The painful cost of trauma : understanding abandonment depression

Painful trauma has a way of driving us out of our body.  To have lived with an intolerable reality which we are given no help to process or understand is an agony beyond words.  Not to be held, understood and empathised with in our suffering means our neurobiology cannot be soothed, we become flooded with stress chemicals such as cortisol.  Recent studies show that empathy increased the presence of oxytocin in our neurobiological systems.

I know the relief that has come for me in therapy as  have been able to let my own feelings out.  I know the damage that has occurred when, in trying to express said feelings with unsafe others who are defended, blocked or lacking in empathy they have become, not only trapped within, but other feelings have then occurred in reaction such as pain, disappointment and distress.  It was only last week in reading the chapter on abandonment depression in James Masterton’s book on the real self that I became aware of how complex and multilayered the feelings of that state are.  It is within the abandonment depression that we feel suicidal as it contains what Masterton has labelled the six feelings of the psychic apocalypse, very aptly named.  Guilt, rage, panic, fear are four of these feelings.

In recovery those of us who have undergone trauma or abandonment trauma need help to understand our feelings and the courage and strength to bear with or integrate these feelings. Rage is a huge part of what we feel when we meet again invalidation or similar abuse that triggers our earlier abuse.  There is panic when we face the rage which also comes with a great deal of fear, after all when we were younger and abandoned we experienced fear as we were confronted with overpowering situations of stress and distress which we can go on reliving unconsciously for years and had no help with.

In our recovery we begin to regress to these feelings and since such a huge part of so called borderline trauma involves invalidation or lack of support and empathy, when we meet such triggers again, we can regress and find ourselves once again filled with grief and rage.  Our overt reactions will most likely not be understood by those who have no idea of the complexity of feelings we are left trying to contain, process and express as a result.  This why we need in recovery an enlightened witness who is able to show empathy for what the real self had to suffer in childhood which led to the adoption of a false self as a defence against fully feeling the complex feelings of the abandonment depression.

In his book on Complex PTSD Pete Walker deals with the abandonment depression.  He also explains how the inner critic becomes very active at a certain stage in our recovery, shaming us for daring to recover and try to become well.  The inner critic may be comprised of things said to us when young by others who tried to shame or judge us instead of showing empathy or helping us make sense of difficult feelings.  We can shame ourselves in similar ways for our reactions, which comes often from the so called ‘adult’ part of us that won’t accept or allow the child to be the child, vulnerable, tortured at times and deeply confused.

Empathy is so essential as we begin to deal with our inner critic less we start to shame the child all over again in a bid to protect it or protect against the feared rejection of others that we experienced in the past.  It’s a complex process.  We do need to become aware of when we become triggered or start to act out old pain, but shaming ourselves for it won’t work and help us to heal.  Painful feelings need to be lovingly contained and soothed for true healing and integration to happen.

Rocking

My heart broke this afternoon to arrive to see my Mum in her chair in the hospital arms wrapped around her shrinking body rocking with her head down.   I wrapped my arms around her and cried.  She spoke of her anxiety attacks and how finally one of the doctors had asked her about her emotional history.  Thank God they finally began to make some connections between what she has gone through emotionally and the physical ailments that are besieging her.  I wish my Mum had found somewhere to pour out her pain years ago when she struggled to deal with the abandonment issues that led her first daughter to collapse.   I think now it is a case of not enough and too late.

I emotionally connect to my Mum only when we are alone.  When my sister is there or there are other visitors Mum stays silent about her pain.   It may be good that the focus is off of her pain for a while but at the same time there is so much I feel she needs to share.  I am under no illusions that I am my Mum’s saviour but I know how painful grief and isolation are.  I look back with sadness at the time I needed to ask for or lean on my Mum’s support but could not due to an old pattern. I got angry or fearful and ran.   I can not have those lost years back, over 13 years now that saw the end of my marriage which also hurt my Mum so deeply and led me to a deeply isolated place from which I am only now beginning to emerge.

I know I didn’t do anything ‘wrong’ but choosing the actions I did led me to more isolation, at the time I was in recovery for addiction so my emotional awareness had not yet begun to open up.  I did not know how I would deal with what was below the surface if I reached towards those who were struggling with their own pain and so several times I took myself off alone.   Its confusing as I probably could have healed on my own at a safe distance years ago, but now I don’t feel that either me or my mother can.  Our healing or coming to peace involves our need to connect and come out of the prison of emotional isolation that seems to have dogged us like a curse along the multi generational line.

It was so hard to leave the hospital just over an hour ago, but I knew I had to come home to take care of my dog Jasper and myself too.  Without self care there is nothing for me to give to anyone else.  I am so sad that I cannot connect with anyone else in my family at this level at the moment.  My nephew who I thought I was close to has not returned my calls.  The sad fact is that fear keeps many members of my family emotionally distant and disconnected from each other, that and a stoic kind of self sufficiency and concern with material worldly things that ultimately, to my mind, seem unimportant at the level of heart.

Sad as the situation is though, I must accept it.  I can only give the love I feel and I can pour out my disappointment about my family’s lack of emotional availability with my therapist, Kat who understands.  Modern life seems so busy and superficial at times.   People shake their heads when someone chooses to end their life as if its a great mystery as to what made them do it.  “Why didn’t they reach out?” they bemoan.  But when did that actually pick up the phone to say “How are you, and how are you feeling?”  How many people end up suiciding because for years they were never truly seen at an emotional level?   Of course if we feel desperate we can and should open up emotionally but what I feel is more of a problem for our society is how deaf we have become to essential matters of the heart with our rampant preoccupation with the cult of materialism and individualism.   Its a deep dark truth and its one we need to change.

 

Understanding the wounds underlying borderline reactions

I often struggle when I read that people with so called BPD are struggling with being able to understand that what seem to others to look like ‘over-reactions’ are actually grounded in past experiences of not being met, responded to with empathy or sensitivity or being given what we truly need.  As a result we tend to carry a lot of inward frustration and what I would called ‘historical suffering’ which can get triggered in the present by either perceived abandonment or invalidation which we then project and can tend to respond to in ineffective ways.   Our reactions may seem out of order and beyond context but we do need to understand that they do make sense once our true history is understood.

Core wounds and old pain act in many ways like black holes of suffering that can be triggered in the moment and then suck us down.   Dialectical Behavioural Therapy was developed by Marsha Linehan a sufferer of BPD who found she needed help with thinking about her thinking and responses to current events when old pain was triggered.  From what I understand DBT involves finding ways to reframe our reactions to triggers and soothe distressing painful inner self talk which then promotes us to over react to current situations in which some old wound, pain or sensitivity is then triggered.

I am often wary about the diagnosis Borderline Personality.  Most so called ‘borderline’ individuals started life as highly sensitive beings who were supremely in touch and high wired in terms of respondability to external stimuli.  As babies they required a high level of attunement, mirroring, empathy and sensitivity to their cues, hungers and needs from caregivers and often they find themselves born into environments ill equipped to deal with and respond affectively and effectively to them.  As a result they often are not soothed adequately and also do not manage to internalise the messages of adequate self soothing and self care which would enable them to mother themselves effectively.

When such a conditioning occurs it leaves a deep wound or hunger in the soul.  The borderline or highly  sensitive person is highly attuned and intelligent.  They notice things that others don’t.  They may try to point out things others don’t see or do not understand and they can then be abused or invalidated for such perceptions, seeing or understanding as adults and also when young.  They can then internalise this kind of abuse or misunderstanding coming to believe ‘there is something inherently wrong with me’.

They may then try to adapt to what is expected of or projected onto them, rejecting themselves in the process.  They may also lack the capacity to understand the very real limits and different ways of reacting of the non highly sensitive individuals around them, getting angry or flying off the handle when empathy is not shown to them.   The realistic truth if understood by the borderline/sensitive would show that the less sensitive were only reacting to the highly sensitive individual out of not understanding a depth of feeling, particular perception or way of being which varies greatly with their own, rather than this being a sign of something ‘wrong’ with either person.

Such an understanding for the so called borderline or highly sensitive individual requires a high level of inner work as well as a detailed unpacking of ways in which the nurturing environment failed to respond in empathic ways, leaving key wounds or perceptual distortions kicking around inside the borderline or HSP.  Arming ourselves with such deeper emotional understanding involves work with an empathic person who can help us with this process.  Then and only then can we begin to work effectively with extreme feelings or so called ‘over reactions’ to outside events which are really just triggers.

I have only ever read books on DBT and my understanding of it may be limited but this is my understanding of how it works.   It works by helping us to correct our thinking and as a way of helping us to self sooth and not attack ourselves more with painful thoughts and feelings which in belonging to old events may be re-experienced in the present moment and projected leading to confusion and distress for those around us who do not understand our trauma/disconnection history.  In the end we must understand in a way others who do not suffer could never possibly understand unless they lack that empathic framework.

When I read the blogs of borderlines I see how much self judgement they have.  We self judge because we know how extreme our behaviour can be at times and we can often feel shame.   Unlike narcissists who in many ways are full of a shame they buried long ago and often will not face, Borderlines feel our shame over and over and over and can almost drown in it.  We are often scapegoated and we so often need to break that identification and projection because the original shame was never ours to own,  our responses came out of finding ourselves in consistently disabling or unempathic environments in which we struggled, pure and simple.  Certainly we do not have the right to enact our rage at a lifetime of frustrations, misunderstanding and invalidation on others, we need to understand where these feelings comes from and feel them and transform them rather than act them out.  This I guess is where DBT can help us teaching us ways to talk to ourselves compassionately and with empathy to pour balm on burning wounds that so often can flare up in the present.

Sadly, we don’t always trust our emotions

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In Western culture we have a history of treating emotions with suspicion and contempt, as somethign alien, other, separate from us.  From Plato onwards the ‘passions’ have be viewed as our ‘lower nature.’  Regarding the source of the passions, as Freud did, as an ‘it’ (id), ‘a primitive chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement’, makes it hard to develop a friendly relationship with emotions or accept them as part of ourselves.  This view of emotion as primitive and alien is a classic form of dualistic Western thinking.

As a result of regarding emotions as other, we feel the need to rid ourselves of these alien forces invading our system, either by acting them out or suppressing them.  Yet this fear of our emotions indicates how alienated we are from ourselves.  First we are alienated from our own energy, making it other and judging it negatively.  Then we start to imagine these emotions are demonic, that we have monsters in side us. The irony is that in judging and controlling our emotions, we become further overwhelmed by them, which leads to explosive eruptions that leave us all the more alienated from ourselves.  In treating emotions as other, we grant them dominion over us.  Suppressing emotions and acting them out are both alienated, afflicted strategies that prevent us from experiencing emotions as they are, face to face.

John Welwood : Toward a Psychology of Awakening

An alternative way of regarding our emotions is to understand them as part of us, an intrinsic part of our raw and vital aliveness, expressions of basic life energy moving through us.  The saddest part of suppressing our emotions is that we lose access to this liveliness and depression is often a result.  We become split and divided from our essential engine of soul/spirit in body that guides us and keeps us in touch with life through our emotions and our felt sense of being.

Gendlin addressed the concept of felt sense in his book Focusing.   A particular feeling such as sadness may actually have different layers of feeling associated with it and there are ways we can use to get in touch with the felt sense of a particular feeling in order to come in touch with the more essential part of our being and vital aliveness underlying certain emotions.

At first the felt sense that lies beneath an emotion may not be very clear to us, most especially if we are conditioned to run from or over express certain emotions in such a way, rather than be in touch with them, instead we then tend to become over powered.  This is because often an emotion is a more intense form of feeling.  For example sadness can build into grief, irritation may erupt into rage, a feeling of fear may turn into panic.  When feelings become intensified in such a way they do tend to  overtake us and we need a strong sense of attention to be able to contain and feel and hold the feeling and observe how it may build into something more intense and wisdom to see what lies under it and may be motivating us.

In his book Toward A Psychology of Awakening, therapist John Welwood describes such a situation as ’emotional entanglement.  He explains how a feeling of sadness can be amplified by the way in which we choose to respond to it.  Whether we resist or judge ourselves for it thinking or seeing it as a sign of something wrong, annoying or unwanted.  This can happen when a feeling threatens our self image and then we can start to tell ourselves stories about the feeling we are having most of which tend to magnify it or make it far harder to engage with in a productive way.

reacting against feelings – fearing fear, being outraged about anger, becoming depressed about sadness – is much worse than the primary feelings themselves, for it turns us against ourselves and causes us to go around in emotional circles.  As we spin around in the cycle of feelings – giving rise to highly charged thoughts, our perception becomes cloudy, and we often say or do things we later regret.

Cutting through this tendency to get lost in emotionally driven thoughts and stories requires a certain discipline, which psychotherapy and meditation provide in different ways.

Working in a therapeutic way with our psyche involves unpacking the deeper felt sense underlying emotions and stories we tell, it is a way of tapping more deeply into underlying meanings and responses beneath emotions.  In fact certain emotions may be pointing towards a need we must address.  For example sadness may be a reason to look at the ways in which we are missing happiness, joy and connection in our lives, or an indicator of loss we need to work through.   Anger may be a message that we need to express certain feelings and needs to someone who is hurting us or a sign we need to treat our frustration and discomfort gently by setting a boundary or sharing a truth.  Fear may be a sign that something isn’t safe for us or we may need to take care.

Without access to our feelings we either split them off and denigrate ourselves or let feelings build and build intensifying with the punishing stories we can tell.   If instead we can open our minds and hearts to our bodies and the feelings that may have valuable messages for us, if we can welcome them in and pay mindful attention we may learn a valuable lesson in self care and find a sense of calm, connection, contentment and rest that does not come if we are continually fearing them and pushing them away

A sanctuary for lions

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The following quote just made my heart sing and at the end of it I hope that idea of ‘A sanctuary for lions’ brings a smile to your face.   I wanted to head this post The Lion’s Roar 2, as it touches on so many things I was struggling with this week.

Be Gentle with Anger

Be gentle with anger, Bow before it.  It is not what you think it is.

Let it come closer, let it enter you if you must.  Feel its power.

Until there is no division between “self” and “anger at all.

Until there is only fire,  passion.  But no violence.

Anger is the roar of a lion, the cry of a universe longing to be born.

It reminds you, when you have forgotten.

That the power of life moves through you.  That you matter.

That your voice will not be silenced.

That you have self respect, and deserve to be treated with dignity.

Do not push your anger away, or label it “negative,” “unspiritual,” or even “unhealthy”.  Do not pretend  it is not there.

Feel anger’s pounding, its vibrations, its fire, its longing to be acknowledged, held.  At its burning core, discover your courage.

The courage to be yourself.  To hold to your path, fearlessly.   To speak for those without a voice.  To stand up for truth, for your rights, for the rights of your brother and sister’s, with passion, but without violence.  Know that your heart is vast and spacious, and anger, so often misunderstood, has a home in you.

Be a sanctuary for lions

Jeff Foster

The Way of Rest

Wow!  Doesn’t the wake up the firey sunshine in your Lion heart?  Please join me in my sanctuary for lions, or build your own.

 

Decisions, boundaries and self care

It was a tough therapy appointment yesterday.  I am really regretting having my tooth out.  I don’t seem to feel any better at the moment and not being able to chew food well is really affecting me.  I am aware that I need to be patient as what I am going through is as huge adjustment but I just wish I had stuck with the crack in the tooth as I am not really sure it was giving me an infection, as my body is still full of phlegm and gunk.  I also felt very disappointed in my therapist and wanted to throw the whole therapy over yesterday but at the same time I was aware of the state of mind I am at and it was poisoning my right view of the value of what Katina does give to me.  So I just went to it and fully expressed all my feeling to her.

She was amazing, she sat there and empathised and then apologised for influencing me because she had said to me several times “if you do have an infection it is probably poisoning your entire body”.  I am not sure that is really what has been happening, the poison is the anger I sometimes feel that I don’t use effectively to assert boundaries at times.   Anyway we discussed it all and I left the session feeling a whole lot calmer basically because of the empathy Kat showed to me.  And I am adult enough to know no one has the answers always for me.  They may be able to understand or empathise but they may not know how things will turn out for me if I make a decision and they can advise but they don’t have to live with the consequences which is something my niece and I were discussing the other day.

Have you ever decided you wanted to do something that may be good for you, but when you mention it to others, they try to dissuade you or pour cold water over your decision?  I think it happens a lot and its something we were also discussing in therapy yesterday, how do we know who to truly trust with our decisions?  After all no one else has to live our lives.

I have been on the end of discouragement when I have asked for advice on doing what would have ultimately been good things for me.  I look back to those times and see I didn’t stay strong and own my own power.  And afterwards I felt resentment but also had to accept I was responsible for the decisions and choices I make.  As a people pleaser it is sometimes hard for me to say I wont do something that I think may bring joy to another person or to take care of me when you are hurting or in need.  As I shared the other day, when I have the energy to give to others, I will give it, naturally it is what I want to do as an empathic person.  But there are times I just need to take care of me.  And I guess that is where discrimination comes in as well as a good sense of connection to my inner energy levels, feelings and needs.   What I am talking about here are boundaries and on some level we can say that on the spiritual plane boundaries don’t fully exist as we all come from the source, that grander sphere where we are connected to each other beyond words and other human constructs and as our egos form we learn what is ours and what is not ours if we are lucky enough to have good help to build healthy egos but if not we can be in trouble.

And that is why empaths and highly sensitive people can struggle a lot.  We instinctively feel the feelings of others and want to reach out and to do so is natural and good most of the time.  When others have defences against us though we suffer.   I heard a saying a long while back and its a major lesson that I learned in my last intimate relationship that a person can never reject you, just a part of themselves they see in you that they have not befriended in themselves.   This is the defensive ego that may want to reject you if you are feeling sick or vulnerable.  This is the protective ego that doesn’t want to see that you may have hurt and a deep longing for love hidden beneath anger. For if you think about it if we get rejected for anger the person is not seeing that on some level we felt hurt and are trying to get that hurt addressed.  Then the hurt has no where to go,  and we are left holding it and then as someone asked me the other day “where do I put this anger?”.  I responded by suggesting prayer.  It seems to me the only thing I can do when my anger gets too much, I pray to my higher power for help with it.  And if someone won’t address it with me and I see that my anger is justified I have to beware of how I relate with that person in future.  I may need to forgive so I don’t keep holding onto the pain and hurt myself more, but I may be better off not having that much to do with them if they express no concern for how their actions affect me.

It can take a long time for some of us (like me) to see we have the right to set this kind of boundary if people have blown us off before for expressing how we feel.  And we also don’t have to take every hurt we feel to someone else, for in the end its really up to us to care for ourselves and protect ourselves and we all have the right to do this .

If we were sensitive and hurt a lot in childhood.  If we were teased, humiliated, made to feel small, gaslighted or invalidated developing the wisdom and power to develop and set boundaries may be a process fraught with peril.  If we were led to believe that emotional abuse was not emotional abuse we may be very confused as to our boundaries.  That is why we absolutely need an empathic person to go to, to express our truth with and get a reality check.  And we need power and strength to know we have the right to take care of ourselves and that we are not bad or wrong or selfish for doing so.   And some of us can keep chosing to love even when on the end of shitty behaviour from others once we have learned to practice self care, we can learn to positively detach not with hatred and anger but with love, a true honest love that comes out of respect, maturity and a deeper empathy for suffering.

To be content means I know my own boundaries

I am not so much of a fan of suffering any more.  I have had a wake up call over the past few days that has shown me all the times I should have really stepped back from family dysfunction and how much of a hard time I gave myself as the message was that I was selfish if I didn’t get caught up in the family disease, most especially when my second oldest sister decided to try to take her life in 2013.  I was the one at the hospital arguing with the nurses to take her off meds.  She was already on about 5 different psychiatric medications including one for epilepsy and she could not stop trembling.   When I googled some of them the side effects listed included, suicidal feelings and anxiety.  This was a year or so after watching helplessly as she underwent a long course of shock therapy and was almost reduced to a comatose wreck, frozen, broken, incapable of feeling or speech.  It made me SO FUCKING ANGRY, but all I could do was cry.

My sister is not in this space any more.  She doesn’t do any emotional healing work only a lot of exercise but she has regained more of herself and is now the primary one supporting my Mum, due to the fact that she realises how all that she went through impacted my mother who was never one to take any psychiatric medication.

I thank God for my, by then firm sobriety.  I was able to go to meetings of Al Anon and share about it and learn that I could only try my best to hand it all over and detach but some days that seemed impossible to do.  There were the times I had to stand up to both my mother and sister’s lack of empathy and subtle abuse, following this, but also times I gave back far too much because I still loved them.   My sister is not totally abusive and has mellowed in her approach to me over years and that is a result of me working my own programme but not always managing to detach as well as I would have liked.

Today I decided not to visit my Mum in hospital.  I firmly believe her compounded health problems are due to years of emotional stress and repressed emotions.  In the past few years ever since the death of my oldest sister my Mum is close to tears but only when I am around as she know that due to my own recovery and emotional work I am the one who ‘gets’ what the reality is and helps her to go there.  But on some days I just cannot be that container.  On some days I just have to take care of myself.

Today has been one of those days and I am so grateful that ‘just for today’ I have been able to practice detachment.  Detaching doesn’t mean I am not feeling for my Mum, it just means I am honouring the limits of my power to give on certain days when my own energy reserves are not high.