Series: What Trauma Does To You, The Amygdala

Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Complex PTSD results from prolonged or chronic traumatic exposure as is the case with child abuse. For a child, there’s no viable escape and the people who are supposed to love, protect, and care for the child… don’t. Most child abuse includes just enough carrots – good times – to be utterly confusing. The good times always seem like they will last… until the next insult, punch, grope, withdrawal…. Child abuse includes psychological abuse, such as threats of violence, gaslighting, game playing, name calling, insults, and withholding love. The silent treatment is emotional abuse and very destructive. Physical abuse and sexual abuse of children rarely exist without some form of psychological abuse and sometimes the additional awful uncertainty of someone under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.  

The amygdala is generally understood as the fear center of the brain. Amygdala comes from the Greek word for almond (αμύγδαλο or amygdalo) and there are actually two almond-shaped structures, one in each hemisphere of the brain. When amygdalae were removed in rats, the rats lost their fear of everything, including cats.

Wikimedia Commons: BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan.

The amygdala of an abused child experiences increased and persistent activation. The brain is a complex organ that we’re still learning about, but it is clear that chronic child abuse alters both brain chemistry and brain structures.

The alterations to amygdala can create problems with emotional regulation, a propensity to emotional extremes, as well as reactions to triggers, particularly emotional triggers. Essential to decoding emotions, changes in the amygdala affect one’s perceptions of one’s own emotions, emotional situations, and the emotions of others. Obviously, these kinds of misperceptions can make relationships, and life in general, difficult.

Childhood sexual abuse changes who you are. It changed generations of women on my mother’s side of the family. I’ve been on high alert all my life. I have trouble sleeping, I prefer to sit along a wall in a restaurant so no one can come up behind me, I constantly scan people, places, crowds for danger. I am forever imagining worst case scenarios and the means of escape. For decades, I was terrified of what people might say next if they paused in conversation. And on and on.

With constant fear come hypervigilance and anxiety. Hypervigilance, in turn, may be accompanied by muscle armoring, all of which (and more) will be explored in this series. Next up is the hippocampus, another crucial brain structure affected by child abuse.

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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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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.

 

 

 

 

The Link Between Child Abuse, Depression, & Mental Health

 

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Photo by Ben Maguire on Unsplash

Another wealthy and famous person is dead from suicide. How much depression or Kate Spade’s mental health played a part is speculative until those closest to her decide whether and how much they want to discuss it. And how much they knew. Someone with depression can be an expert at appearing fine.

She was Emeritus Chair on the Board of Directors for the New York Center for Children, which is devoted to the treatment and prevention of child abuse. I don’t know what her connection was to that issue, whether it was an invitation from a friend, because she was a mother, or out of her experience or that of someone close to her.

The connection between child abuse and mental health is something I’ve spent the past few years thinking about and exploring. Those of us who were abused as children experience depression and C-PTSD. I still startle easily, struggle with sleep and hypervigilance, and have flashbacks. It’s why I’ve written about it and will continue to do so. I’m putting together an outline for my own recovery that I hope will help others. It’s part of why nearly all of my writing, including my novels, are roadmaps to emotional recovery.

“Having it all” doesn’t inoculate you from depression. The most maddening tweets I’ve read in the past couple of hours since the news of Kate Spade’s suicide broke are the ones who declare that she was “selfish.” She was not selfish; she was in pain. If you want to remember her, consider donating to a charity with a mission to treat and prevent child abuse or suicide.

If you’re dealing with the fallout from child abuse, there’s help available. Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD and its workbook, and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score are a good start. There are groups such as Survivors of Incest Anonymous and RAINN. There are trauma therapists who can use various modalities. Check out the medical side with a compassionate psychiatrist. Do your due diligence about therapists, doctors, and groups. Just as pedophiles seek work around children, emotional predators find ways to access abuse survivors.

If I can heal, so can you.

Please send this on if you know of anyone suffering from the fallout of child abuse. Thank you.

The task at hand

I’m devoting more time to my blog for patrons at Patreonhemingway as a matter of survival. If you enjoy this blog or my other writing, please consider supporting my efforts – $1/month or more – and tell a few others who’d be interested. I’m not exaggerating regarding survival. I have been job hunting for a while without results. This is an alternative to support my writing, but it only works with your help.

After much prompting from those who know my story, I am writing a memoir and it’s hell to write. Hardest thing I’ve ever done is revisiting stuff I have minimized for decades.

This is more than writing for me. If we as a society decided that we wanted, really wanted, to stop child abuse, we could. Dr. Gene Abel and Nora Harlow wrote The Stop Child Molestation Handbook. If we at least try his suggestions, the improvement not only in individual lives, but society as a whole, could be dramatic. Lowering incidence of PTSD, depression, and physical problems would help all of us. That is my purpose, too. For whatever reason, I’m the transition person in my family. I stopped the abuse. I did not abuse my children and they will not abuse theirs, nor were they abused. It can be done. It’s become a cliche for a reason: if telling my story helps show one person the way to stopping the cycle, it’s worth it.

As for this blog, I will continue as time permits, but you’ve no doubt noticed a drop off in posting and now you know why. The memoir needs the bulk of my attention and there’s not much left over as I continue working on it. Thank you for your understanding and support.

 

Love the Art, Hate the Artist?

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Roman Polanski with Woody Allen

How much does or should the private life of an artist play into our appreciation or disparagement of their art? There was the recent dustup over Woody Allen and the Golden Globe award via Twitter from his former family. There have been many writers, musicians, painters, actors, etc. with abhorrent views and/or actions over the centuries. Wagner’s view of Jews was in concert with Hitler’s; there’s long been speculation about Lewis Carroll‘s pedophilia; R Kelly allegedly exploits underage girls; Chris Brown battered; Vanity Fair reports indications that Woody Allen molested his then 7 year old daughter and he certainly married his step-daughter; Roman Polanski pled guilty to raping a 13 year old girl. Or as this article on Jezebel asks, which is worse, Polanski doing it or Hollywood’s embrace of him despite it? Messy, stomach-churning stuff, yet many still go to their movies, attend the concerts, and so on. Wagner are Carroll are both long dead – but do you buy the CD or pay the movie admission for the work from someone current who’s done (or alleged to have done) something abhorrent? Are you then contributing to the fortune that in turn may influence the investigations or case?

These things are uncomfortable. They are not simple. They require thinking from a society that seems hell-bent on not thinking, on only being entertained. But we must think and not rely on the sound bite.  Easier said than done.

Art is a mystery. Artists are often a mess. Sometimes the work itself makes you want to take a shower. Sometimes it’s the news reports about the creator of that work. Sometimes people do evil things.  One of the very best books for beginning to understand some of this is M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Hint: narcissism. We need to come to terms with the fact that pedophiles or assaulters or bigots can write great things, perform amazing music, build something of beauty. We don’t like to think so. It is more comfortable to think of the predator as twisted and ugly, but traditionally Lucifer was a beautiful angel of light.

If there is no prosecution, no confession, no clear answer, it is up to the audience to decide individually. In his excellent book on child abuse, The Stop Child Molestation Book: What Ordinary People Can Do In Their Everyday Lives to Save 3 Million Children, Dr. Gene G. Abel asserts we can stop child molestation if we decide to and he lays out the guidelines. But can we stop child abuse (or other forms) while celebrating abusers? What do you think? Do you separate the art from the artist and is there ever a point when that is no longer possible?