Unlocking – What the Pandemic Evokes About Neglect

It was March 16th, 2020 when the San Francisco Bay Area went into lockdown. That was the last time I was in my psychotherapy office. At the time, the mayor said it would be two weeks. On June, 15th 2021, the State of California re-opened. What a long, strange 15 months it was, filled with tragedy; painful and some invaluable lessons, and no shortage of traumatic triggers of many stripes.

Blessedly, the Pandemic was very kind to me. My 93-year-old father died barely a month before it struck so the agony of not being able to spend his final days and weeks with him, and also laying him to rest as a family, in the traditional ways. All of my loved ones stayed healthy and safe, including one who completed her chemotherapy also, just in time. And I could work relatively comfortably, from home. Interestingly, almost my entire practice stayed on for remote sessions. And I have quite a number of “new” people whom I have yet to see in person.

Before I had the hubris to believe I could never work by Zoom or telephone. To my surprise I learned that I could. It was not an easy transition I discovered that “Zoom Fatigue” is no joke. Because the many subtle communications and cues conveyed energetically; through eye contact, subtleties of voice and emotion are infinitely harder to discern, if at all, on an electronic screen. The brain concentrates extra hard to attempt to compensate for the elusive information. For months, “commuting” down the stairs at the end of my work day, I felt mind-numbingly exhausted. And the ongoing stress of failing technology, or fear of technical freezes and glitches, kept me on edge. But all of this settled over the long months, and by now, we are all fairly used to it.

Trauma, as we know, is not remembered but relived. My clients, being pretty much exclusively survivors of trauma and neglect were floridly activated much of the time. The Trump government managed to evoke virtually everyone’s traumatic childhood: caregivers who did not care about them; narcissistic parents; deceit and denial; self- interest; sexual exploitation; and plain and simple neglect of basic needs. Of course when triggering is intense and persistent, it is trying to tease apart, what is real time horror, of which there was plenty indeed, and what was being implicitly remembered. So much valuable therapeutic work was accomplished, but not without tremendous effort and pain. Thankfully city ordinance allowed me to cautiously and selectively open for Neurofeedback eventually, which was a great relief to many. Although they were equally pleased and proud to see how well their progress from our prior neurofeedback work, did “hold.”

In particular, those with histories of neglect swam in a sea of unremembered memory. My young niece aptly referred to Pandemic time as “blursday…” a haze of timeless, vacuous, redundant, lonely time.

This Is Your Brain on Neglect

Renowned neuroscience researcher Ruth Lanius has studied the traumatized brain now for over two decades. She has dramatic neuroimaging scans comparing the brains of survivors of trauma, which include survivors of developmental trauma and neglect. One painfully jarring set of images compares the Default Mode Networks of the traumatized brain with those of healthy controls. The Default Mode Network or DMN is the set of structures, mostly at the back of the brain, where the brain “idles” when it is not under task, but “resting.” Both idling and resting are “luxuries” that the traumatized brain rarely enjoys. The DMN is also the locus of self-reflection, the daydreaming or wandering mind of the healthy brain. In the scans, the back of the brain and its connections with the prefrontal area are brightly lit, which means blood is flowing to these areas, they are actively firing. In the trauma brain, virtually the entire brain is shockingly blank. There is no activity in this painfully under-aroused brain. This is story of the neglected child’s life. Lacking resonance with a caregiver’s brain, lacking attention, enriched environments, or contact, it is a desert of isolation. It is little wonder that many neglect survivors have attention and learning difficulties, due to their devastating lack of stimulation and care.

 Blursday not only replicated but evoked the desolation of childhood. It was timeless, as is the experience of neglect, it seemed like it would never end, and the neglect didn’t. That is largely what is so heartening about this Pandemic’s opening. It is a change in the seemingly endless “waters of oblivion” to quote Bob Dylan’s profound song “Too Much of Nothing,” which to me is the anthem of neglect.

 Again, trauma is not remembered but relived. Going through this Pandemic, which remarkably twinned the neglect experience: isolation, vast emptiness and confinement, boredom and redundancy, sleepy lack of stimulation, timelessness, was so familiar that it may not have been noticed by many. One client said, “I feel as if my whole life was training for this.” The astute therapist, with good timing, could take advantage of it, because it actually did evoke memory. And it also explained the depth of depression that many a child of neglect experienced going through it.

 Of course all the fear and death associated with the Pandemic, added complexity, as well as the rash of hate violence that was a backdrop for it. So more aspects of trauma and developmental trauma were chronically activated. Oy vey! What a year plus it has been. And yet in that annoying way that therapists have of saying, a whole lot of invaluable work got done, material became accessible to work on, that may not have been for a long time.

Hooray for a respite from it all! Let’s hope that the world will begin to recover and heal from all of this. There is still much to be grieved. So many deaths and terrible cancellations, losses and disruptions. And yet as I am fond of saying,

“Hope will not be cancelled.” Soldier on.

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