I am a hardcore Mac person. I really wish Steve Jobs had not died so soon. Yes, I know he was not a nice person, certainly not to his employees or his daughter. In my customary way, I read a huge biography, watched the bio-pic and read his daughter’s memoir too. Admittedly, I guess I have a fascination with very brilliant, mean men, which is, in fact, on today’s topic, one of the many manifestations of intergenerational transmission of trauma. My father, probably the person I most admired, adored, emulated, feared and hated, was one of those.
My husband, a sensible tech guy, operates in the PC world. (Left to my own devices, no pun intended! I would avoid PCs completely if it weren’t for the fact that our neurofeedback programs do not run on Mac.) My husband objects to how pricey everything Apple appears to be, and is less taken by the aesthetic than I. And he keeps me somewhat informed of at least the basics of Microsoft. He taught me the invaluable go-to of “Control-Alt-Delete.” Whenever everything gets inexorably tangled or stopped in the system, it is a first attempt to get unstuck. How refreshing (oy vey no pun intended again, really!) that the stop action, defaults to that simple 3-button reboot, that we get an instant do-over, another chance. Were it that simple to get another chance, a quick access route out of other jam-ups, or shock situations? And that sequence got me thinking.
In the child’s world of trauma and neglect, part of what makes life so terrifying is the unending monsoon of unpredictability. An unhealed, traumatized parent, without warning, might fly into a trauma state where rage and violence erupt from seemingly nowhere. Our dad would explode into that other, scary version of himself, loud and monstrous, with sometimes shocking behaviors. I remember one night at the dinner table, when, with both hands, he furiously mushed up a plate of spaghetti, railing about how we ate like pigs. Other times, he vanished into an absent freeze, gonzo. And still others, he was the genius who taught me so much of what I know and am most proud of. Mom had her own, perhaps less dramatic spectrum. It was never clear, who will it be. There was certainly no way to be ready.
Many survivors of childhood trauma and neglect are tagged as “control freaks.” It is a natural impulse when feeling completely batted around, at the whim of wild swings of emotional weather, to want to nail down everything one can. Remember, when overcome with puzzlement, shame (or defensiveness!) about being controlling, that it is a natural and understandable response to terror. Certainly, anorexia, my first major symptom, is a fierce and deadly theatre of control, until the control itself becomes out of control, which is truly confusing, especially to an already glucose-starved brain.
The point here is to be kind! Control is the first of the three-button attempt to survive. Like many other exit routes, it may reach its point of diminishing or even negative returns. And when it does, it is important to find a more elaborate and nuanced fix.
Bicycling in Cuba, I learned from the stop signs that the word Alto means stop. We have learned from biology that a prey animal who is in an inescapable shock situation, cornered by a larger predator, might go into a major organismic shutdown, with all the non-essential functions ratcheting down to almost nothing, so the animal might be barely more than faintly breathing. They might be “playing possum”, death feigning since most predators lose interest in dead prey. They might be making themselves completely numb to not feel the pain of being eaten, a worthy skill, I might add. I know I have written this before, but it makes so much sense that I don’t mind repeating it.
The freeze response is an alternative to fight or flight, and certainly better suited to an infant who cannot fight or flee. The withdrawal or absence of the primary attachment figure, usually the mother, at least at first, is experienced as life-threatening. The child may feel as if they will die. The freeze is adaptive, gets, in effect, learned by the little nervous system and body, and develops as a regular defense, a way to survive the experience of a lethal threat.
I was unnerved early in my now-long partnership, by how when I would get frantic and vociferously emotional when upset or activated, my partner would shut down, go quiet and withdraw, seemingly absent. I would become more frantic, feeling abandoned on top of whatever had upset me before. And he could readily say, “I didn’t do anything!” And that was true but so not true. This pattern in relationships became one of my early beefs as I began to study neglect. In most couples’ therapy, it appeared that the loud and emotional partner got all the blame and all the help, and the quiet, seemingly helpless one was off the hook and went unseen and un-helped. We must not be deceived by the quiet of the freeze, lest the child of neglect remain invisible, unrecognized, left alone again.
One of the ways I found of coping or self-regulating, was by making myself scarce, disappearing. Feeling pretty invisible already, it was a short hop to making myself a complete mystery. Of course, no one was really interested, I didn’t even really notice. But my whole life was a colossal secret; no one knew where I was or what I was doing. By the time I was thirteen, I was out on all-day bike rides and meeting much older guys. Of course, I learned how to drink, and no one really noticed.
For the child of neglect to be an island unto themselves, private, even secretive, a well of unknown that no one really cares to know anyway, is not unusual. Many kids get into much more trouble than I did, although I nearly managed to do myself in with anorexia. Used to being unseen and unheard, the child might capitalize on that, unwittingly perhaps exaggerate it or, in my case, in a strange way, take advantage of it. It was a lonely but reliable escape route that had to be slowly and very intentionally unravelled as I processed my trauma and learned how to trust and actually be safe with others.
So what of the three-button reboot being a good thing? Well, as we learn to recognize our activations, which may, in fact, follow any of these well-worn pathways, we can choose to stop action. I remember when my genius husband first said, “give me a minute to calm down; it’s not about you!” what a great line! I wish I had thought of that!