Language Arts: Neglect, Triggers, Dissociation

Back when I was in grade school, English class, or classes centered on writing, spelling and literature, were lumped together under the umbrella title of “Language Arts.” What an odd and interesting term. I looked up the Oxford definition and found “the study of grammar, composition, spelling, and (sometimes) public speaking, typically taught as a single subject in elementary and middle school.” Interesting to me that the subcategory was “arts.” 

In those days the prevailing myth assumed that girls were more likely to excel in these arts and were dumb in science and math. I certainly swallowed that belief, and real or imagined, always struggled with what are now known as “STIM” subjects: science, math and now tech. Even when truly inspired, motivated and curious, say about the brain in trauma, they have never been easy for me. 

When I first started learning about the brain aberrations in-memory processing occurring in trauma, I would listen to the lectures, in those days, cassette tapes, over and over again, until they finally stuck. Perhaps that is why I take such pains and derive such pleasure in finding language that is accessible to explain these things, art or not. And I admit I am a stickler about words. There are some words that I have very intentionally torn out of my personal dictionary, for one reason or another, and I make wide, sometimes irrational detours not to use them. I am a nag about insisting that my couples define their terms! so they speak the same language. And I am sometimes baffled by how suddenly a “new” expression or turn of phrase is on everyone’s redundant lips. How does this happen? Why is everyone suddenly saying “pivot” or  “guard rails” or “double down?” Oy vey.

Neglect

Admittedly I am a lover of words, a self-proclaimed wordsmith with my own private lexicon of faves, and gnawing dissatisfaction when finding the English language impoverished, and I simply cannot locate a satisfactory word for something I might be trying to express. Especially something profoundly important to me like Neglect. Neglect is one of those words that does not really “work.” For most people, it conjures images of the extreme: an absence of food, water, shelter physical safety- all of which while not being untrue, many of us thankfully cannot identify with. Even the more typical “latchkey” kids, who were pitched into self-care, meal preparation and childcare for younger siblings, may view theirs as being a safe and even abundant upbringing, especially if it was a household of privilege and plenty in material ways.

And neglect being a verb, connotes action. However, the trauma of neglect is primarily a story of inaction, of failures to act in essential ways. Survivors insist “nothing happened to me!” And they are right! That is the problem, the myriad of essential developmental experiences that are not delivered, that do not happen. In my quest to find a better word, I continue to come up empty. All I can think of is nothing.

Triggers

There are a number of reasons why I find the word triggers terribly wanting. Besides the reasons I have most readily given, which is that I hate the association to gun violence. That is true, however perhaps even worse is that the word has come to be batted around so loosely that its very precise meaning has been largely lost if not at least badly muddled. People seem to lump all sorts of emotional upsets under that label, and it often sounds like an accusation. 

To be precise, in the moment of trauma, the right amygdala is reset as an alarm system, fiercely poised to protect the brain and body from ever going through the traumatic event again. Any stimulus even vaguely reminiscent of the original trauma can trip the system, and activate the full-on fight-flight/freeze response, as if the dreaded experience is happening again right now. It becomes another emergency. The activated or restimulated person will demonstrate what appears to the outside world to be disproportional or dramatic “over-reactions” to what in real time may seem to the outsider as “no big deal.”  In real-time it probably isn’t a big deal, So the correct use of the term triggered (if you must,) would be this sort of activation, which is actually the word I prefer. However, the reaction itself is no easier to deal with if we call it something else. How I wish it were otherwise! For now, suffice it to say, if you are angry or hurt or frustrated, or your child or partner is, let’s call it that.  The too-big reaction is probably an uninvited visit from past trauma.

Dissociation

A complicated word worthy of its own whole book, of which there are many. For now, I will say one of the complicating factors about this word can be confusing, in that it has two distinct, related and exquisitely accurate and relevant meanings. The first is associated with a spacy, blur of attention and failure of presence. It often coexists with neglect, as the infant brain is under-stimulated from the absence of a parent brain to resonate with and develop with. There is a wide range of dissociative tendencies out to some extremes of dissociative disorders where individuals might lose awareness and fail to track chunks of time.

The other important meaning refers to a fractured self or spits in the self. As the IFS people reassure us, we all have various parts that work together and serve different functions or aspects of the self. And dissociation can refer to more dissonant or conflicted splits, aspects that perhaps contradict or wrestle with each other. Neglect survivors suffer from a number of these tensions, many of which I have written at length and surely will again: the dilemma without solution, where they/we might long for and be terrified of the same person; the Bermuda Triangle which is being plagued by the internal shipwreck between anger, grief and guilt, again all in the direction of the same person. Ironic how one definition of dissociation correlates to an absence or hazing out of emotion; while the other is an explosive storm of too many. All the more reason to watch our p’s and q’s, and speak with precision. Always a worthy goal. Sometimes I do think the world would be much better if we took the time to both express and understand what is earnestly being said.

In Memoriam:

As I close today, I’d like to pause a moment to honor the memory of Rosalyn Carter who passed on November 19th at the age of 96. Ms Carter was the US First Lady during the presidency of her husband, Jimmy Carter from 1977-1981. Carter seems to be one of the less remembered of US presidents, possibly because he was followed and somewhat washed over by the more dramatic (and perhaps traumatic) reign of Ronald Reagan. To me, however, Carter has always been remembered as a highly regarded good guy, because he championed human rights at a time when they were the centrepiece of my life, and little discussed in the larger world. Carter put human rights on the map, and in the daily national vocabulary. And Rosalyn accompanied him in not only that mission but also one more of her own. Besides being a devout feminist, she took up the unpopular gauntlet of mental health, making it her mission to both destigmatize it and make mental health treatment more humane and more accessible. She fought for mental health parity with the rest of healthcare, a work in progress even still. She was big-hearted, enlightened, and forward-thinking. As we continue her legacy, I thank her. Rest in peace, Rosalyn. And for myself, besides continuing her mission, well perhaps a language artist is the brand of artist I will always strive to be.

Today’s Song:

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