Learning From Experience Re-Experiencing, George Floyd, Breath

As we all know far too well, trauma activation is redundant, miserable, and exhausting. I avoid the word “triggering,” because it summons the imagery of gun violence, (although activations certainly can feel that violently jarring and even lethal,) but also because the word is used is too loosely in popular discourse. It can lose its real meaning.  What I am referring to is the invasion of traumatic history into the present moment as if the horrific event is happening again right now. It is the insidious way that trauma rather than being remembered, is re-lived. 

Actually however, these activations are a brilliant adaptation of nature in service of preservation of the organism, and the species. In its infinite wisdom, the brain is hell bent on preventing the traumatic event from ever recurring, so it reacts to any stimulus reminiscent of the trauma, as if it were the trauma, the real thing all over again. The explosive flip into survival mode is immediate and fierce: fight/flight/freeze, whatever is most available and most likely to facilitate safety. It is nature’s unsavory way of teaching us to learn from experience. Unfortunately, all too often, especially in the mine field studded realm of interpersonal relationship, we get lost in the confusion of time, and only after much repetition and effortful work, can we learn to tell past from present. I might be convinced that my partner really is attacking, terrorizing or abandoning me. And I certainly don’t want to let them off the hook by owning that I am being visited by ghosts from my past. Oy vey.  

Learning from experience, in all its myriad iterations throughout our lives, is a worthy endeavor. And economical too, it would save so much time, heartbreak, waste and destruction. But it is no fun at all, and certainly rarely quick, probably the hardest thing we ever have to do. At least that is what I tell my couples, and I know to be true for myself. 

“I’ve got my shortcomings and my flaws and I ain’t no better than nobody else. But man, the shootings that’s going on. I don’t care what ‘hood’ you’re from, where you’re at, man. I love you and God loves you. Put them guns down.”- George Floyd in a selfie video he shot several years before his death in 2020.

George Floyd

May brings with it another anniversary and painful memory of George Floyd’s traumatic murder in 2020. I think of him, perhaps as if haunted, often throughout the year, but being something of a walking day-runner of orbiting anniversaries and milestones, dates stick in my mind like super glue. I remember birthdays of boyfriends, friends, even clients that I have not seen in decades. My own flagged dates often serve as reference points for reflecting on my past cycles. I reflect, “where was I last year on this day?” and these dates help me track change. It is hard for me to believe that it is so many years already since Floyd gasped his infamous dying words. What have we learned? What have I learned?

Looking at the larger world, I might say, “not much.” Mass shootings are daily fare. Girls and women barred from opportunities for education, work, even reproductive justice. Wild and erratic, unfamiliar and often lethal cataclysms of nature, from drought to storms, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, destroyed harvests, devastated herds make it hard to deny the human perpetrated trauma to the climate. I, for one found it easier to minimize a year ago, being more compelled by the pillage of humans than of land. Now admittedly I am forced to “get it.” They are of course indistinguishable. Dysregulation on every scale.

Each day’s news is another bombshell of war, incomprehensible conflicts resulting in yet another intergenerational chain of attachment shock and trauma, not to mention PTSD; physical disabilities; widowed; orphaned; wrenched away loved ones and liked ones; traumatic grief and loss. All to trickle stubbornly through blood lines for years to come; “new” aberrations of attachment; and wrecked land rural and urban, forced to re-invent itself or persist as rubble. Again, dysregulation on every scale.

Each day’s news is another bombshell of war, incomprehensible conflicts resulting in yet another intergenerational chain of attachment shock and trauma.

Breath

Perhaps what I feel I have learned this year is a new discovery or deepening of a profound lesson, not really new to me, but that has bookended my life for as long as I can remember. I am anguished, flummoxed, and kept awake by what has often seemed to me to be competing demands of macro and micro. Compelled and driven by a life committed to activism, justice, and peace on the mass scale, I felt there was no other reason or excuse to live. Crashing and burning from my own dysregulation, and the unanswerable questions of the micro: interpersonal world, I have devoted my last four decades to the mysteries and miseries of that: the more micro, interpersonal world. But I never quite made my peace or reconciled the choice.

I remember when I first started studying and practicing somatics in the early 1980’s, something about sitting and breathing seemed so utterly self-indulgent, and “individualistic” to use the contemptuous language of my activist comrades. I didn’t have a clue back then how essential breath was to regulation. We activists “did not have time.” There was too much to do. Our relationships with each other were largely a disaster, children were born and often ignored, or their importance minimized in comparison with our ideological and tactical priorities. Our health was not on the table. What sort of breathless world will we create? 

Breath is nourishment and metronome of regulation, which is the basis for any sort of order. When I work with couples who can’t speak because they are so desperately running from an imagined tiger (their partner!) I teach them to stop action and practice 6:9 breathing. “Breathe in on 6 counts, out on 9 counts. Your inhale is stimulating: sympathetic. Your exhale is calming: parasympathetic. The long exhale will calm you down, bring you back into present time, regulate you anew. Try it for 10 breaths.” It is a very hard sell. But it is true, when we are calm we can think. When we are activated, we are like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, flailing wildly to its sorry end. Breath. Precisely what George Floyd was robbed of. But the lesson of breath is not what is new to me. What have I begun to comprehend differently this year? 

It is this no-brainer seared into my awareness in a different way: addressing trauma and not social justice is like trying to slay the hydra. We succeed in felling one head, and then sprout nine more, or 100 more. We must find a way to do both, regulate our own brains and relationships, and attend to a larger wildly dysregulated world. Trauma and social justice are two wings of the same bird.  We “simply” must learn to find our way in relationships so we can work together to stem the deadly tides. Regulation, regulation, regulation.

Reading this over, I fear I may have ignored neglect today. When I say “trauma and social justice” of course I include neglect in the category of trauma, but I am afraid if I don’t name it, it will disappear. I was the quiet middle of three sisters. I remember Aunt Gertrud and Aunt Lottie, my quirky old great aunts. Both would say of us through their thick German accents “one is prettier than the next.” Must be an old German expression. Anyway, being the one in the middle I came up short either way you started the count, or at least in my mind. I fell out of the picture. So let me explicitly say it so neglect does not fade out as the forgotten middle child. Trauma-and-neglect, and social justice are two wings of the same bird. Regulating one without the other is a lost cause.

Have a few delicious, deep regulating breaths in memory of George Floyd (and Eric Garner too, the “forgotten” prior utterer of the same famous words “I can’t breathe!”) And may all the countless martyrs of injustice throughout the world and across time, rest in peace. 

Todays 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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