Not Sloth: Blame, Freeze, Recovery

Painfully often, I hear laments from clients and occasionally from myself, about squandered time. It may be the understandable and often enough blaming impatience about how unbearably, interminably slow it is, if possible at all, to feel better after childhood trauma and neglect. I have come to identify what I call the “Bermuda Triangle” of painful emotions: the triumvirate of resentment, guilt, and grief. Resentment, even rage at how trauma of all kinds, the greedy and gluttonous pirate commandeers and robs us of life and life force; guilt about the aggressive and bitter ferocity of the resentment; and the tragic boatload of grief for all that is stolen, lost and missed. And time, once gone, at least as far as we know, is gone forever. 

The time it takes to heal seems interminable, unjustly so. And whose “fault” is that? The inept or self-interested therapist, the hapless or “lazy” client? Adamantly and insistently adhering to a “no-blame” paradigm, I refuse to get caught in that question. But I am interested in the question of “laziness” because I am similarly opposed to the harshly self-judgmental question of that. 

I remember in junior high school, the rhetorical question bandied around, “Would you rather be lazy, mean, or stupid?” Mean vs. stupid seemed a no-brainer to me, but lazy? Where does that fit in, and how also in relation to meanness? Being good, not only kind but good in every moral sense, seemed wound in with exerting “enough” well-intended effort, which would certainly cancel the question of “sloth.” And patience? I’ve always found it ironic and weird that all manner of sick people are called “patients” because, as I have always said, “I have none!”

Rather than get caught in morality or rhetoric, I shall attempt to defer to science because if aids in understanding even a bit of what underlies the drag and drain of time and effort that trauma work does and does not extract, it helps even a smidge, to defer the guilt and shame about purposeful action, I’ll take it.

Collapse and Freeze

Speaking of time, I am endlessly amazed by how, very briefly, in historical times, we have understood and incorporated the workings and the wisdom of the brain in our knowledge of mind and behavior. However, perhaps being unable to study the living human brain was the reason. It is perhaps no surprise that in the last 30 years, since we have had neuroimaging technology so we could actually observe and study the workings of the living human brain, we have learned more than our total previous knowledge of neuroscience. Yet too many of us swept up in the storms of the Bermuda Triangle lose sight of that. Insistent on one’s own shortcomings, sloth, or blanket failure, becomes a personal character issue.

In the early 1990’s pioneering attachment researchers Allan Schore and Daniel Siegel began to teach the psychotherapy field about the fundamentals of neuroscience. Schore was admittedly a grueling challenge for non-neuroscientists to read, but Siegel’s gentler 1994 The Developing Mind was a game changer. The two of them, not without plenty of effort and some ineptitude, turned my head around. Long story short, they made it abundantly clear that the human infant brain develops in resonance with the brain of the mother, or most typically or naturally the mother, right hemisphere to right hemisphere, through the gaze. That exchange, a rhythmic dance, seemingly magically, stimulates a growing and evolving sense of self in the deep, primitive brainstem area. The sense of self begins there.

Fluctuations of state and in the environment are, of course, natural and certainly to be expected. An infant, being a bundle of endless needs, will, of course, at times be hungry, cold, over-tired, wet, bored, in pain, needing a hug, or simply, well, being an infant, cranky. Similarly, a parent will be sleep deprived, stretched thin by other kids and not enough help, struggling with the demands of partnership and family, making ends meet, or managing their own past or present trauma. The possibilities for interrupted or imperfect attunement are infinite. The attachment researchers insistently and gently remind us that the best of the best are accurately attuned, matched, and in sequence with the infant 30% of the time. The rest of the time, they are working to regain the rhythm, restore the resonant connection, and regulate themselves, meaning return their own nervous systems to the best calm they can muster and similarly restore the child to calm. This is the ideal of the essential dance of attachment. Which is, of course, tragically rare in this dramatically unsafe, unpredictable, and often lonely world. Again, this dance is the regulating ideal. With luck, this experience of regulating others promptly restoring a baseline regulation ultimately stimulates circuitry and the healthy growth of a brain equipped to self-regulate. This is nature’s design. And, of course, it presupposes, it assumes that there is that beloved other.

What happens when the mother/caregiver is not able to provide either a consistent presence, or due to circumstance past or present, trauma past or present, is unable to calm and settle themselves, restore their own balance, let alone that of the dependent other? Or is not loving? The child then gazes into (or attempts to) a terrified, terrifying, angry, depressed, blank face. And god forbid, what if there is no face there at all? This is the beginning of the story of developmental trauma: the experience of being overwhelmed begins the agony of lonely dysregulation.   

Attachment is a survival need like food, water, and oxygen. I might add that when the attachment is withdrawn, the child, and most of all the very young child experiences that withdrawal as a lethal threat to their very existence. Loss or withdrawal of attachment, whether it be through an ordinary life in a family, poverty, violence, intoxication, illness, death, or countless other possibilities, endangers survival and, ultimately, existence. It constitutes a traumatic shock, what Dr. Frank Corrigan has aptly named attachment shock. 

This is an essential takeaway: this attachment shock, whatever its cause, is no joke! It is not “small t” trauma, not a lesser trauma or “step-child.” Developmental attachment and neglect may be the most destructive trauma it is possible to experience. (Although I try never to compare “worst worsts.”) Suffice it to say, we are decidedly pack animals, and the human child is dependent on caregivers longer than most, if not all, other mammals. The structural development of the brain is not “complete” until we reach our middle twenties, and even then, for many, the dependency and continuing maturation process may persist a good deal longer. Those of my readers with kids even in their twenties know this far better than I do!

In the “inescapable shock situation,” such as a prisoner under torture or, most certainly, a dependent young mammal, the child or prey animal cannot fight or flee. A predator much greater in strength and size than oneself, unless one is like David the “Goliath-slayer,” is rarely an opponent that the prey can harm or incapacitate. And certainly, an infant and most children cannot successfully escape on their own steam. What options do they have? What we see in the natural world is the prey animal will adaptively “freeze” or collapse. Either, like the notorious possum, will feign death, as most predators, not tempted by dead prey, will lose interest in the meal and wander off in search of “greener pastures. Or the prey animal will ratchet down its sensory receptors and basic functions, numbing away the pain of being eaten. The brain in this freeze response may, in spite of the flood of overwhelming stimulation, appear to be firing very slowly, and the impetus for survival, particularly interpersonal action, may be grossly muted or stunted. Thus, the slow-firing brain, the passivity we often encounter with attachment/neglect trauma survivors. It is the thwarted rhythm of the, in effect, under-stimulated brain. Although it is counter-intuitive, due to under-stimulation or inconsistent presence, this infant searches for rhythm and resonance, like the proverbial “one hand clapping.”

Recovery

Finally, back to our original topic of time and blame: it makes sense to be heartbroken in grief about lost time and the seemingly bottomless “bucket” of aspired-to or longed-for accomplishments and experiences. It may appear, to oneself anyway, as sloth, as the dreaded “laziness,” or simply being “stupid” or not good enough. Let’s do our best to avoid that sort of thinking. A tall order, I know. It is easier for many of us, certainly for me, to reserve compassion and understanding for the other, for parents, whose trauma was decidedly “traumatic,” trivializing one’s own. That kind of thinking is simply not accurate and certainly won’t help us to accomplish more. It is true that the time that was stolen cannot be retrieved or seized back can never be re-earned no matter how “good” we are. We, therefore must find a way to create our own peace, our own “currency” to somehow restore ourselves.      I remember when we were growing up. Lots of the American kids around us were rewarded for the achievement of a good report card and got paid cash for their A’s and even B’s. I thought that was a fine idea. Being generally the hardest-working student in most of my classes, my grades would have been worth a nice little jackpot. Dad thought that mercenary little American transaction was insane, routinely, laughingly saying to us, “I want you to be good for nothing!” I never thought it was terribly funny.

Today’s song:

 

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