This is your brain on trauma

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine is having an excellent free series on the brain and trauma that includes Peter Levine (Walking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, In An Unspoken Voice, and more) and Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score). Replays for the first session are today and tomorrow.

[Disclosure: Books cited above are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I get a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. I’ve read them and they’ve been invaluable in my own recovery. Thank you]

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Series: What trauma does to you

I’ve been in contact with many trauma survivors the past few years as I plumbed the depths of my mother’s sicknessNEXT BLOG POST. I’ve listened to their stories, told my own, given and received advice. There are things that arrive as healing progresses.

Growing up with a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder,  meant living with serious issues around attachment. My trauma therapist, Dr. Geoff White, would like BPD renamed to reflect that it’s an attachment disorder. My mother also had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Everything was about her. She came with Flying Monkeys, she engaged in gaslighting, the whole Wicked Witch of the West package. Coping with living in the same house with someone who was never safe and rarely loving did give me and others like me empathy, intuition and as the graphic says, the ability to anticipate moods to keep ourselves safe.

From my current writing project:

A TRIO OF DEFINITIONS

Gaslight (verb) Favored technique of the narcissist (see below) by which one, such as their child, is convinced they are not seeing what they see. To train a child to doubt their perceptions and experience of reality. A form of psychological abuse targeting mental well-being, self confidence and self esteem. Objectives: for the child to lose any sense of self, making the narcissist look good and, in the case of the malignant narcissist, amusement. Also used to divide and conquer, setting family members against each other. The narcissist cannot get away with their behavior if their victims have allies who believe them. Often reinforced by Flying Monkeys (see below)

Narcissist (noun) The person you are an extension of.  You have no recognized existence apart from them, as in, “I’m not hungry, why should you eat?” It is unusual for two narcissists to marry (as in the case of my parents as noted by at least one therapist).  It rarely works for two with the common traits of grandiosity, self-centeredness, need for attention – especially admiration – who also lack empathy. If my father was a narcissist, he was more benign, a garden variety N. My mother was the malignant narcissist with a penchant for sadism, talent for dehumanizing “loved ones,” bursts of aggression, and periods of being antisocial. There’s definitely only room for one of those in a couple. Common phrases used by the N.: “I never said that,” “You’re imagining things,” etc.

“The two hallmarks of the narcissist are: one, they never apologize and two, they do not look you in the eye with genuine appreciation.”  ~ Dr. Geoff White

Flying Monkeys (noun) assistants to your very own personal Wicked Witch of the West (see Narcissist above). If you are able to fend off the hurt intentionally inflicted on you via the Narcissist’s surrogate for a moment, you will glimpse the perverse pleasure the Flying Monkey derives from this dynamic. Flying Monkeys like to feel “above it all.” When the Narcissist dies, the Flying Monkeys disappear.

Example: The Wicked Witch sends one of her Flying Monkeys a card complaining about the way you treated her on Mother’s Day, a day on which she received her favorite flowers and favorite treat of big chocolate covered strawberries with various toppings, both from you. You drive down to have lunch with her and get caught in a traffic jam due to an accident on the 405 in the days before GPS. After spending 6 hours and not quite reaching Oceanside and definitely having missed lunch with another 1-2 hours (depending on traffic) to get to her place – you call and leave her a message on her machine and with the receptionist at her retirement community, then turn around for the 3.5 hour drive home. The Flying Monkey quotes from her card about how selfish you are. The Flying Monkey takes your side and expresses sympathy… to your face. They have already done the same to the Narcissist, albeit with more genuine feeling and they relay it all back to the Narcissist, nourishing them with your distress.

Breathtaking

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By Tim Green from Bradford (Blind Justice) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The news out of Alaska shows that the public outrage over Brock Turner’s light sentence  (and similar cases) made no difference. It’s like they’re doubling down on letting these creeps off the hook.

“Judge Michael Corey accepted the deal, noting the outcome of the case could be described as ‘breathtaking.'”

Interesting word choice.

Justin Schneider was let off with time served. 1 year. Guidelines restricted sentencing to 2 years because they’d accepted sex offender treatment. They do this in order to get the cooperation of the offender. I hope it works. I am skeptical it will. I know the victim will spend years, if not the rest of her life, dealing with the fallout from the trauma. He changed her and she doesn’t get off with “time served.”

BREATHTAKING.

We trauma survivors often hold our breath, “Chronic breath holding and effortful breathing are not healthy because the muscular effort, coupled with the effects of stress on the nervous, hormonal, and immune systems, can impair both physical and psychological function.” It’s a classic symptom of PTSD and Complex PTSD. Breath taking indeed. She has a life sentence of coping with strangulation – he literally took her breath – kidnapping, and sexual assault. He lost his job. Okay, he has a felony on his record. The overconcern with what the attacker has to cope with as he goes on in life, well, that is breathtaking.

I was in a therapy group for women molested as children and the therapist who ran it was the first person to mention holding my breath as a symptom of what had happened to me. At the same time, I was taking improv and met Tamara Silvera, vocal coach and a distant cousin by way of our Jamaican dads. I worked with her with the added bonus that when we were in class at the now-defunct IO West, she could signal me when I was holding my breath. I did it a lot. Now I’m more aware of it. I still hold my breath when I write about what happened to me. I started writing before #MeToo and am feeling an increasing sense of urgency knowing first-hand how many cannot or will not tell their stories and very much want and need those of us who can tell ours to speak up.

The news cycles since October 7, 2016 and that infamous Access Hollywood tape have been a nightmare for anyone who has been sexually assaulted as an adult, as a child, or both. It got worse in October, 2017 with the Weinstein revelations. Coupled with the injustices from ignorant judges such as M Marc Kelly (Kevin Rojano-Nieto sodomized a 3 year old and Kelly cut 15 yrs off the mandatory minimum in 2015; the 4th District reversed the ruling & resentenced), Aaron Persky (recalled over Brock Turner), and Michael Corey in Alaska have caused immeasurable distress and despair from all of us who’ve suffered from sexual assault we’re now seeing in #WhyIDidntReport: “I say our, because I am included in this. When I read Trump’s tweet this morning, first I stopped breathing. When the most powerful person in the land denies your lived experience, it feels like someone punching you in the diaphragm.”

Blind justice is legal concept meant to point to neutrality when dispensing justice. Remember justice?

justice

n. 1) fairness. 2) moral rightness. 3) a scheme or system of law in which every person receives his/ her/its due from the system, including all rights, both natural and legal.

Moral rightness takes into account the effect the assault had on the victim, the sufferer. Fairness adheres to minimum sentencing requirements. There are strong indications we do not want a more just society, let alone a kinder one. But if we do, we’re going to have to fight harder for it, consider the victim’s POV, and have a much better understanding of trauma and its fallout. Because #TimesUp

Remembering 9/11

Lawrence Wright notes that we are forgetting pre-9/11 America and the way we were. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning The Looming Tower.  It was made into a well-reviewed Hulu series with Jeff Daniels, Bill Camp, and Tahar Rahim, which I have not yet seen. More about the day itself here.

Few of the original 2,000 bloggers are still participating in Project 2,996 (I’d still argue for 2,977 and exclude the hijackers). My own attention is focused on ending generational trauma, Project Semicolon, and other mental health and #metoo concerns, however I will continue to repost about Mr. Halligan and Mr. Raja annually.

Robert Halligan Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on November 15, 2001.

Robert  John Halligan
Robert Halligan, Age: 59
Residence: Basking Ridge, NJ
Two WTC, 99th Floor
Aon Corporation, Vice President

SHOPPING ACROSS THE POND

To a proud Englishman, America is a country of vexing insufficiencies. Its supermarkets know not of H.P. (House of Parliament) sauce and tins of steak and kidney pie. Marmite, sadly, remains a mystery.

Several times a year, London-born Robert Halligan, 59, a vice president at Aon, an insurance brokerage firm, would cross the pond to stock up on such indelicacies. He would cheer on his beloved Tottenham Hotspurs, visit his sprawling family, including five adult children, and drop by a specialty shop to add to the locomotive steam engine models he had been collecting since his trainspotting boyhood. Every weekend he brought the old country to his wife, Jerrie, and their son, Trevor, in Basking Ridge, N.J., by cooking a lard-loving British breakfast (sloppy bacon, fried bread, eggs splashed with grease) and Sunday lunch (roast, two vegetables, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding).

Yet for someone who clung to his British identity, Mr. Halligan flourished in America, where he moved with Jerri, his American wife. He gardened here, played golf and danced beautifully. He was a kind, solicitous grandfather of 10 with a knack for joke- telling. And here he celebrated the holiday he loved even more than Christmas: as a citizen of two countries, Robert Halligan adored Thanksgiving.

***

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Ehtesham Raja, Age: 28
Place of Residence: Clifton , NJ
TCG Software
WTC

Ehtesham U. Raja of Clifton, NJ was 28 years old when he died in the World Trade Center. He’d gone there for a conference and was in Windows on the World. He was a 1996 graduate of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia. He had his MBA from Goizueta Business School at Emory. His nickname: Shamu, from his friends in Pakistan.

His parents, Raja Aftab Saeed and Begum Asmat Fatima, donated the land for the Arifwala Hospital, a 40-bed facility, fully equipped with diagnostic and curative services, inaugurated on January 19th, 2009. The hospital is dedicated to their son, Raja Ehtesham Ullah, who lost his life on 9/11. All medical equipment was funded by LRBT America. We have also pledged to fund the hospital’s annual operating budget. (note: the hospital is in Pakistan and fights blindness)

From the Emory Goizueta Memorial site (Ehtesham Raja ’98MBA):

“He was a very kind, caring, compassionate, loving, and intelligent person,” says his mother, Asmat Fatima. “He was respected and admired by those who knew him. His talent and sense of humor made him standout in any crowd. But it was his loving and caring attitude that always made me proud.”

Raja, born in Lahore, Pakistan, worked for TCG Software in Bloomfield, N.J. After graduating with a bachelor of science in industrial engineering from Columbia University in New York City, he worked as a security engineer at Citibank on Wall Street, then, according to his Goizueta Business School application, he returned to Pakistan to work for Citibank Lahore, take the GMAT, and apply to business school.

“He was in the best years of his life,” says Fatima. “Everything seems to be going in his favour. After years of dedication and hard work he finally achieved this status. He had all the plans to pursue his career in finance. He was full of hope for his future.”

Raja also enjoyed sports. He was a swimmer and played cricket, squash, soccer, tennis, and polo while at Columbia.

A memorial service was arranged by TCG Software. “They were proud to have him working for them,” his mother says.

“It is still very hard to believe that he is missing and lost forever,” she continues. “I have to be emotionally strong as Ehtesham has a younger brother, who is at a very impressionable age.

“[Ehtesham] knew life and lived life. His time was limited but in that time he touched so many people. . . . May peace be with him now and forever. He will stay in our hearts and memories forever.”

***
Rest in peace, Mr. Halligan and Mr. Raja. Never Forget.

 

More generational cycles to break…

I’ve lived and researched and thought about breaking unhealthy generational cycles of sexual abuse in families. Now another wave of abuse in the Catholic Church has surfaced, this time in Pennsylvania (warning: graphic sexual content). I’m a convert (RCIA ’99) and still new to the Church when it came to light in Los Angeles around 2002. While shocking and disgusting, I did not find it particularly surprising. When attacked for my faith and/or decision to join the Church, I kept asking, “Where did you think you’d find them?” They will always be found among the most trusted people in society, in positions of contact with minors. That is how they get access. That is how they get away with it. What I did not stop to consider is that, as with families, there are generational cycles in seminaries as well, passed down through the years from one group to the next.

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The effects of childhood sexual abuse are lifelong. It returns with these kinds of revelations whether from politicians or priests. Triggers are real and they remain, whether or not the source of one’s own abuse was the same. The act is the same or similar and the body knows it. These priests not only committed one of the most heinous acts against the vulnerable and powerless, they did so as representatives of God. That is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That is an unforgivable sin.

There is a saying that the pain continues through families until someone decides to fully feel it. However it happens, it takes a conscious decision to stop sexual abuse.

Here’s how one priest addressed being abused when he was 15 and what he did to stop his molester.

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Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

We can put an end to most childhood sexual abuse if we make up our minds to do so. One of the main obstacles is denial. Confronting evil is messy and scary and once again – despite the lessons of the past (and they weren’t that long ago) – we see men who are supposedly trained in good and evil making excuses. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin told the press that the abuse was outside his responsibility. He is no different from my grandmother who looked the other way as her second husband molested her daughter for a dozen years. Tobin, now in Providence, RI, was Auxiliary Bishop in Philadelphia while the Church was covering up the abuses:

“My responsibilities as Vicar General and General Secretary of the diocese did not include clergy assignments or clergy misconduct, but rather other administrative duties such as budgets, property, diocesan staff, working with consultative groups, etc. Even as an auxiliary bishop, I was not primarily responsible for clergy issues,″ Tobin said in an email to The Providence Journal.

When my mother told her mother what was going on she was accused of stealing her mother’s husband. When she went to her grandmother, she was slapped and warned against saying such awful things about such a fine man. Versions of what too many bishops and priests are saying this week.

The common attitude: Nothing to see here, move along. We must preserve the status quo. Don’t rock the boat.

The bishops would do well to repent publicly in sackcloth and ashes. Yes, literally. My sense is that the All Patient is losing patience. Their time to declare a Holy Hour of Reparation, A Year of Penance, to donate their ornate robes to make First Communion clothes for children in favor of a cilice, is running out.

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Photo by Aron on Unsplash

Speak up

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Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

When the Trump administration began to separate children from parents at the border, I knew some of those children would be sexually abused. It’s happened. Inevitably. And to a six-year-old girl. Any time you isolate children from the adults who love and protect them, disaster is inevitable. It doesn’t matter if it’s being done by a coach or teacher, church or government – separating children, isolating them, is key to abusing them.

In the case of people fleeing the horrors of their country to make the dangerous journey to the US, the abuse of the children isolated by our government is our tax dollars at work. If you were (rightly) incensed over the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Nassar at Michigan State, Sandusky at Penn State, or any of the too many other cases, this time, you have the tools to do something about this. This time, it’s being done in our name with our tax dollars. This time, call your reps, vote, clean out the House and Senate. Demand change. If you were outraged over any of the other abuses, yet somehow think this is okay as part of a deterrent, you need to check your soul and your racism.

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Photo by annie bolin on Unsplash

When the Catholic abuse victims voiced their displeasure with Cardinal Mahoney’s patronizing apology, I decided to add my voice to theirs. I wrote to Archbishop Gomez that, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the damage Mahoney was doing, the pain of his statements, was not confined to those directly abused. Cardinal Mahoney’s self-serving comments affected all of us who were abused as children, not only the direct victims. There are more of us than you know.

Amplification.

Solidarity.

Two weeks later, the Archbishop stripped Mahoney of his administrative and public duties and publicly criticized him. It was unprecedented. Did my letter make a difference? Unlikely. I don’t know that it got to him or whether he read it. However, Gomez reading the accounts and listening to those directly affected did lead to his actions. But I felt better adding my voice to theirs and maybe someone did take note that all abuse victims are impacted by public statements thanks to Complex PTSD, something I’ll be writing more about in the coming weeks.