A moment to reflect

DSCN1172By 2005 I’d had enough. My custom electronics business, while very successful, was destroying me. I was stressed all the time, I lost weight, I couldn’t sleep, I drank too much.

Worst of all was what it was doing to my family. I was fighting with my wife and neglecting my children, who were 6 and 4 at the time. Even when I was home, I couldn’t leave work.

So I quit. We moved to Tucson and the kids started attending a charter school, named Presidio. They liked it and so, after their first year I applied for and got a job teaching high school English there (the school is K-12).

Continue reading “A moment to reflect”

Childhood trauma, fear of rejection, PTSD and the connections between them

I want to talk about childhood trauma and its long-term effects on people. The ideas that follow are not my own, though I may be putting them together a bit differently than others are. What I have to say here is a result of personal experience, research, one-on-one counseling, facilitating groups and my education in social work. It’s still kind of rough, but it may be of some use to you.

A good place to start is the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey). This is a large-scale study begun in the 1990s and continuing today. (You can find the 10-question survey here.) When the results first came in, two really surprising facts leapt out at the researchers. First, they were surprised to find how many people had suffered childhood trauma, a far greater percentage than they’d expected. Second, there was a huge, direct correlation between childhood trauma and negative health outcomes. Basically, the higher a person’s ACES score, the higher the incidence of all kinds of maladies, from diabetes to heart disease, from suicidality to depression and substance abuse. (This is a good video on it.)

In a nutshell, what we’re learning is that childhood trauma—things like having missing parents, abusive parents, substance abuse in the home, neglect—doesn’t just go away as people grow up. There are long-term repercussions. Trauma puts the child into fight-or-flight mode, the body releases stress hormones, and when a developing brain and body are exposed to those stress hormones over extended periods of time it affects everything from brain development to how cells read and transcribe DNA.

Now let’s talk about a condition most people are aware of, called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It’s not just something that soldiers get. Putting it very simply, PTSD afflicts people who go through periods of high stress and then, even when the stress has passed, continue to react and behave as if the stress is still there. The classic example is the former soldier who hears a balloon pop and reacts as if it’s a gunshot. A stimulus comes into the brain that most people would classify as harmless (balloon popping) and the brain, not having recovered from the stress, reacts as if the body is exposed to danger (adrenaline).

The basic symptoms of PTSD are: 1) re-experiencing/re-living the trauma (nightmares, unwanted thoughts you can’t get rid of); 2) hyper-arousal (overreacting to harmless stimuli); 3) avoidance (avoiding situations or people that trigger the painful memories); and, 4) feeling worse about yourself or the world (depression, paranoia).

Now, I’ve known what the symptoms of PTSD are for a while. But recently, while researching childhood trauma, I began reading up on it again and it suddenly struck me: I have all these symptoms. I’m doing a good job coping with them, but they’re there and they’re affecting me all the same. They must come from the trauma I suffered as a child (depending on how you interpret some of the questions on the ACES survey, I scored either a 6 or a 7). But why are they still so strong after all these years? It didn’t really make sense to me. I mean, I spent decades learning to forgive my father and move past what happened to me.

My research led me into learning about the human need for connection. We are highly social animals, highly motivated by our need for acceptance by other humans. This is no minor thing. I have come to believe that, after food and shelter, humans need acceptance more than anything. Being rejected by others is not just extremely painful, but was for much of our history literally a matter of life or death (if the tribe kicked you out, you were doomed).

Now let’s look at a newborn child. From the beginning, the most important people in a child’s world, the ones who that child most wants to be accepted by, are the parents. From an emotional standpoint, what the child needs most in the world is to be accepted by those people. If the parents reject the child—this could be through abuse, neglect, or even through death or divorce or any situation where one parent is absent—the child suffers trauma. (For a small child, dependent on the parents for the basics of life, it is more than just an emotional need, it’s a matter of survival. If those parents continue to reject, what will happen to the child?)

The human response to rejection is we try to regain acceptance. We smile, we placate, we demand in some cases, but we try to regain that all-important acceptance. Children do this as well. If time passes and the child is unable to regain that acceptance, he or she will look for it elsewhere, usually in other family members and then at school. If the child still can’t find it then the typical responses run from depression to rage.

But there’s more to the story explaining why this rejection is so difficult for the child. It lies in the developmental stages. Up until a certain age, children are unable to think beyond a very narrow, self-centered point of view. The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to look at our world beyond our immediate point of view, is not something we develop until around adolescence.

What this means is that an adult who is abused by someone can look at it and say, this guy who did that to me has some serious problems and is taking them out on me. A child who is abused can’t make that leap. From a child’s point of view, if Mommy is hurting me, it is because I am bad. There’s no other way the child can see the situation.

To recap: the child craves acceptance by the parents. If the child gets rejection instead, she goes into stress mode, the developing brain and body being flooded on a regular basis with stress hormones. Additionally, her interpretation of the situation is that it is happening because there is something wrong with her.

So, in addition to growing up traumatized, the child also grows up believing she is fundamentally flawed (usually this is not a conscious thought, but an unconscious one). Nice little double whammy, eh?

And this stuff, if there’s no healing, doesn’t go away. The negative beliefs about the self remain. And, with the PTSD, every time the afflicted person encounters one of those popping balloons, they go right into survival mode and react as if they’re in danger.

Let me try to explain this using my life as an example.

My father screamed at me and criticized me a lot. I can count on two fingers the times I remember him approving of something I did. Nothing I did made any difference. No matter how hard I tried he was never happy (there’s the rejection by the parent). Mom tried to buffer it, but she didn’t have the strength to stand up to him.

At school I never really fit in and because we lived so far out of town I almost never got to interact with my peers outside of school. Except for a brief period in my early teens, I never had a friend I could talk to. I grew up very alone, always in fear of rejection (much of my childhood I was in stress-response mode, fearful and having no idea how to get the acceptance I needed).

Adulthood rolled around and when I was about 19 I pretty much fell apart and had an epiphany, a realization that I had to change my life or die because I couldn’t continue this way. I began trying to understand what I was feeling and find some way back to health.

And it worked. I have close friends now. I’ve been married for nearly 20 years and I love and trust my wife. I’ve got great kids that I connect with.

And yet I’ve spent my entire adult life as a people pleaser, driven by an almost insane need to make people like me. A couple years ago I realized that I was nearing 50 and I didn’t actually know who I was. I’d spent my whole life trying to be what I thought others wanted me to be and driven by a deep, underlying fear that if I slipped up, people would go back to rejecting me and I’d end up alone again and there’s no way I can go through that again.

I realized that the stress of trying to keep everyone happy all the time was wearing me out, slowly killing me. And I was (and still am, though getting better) hyper sensitive to how people were reacting to me, to the extent that one casual comment from somebody could just send me into a steep spiral of paralyzing fear.

Are you seeing how this fits together? Long term trauma (rejection at home and school) left me twitchy, prone to overreacting to otherwise-harmless stimuli (the balloon popping). It’s like I’ve developed a severe allergy. The tiniest exposure to those things I fear causes a serious reaction.

So, what’s the answer? How do we get past this?

I’m sorry to say I don’t really know. A primary treatment of PTSD is exposure therapy. Basically, it involves gradual exposure to what you fear in increasing doses in the belief that in time you will get used to it and you won’t freak out so much. Well, I’ve done that on my own. For instance, I became a teacher. I had to get up and face the possibility of rejection every hour of every school day. I don’t know about other people, but for me, personally, exposure to my fears helped some but it never made them go away.

Another common therapy is cognitive therapy, basically helping people to see how their fears are irrational so that in time they get over them. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I absolutely know my fears of rejection are totally irrational. I have lots of people that I know love me. And yet knowing this doesn’t make the fear go away. So, again, some benefits, but not a cure. At least not for me.

What I am doing, what seems to help the most, is trying to embrace the pain. I’ve spent my whole life running from my pain. I’ve convinced myself it’s no longer there, that I’m over it. But when I slowed and looked, really looked, I discovered that there’s a ton of it still there, a huge lake down deep inside. I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling that the answer lies not in avoiding the pain, but in facing it. I think I have to pass through it. I have to actually feel it.

Living with PTSD is living in the past. It means getting triggered by seemingly ordinary events that suddenly transport me back to the past. I react as if I’m still a small child. I feel as if the younger me still lives inside me and so part of my healing is to go to him and hug him and tell him he’s not alone.

I don’t know. It’s a process. I’m getting better. The fact that I can share this is proof of that. But there’s still a long way to go.

I hope this helps.

The power of hurt

I used to believe that hurts just go away. I used to believe that if I push them down, put a smile on my face and just move on, that they just kind of dissolve. I’d feel better eventually. Everything would be fine.

I know now that’s not true.

Old hurts don’t “just go away.” No, what they do is fester. And, at least for me, as they fester, they get worse. They get infected. They spread to other areas of my life.

I grew up pretty isolated. Home was a painful place. Dad was angry, critical and abusive. When he was angry it was best to scatter and get out of his way. When he was in a good mood he teased and the teasing hurt as much as the angry criticism. Taking our cue from him, my siblings and I pretty much did the same things to each other that he did to us. Mom loved us but didn’t have the strength to stand up to him and he abused her as well.

School really wasn’t any better. I learned early on that the world was full of wolves and that the first second I showed any kind of weakness or vulnerability, they’d be on me. I was always pretty much the smallest, skinniest kid in school. Dad forced me to wear a crewcut when crewcuts were far from cool (this was the ‘70s). We lived on a ranch far from town so I never got to hang out with the other kids after school or on the weekends. I was always different and never fit in.

In 8th grade a new kid moved to town and for a very brief time I had a friend I could really connect with. That ended early on in high school when he betrayed me. I never trusted him again.

I never trusted anyone. I kept everything hidden. Inside I was freaking out, torn by emotions I couldn’t completely control and had no understanding of. I was alone and lost and frightened. I lived in fear of the next mistake at school, when the wolf pack would attack and shred me with their teasing. (I had a nickname that filled me with shame. There were kids who thought it was the height of humor to suddenly shout it out in the middle of class for no reason so that everyone could have a good laugh at my expense. I never showed that it hurt or bothered me. I believed what they told me, that if you don’t let them know they’re getting to you, they’ll eventually stop. That’s a goddamned lie.)

Except for angry outbursts at home when the pressure became too much, no one ever knew what I was going through. I was very good at hiding.

I went away to college and things were better. People were kinder. I had friends and felt accepted for the first time in my life. When I came near suicide after my freshman year I realized I had to change or it was going to kill me and I set out on a lifelong quest for some kind of inner peace. That quest has been the defining feature of my life.

Along the way I learned the importance of forgiveness. I forgave my father and others who had hurt me. I made amends for the hurtful things I had done. (And there were plenty. I turned on others whenever I could if it meant they didn’t get the chance to turn on me first.)

I learned to trust people more. I remade my life and it is a good one by all measures. Although I grew up in a painful, angry, broken home, I have broken the cycle. This fall my wife and I will have 20 years of marriage. I have two sons, both teenagers, and we have a very good relationship. Their childhoods are nothing like mine and I feel good about that.

But I have never been able to get completely over my past. I control it so that it doesn’t hurt those around me, but I still have a deep rage just below the surface. I still feel haunted by fear, mostly fear that people won’t like me. I haven’t let this fear control my life—I’ve traveled extensively, I’ve taught high school, I’ve worked with kids—but it has never gone away. I’ve faced it as much as I can, but I’ve also hidden from it a lot when I couldn’t take it anymore, mostly by drinking. I’ve done a lot of drinking. It makes the fear go away for a while.

I’ve also battled depression. My depression has gotten better. It doesn’t get me for days or weeks like it used to, but it’s always there waiting for me, a cliff edge I can never get very far away from.

Recently, while researching rejection for curriculum I am writing for adolescent male support groups, I came upon some interesting information. I learned that the emotional pain of rejection uses the same neural pathways as physical pain does. However, unlike physical pain, which recedes over time, emotional pain doesn’t. Try it. Close your eyes and try to remember how it felt when you really hurt yourself physically. Can’t do it, can you? Now, try and recall the most humiliating, shameful moment of your life, when you just wanted to sink through the floor. It’s still there, right?

Emotional pain doesn’t just go away.

According to the research I found, the pain of rejection is pretty much the greatest pain we humans can endure. Perhaps this is due to our distant, tribal past, when being rejected by the group meant getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Perhaps it’s because all life is connected on a deeper, spiritual level. Whatever the reason, the need to belong, to be accepted, is, after food and water and air, the most fundamental need every human being has.

I also learned that when we humans are rejected, we will go to great lengths to gain reacceptance. But what happens when we can’t get that acceptance? Depending on the person, we fall into depression, self-harm, escapism, anger and violence. Or all of the above. Males, especially, are prone to violence in our society, probably due to the fact that societal norms dictate that males have no feelings. To have feelings, to admit that our feelings are hurt, is to be called a “girl” or a baby or worse. Anger is often the only real outlet left.

So, what is an abusive, or absent, or emotionally unavailable parent to a child but the ultimate form of rejection? The earliest, most fundamental social circle for a child is the parents. When they reject the child it creates a deep hurt. When the child can’t gain that acceptance at home, the next step is to look further afield. School. Peers. Teachers. If the acceptance can be found there, it helps a lot. Doesn’t fix the fundamental hurt, but it does help.

But if the child can’t find it there either, what then? Maybe a lifelong battle with depression. Maybe an unquenchable anger.

Maybe a deep, irrational fear that the acceptance I have found as an adult is only an illusion. At any moment I could be found out and then I will go back to being isolated and alone. Only this time it would kill me.

That’s what I mean when I say that old hurts don’t just go away. I’m coming to see that this kind of sustained emotional trauma leaves a deep pain that affects my life decades later.

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this deep well of pain inside me that I am finally, fearfully acknowledging. I know I have to feel it, that I can no longer minimize it, pretend it isn’t all that bad. I have to move through it to get to the other side.

Whatever it takes, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to finally be free.