switchbacks

Switchbacks: Weaving, Weather, Nonlinearity

Weaving

I really only remember seeing our dad cry once. Our family all piled into the old Chevy wagon, driving in a torrential New York City downpour. I don’t remember what he was upset about; it was rather a flashbulb image of his face, framed in the rearview mirror, with a backdrop of the windshield wipers slapping back and forth. Finding it unbearable to see him that way, I focused on the rhythmic back and forth of the wipers, slap, slap, slap.

That sudden flash of recall unleashed a chain of other snippets of time in the car, which were rarely much fun. Our mom was perennially anxious, and what I recall most about being in an enclosed energy field of her pulsing hyperarousal was a gripping in my stomach, which I can feel just thinking about it. Our dad loved looking at airplanes, and he sometimes seemed even to be teasing her by enthusiastically following their flight with his eyes clearly not on the road. I remember her saying, “Achh.. do me a favor…” with her fingers spread wide like rakes, nails dug into the sides of her seat. She was similarly rattled by some random driver recklessly “weaving” back and forth across multiple lanes, grabbing an extra car length this way and that to gain speed and time. She was jumpy and also convinced we would all meet up at the next signal anyway.

I rather disliked the harsh association between reckless driving and “weaving.” I loved sewing from an early age and so loved fabrics and textiles. As I got into my early teens, I was fascinated with weaving, particularly Andean weaving. I had a small wooden frame loom and tried my hand at simple designs, never getting very good at it. My childhood boyfriend had a Greek friend named Thalia. She was a ”real” weaver and had an enormous floor loom that took up much of a room. I remember being enthralled watching the shuttle fly back and forth, back and forth, creating beautiful patterns. I still have a deliciously warm blanket she wove over fifty years ago. That steady toss back and forth of the shuttle made for a durable and strong mesh that still warms me almost daily.

The feeling of grinding doggedly up a steep mountain, thinking I have reached the top, to wend around a bend to find that what I thought was the summit was, in fact, not at all. There is something crushing about it.

Weather

It has been heartbreaking hearing the urgent reports about the floods in Pakistan. I can barely imagine one-third of a country being underwater. One story particularly jarred me. There was a first storm that seemed to be clearing. Streets were beginning to drain; the sky freshly scrubbed, bright and blue, puffy white clouds ringed by breakthrough sunlight. People began to cautiously venture out and gradually celebrate that the storm had passed. 

But the lull was short-lived. It was not long before the sky closed and darkened again, and the brief respite was chased off-stage by yet another ferocious onslaught of storm waters. Somehow that feeling touched a chord in me, felt familiar, of being elated that something unbearable might have passed and dismayed or devastated to find that it had not, or not for long. Again, like being batted back and forth.

I was proud to be a strong and undaunted hill climber on the bike. I can’t say it didn’t sometimes really hurt, and it cost me dearly to keep going. Neglect being an exercise in dogged endurance, I was well trained. I remember that same feeling, or something I imagine to be similar to the whiplash of the Pakistanis, perhaps, as it is rather obnoxious to compare something like life-threatening flooding with recreational cycling. The feeling of grinding doggedly up a steep mountain, thinking I have reached the top, to wend around a bend to find that what I thought was the summit was, in fact, not at all. There is something crushing about it. I can barely imagine how those Pakistani people felt, thinking that perhaps their homes had survived one assault and then being knocked back into terror and uncertainty. Back and forth. Back and forth. Not unlike the traumatic life of a child abused in the inescapable family home.

 All of history consists of a constant clash of contradictions, an endless struggle between social and material forces that makes for an endless swing from pole to pole throughout history.

Nonlinearity

When I started college, like many of us who grew up unmoored and dysregulated, I groped and reached for stability in philosophical anchors and ways of understanding the world. The ones I grew up with were way too ill-fitting, dissonant, or outright objectionable. I remember when I first read Karl Marx’s “Alienation of Labor” – it seemed one of the most profound pieces of writing I had ever come across. Thinking on it now, his description of alienation resonated like an identical twin to the experience of neglect: disconnection, dehumanization, confusion of purpose, emptiness, and lack of choice. I was gripped. Then I encountered the Marxian concept of Dialectical Materialism.

Certainly not one for heady concepts, I was rather more like Winnie the Pooh, who said, “I am a bear of small brain and big words annoy me…” But this idea spoke to me. In an extremely simplified form, it is the notion of a play of opposites. All of history consists of a constant clash of contradictions, an endless struggle between social and material forces that makes for an endless swing from pole to pole throughout history. One social order crashing into another, which prevailed for its time until swung aside by its opposite and on and on and on through time. 

It has been something of a comfort to me, when I am horrified or disheartened by world events, to trust that inevitably there will be the opposing swing that will deliver us in the other direction. Similarly, while sobering, it also helps me guard against complacency when things seem to be going my way for a time. Somehow, at least in some ways, we appear to make inching evolutionary “progress,” depending on how we measure (or who measures!) progress, of course. 

People often ask me, especially at the start of therapy, but frequently along the way, “How long is this going to take?!” Or they lament feeling (a word I abhor!) “stuck.” I have to remind them, and sometimes myself, that this journey is not linear. It is simply not a straight shot. I remember my first neurofeedback teacher telling us, “You must remind people that this process is not linear.” As we deepen and go further back and further into material we may not have understood or even consciously known about before, we may find ourselves back or newly in truly miserable states. 

Peter Levine has a practice in his work that he calls “Pendulation” where one learns to intentionally move back and forth between states, from trauma activation to present time, in an effort to make the back and forth conscious and intentional; and achieve some mastery or control over them. The idea is to become more flexible, resilient, and stable. And additionally, we do not always achieve the result we had in mind. Healing work is rarely a straight shot and may lead to something different, possibly even better than what we could have imagined.

The healing journey is inarguably non-linear. Rocking babies, the swinging pendulums in hypnosis, bilateral stimulation in EMDR, rhythmic movement pole to pole, side to side. Many a steeply graded trail or road is built in the form of switchbacks. They zig and zag right and left: one cannot see what is just ahead. Winding to and fro, around a mountain might be the way up an incline that is simply too steep to tackle straight on. It is also a reminder that, dialectics aside, few things in life are non-stop flights from here to there. There is little that is explicitly linear (except perhaps aging, darn it!). Much of life seems to be, in fact, switchbacks.

Today’s song:

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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