Last week we ended with a sad conclusion from Isis that she has lost herself over the years.
After a moment of silence, Isis recounts her own rebirthing experience, in which the therapist asked if Isis might have been born after an induced labour. She could not answer that question, but her mother confirmed it. The healthcare providers were not waiting for a delivery on Sunday, so her mother was induced on Saturday evening. “I experienced that I was born powerless, that I couldn’t do anything… The birth went too fast and was too intense and I can often still experience that feeling of powerlessness. Strangely enough… Robin was born after a natural home birth, but a day later I developed childbed fever and I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. I was suddenly very ill and that was probably also traumatic for Robin and for the eldest. So here, too, there is an overlap with my own life.”
I ask Isis what it is she thinks of when she hears the word ‘traumatic’: “That’s a broad concept, isn’t it…? I am thinking of a sudden event or of neglect or other chronic conditions…”
I share what many trauma experts see as the essence of trauma: being alone with the pain of difficult experiences. It is not about that experience itself, but about what that experience does to your inner, emotional world and how that limits your behavioral repertoire and makes it less flexible. You quickly fall into the well-known survival strategies: fight, flight, freeze and fawn (to fake, to ‘please’ your opponent in order to escape sanctions). The earlier in life this happens, the greater the consequences. Isis had tricks not to incur her father’s wrath and to avoid name-calling and imprisonment, but the fear was always there. She was forced to sacrifice some of her authenticity. She didn’t show certain parts of who she was so that she could maintain some degree of security in the relationship with her parents. She says that because she was often out and about, she did not know everything that happened and was not strongly aware of it. Nevertheless, the impact is usually there, because while we cannot reproduce everything we experience through our narrative memory (we can’t tell the story), we do store the imprint that our stress hormones have left in our cells. So we do have a physical memory of it, even if it is not conscious, and that physical memory is triggered by situations that resemble what we experienced before. What we experience in the ‘now’ is therefore often a reminder of what happened ‘then’ and in which we were alone, because there was no buffering protection from an adult to provide co-regulation and reassurance. Then we look for other ways to feel safe and satisfied, which are often ‘bad habits’ and addictions, due to their hormonally satisfying effect. They are no stranger to Isis either: she mentions smoking, drinking, sleeping medication and coffee.
Addiction has long been viewed as a behavior to be punished, then as a brain disorder, and now among advocates of a more holistic view as a solution to an underlying problem, which is almost always trauma. Not everyone with trauma becomes addicted, but people with addiction almost always have trauma in their history. From this perspective, we can look at what is going on with more compassion. It also shows that it is likely to be difficult to end the addiction if there is no genuine attention and recognition for the underlying trauma.
We note that there have been many moments when Isis could not maintain the connection with herself and that in many situations in her childhood her parents were not there for her to lovingly guide her: “It never occurred to me to discuss difficult things with my parents. I got through it and made sure I had a relatively good time.” She has been carrying a great burden for a long time and as sad as she is right now… she is also tired of it and not having to take care of Robin for a while, feels partly as a relief from that burden. This also makes it clear that body and mind are closely linked: what we experience as a heavy burden mentally, has consequences for our physical well-being. The powerlessness that Isis currently experiences is very old, she has indicated, because it dates back to her birth. It is impressive to be able to see these kinds of connections and to experience that we should not think too lightly about how we treat our little ones when they come into the world and in their first 1000 days.
We agree that it can be very confronting for you as a parent to see that your children mirror you. What you find difficult in them is usually what deserves healing in yourself. The self-reflection that is required for this, however, requires a safe environment, one in which you do not immediately fall back into your coping strategies, into behavioral patterns that you once logically developed in order to survive. Only when that safety is there can you look at and question your own pain with compassion. Then you can learn to listen to your intuition again and determine what you want to take in from your interaction with others and what you want to leave with them.
The Buddhists say: if you give a present and the recipient does not accept it, then the gift remains yours. That applies to beautiful things (attention, love, joy) and also to your anger: if the other person does not accept your anger, it will come back to you, often doubly, and then that anger can trigger all kinds of things. When we can learn to see that underneath anger is often very deep pain, we can experience more compassion, both for ourselves and for others.
“I like that”, says Isis, “about not accepting that anger… I also try that with Robin. I can’t change Robin’s mind about me. I said ‘I love you’ and that’s all I can do now.”
My thought is a bit more positive; I do think she can influence Robin’s feelings. I mention another Buddhist wisdom, which says that if you fail to achieve active growth or improvement, it is already progress if you stop doing harm. Then the dust of the battle can settle and there will be a better view and breathing room for everyone. It also allows everyone to feel more closely into what is happening in their own body and to reflect on it, without the escalation that is ‘heavy on the stomach’ or that ‘takes the blood from under the nails’ – talking about the language of the body. Moreover, creating more space means that you do not burden each other with what you want and expect from each other. Robin cannot give Isis what Isis missed as a child. Isis also can’t give Robin what Robin missed as a child. They both have needs that they cannot meet in one another. That is on the one hand a sad and on the other hand a crucial insight for both of them to move forward. If they can both find a conversation partner with whom they feel safe, who can listen to them without judgment, without threatening sanctions and without creating shame, to everything they feel and experience, they can slowly but surely reconnect with themselves. And that, say trauma experts, is the essence of healing: restoring the connection with your authentic self. That connection is the basis from which you can recover or build the connection with the other.
We conclude with that hopeful thought. The coming time will show how things are going with Isis and Robin and I wish Isis and Robin all the best in the world!