The Ways We Touch
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism
is always a sign of things no ears have heard,
no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on down
there where the spirit meets the bone.
For PTSD survivors (of any kind), there are certain people in the world who you meet who provokes in you a strong visceral response, people who re-trigger old wounds. Why should someone you never met provoke strong emotional responses? Aside from the obvious lack of empathy many people in the self-centered Western culture have, there is a complex chain of biochemical events in the brain that hamper the PTSD survivor’s ability to respond back appropriately and compassionately.
In other words, if you provoke a wounded tiger, you’re likely to get bitten.
I’m sharing this bit for a couple of reasons, but it’s pretty synchronous that I wrote the phrase “They Ways We Touch” in an art journal of mine recently.
I want to explain that strong responses to people who trigger strong emotions in them might seem to be impolite, or might be harsh, or downright nasty. Ordinarily, someone who has not experienced trauma do not respond in such ways. And ordinarily, un-triggered PTSD survivors do not respond in such ways, but when triggered, they might.
Let me first say that I don’t have to explain this, to anyone. But I do want to. In part, because I’m still being talked about behind my back and it bothers me enough to write about it. I take that for what it really signifies: an opportunity to “work on my stuff”. And, in addition, I want my husband to know why I still struggle and let other people get to me so and why I’ve struggled most of my life with my moods. Most times, my rage and anger had been turned inward, making me feel suicidal. But occasionally, I’d turn that rage outward. No, it’s not a pretty sight. I make amends for when my temper turns volatile, and all the while, continuing to work to reduce stresses, take care of my health as best I can (knowing the years of stress I’ve endured destroyed my thyroid), heal from the past pain in healthy, constructive ways, and find joy in my art and in my husband and daughters.
For now, it’s the best I can do.
I want to explain to the world something that some people take for granted: For better or for worse, you cannot erase the impact of your childhood. You can certainly transcend any traumatic social, religious, and familial conditioning you received as a child and heal, but not without significant, ongoing effort and assistance. You can work really hard not to let others see your pain as you process your experiences as you recover your dignity and strengthen your boundaries …OR, you can talk about this with others. Anyone who has been abused knows the dangers in being silenced.
When one survivor speaks up, it can give courage for others to break free from their own bondage. The world isn’t pretty, ladies, and it’s about time we think about how to stick together and support our struggling sisters across the globe instead of judging them. [Not to exclude the men, at all.]
Not everybody has had the beautiful childhood some people have had. Not everybody has had loving, thoughtful, emotionally healthy parents, eager to help their children individuate and prepare them to make their own way in the world. In fact, some of us had downright physically violent, sexually, psychologically or emotionally abusive families.
And we grow up with some pretty complex feelings, anxieties, terrors, rage, confusion, and often try to find our way in the dark, often leaving open the door for more abusive treatment (0r alternately, becoming abusers), most times because that’s what we’ve come to expect. And the abusive childhood messages are clear: Life is pain and abuse. I don’t deserve any better. Somehow, I asked for this. It’s all my fault. Even though those aren’t true.
I don’t pretend to know what others have been through, and I certainly don’t understand how I can continue to be despised and talked about by someone who doesn’t know me. Yes, it hurts. And I’m dealing with it.
Between having an physically, psychologically, and emotionally abusive childhood and at times, an abusive marriage, I’ve had plenty of primary complex-PTSD trauma. But also, in addition, since I spent five years working on homicides and sexual assaults when I worked in a crime lab, I’d seen some pretty horrific things. Things most people wouldn’t ordinarily be able to stomach.
I would like to make a note to others why strong reactions can be elicited in otherwise peace-seeking individuals. It may not be because we are passive-aggressive. It may very well be because other people’s words, behaviors and attitudes can be very, very reminiscent of our original abusers.
Someone out there in the world reminds me very much of my older sister, in tone and behavior and attitude, and gets her digs in any chance she gets. She reminds me of the very same sister who abused me physically and psychologically. Interacting with her gave me the same feelings that interacting with my sister does. And recently I realized she hasn’t moved on. She’s still reading my blog and is upset with me. Even though I apologized to her. Yes, this does trouble me. A bit.
So, that got me to thinking…what goes on in a PTSD response that new triggers can provoke? I found this great explanation about how the human mind responds to a threat at Child Trauma Academy who has an article about Secondary Trauma that caregivers can experience while helping traumatized children.
This is the text on the first page:
“The Alarm State
The human body and human mind have a set of very important and very predictable responses to threat. Threat may come from an internal (e.g., pain) or external (e.g., an assailant) source. One common reaction to danger or threat has been labeled the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. In the initial stages of this reaction there is a response called the alarm reaction.
As the individual begins to feel threatened, the initial stages of a complex, total-body response will begin. The brain orchestrates, directs and controls this response. If the individual feels more threatened, their brain and body will be shifted further along an arousal continuum in an attempt to ensure appropriate mental and physical responses to the challenges of the threat. The cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning of the individual will reflect this shift along the arousal continuum. During the traumatic event, all aspects of functioning of the individual change – feeling, thinking, behaving all change. Someone being assaulted doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future or making an abstract plan for survival. At that moment, their thinking, behaving and feeling is being directed by more ‘primitive’ parts of the brain (see Table in Appendix). A frightened child doesn’t focus on the words; they attend to the threat related signals in their environment – the non-verbal signs of communication such as eye contact, facial expression, body posture or proximity to the threat. The internal state of the child shifts with the level of perceived threat. With increased threat, a child moves along the arousal continuum from vigilance through to terror.
The alarm continuum is characterized by a graded increase in sympathetic nervous system activity, in turn, causing increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, a release of glucose stored in muscle and increased muscle tone. Changes in the central nervous system cause hypervigilance; the child tunes out all non-critical information. These actions prepare the child to fight with, or run away from, the potential threat. This total body mobilization, the “fight or flight” response, has been well characterized and described in great detail for adults. These responses are highly adaptive and involve many coordinated and integrated neurophysiological responses across multiple brain areas such as the locus coeruleus, the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the brainstem nuclei responsible for autonomic nervous system regulation.”
The whole chain of stress response is largely unavoidable. You can take the flame of the over-boiling pot of water, but there’s still going to be a mess everywhere. Eventually, you get better at monitoring your emotions before things get over-heated in the first place.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “No one can hurt us without our consent”. But, gosh, I have trouble with this. I mean, it’s of course, TRUE. But what if we have no adequate way to protest? No adequate way to protect ourselves, which many, many abuse survivors don’t have until they learn new skills.
Some of us as adults who never got treatment for childhood or adult abuse struggle with any threat that reminds them of their abusers. Some of us decide, perhaps not for many years after our escape, or when we are raising our own children, that it’s time to start the healing journey in earnest. Understanding how the brain responds to trauma is important for me in this process.
And what does the brain need to heal from trauma, to reverse the damage?
For me, making beautiful artwork and photography is a part of my process. I truly to believe that creating artwork has the power to heal a lot of PTSD damage.
I believe the brain is eager to heal from trauma, it just doesn’t always know how.
I believe the visual arts have a way of healing the mind in ways words alone simply can’t. I talked for years and years in various places about my trauma, but never really felt peace.
I think artwork goes to those places in our brains that are traumatized and nurture that primitive part of the brain that isn’t affected by words, but by images and impressions. If we capture images and impressions and not words during trauma, and our minds don’t record a cogent narrative for what we went through, can you see how tricky it becomes to use words to heal from that? I don’t think words don’t cut through the internal noise like images can.
And, I believe the added benefit of art therapy is that it’s hard to keep up obsessive anxiety and self-deprecating thoughts when the very thing you are doing calms the nervous system and directs your brain to focus on images. The heart and the mind get nurtured in ways you can’t conceive…until you do it. It’s alchemy.
I love this post by PTSD Spirituality called Art and Craft Can Heal Soul Wounds and appreciate John D. Zemler, Ph.D. for writing this:
Artwork enables the healing of PTSD soul wounds. The process of craft allows for the continued polishing of our souls. PTSD inflicts blemishes and fractures upon our soul. Those wounds to our soul are meant to force us into isolation and then kill us. Those soul wounds are meant to make us sever healthy relationships and seek out porn, drugs, reckless sex, booze, and oblivion. Artwork, in any of its manifestations, helps to heal these wounds. The artist engages life on both the physical and spiritual levels and endeavors to translate that experience into an expression others can comprehend.
I love this quote from Veteran’s Children
Color is medicine for those who have suffered trauma.