“Why Won’t You ‘Just’ Talk to Me?”

As I was pondering the recurring devastating dynamic between a couple I work with, a memory from my own life bubbled up. For those of us who have the minimal and spotty memory of early life, typical of neglect, these little forays into memory are rather like wandering through a curio shop. Much of what is there is uninteresting “junk.” But occasionally there is something surprising, or worthy of a closer look. Out of nowhere I found myself reflecting on a joke my father used to tell. 

Our dad had a very quirky way of telling jokes. He thought he was pretty funny, but I remember also seeing a book by Henny Youngman a Jewish comic of that generation, and sometimes other joke books lying around, so he must have studied a little bit to make himself a more entertaining singing-waiter back in the day, and later in his profession as a cantor. When he told a joke, the “body” of the joke was unremarkable. But as he approached the punchline, he would burst into peels of laughter, to the point that he could hardly get the words of the punchline out. It would take a few tries. By the time he actually told us the punchline, we were all doubled over with contagion laughter and barely heard it. Then he would repeat the punchline maybe six times, and we would all be in stitches.  In “ordinary consciousness,” it may not have been funny at all, but these moments of family hilarity now seem somehow sweet.

I remember one joke however, well I don’t remember the joke, I just remember the punchline, which was an emphatic “Ernest, Answer me!” And for some reason I just did not think it was funny. Ernest Ansermet (pronounced like “answer me”) was a world-class Swiss conductor of our dad’s era, a contemporary of Debussy and Stravinksy, so it was a play on words. But to me, a wife being desperate for her husband to just speak, was anything but amusing. I found myself remembering with a chill, the urgency, even terror I felt when the loved other would clam up, withdraw, or appear in a word, to abandon me.

Even before we got the PTSD diagnosis, neuroscience and psychology, and ultimately all the rest of us, were familiar with the “fight-flight” response to fear and trauma, even when we had little understanding of what trauma was. Later we learned that there was an additional adaptation or reaction to danger or fear: the “freeze” response. (We have since learned of a number of others, but those will be for another day). The freeze is the response to the “inescapable shock” situation, when fight and flight are simply impossible, like in the case of chronic torture, or abuse in the home where the nightmare does not stop, and the child cannot leave; or a prey animal being cornered and trapped by a larger, stronger, or faster predator. It also may be a kind of “death feigning” where the prey animal pretends to be dead so the predator will lose interest and just go away. Most predators don’t want to eat dead prey. 

In the case of early neglect, the child learns early, that there is no point in crying or protesting, because there is no response, certainly not a favorable response. So withdrawal into the self is an understandable adaptation, and most likely becomes a default. If I know I have no impact, why bother? I might make myself more of an irritant or a blight than I already experience myself to be, or just simply call attention to myself which may not be such a good idea. Of course these are not “cognitions” or thoughts per se, as the cognitive apparatus is not nearly developed for a long time. But they are “procedural” or bodily, emotional or sensory modes that are installed rather like software, through experience. And they are stimulated in sensory ways at points later in life, so not experienced as “memory”.

One of the most devastating experiences that a young child can have, is what I refer to as the tragic poverty of “mirroring”. Mirroring is where the child experiences being seen, heard, and known, and in effect, “felt.” “Feeling felt” or an empathic reflection back to me, of what is accurately and receptively “me” is how I come to know who I am, and also how I learn to recognize and express feelings. The child of neglect has little or no experience of being mirrored. And without that, there are gaping holes and blank spots. As a cheese maker I object to these holes being likened to the holes in cheese. In the cheese-making world, those highly desirable, elegant markers of a good “Alpine” cheese, are referred to as “eyes”. In neglect, they are more like ravenous caverns of emptiness and hunger. They might be experienced as dull flatness, physical hunger, or some other misguided attempt at getting “filled up”.

As a result of the failure of mirroring, the child misses out on an emotional “education”. The capacities to perceive, identify and express one’s own emotions, and the emotions of others is minimal at best, as is a comprehension of why that would matter anyway.  If the child is male, US and western culture will re-enforce a cognitive or “logical” default, and possibly devaluation of emotion. Although neuroscience has taught us that emotion is an important aspect of cognition and even coherent thought, that can be a very hard sell. Meanwhile if my partner is unexpressive of their own emotion, or rather oblivious to mine, if they are a child of neglect, it may be, not because they don’t care, but literally that they can’t – or not yet. 

Powerful change is possible in psychotherapy. In a well facilitated couple’s therapy, a child of neglect can experience strong emotion safely and learn to comprehend and process it. Through experience some of the important brain areas are helped to develop later in life. Neurofeedback is another royal road to emotional intelligence, as it might bring relevant brain areas into connection with each other. None are a quick fix, and like working out, take consistency and practice to sustain change.

Of course, it can be very confusing when there is both early shock trauma, or incident trauma and neglect, which is most often the case. A child most likely cannot be assaulted, beaten, or somehow ravaged, with an attentive, caring protector present. Or if they are, there is a caring and comforting response process that can make a world of difference in impact of the injury. Often the failure of having a place to turn with the traumatic event is even more traumatic than the injury itself. When there is a history of both: incident trauma and attachment trauma/neglect, often the default for that child is fight-flight.

In the couple we opened with (a heterosexual couple although that need not be the case;) she had a tragic history of both. When he seemed to go silent and withdraw, she would vociferously protest. Her loud cries would awaken in him a helpless overwhelm, that left him speechless. When he did not speak, she would panic, and get louder and more shrill. He would withdraw farther. She would by now be semi-hysterical, running from a tiger, unaware of how both extreme and critical her screaming was. He felt so ill equipped to do anything to make it stop, that sometimes he would leave the room, the house, even leave her somewhere. I have seen couples mired in this dynamic where one partner was left on a dark street in an unfamiliar town, and the other drove off. They persisted a long time in their agonizing pattern. When this unbearable dynamic would constellate in my office, as it could on any topic, I could feel the sense of life-threatening emergency of both in my own body. It could begin with either partner. (And that was a hard sell indeed!). Both felt terribly victimized by the other. It might take weeks to recover. Both were desperate to learn what to do. These two were not unique by any means. 

So, what is to be done? Well, there is little hope of convincing anyone that no one is to blame! At least not while activated. I always tell people, “The reason why you have me, is so there is one person in the room who is in present time! Everyone else is deep in their traumatic history. But there is no way to say that when we have two brains deep in trauma. So, what to do?

First of all, quiet the nervous system enough so the thinking brain comes back online. I might as well be “passing gas” in the wind, so to speak as to try and teach anything to anyone in that state. It is even hard to do this much, but I try to teach them: “stop action!”.

Take a break and breathe. Your breath is your best friend. Your inhale is ‘sympathetic’ or stimulating. Your exhale is ‘parasympathetic,’ or calming. So looooong exhale. I recommend closing the eyes, breathe in on six counts, out on nine, and do that, ten times. No one leaves the room.

It is hard to teach this, but as we learn to revisit the tragic stories of those two little kids, it eventually becomes easier. If from the quieter state, either one is able to say, “please talk to me…” or the other is able to say simply “I don’t know what to say,” or “I was afraid if I said anything I would make it worse…” a gentle truce may become possible. That is our goal.

I always wondered why I loved that old song by Peter Gabriel, “Please Talk to Me!”.

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.

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