A woman was admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit after memories of childhood sexual abuse reawakened. Desperate to rid herself of the intrusive memories, she took whatever pills she could get her hands on. The therapist assigned to her said she needed to be rational about the situation. “That was then. This is now. Forget it and get on with your life.”
Such an appeal to reason might be helpful if emotional states were simply the result of thoughts, or if reason could keep unwanted memories out of mind. But, research in neuroscience makes it clear that emotional states are not regulated by reason.
Though this person’s distress was caused by intrusive memories, the suicidal behavior was due to hyperarousal she could neither downregulate nor tolerate.
Emotional self-regulation would have allowed her to accommodate recall. But her early life did not allow emotional self-regulation to develop. Emotional self-regulation develops when hyperarousal is consistently followed by signals from the face, voice, and touch of an attuned caregiver. Researcher Stephen Porges has found that when a person is attuned and non-judgmental, they unconsciously send signals of safety. These signals, unconsciously received and processed, activate the recipient’s calming parasympathetic nervous system.
When emotional self-regulation was not adequately developed during childhood, adults regulate arousal by being in control of every situation. Control allows them to be sure nothing will happen that could cause hyperarousal. If control of a situation is in doubt, hyperarousal may still be controlled if escape is available.
In this case, the person was unable to control what she was aware of and sought to escape awareness with pills. Escape from awareness—and possibly from being alive—was thwarted by hospitalization. The therapist’s directive to be rational did not increase her ability to regulate herself. Had the therapist been non-judgmental and able to share the woman’s experience, signals from the therapist’s face, voice, and touch could have activated the woman’s parasympathetic nervous system. When calming relatedness is repeated and internalized, emotional self-regulation increases.
This therapeutic strategy is detailed in Allan Schore’s book, The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy. To be effective, Schore says therapists must possess a “wide window” of affect regulation within which they can share the experience of a client who is hyperaroused or hypoaroused. By so doing, the therapist widens the client’s window of self-regulation.
In his neurological research, Joseph LeDoux, the leading expert on the amygdala, has found the amygdala has two types of memory cells. Both types learn from painful situations and cause the amygdala to react when the situation is again encountered. But what happens when a situation that caused pain is re-encountered and does not cause pain? The “plastic memory cells” reverse what they originally learned. The “storage memory cells” do not.
When a child is threatened and cannot escape, the trauma is recorded in both types of cells. As an adult, when life is more under the person’s control, the plastic cells do what the therapist suggested; they replace past experience with present experience. They indeed learn “that was then and this is now.” They learn to not react to situations that in some way are associated with the abuse.
But, not the storage memory cells. What they originally learned sticks. New learning is not accepted.
Regarding the #metoo movement, a non-abused person may not understand why an abused person doesn’t just let it go. Like this woman’s therapist, they don’t understand it isn’t possible to let go of the past because the past (due to the amygdala’s storage memory cells) doesn’t let go of us. The storage cells are permanently programmed to cause arousal when exposed to the same situation, or to a similar situation.
When a child experiences hyperarousal and is not calmed, hyperarousal becomes linked to fear and to danger. As a result, when an adult is in a place where they are not in control or able to escape, even mild arousal feels unsafe, and may lead to panic.
Because this generation has developed into a people-pleasing, fearful group of people who are afraid to be different and terrified of confrontation or making anyone else uncomfortable -even of it means being true to themselves to do so.
No one speaks the truth to another anymore because they are too afraid of not being accepted by a group of friends, or not being liked by someone, or not being loved, or making someone uncomfortable with the truth —truth the other person often needs to hear.
The era in which we live has produced human beings who are so fearful of loss, or being alone, or being different, that they have conformed to untruths and bow down to others instead of honoring themselves and instead of being true to their own beliefs and feelings.
What is “normal” anyway? A 9-5 behind a desk career? Marriage? Children? A college degree? Having lots of friends? Going to football games, or to bars? Getting together with neighbors or dinner parties?
Who the hell defined these things as “normal?”
There is nothing wrong with these things, but if you are not driven to engage in them, be happy with yourself and honor and respect your being “different.”
The truth is, there is no normal way to behave, think, feel, or to believe. Personally, I am attracted to and would rather associate myself with people who are considered “different” –people who go against the grain, think for themselves, and who reject the lies so prominent in today’s society. I would rather sit down and chat with a homeless person than the average employed, so-called “good citizen.”
The article below mentions sensation-seeking or compulsive behavior in the forms of addiction, criminality, hypersexuality and abuse –all of which can be caused by a person’s history of child sexual abuse. Although these behaviors are not healthy or good for anyone involved, they are “normal” in the sense of being a normal reaction to having suffered child sexual abuse.
So if you experience any of these behaviors, or other unhealthy lifestyles -like over-spending and abusive relationships- and you were sexually abused as a child, then concentrate on finding help to heal these issues. Don’t feel different, useless, unworthy, or “abnormal.”
Most importantly, do not punish yourself. Stop any self-condemnation, self-sabataging and self punishment feelings, thoughts or behaviors.
Susan McQuillan M.S., RDN
Social conformity, or adapting to and acting like those around us, can make certain behaviors seem more common, and therefore more normal, but all it really means is we are able to adjust our moral compass in order to acclimate and fit in. We don’t want to seem weird or abnormal. But according to clinical psychologist Avram Holmes of Yale University, abnormal behavior isn’t necessarily weird or bad or indicative of mental illness, because there is no absolute definition of normal and no single best way to behave.
In a review article published in the February 20th issue of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Holmes proposes that there are variations in all human traits and, depending on the circumstances, there can be both positive and negative manifestations associated with any trait. Which way it goes depends on many factors, Holmes research indicates, including the context or the individual circumstances of a person’s life.
Popular ways of thinking and behaving aren’t necessarily ethical, or right, or better than others, just because, at times, it seems like “everybody’s doing it” or “everybody’s saying it.” And at the same time, not all behavior that varies from the norm is indicative of a mental disease or disorder. Human variability is important, Holmes points out because there are times when both positive and negative traits serve an important purpose. For instance, variations within the region of the brain that controls inhibition can result in sensation-seeking or compulsive behavior in the forms of addiction, criminality, hypersexuality or abuse, but they can also manifest as more positive behaviors, such as an increased motivation to exercise or a high degree of social or reproductive success.
Holmes’ research reveals that anxiety is another good example of a condition that can work for or against us, depending on the situation. While an anxiety-ridden individual might have a harder time than most people in personal relationships and social situations, the same trait can provide more motivation to strive for success in school or work, and even preserve one’s life because of a tendency toward caution that results in fewer accidents.
The question remains: When do abnormal traits and behavior reflect a psychological disorder? The answer is complex but, for a start, Holmes points out, it’s important not to view oneself or others in terms of a specific good or bad trait, and not to strive for one type of homogenized, ideal behavior, but instead understand the relevance and importance of human variability. The answer to the question, Holmes research suggests, lies not only in recognizing existing psychological, neurological and genetic conditions, but also the environmental context. Abnormal variations can lead to success when individuals find themselves in situations conducive to the way their brain functions.
“I remember the day I told my mom about Dani. We stood in our family kitchen in American Fork, Utah.
“Dani is coming over tonight to babysit,” my mom told me. It was an innocuous statement, a simple announcement. Yet fear flooded me. My heart raced.
I don’t remember exactly what I said. Nonetheless, my descriptions of what our babysitter Dani would do when my parents were gone gushed forth in a rush of shaking and crying.
“She lays on top of me in bed and kisses me. She says that I’m the mommy and she’s the daddy.”
“She locks me in a dark closet when I tell her no.”
“She says that I can never tell you.”
I was six years old.
My mom had told me it was wrong for anyone, especially someone older than me, to tell me to keep a secret from her. She always told me I could tell her anything and that it was really important to tell her some things. For example, if someone tried to touch my body in inappropriate ways, I was to tell. Dani was a 13-year-old babysitter highly recommended in our Latter-Day Saints (LDS) ward. She was breaking both of these important rules. I couldn’t keep it in any longer.
I don’t remember how long it took me to tell my mom. How many visits with Dani went by before that moment in the kitchen when some wise, deep, and honest part of my 6-year-old self welled up with courage and broke the silence? I don’t know. I do know that I decided to risk Dani’s anger, and the potentiality of being locked in the feared, dark, small closet — and tell.
My mother believed me.
My mother fully, without question, believed me. She immediately told my father, and together, they initiated a meeting with our LDS ward’s bishop and Dani’s parents to discuss the matter. From that moment forward, Dani never again stepped foot into our home. I was safe.
According to Marilyn Van Derbur, author of Miss America by Day, “Those who told immediately or very shortly after the abuse and were believed and supported showed relatively few long-term traumatic symptoms. Those who either did not tell (typically due to fear or shame) or who told and encountered a negative, blaming, disbelieving or ridiculing response were classified as extremely traumatized.”
In Trauma Proofing your Kids: A Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, authors Peter A. Levine and Maggie Klein describe how 85 to 90 percent of sexual abuse is perpetuated by someone the child knows and trusts – a parent, step-parent, coach, teacher, older cousin or sibling, priest, or babysitter. And while many parents may warn children about strange adult men, the fact of the matter is that the average age of most sex offenders is 14 — according to a 2000 report by the Criminal Justice Source Statistics.
I remember the day I first told “The Dani Story” to my soon-to-be 6-year-old son and children that I help homeschool. We were discussing “stay safe rules” and how vital it is to “say no and tell” when older children or adults, even those we may trust and love, ask us to do things that are wrong. In “Trauma Proofing your Kids,” Levine and Klein argue that parents should begin teaching children “about inappropriate touch as early as preschool” and that “it is especially important to practice what to do or say beforehand.”
Levine and Klein strongly recommend parents role-play various scenarios. They encourage parents to help their children imagine “What if?” games around safety and practice acting out responses to difficult and confusing situations. By acting out parts of the story, children have the opportunity to practice saying “No” in a supportive space. This helps prevent them from freezing up if such an event were to occur.
For example, imagine a babysitter who knows a child loves cars or trucks. He or she may say: “I’ll bring a special car/truck toy for you the next time I come if you will sit on my lap and watch this video with me. But it’s a video that only you and I can see and it’s a very special secret just for us to share.” How would your child respond? Can you act out this scenario beforehand? Can you give your child opportunities to recognize warning signs, sense their intuition that something may be wrong, and say: “No. We don’t keep secrets in our family.” Can you help your child identify a list of safe adults to whom they could turn and tell?
Clearly, parents need to prepare children for the mental games of secrecy and grooming that characterize most childhood sexual abuse. Levine and Klein observe that while abusers may use force, “more often they will use trickery.” And the greatest trickery of all?
“Don’t tell your mom.”
“Don’t tell your dad.”
“This is our special secret.”
Children need to be warned that they will be asked to keep secrets and they need to know that any older child or adult who asks them to keep secrets has done something wrong. Levine and Klein encourage parents to support their children in noticing and trusting their gut instincts and asking for help immediately (“say no and tell”). Finally, parents must assure their children that they will be believed and protected — no matter who the person is or what consequence was threatened should the child reveal the secret.
As a young girl, I experienced frightening and confusing situations with a babysitter entrusted to care for me. Gratefully, before Dani was ever invited over, I had also been taught that we don’t keep secrets in our family and to always, always tell if anyone were to try to touch me in ways that felt wrong. Knowledge of these foundational guidelines helped me access the courage needed to speak out in the kitchen one very important day.
But what if I had not been believed? What if my mom and defended Dani? “Oh, she’s a good girl. She would never do that.” Etc.
According to Levine and Klein, children have a natural ability to sense who is safe and who is not safe. “You, the parents, need to trust this sense and foster its development rather than try to change a child’s mind.”
So, believe your children and cultivate a “No Secret” family.
Recently, I interviewed Susan Caruso, director and founder of Sunflower Creative Arts in Delray Beach, Fla. with regard to her 25-year-long history of leading parenting classes on “Talking with children about sex.” Beginning in the preschool ages, Caruso argues that it is vitally important to use the correct terms for a child’s private parts and talk about body safety. Caruso encourages parents to use the terms “surprise” or “safe secrets” when it comes to temporarily withholding information for birthdays or holidays. Outside of this, parents need to be clear that “we don’t keep secrets in our family.”
While I carry difficult memories of what happened when Dani babysat, the memories that stand out most have to do with my mom.
I was believed.
Dani never came back.
These are hard questions to answer. Most people will blame external factors. They’ll say “Oh my relationships keep ending because I just choose the wrong people” or “there are no good guys out there, they’re all immature”. In a way you’re right. You likely do keep choosing the wrong people. You likely do keep attracting immature guys so it seems like there are no mature guys out there. But the problem really lies within yourself. You attract what you are.
If you’re emotionally immature yourself then you will attract the same. You’ll also be attracted to the same even if you say you’re not. You’ll completely overlook the more emotionally healthy people out there, so it’ll look to you like there aren’t any. If you have narcissistic tendencies, which the rate of that being diagnosed has doubled over the past 10 years, then you might even completely blame other people for what happens in your relationships. You’ll think “I’m mature but I keep dating immature girls, I need to stop doing that and look for mature girls”. On the surface that seems like a healthy way of thinking, but you’re lying to yourself or not aware that you yourself are immature as well.
Most of us are emotionally immature, how could we not be? Our society doesn’t value psychology. It doesn’t value mental health. Many see therapy as something for mentally weak people. Especially with men, this is a problem since we have this definition of masculinity that is completely wrong.
The reason I’m so familiar with the excuses of an emotionally immature person is because I’ve been one for the longest time. On the surface, I looked like I had my shit together. On the surface, I probably seemed mature, but emotional maturity is a whole different thing. It‘s something you have to work towards, as all of us start out immature.
We don’t realize where this comes from since it never gets talked about, but our repressed childhood traumas have a lasting effect on us. They stay with us no matter how hard we repress them. Repressing is why it keeps affecting our relationships.
The scary thing is, even traumatic memories from a very young age that we’ve forgotten because we’ve repressed them can affect your entire life. There’s a great story of in “Drama of the Gifted Child”, which everyone should start out reading to learn about childhood trauma, that illustrates how extreme and long one event in your childhood can affect you as an adult.
In the story, there’s a woman who always has anxiety whenever she’s really successful or really happy, in a relationship or in her career. Obviously, this sabotages all her relationships since every time she’s happy she gets anxious and looks for the danger or the problem. Since she’s always looking for the problem when the relationship is good she always eventually finds one or creates one.
So she goes to a therapist to find out why she has this feeling every time. She thinks it must be a fear of success or something, but that’s not it. After weeks of therapy, they discover that it’s coming from a memory of when she was a little girl of 4 years old. In the memory, she’s on the train with her dad and she’s the happiest she’s ever been in her young life. The window is open and she’s jumping up and down in her seat because she’s so happy and excited. Then right when the train takes a very sharp turn she jumps up and almost gets flung out the window. Her dad grabs her by the legs and basically saves her from falling out of the train.
Because of this, the girl grows up to be a woman that always associates feeling very happy with imminent danger. Which basically makes it impossible for her to be in a happy relationship long term. It didn’t only affect her, it also had an effect on how her father parented. When that happened he thought to himself “I can’t lose sight of her for one second, I always have to pay attention and make sure she’s safe”. When she speaks of her father she mentions how he’s always been controlling with her. He wasn’t like that before but after that event, he changed, subconsciously he thought he had to.
That’s one example of how childhood repressed memories affect us as adults. Another can be something as simple as having an emotionally absent father figure. If you had a dad that was there but never really showed you any physical or verbal affection, it would affect your relationships if you never dealt with it properly. More than likely you’d always be attracted to guys that didn’t give you that much attention because you’re always trying to get that love from someone else. The love that you didn’t receive from your dad.
All of that makes it sound like we have no chance for a happy long-term relationship. And yea, it would be very hard to have one if we never deal with our past.
The great news is that we can work through our past. That alone would have a huge positive effect on our relationships. It would affect how we date, who we date, and really all of our relationships. That’s how important it is.
Actually doing this takes time. It takes a lot of time. There’s no instant solution or quick mind shift that you can do. Even if you intellectually know your past and know all the issues from it, you still haven’t emotionally worked through them. I know how hard that is, especially if you’re like me and have always been awful at expressing and recognizing your own emotions.
I don’t think there’s a one size fits all solution to this and it’s important to remember that you’ll never be “fixed”. You’ll work through the bigger issues and will always have to keep working on it, but it will lead to a more fulfilled life.
I know for myself, it’s changed my life. Even if I’m still near the beginning of working through these issues. I’m not going to lie, it’s extremely hard. Going through past memories you don’t want to think about or feelings that you don’t want is tough. But, it’s the most alive I’ve felt since I was a kid.
What I did to start is I got a therapist, a good one. Really do your research on this as getting a bad therapist is as bad as doing nothing about it. Find someone that clicks with you. For all of you that don’t think you need therapy, especially guys, you do. If you told me a year ago about going to therapy I would’ve laughed and told you that it’s for the mentally weak, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. If you can afford to do it, definitely do it. Even if you only start with once or twice a month.
The other thing you should do, regardless if you get a therapist or not, is to read about childhood trauma and how your past shapes who you are today. One of the best starting books that was recommended multiple times by therapists is Alice Miller’s “Drama of the Gifted Child”. It’s a pretty short read but eye-opening.
If we all start looking at ourselves first when we have relationship problems then we’ll be able to have long-lasting, happy, and passionate relationships. I think that’s really what we all want.”