It was possibly 25 years ago now, at one of the few and far-between trauma conferences. I always had to travel far to get to them in those days and usually felt small and decidedly not smart enough. I always sat in the front row so I would not miss anything, devouring all the information.
Trauma was new to the mainstream psychotherapy world then. Even more embryonically new was the appearance of the brain anywhere on the psychotherapy map, and trauma led the charge. Fighting the age-old belief that I was a girl/dummy at math and science, I struggled with what was, to me, a fascinating new dialect.
The speaker was a young woman, fresh out of medical school who looked about 25. She presented the case of a couple trapped in their car in a catastrophic accident. The husband, flooded with herculean fight-flight strength, smashed his way out of the crumpled vehicle, beat the passenger side window in and pulled his wide-eyed wife out. Seized with incapacitating terror, the wife had plunged into a catatonic freeze state.
Later, when safely in the emergency room, their brains were scanned. As we would expect, the husband’s brain showed the limbic fight-flight response lit up like a supernova. However, when the speaker showed the slide of the wife’s brain, the entire conference room uttered a shocked gasp in unison. It was completely dark. Nothing was firing at all.
Trauma was new to the mainstream psychotherapy world then. Even more embryonically new was the appearance of the brain anywhere on the psychotherapy map, and trauma led the charge.
The presenter was Ruth Lanius, who has since become the world’s leading expert on the neuroscience of trauma. That chilling image and the accompanying gasp have stayed vividly with me over these many years. I remember that moment with not only photographic detail but big emotions: admiration, gratitude, awe and amazement about how far Dr. Lanius has come and has brought us all as a field. I am proud to share the name!
While one adaptation to usually incident or “shock” trauma is the flaming glare of limbic fight-flight activation, this pitch darkness is the dissociative freeze. It is the numbing of an animal, cornered and overtaken by a predator, to the pain of being eaten; or pretending to be dead in the hope the predator will lose interest and go away. It is the galactic distance of disconnection. And it is the same blank and deathlike emptiness that showed up again in the scans of the Romanian orphans; prisoners in solitary confinement, the desolate, neglected infant. I am reminded of Bruce Springsteen eliciting feedback from his audience with the call “Is there anyone alive out there?” Later reading his surprisingly deep and compelling autobiography, I learned that Bruce suffered considerable childhood neglect and poverty too. Several bouts of paralyzing depression had Bruce unable to get out of bed for stretches of up to two years, unable to “turn off the faucet of tears.” And this was long after the wild success of Born to Run.
I was repeatedly amazed in the early years of my marriage when my husband, who had a severe history of childhood neglect, would rather take a labyrinthine maze of random surface streets than sit in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic. The waiting and unending, unchanging monotony were unbearable to him. I was convinced the rat-wheel like surface route took just as long or longer, and he even agreed with me. Nevertheless, he insisted that it was better to be moving.
I have since learned that many survivors of childhood neglect find boredom unendurable. Probably reminiscent of the oceanic abandonment and waiting of the infant or small child, often scared, cold, hungry, wet, confused, lonely, desperate, with no end in sight and nothing to be done. A signature of neglect that I came to recognize early on in adults: interpersonal passivity, helplessness and the echoing refrain of “There is nothing I can do! I don’t know what to do!”
I have since learned that many survivors of childhood neglect find boredom unendurable. Probably reminiscent of the oceanic abandonment and waiting of the infant or small child, often scared, cold, hungry, wet, confused, lonely, desperate, with no end in sight and nothing to be done.
I’ve never been particularly interested or impressed with space travel. It has always seemed to me to be a colossal expenditure of resources better invested here on earth. Jeff Bezos’ vacation excursions for wealthy tourists, even more! I was struck, however, to hear a recent report about the US Mars expeditions. Given that the distance to Mars takes about eight months to traverse, the round-trip mission spans upwards of three years, including time in the capsule and work time once there. Oy vey! I can hardly tolerate a transatlantic airplane flight!
Interestingly to me, NASA identified the greatest peril and enemy of the mission is boredom. The extended sensory deprivation and unchanging monotonous sameness are lethal to the couped-up astronauts’ brains. To see only unchanging, infinite, never-ending sameness, which looks and feels like time has stopped – how familiar this sounds! And validating to the agony of neglect. NASA agrees with us about the urgency of addressing the empty under-stimulated isolation.
The brain and the endlessly resourceful child of neglect tirelessly search for ways to wake itself up, even if not always in the most pleasant or adaptive ways. I have seen often enough among couples where a bored partner suddenly lobs a provocative fireball of insult, outrage or known exposing, hot topic into the “too quiet” field simply to stimulate some kind of “action” or essential aliveness. It invariably evokes an unreceptive response at best or even a bout of conflict and disconnect, but this apparently beats the alternative. In couples therapy, we strive to cultivate more pleasant, adaptive and connected solutions to the problem of deadening.
Interestingly to me, NASA identified the greatest peril and enemy of the mission is boredom.
A Creative Spark
The moon mission is decidedly shorter than the trip to Mars, more like 3 ½ months round trip. With a lifelong dream of becoming a space traveler, Astronaut Karen Nyberg finally realized her great aspiration. She was prepared and scheduled for a moon mission right around the time her beloved little son was three. She suffered about the separation and was also apprehensive about the long monotonous days in space.
Nyberg’s hobby, her other passion and the only thing she loves almost as much as space travel, is quilt-making. She had the inspired idea of taking her little sewing setup to the moon. The challenges of quilting without gravity unleashed her creative imagination. Unable to travel with pins, she secured her pieces with Velcro. Cutting fabric was an additional creative experiment. The novelty (and the brain loves novelty – one of its favorite catalysts for neurogenesis new neuron generation), as well as the opportunity to engage in a much-loved pastime, awakened her brain, filled the void of redundant time, and softened the ache of missing her family. Her little son also loved the pictures she was able to send him, especially as her long hair, without gravity, stood straight up like a troll doll!
Alfredo Santos, a maximum-security prisoner in one of the United States’ most notoriously violent and nightmarish “correctional facilities” was also faced with how to keep his brain from lapsing into deadly catatonia and depression. He had the idea of painting the walls of the vast chow hall with elaborate murals. Somehow, he was able to secure permission to do so.
He occupied long hours of his previously seemingly interminable sentence with this immense creative project and contribution and also inspired more than a fantasy, but a goal of being a great professional artist upon his release.
Again, the creative expression, the positive view of the future, and the movement, awakened what otherwise would’ve been a slackened, deadened brain, likely to default to despair and deadness, and the more typical revolving door of relapse, poverty and recidivism. He did go on to open a studio in San Diego, California and realized his dream and his potential as a professional and self-supporting fine artist.
In the throes of my own worst days of anorexia, beset with fear, guilt and deathlike immobility, I was bedridden for over a month. Bombarded with blame for “doing this to myself and my parents,” hideously lonely and too weak to independently get myself to the bathroom down the hall, I literally felt as if I were dying. What could I do in that bed, unable to think or move? From somewhere, I discovered that propped up against a bank of pillows, I could crochet lace. I don’t know where that idea came from. It did not require physical strength or mental concentration. It was detailed enough to require a focus that I could sustain, and I produced beauty. The colorful, elaborate designs distracted me, empowered me and kept me going somehow.
I produced yards and yards of the stuff, imagining what I might make someday. I am sure by simply adding movement, color, and something even vaguely future-looking, I got just enough firing to slowly awaken life in my dark, deathly lunar landscape.
All the effective somatic trauma therapies incorporate some kind of movement, however subtle, and an introduction, even if unconscious, that time does move. The trauma brain knows no time, especially chronic and inescapable developmental trauma, attachment trauma and neglect, in an environment where there is no escape. Simply combatting that lethal belief becomes a life raft. Simple but not easy. But yes, simple
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.