Tag Archives: PTSD

Trauma: Inherited, Denied, Healed

Trauma: Inherited, Denied, Healed

Elizabeth Rossner writes about the legacy of trauma and the labyrinth of memory in this wide-ranging review of her visits to Auschwitz with her father who came through the camps (she has a chapter on why she does not use the word “survivor” here). She also explores the legacy of trauma for the survivors and their children who experienced the killing fields of Cambodia, the retreat from Hanoi, and the massacre in Rwanda.

Traumatized people don’t feel safe, and parents who feel unsafe create households without a feeling safety, raising children do who not feel safe. The traumatized parents express the unresolved trauma in two main ways:
1. Suppressing all emotion in an effort to suppress the unrelenting, wordless fear trapped in the body. Children can’t play with someone who is numb. Children can’t bond well with someone who is numb. Drugs and alcohol often strengthen the numbness and emotional unavailability.
2. Traumatic rage squirting out uncontrollably in overreactions to upsetting everyday events. Children never know when the traumatized parent is going to beat them for a trivial infraction, or embrace them with understanding. The parent is inconsistent, and blind to the inconsistency.

Rossner quotes Dr. Maria Angeles Morcuenda, “The children of people with unresolved trauma have not learned [yet] to feel safe [even when they are] in a safe environment.”


Esther Perel says “home is the place where you feel safe, seen, appreciated, respected, and wanted.” When trauma in the home is denied, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse (betrayal and the like), or sexual abuse, the dependent child may resort to denial in order to preserve the attachment on the damaged parent upon whom she or she relies.

“Trauma denial is an act of self-preservation,” says Perel. “We employ self-delusion when too much is at stake and we have too much to lose. The mind needs coherence, so it disposes of the inconsistencies (lies) that threaten the structure of our lives. This becomes more pronounced when we are betrayed by those we feel closest to.”

Elizabeth Rossner says, “I hope my book invites readers to consider their own relationship to intergenerational transmutations of grief, trauma and resilience.” In her conversations with Dr. Morcuenda, we learn that healing from trauma is all about getting to feel safe. Dr. Morcuenda’s work focuses on “How do we make this baby, this child, resilient to the inevitable trauma life is going to bring? The work is to give each child what he or she needs, and to recognize what interferes with their ability to do that.”

Healing is seen when the trauma survivor can become fully present in the moment. Resilience can develop when we can interact fully in the moment without numbing out or slipping into the past.

My Absolute Darling

My Absolute Darling

I read Gabriel Tallent’s book straight through in two days in August. Then I saw the blurb from Stephen King who offered an unsolicited endorsement. “I tore through an advance copy of the 400-plus-page novel in three days. It’s a first novel and he’s got everything working,” Mr. King said. “When I read it the first thing I thought was, I couldn’t do this, and I’ve been doing it for 40 years.”

While it is technically a first novel, it took eight years to write, and Gabriel’s mother is fiction writer Elizabeth Tallent. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Tallent began writing the book during his senior year of college at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. After graduating, he got a job as a waiter at a ski lodge. On days he wasn’t working, he’d write for 12 to 14 hours.

“Three years later, he had 800 pages of a sprawling novel about the Pacific Northwest and the strange characters who live there. He realized the seed of a more arresting story was there, scrapped the draft and wrote a much different novel, one that focused on Turtle’s experience and the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she endures, and her fight to overcome it. It took him five more years and another dozen drafts to finish the book.”

The New York Times says, “Turtle’s story unfolds on the coast of Northern California, in the lush, untamed forests, gulches and tide pools around Mendocino. She lives with her paranoid, survivalist father — a self-taught philosopher and gun nut who teaches her that the world is a treacherous place and humanity is doomed. At 6, she learns how to fire a bolt-action pistol. At 14, she’s become an expert sharpshooter and hunter who can navigate the forests in the dark, identify edible plants, make fire with a bow drill and shoot, skin and roast a rabbit over a fire of dried grass and twigs. She’s at home in the wilderness, but is failing at school and estranged from her peers and teachers. She’s alone except for Martin, a sadistic monster who would sooner kill her than lose control over her.”

The intensity of the book captured me and took me to a place I thought no one else could ever see. It showed that intensity is not the same as connection. Thrill is not the same as pleasure. Arousal is not necessarily good. Excitement is addictive. The paragraph on p.338 that was most compelling for me:

Turtle thinks, pull the trigger. She can imagine no other way forward. She thinks, pull the trigger. But if you do not pull the trigger, walk back up that creek and in through the door and take possession of your mind, because your inaction is killing you. She sits looking out at the beach, and she thinks, I want to survive this. She is surprised by the depth and clarity of her desire. Her throat tightens and she takes the gun out of her mouth and strings of saliva come with it and she brushes them away. She rises and stands looking our at the waves, overcome with the beauty. Her whole mind feels raw and receptive. She experiences a searing, wide-open thankfulness, an unmediated wonder at the world.

The beauty of the Mendocino area is woven into emotional intensity and family violence in an extraordinary way. I agree with the top writers who declared the book a “masterpiece” on par with “Catch-22” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

What I Learned in Oakmont

What I Learned in Oakmont

OakmontRoom613The venerable, 85 year old Senior Peer Counselor put it best, “These people are a gift.” I learned so much from the unmarried couple in their 70’s with whom I stayed in Oakmont for the past eight months.

  • I enjoyed being surrounded by beautiful objects and expensive books that I did not have to dust.
  • I learned what it felt like to be on the receiving end of verbal abuse.
  • I saw what “scab-picking” was.
  • In dismay, I watched the man flee into a financial fantasy to shield himself, emotionally, from the verbal abuse. For 10 years he had been sending money to a Nigerian “lawyer” in the hope of getting a bank in Abu Dhabi to lend him a million dollars to invest in real estate. Just before I left today, he told me the Nigerian lawyer had been jailed, which froze the man’s assets in Nigeria during November and December, and that he had fired the Nigerian. He continues to believe that his loan will fund “next week.”
  • I watched the hostess punish me by keeping the TV tuned to Fox News.
  • I learned that isolation is the enemy of mental health.
  • I saw that Learned Helplessness keeps people trapped in ruts of thin emotional survivorship. They mistake this for courage.
  • What takes real courage is climbing out of the helplessness that was learned when one was vulnerable, sharpening the tools that have been gained over the years, learning to trust yourself again, and doing what it takes to get out of the rut.
  • I learned why the work we do as Senior Peer Counselors is so important.
  • I learned that love is simultaneously fragile and indestructible.
  • I learned that a dog is a fountain of joy and unconditional love. I won’t be paraphrasing D.C Fontana anymore about “enslaving animals for the emotional gratification of humans.”

Their beautiful Golden Retriever suddenly became lame before Thanksgiving and had to be euthanized before Christmas. The house was not the same without her. The Feeling of Healing was gone. A grayness descended.

I left.

Zen, SAMe and Ear Wax

Zen, SAMe and Ear Wax

I have had a bad week. Last Thursday, after a shower, I dried my ear with a twist of toilet paper and plugged up one ear. I ignored it, and on Friday I increased my SAMe intake from two tablets a day to three, shrugging off the warning of increased agitation.

Saturday morning the ear was still plugged up so I went after it with a Qtip, driving the wax so far into my ear that it triggered feelings of claustrophobia. To distract myself, I went to see “Zero Dark Thirty” about brutal interrogation, waterboarding, and a Seal assault leading to death. I was so overwhelmed with the feeling of suffocation I had to leave the theater three times in the first hour. The feeling of being choked was so strong I actually took off my necklace. Yet I took a third SAMe for the day right after the movie.

AKD-sadToddlerSaturday night I felt like I was dying. My mind said, “it’s just earwax. You’re not going to die of earwax.” but my body really ached up the center line from my solar plexus to my heart.
My early-life decision came back: No one would help me. They were going to leave me me die. I had such a strong “felt sense” of being a sick child with plugged ears and a stuffed nose and not being able to breathe. I felt like I was being punished for being bad.

I know that at the age pictured, with two smokers in their early 20s for parents, I had frequent bouts of tonsillitis and upper respiratory congestion. My long hair would get matted when I was sick and I hated having it combed out. In frustration, they may have decided to “just let her cry.”

I kept going outside for walks in the 25-degree night because it was the only time I felt I had enough space or enough air. My mind said, “You don’t breathe through your ears. This is discomfort. You can tolerate it.” I did not wake up my husband because there was nothing he could do to help me. I started to understand what Xanax is for.

Vulnerable means Woundable. Can we try “Receptive”?

I try to fix things myself. I was so frustrated that I could not see into my ear. I knew the Emergency Room on a Sunday in January would be full of people with the flu coughing on me because ear wax would be called last. By mid-morning I realized that a neighbor I sometimes speak to is a retired doctor. I knocked on her door at noon. Nothing.

By mid-afternoon she was back and was happy to rinse out my ear with a dilute solution of hydrogen peroxide. She got it unplugged. I was SOO relieved. Went to the store and got her a $20 bottle of French wine. But I didn’t sleep that night. The agitation was almost as bad, except this time I could hear with both ears. I found a pile of leaves on the sidewalk nearby. Crunching though them at midnight calmed me.

Monday morning it took 2 hours to get a doctor appointment, and they wouldn’t give me one on the same day. Another bad night, but I stayed inside. Tuesday the young doctor scraped the wax off my eardrums and it hurt! “I thought you had suction!” I yelped. But I can hear better now.

What I Learned

As toddlers, we really are helpless, but the “learned helplessness” can be crippling in later life and can become part of the foundation of depression. To climb out of the harmful early leaning, I can learn to look for the Helpers, and to ask for help. I now have tools that I did not have as a pre-schooler, including Reiki, Zen Mind, Compassion and other spiritual and mental tools.

I should let my ears drain naturally, not even a hair dryer, because ear wax is supposed to stay pliable so it doesn’t stick to your eardrum. Lateral jaw action and an occasional, single drop of mineral oil in the ear will help keep it pliable.

I should have started the search for an ear doctor right away. The feeling of dying can be very scary. Three SAMe tablets is too many.
MindNoMind

Augusten Burroughs This Is How

Augusten Burroughs This Is How

Just a quick note on Augusten Burroughs (a chosen name, not the one he was born with) and his “help for the self overcoming shyness, molestation, fatness, spinsterhood, grief, disease, lushery, decrepitude and more, for young and old alike.” Gotta say, he sure know how to include keywords in his title!

He doesn’t exactly address fatness, instead he tells a sad tale about anorexia. His solution? Tough love. Give the anorexic a ton of money, tell her you love her, kick her out and never EVER give her another piece of advice. I’ll bet his technique has a low survival rate. And I’ll further bet that his survival rate is just as good as current therapy.

Overcoming lushery: he is an expert, having nearly killed himself with alcoholism. During his recovery he wrote the book “Dry.” His recommended technique? Want something more than booze. This, by the way, is also the way to overcome decrepitude.

Therapy? That was the best advice. This from page 121:

Augusten Burroughs This Is HowFor years, I believed [discussing my past in therapy] was how to live.
I was wrong.
It’s how to stagnate.
I know now how to get over the past.
It has worked for me in a deeper, more enduring way than any therapy I have ever had.
Writing six autobiographical books is what freed me from my past.

“Dry” was one of those autobiographical books. On page 177 of this book he tells a mother who lost a son to alcoholism a hard fact. “The fact she was missing was HIS fact. He loved alcohol. He died doing what he loved most.”

How to overcome Spinsterhood? Meet lots of people by every means possible. Use a different dry cleaner. Go to different grocery stores. Talk to people and present yourself as you are, not the gussied-up version of yourself. If you want someone who will love you as you actually are, present yourself as you actually are.

He ends with a detailed description of the slow death of his partner from debilitating disease. The book is an essay on the meaning of life which he boils down to Be Here Now. Fully Present. Don’t be afraid of the disease. When the symptoms arrive, you will cope with them and it will be okay. The fear of torture is much worse than the torture itself.

This is a good book. Recommended.

Waking The Tiger – Healing Trauma

Waking The Tiger – Healing Trauma
Waking The Tiger – Healing Trauma

This 1997 book subtitled “The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences” is by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. I read this book quickly over three days and agree that it is ground-breaking. I now have a better understanding that effects of unresolved trauma include constant hyper-vigilance and the gnawing expectation of the worst possible outcome. This produces a constant flow of adrenaline (epinephrine) which leads to the clean-up hitter cortisol, two stress hormones chronically generated by the remnants of unresolved trauma.

Dr. Levine points out that there are THREE things on the menu: fight, flight and freeze. Many trauma-sufferers are frozen in “freeze,” never completely coming out of the unresolved trauma. This unresolved trauma might be an underlying factor in depression which is associated with chronic over-production of cortisol. Movement, particularly shaking, shivering, quaking, are ways to blow off the trauma. Dr. Levine says,

“Post-traumatic symptoms are, fundamentally, incomplete physiological responses suspended in fear. Reactions to life-threatening situations remain symptomatic until they are completed. Post-Traumatic stress is one example.”

In his TED talk below, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman says that what defines memories/stories are:

  1. changes
  2. emotionally significant moments
  3. endings

with endings being the most important factor in what constitutes memory. Happy endings typically yield happy memories, even if the event was difficult leading up to the happy ending. In “Waking the Tiger,” Dr. Levine’s therapy leverages this in his therapeutic practice which involves re-enacting the traumatic memory with the patient but changing the ending to a better outcome. You might notice in Dr. Kahneman’s TED talk about the difference between the left-brain “remembering self” and the right-brain “experiencing self.” This is the fundamental distinction made by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s in her “Stroke of Insight.”

PTSD Breakthrough – Dr. Frank Lawlis

PTSD Breakthrough – Dr. Frank Lawlis

This 2011 book is a quick read and a timely update to PTSD recovery research. Dr. Lawlis describes PTSD well, and with great sympathy he outlines his strategy to recovery. Not surprisingly, it parallels Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s path to recovery from the traumatic brain injury of her stroke.

  1. Surround yourself with loving people who cheer your every positive step toward healing
  2. Get LOTS of sleep
  3. Get clean physically. Fresh food, clean water, no toxins. De-tox if necessary (directions included)
  4. Get clean mentally. Interrupt rumination. Learn to choose positive thoughts.
  5. Actively learn how to cope with terrifying memories. (Dr. Lawlis has a “machine”)
  6. and healthy goals

Dr. Lawlis is a fan of supplements, blue lights and his auditory invention (BAUDenergetics.com) that uses sound waves to break the fear cycle. I’m not sure about the machines, but I think he is right about how to heal a damaged brain.