Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The spring before my 9th birthday we were living in our Jamesway (portable, folding-ribbed military canvas housing shaped like a Quonset hut) on our Alaskan mountain homestead. My father had added on 8 more 4-foot rib sections to the original five, each with two eight-foot floor boxes across the width. Viewed from the higher hills above our home looked like a giant army-green worm with a round black chimney pipe sticking up at each end.
Although there were two small plastic windows with mesh in them in the plywood ends of our dwelling, there were no windows along the side walls making it always dark in the back where the canvas walls curved up over the triple bunk bed my father had constructed by shortening the legs of metal army beds and stacking all three together. Mine was the top bunk because I was the oldest. Sharon’s was the bottom because she was the youngest, and Cindy slept in the middle.
Late one rainy weekend afternoon my mother attacked me again. I don’t remember why. Perhaps I had forgotten to wipe off the top of the stove after I washed the dishes. Perhaps mother had overheard me referring to her as “she” while talking to my siblings. Perhaps she thought I was pouting, or that I didn’t answer her fast enough or loudly enough when she asked me a question.
But had happened ended with her hitting, punching, slapping, and beating me as she screamed her condemnations. On her final blow she raised her right hand behind her left ear and swung with all her power hard and fast at my face and hit my nose. Her screaming escalated until she finally crescendoed with, “Get out of my sight! Go to bed without your dinner! I can’t stand the sight of you!” I escaped to the dim back of the Jamesway and crawled up to my bed, only now when out of her sight allowing myself to cry.
Cindy was sitting near the bed on the small straight backed wooden chair painted turquoise to match the bunk beds, supposedly color coordinated with the Pepto Bismal pink canvas walls of the Jamesway. Eventually Cindy stood on the edge of the lower bunk and peered over the edge of my mattress. She had been listening not only to my smothered sobs and sniffling, but to what must have struck her as an unusual sound, that of garbled choking. “I’m going to get Mom,” she told me, though I couldn’t imagine why. I did not want her to come near me, but Cindy ran off to get her anyway.
Mother complained loudly as she stomped back to my bed, her feet hitting hard on the hollow rough plywood boxes that constructed our floors. She came because Cindy, her angel child, had insisted, though she was not pleased at the summons. “Get out of that bed this instant,” she demanded when she saw me. “Look at the terrible mess you’re making, Linda, blood all over the place! You will have to clean this up! Get up!”
But she did not yank me and I slid off the far foot end of the bed, as far from her as I could get, but she told me to sit on the little turquoise chair which put me right there by her legs. She stopped yelling at me, though, and her voice changed when she called dad, who was now standing behind me, and told Cindy to go get the metal dishpan and a towel for me to put on my lap. I sat with my head bent over the pan, blood flooding out of my nose, and no amount of criticism from mother or directions from father stemmed the flow.
Soon my brother, John, and sister, Sharon, were sitting on the floor close to my feet next to Cindy. At first the blood made a high tinny plinking sound as fell into the pan, but this sound soon deepened and then became a very faint “plops.” I watched the bottom of the round white enamel dishpan with its red edging disappeared under blood as my nose kept on bleeding. A strange warm and cozy silence I had never heard before surrounded me. For the first time in my life my family had me in its circle. I felt connected and included. I felt I belonged and the feeling of being wanted and cared about and of not being in trouble for those rarest of moments is a memory that is carried in my body, reawakens and resonates with any similar feeling that comes to me today connected to people I care about.
It would not have been impossible for my parents to take me down the mountain jeep road to get medical attention, but the trip would have taken hours and my father didn’t believe that such a journey was necessary. I guess both my parents were content to stand there watching their daughter bleed to death because by the time my nose finally quit bleeding the dishpan was nearly a third of the way full. But that feeling I was experiencing for the first time was so beautiful to me and so precious that even if I had known the threat of death I was under, I would gladly have paid that price for that sense of connection I translated into what it feels like to be loved.
I consider this memory especially important because, as my sister, Cindy, reminded me, I need to remember that PTSD carries the potential for positive trauma feelings of comfort and security to be reenacted in our present lives just as the negative feelings are. These memories, deeply implanted in our body’s cells as implicit memories, are out of the range of our conscious explicit awareness, but can run our lives as surely as a giant water wheel paddling through a crystal clear stream, connected to some massive grinding stone in a mill can turn grain into flour that goes into the bread our lives are made from.
Having suffered nearly constant peritrauma for the first 18 years of my life prepared me to actually feel fortunate to have had the experience I tell you of now. Without it I might never have known what that sense of being connected and cared for as a part of my family could possibly have felt like. That abiding sense of human comfort and security I felt that day should have been my birthright, but it wasn’t. It is a testament to the wonder of human resiliency that I was able to build on that one day’s experience of what felt like love to me for the rest of my life.
Oh, and get used to this. I will tell you once in a while throughout this book to smile! I mean it! Even a fake made-up-smile activates neurons in the happy center of our left brain. It’s excellent exercise, and reminds us not to ever forget that any childhood we made it through gives us a success story because life wants us to live, no matter what.
The tricky part is to realize that even though my mother probably ended up a psycho borderline, she did survive and my five siblings and I got to be born, along with our children and grandchildren. My mother wasn’t born destined to be meaner than a 101 junkyard dogs. Her heart was broken by trauma when she was very young and her mind adapted to that fact by finding a way for her to survive what she could not endure.
My heart cries for my mother as surely as it does for the young Iraqi veteran who died last weekend from huffing himself to death. He had no way to survive the unbearable pain and suffering he could not endure. I believe most of what we call mental illness is the body’s way of jumping over the hurdle that unbearable pain and suffering creates in a human psyche so that at least the survival of the body is better ensured.
It is because of the range of possibilities available within our species that creates resiliency that in turn allows us to survive — even with a terribly broken heart from childhood. That is both our threat and our promise: We can and do survive what we cannot endure, but this survival does not come without a price.
We can choose to celebrate this tenacity of life while in the midst of our own growing pains as we work to heal the same traumas that have been passed on to us from our ancestors. I believe that unresolved traumas act very much like cancer cells do in that both have figured out how not to die. It is their attempt at immortality that kills us. The fact that their survival kills their hosts – in body or in mind – is of no concern to these malignancies. But traumas cycles continue because they have something to teach us as individuals and as a species. Until we learn these lessons and adapt ourselves accordingly, some of us will be forced to continue paying a terrible price for survival. Yet once we learn traumas’ lessons and allow ourselves to complete our healing trauma cycles, we will know they are no longer necessary. In order to accomplish this feat, we need information, knowledge, consciousness, awareness, and self-reflection.
Yet I also believe it would be an act of foolish denial and childish magical thinking to believe that the consequences of severe trauma experienced before the age of five can ever be completely repaired. Traumas that occur during crucial brain and nervous system developmental stages of infancy and young childhood create entirely different brains. It is impossible for these brains, created in and by and for a malevolent world, to ever fully adapt to life in a benevolent one. This is not a fiction, folks. It is the bedrock truth.
Yet while the information we are about to consider is deadly serious, please, don’t forget to smile! It is only this kind of power, the power of positive benovolency, that can ever bring hope to the healing of trauma. Just as that one experience of feeling connected to my family had the power to change my life, all efforts we make will effect positive change past our widest imaginings. We need you