, is a movement that is supposed to take us from the innocent state of existing in a reality without meaning, into a realm of meaning. If the brain’s developmental growth process is altered or damaged, this is where we see the damage. Meaning has no meaning without value. And without a clear SELF as the outcome product of the growth process, there is nobody there to BE. There will be no entity, no essence, no self that is operational coincidentally with the body of the person that was born and grew up. If we are not allowed to BE, then we won’t BE anything. These people, so damaged, are shadow selves that cast no shadow. They are “false selves.” The degree of damage that was done to them is directly correlated with the degree of dimensionality they will have as adults – as well as to the organization of their complexities. Chaos is as chaos does, and trauma is chaos.
Siegel, in his book, The Developing Mind,