If you weighed one hundred pounds and someone placed you on one end of a teeter totter facing a thousand pound gorilla on the other end, and then told you to get both of your feet on the ground, how exactly would you do that?
Our expectations of recovery for our selves and for others after exposure to major traumatic events can be this ridiculous. Just saying or thinking, “Oh well, they should have been more resilient,” does more harm than good. It only shows that we are talking to the wrong end of the horse.
Consider this pivotal new research on the subject of traumatic exposure and genetic interactions that lead to supposed resilience:
Notice this statement from the researchers:
“The most novel and important finding of our study was the interaction between FKBP5 [genetic] polymorphisms and child abuse history to predict the levels of adult PTSD symptoms,” noted the researchers. “These genotypes potentially serve as predictors of both risk and resilience for adult PTSD among survivors of child physical and sexual abuse….”
Now consider this research comparing the effects of trauma exposure on young people in South Africa and Kenya:
The authors were mystified by the findings that in spite of an 83 – 85% exposure to traumas among both groups of youths………..
In the whole group (combined participants being nearly 2,000) , 14.5%…of adolescents met the symptom criteria for full PTSD, and an additional 10%…met symptom criteria for partial PTSD.
Notably, 22% of South African adolescents had a full PTSD diagnosis compared with only 5% of Kenyan adolescents…,
and 12% [SA] met the symptom criteria for partial PTSD compared with 8% in the Kenyan group….” Seedat et al, 2004, p 171
SEE for notes:
Now if we say that the thousand pound gorilla on the other end of the teeter totter is exposure to a traumatic event, why do some people manage to keep or get their feet on the ground and some do not?
Resiliency is the end product of an extremely complex interaction of extremely complex factors. What we really need to do is focus on two facets of this interaction: risk factors and protective factors. Protective factors act as buffers against negative impact of exposure to every kind of trauma. Risk factors are the ABSENCE of protective factors. In essence, the issue has to do with resources between the haves and the have-nots. No real surprise here. No mystery. Let’s apply a little of the old fashioned common sense. We always have to look at the context of a person in interaction with their environment.
Research has shown that of all the people who were severely abused as children, about 30% go on to abuse their own children and about 70% do not (I will search for my reference citation on this.) Even though these parents no doubt have their own ‘attachment disorders,’ it is crucial to realize that even researchers have had to acknowledge what they term ‘earned secure’ attachment styles among most adults who were themselves abused as children.
But we have to be very careful not to make stupid guesses about the thousand pound gorilla against the hundred pound counter weight on our teeter totter. If I just change our focus for a moment and consider my own experience here, I would tell you the following:
I am not diminishing the impact of the horrible abuse I suffered as a child, but I also know that I was given vital protective factors that balanced out my risk factors so that I could form an earned secure attachment with my own children even though I myself have a ‘disorganized insecure attachment’ disorder.
I was not born to live with prejudice and harmful stereotypes as a member of a ‘minority’ group. I was not born into destitute poverty. My father was present continually in my childhood (even though his lack of action to protect me was not a good thing). My mother was physically fine and unstressed during her pregnancy with me so I was not born having already been affected by in uterine stress. My grandmother was peripherally present in my life from my birth until I was almost 6, and she adored me. I was born with a 14-month older brother who had been loved and cherished from his first breath and who was there for me from my birth. I also had other siblings so that even though I was often isolated from physical contact with them, I knew they were there and I was not alone. (I will talk later about sibling attachments, a subject I think is vastly under considered in child abuse research.)
Our family was of good physical health. We suffered no major external traumas such as fire, terrorism, ongoing warfare around us. My family was educated and highly valued education, books, and intelligence. We attended excellent schools. Mine was a creative family that valued beauty. We were adventurous even though much of the adventure might have been less than helpful in some ways, it certainly stimulated our child minds and provided us with ample opportunity to exercise active coping skills as we moved around and changed schools frequently. In addition our family carried a ‘self efficacy’ concept that being an Alaskan Homesteader somehow not only made us special, but made us better than others (a rather ridiculous concept, I realize, but considering the protective nature of high esteem on ANY level, it was helpful in the long run.) The homestead and the mountain were my attachment ‘figures’ and through that aspect of my experience I WAS able to bond and to love.
There was no alcoholism or other active addiction, no physical battering among my parents (though lots of emotional conflict was present), and no sexual abuse that we know of.
What there was in my family, as devastating as it may have been particularly to me as a consequence of my mother’s psychosis about me, was mental illness — severe, chronic, violent, abusive, terrifying, continual mental illness. But I am well aware of the fact that things could have been much, much, much worse for me.
Odd as it might seem, my parents had many exceptionally high and positive values that were passed on to me. I now know that although these values were involved in our lives often in a chaotic and irrational way, they were still there, like a computer’s operating system is running in the background behind whatever windows we see on the screen.
Speaking of windows, I will share with you a simple image that made sense to me when the thought of this came to me. If I picture my mother from birth as being a perfectly fine person, and then picture her like she was in a beautiful picture framed behind glass — and then I picture her mental illness as being a horrible, ugly almost beyond imagination MESS that is actually smeared all over the glass of the frame — and then I know that my mother before her traumas and before her mental illness was still ‘back there’ behind that nasty glass.
If this image is at all true, it in part explains to me why she could be so absolutely protective of the wildflowers on the mountain that we had to walk on certain ordained pathways and seldom step off of them so we wouldn’t crush a flower, yet this same woman could batter, beat and abuse me without conscience. Why? Because her mind was broken.
I might also add in here what might be a controversial fact. Forgiveness is not my concern regarding my mother. Informed compassion is. I added up a very low estimate of the severe beatings I suffered from her during the 18 years of my childhood after having the clear realization one day that if my mother were to step outside the door of the house I live in at this moment, and began EVEN ONCE to assault any child in my neighborhood the way she assaulted me thousands of times, that she would be arrested and prosecuted. If she were in any magical way held accountable for what she did to me, I estimate that the prison sentence she would have to serve would be no shorter than 14,500 YEARS! I also would have to say that my father’s sentence wouldn’t be a whole lot shorter for his part in really being her accomplice. No, forgiveness is not my concern.
But it is my concern that we do not judge how anyone else has survived any traumas of their own. We never know enough of the story. Yet we can all look around us and find ways to offer our caring and informed support to those who need us in ways small and large. To do less puts us all in the position of being part of the problem rather than of being part of the solution. Supportive people are ALWAYS a part of the protective side of the equation and do make a difference in depleting the power of trauma over one another’s lives. I know this because outside of my siblings (and a vague presence of my grandmother early in my life) nobody was there for me.