Sometimes I wonder if you get tired of my invoking the Stone Age of psychotherapy or the trauma field. I find my mind so often drifting back in time to when I first started connecting dots and ideas. Maybe it comes with being at this as long as I have, or it is a simple fact of aging. I recently found myself remembering the early days of family systems theory and the then new-to-me concept of patterns originating in the family, replicating themselves like colorful block prints across the fabric of our relationship lives. I have always loved color and pattern, so the image was appealing. I remember making colorful block prints with carved potatoes stamping multi-hued snowflake designs to make home-made wrapping paper. I loved the symmetrical repeating designs. However, it can be somewhat chilling how persistent and powerful the imprinting is of repetitive relationships and personality-dynamics and roles.
What inspired this little cascade of thoughts, were reflections on the experience of immigrants and refugees. I was remembering how as children, we got a resounding confusing message about our home country, the US. My parents were both survivors and refugees of the Nazi Holocaust. After circuitous and traumatic flights, my father endured the Shanghai ghetto until he stowed away on a ship and fled yet again to Sydney, Australia; my mother ensconced in the basement of the kindly and philanthropic shoe-manufacturing Clark family in the UK, until they both wound up here in the States. My father remembered sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge. My mother recalled the Statue of Liberty. Both of them, young adults by the time they arrived, were brimming with unprocessed traumatic horror and only slightly older when they met. By the time we were born, they were both perhaps tentatively settled in this, their new country.
I remember best the inconsistent and ambiguous message and a big word I learned early: assimilate. We got the dual mandate to both blend in and slip under the radar, but not too much. Don’t lose our noble, even superior identity, our martyr’s heritage, and don’t forget what happened to us! I remember the militant Jewish Defense League (JDL,) and their battle cry of “Never Again!” although that certainly was not quite my parents’ paradigm. “But don’t stand out either!” And god forbid you intermarry, which would be unforgivable.
The underlying paradox was that the rescuing host nation that received us was simultaneously suspect, dangerous, and threatening. It had both saved us, but the fear persisted, as had happened in their native country; its people could suddenly and dramatically turn on us at any moment. In effect, the source of refuge, of safety and welcome, and the source of fear, suspicion and potential betrayal, were in the same people, the same land. Reflecting on this core refugee contradiction, I thought “Wow! That sounds identical to the familiar Dilemma Without Solution, the heart of neglect trauma. In this dilemma, the infant is faced with a similar insoluble contradiction: the longed-for, beloved other is the very same as the force of danger: loss, abandonment, erratic presence, and/or complete absence. An infant of course has no cerebral equipment to make sense of this problem, let alone respond to it, so they freeze, collapse and ultimately, if they don’t crack up completely, default to self-reliance. This pattern is the deadliest plague of neglect trauma.
Recognizing the dilemma of refugee/immigrant status, as being cut from essentially the same mold, fitting the template of neglect trauma, I began to comb the landscape of my life, picking out more and more examples of the same, as the family systems people named it, replicating patterns. The cookie cutter of the dilemma without solution, seemed to be stamping out cookies across the cutting board of my life.
Perhaps you also get tired of my rhapsodizing about regulation. It is true, I can’t talk about it enough, because it is so essential, and perhaps its failure is the essence of the legacy of every kind of trauma: the inability to restore or even ever experience a state of calm, peace, ease, comfort, after an upset of some kind, be it fear, anger, pain, simple startle, or any other disruption. Upset, dysregulation is so unpleasant, we will go to great lengths to quell or extinguish it, to make it go away.
Certainly, in my case, yet another default to the familiar template, I early discovered anorexia. And something about the seeming mastery over hunger, overpowering the drive for nourishment made me feel powerful and strong: a kind of euphoria, triumph; and numbing of pain. And yet at the same time, it was a source of terror. I knew that the danger was there to take it too far. That the very state that made me feel strong and powerful, made me feel dizzy, weak and terrified. What was I doing to myself? I relied on it to manage my pain, and it was simultaneously a well of more pain. Sound familiar?
It was a short hop to discover alcohol when I was 13. Same deal. It anesthetized me so effectively, and enabled me to have some semblance of relationships, even have fun. But before long it presented the familiar pattern: the other side. I was able to ignore it for a while. But eventually, I had to take note, that I started regularly having complete blanks in recall of the night before, I preferred not to use the correct term: blackouts, but that was what they were, every night. It gave me a jolt when one morning I found myself climbing out the window of someone’s room, having no idea of who that person was. But the dilemma being so familiar, and addiction being an additional powerful agent, it certainly took a while, (even after that!) before it actually stopped me for long.
Years later when I became a couple’s therapist, I began to see systems theory in action yet again. We bring our familiar patterns, learned in our families, to our adult partnerships and proceed to reconstellate them, unwittingly with our partners, who are of course doing the same thing. Then we endlessly, haplessly repeat the usually agonizing, disconnecting dance until ultimately, we get some help or break up. The good news, I always tell my exhausted couples, is that once we identify the redundant sequence, and process its root, we can eradicate the template. Pretty much all of the apparent problems, or content areas seem to simply evaporate, because they were never really the issue. And in my practice, because I work so much with neglect trauma, the now infamous Dilemma Without Solution, turns out to be the root difficulty, and with luck and hard work, might finally, find its solution. Some years ago now, I came across an admittedly comforting book, well comforting to me as I navigate my late 60’s: The Wisdom Paradox, (Penguin Random House 2006) authored by world-renowned neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg. He acknowledges that as we age, we do lose acuity of some brain functions. I hate to face that my memory, once a steel trap and source of pride, is not what it used to be, especially where scheduling is concerned. Oy vey! Goldberg demonstrates that the senior brain, however, becomes more skilled at pattern recognition! That is good news! Rarely do we learn of ways that we might actually improve as we age, (unless you are a cheese!) I do find that I can spot and put a frame around client/couples’ repeating patterns much faster and sooner than I used to Some of it of course is from the years of experience, but I do like the idea that I share the tendency with some of my best cheeses. I hope, however, I smell better than they do!