What if We’re Wrong?

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What if a person really could forget the horrors of the past?

Yes, I know; we therapists tell you it’s impossible to do without paying a price. We say that you have a lumber room of the mind, a hidden closet in which you stuff all the traumas and memories you wish you had no use for. We say, in time, the contents of this room start to smell. House guests, looking for the bathroom, will open the wrong door and let all your heartaches escape. The closet gets crammed with memories, so that if you try to put one more in, two more are dislodged and tumble out at your feet. All the horrors will find a way out, somehow, or they will make life difficult if they remain locked up. There’s no end to the neuroses, psychoses, character dysfunctions, family dysfunctions, and general malaise you are subject to if you try to put anything into that closet.

Therapists tell you it’s impossible to be effectively rid of the past and want you to take our word for it. You have to deal with the past, clean out the closet, pull out every item in turn, dust it off, and find a place on the coffee table to keep it. Face your demons or forever be running away from them. Deal with it, we say, as if you’re a lackadaisical croupier and we’re eager blackjack players. Become conscious of the unconscious, we urge. And we would be the very people to help you.

“I don’t see what this has to do with me,” you might say. “I don’t have any demons in the closet.”

Every therapist would then just smile. It’s no use trying to explain repression to someone who’s repressing. You’re never going to get it.

But, what if therapists are wrong, and it is possible to forget the horrors of the past? Continue reading

Cleaning the Closet

Old Posts

We are certain to encounter the past.

We are confronted with it if we go back to the old homestead, step in through our childhood door, and walk into our early days. We face it if we unpack memories along with the ornaments for the Christmas tree. Either we choose to spend time the past, or it is guaranteed to call on us. Continue reading

Reading for the Plot

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What do the flashbacks and nightmares of trauma victims have to do with the way we experience pleasure? Peter Brooks makes these unexpected connections in his essay, Freud’s Master Plot, within his book, Reading for the Plot.

A professor of literature at Yale, Brooks wanted to know why stories are a certain length. Why don’t we go directly from the beginning to the end and skip all the twists and turns along the way? Why is it necessary to have a plot? Brooks believes that he can explain with some help from Freud.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud noted that, in their dreams, flashbacks, and patterns of behavior, trauma victims compulsively repeated their horrible experiences as if they were happening in the present, rather than remembering them as events of the past. If you believe in the pleasure principle, namely that people do whatever is pleasurable, you would not expect this. Freud developed his idea of the death drive in an effort to explain.

This is how the death drive works. Death, you see, awaits you. You prefer not to think about it, but it forces itself into your consciousness when you have a close call; a trauma, in other words. Your trauma made you experience something close to death, before you have had a chance to live life fully. You wish you had the sufficient vigilance to ward it off.

Having a death drive doesn’t mean that you want to die. Far from it. You know that you will die, but you want to do so on your terms. You attempt to master the inevitability of death by compulsively repeating the event that brought it to your awareness. This compulsion to repeat the trauma is to keep up the kind of vigilance which you think you failed to have in the past. You can’t take your eyes off of it, no matter how much you’d like, because of the threat it poses and the significance it has to your story. Flashbacks, then, are rehearsals.

Here’s where Brooks advances Freud and further develops the death drive. The moment you have a desire, you seek to extinguish the desire. When you crave chocolate, you mentally rehearse the eating of chocolate in the same way that trauma victims rehearse, or “remember forward”, their death. All desire, says Brooks, naturally heads towards quiescence, and all life heads towards death.

Turning to Brooks’ interest in reading: when you pick up a book, you soon find that the hero in the story has a desire. The boy desires the girl, the detective desires to solve the crime, the vampire desires blood. If the book hooks you, you soon have a desire, too: to keep reading until the book is done. A good ending achieves a sense of boundedness when all desires are resolved and all the loose ends tied up.

But there’s more, and this is why novels are long: not too long, not too short, but of a certain length. When you crave chocolate, you know it’s not that enjoyable to just cram it into your mouth at once. The craving can be enjoyable, too. If you look forward to the chocolate, delay your gratification; if you lick it, savor it before consuming it, then you enjoy it more.

This process is what Freud calls binding. The more you tease yourself with the desire, the more you rehearse its satisfaction, the more you tightly bind yourself to it. In addition to its original importance, the desire, once it’s bound, becomes invested with all the energies generated by delay.

When you read, you want the hero to be successful, but only after having adventures, suffering setbacks, and acquiring helpers. First, there’s the hero’s desire that drives the plot forward. Then, there’s the delay, the detour, the arabesque, the refusal of closure, the making of bad choices. This is what fills the pages in the middles of literary plots. Subplots, with their own system of desires, setbacks, and resolutions, contribute to the delay. A satisfying story, by teasing you with the ending, binds all of these elements together. In a good book, everything is there for a reason.

In summary, in real life, just as in fiction, whether there has been trauma in it, or not; life moves toward death. You know you’re going to die, but you want to die on your own terms, after having had a full life. A full life consists of the very same desires, setbacks, adventures, and delay we find in fiction. It is enriched by the subplots provided by our associates. An awareness of death adds a great deal to the story by bringing to mind what’s at stake. Trauma adds drama. The pleasure principle and the death drive coexist and cooperate in the developing and enriching of the good life, as it does in the developing and enriching of the good plot.

The ACE Study

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It makes no sense, but one of the most remarkable and important findings in recent psychological research hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves and still has not had much impact on the practice of psychotherapy. I’m talking about the ACE Study.

In the 1990’s, the CDC and the health care giant, Kaiser Permanente, teamed up to recruit more than 17,000 adult research subjects, who filled out a short questionnaire, asking about their adverse childhood experiences. That’s what ACE stands for: adverse childhood experiences. They then compared their answers to a list of common ailments. They found a very strong correlation between the degree of adverse childhood experiences and a decline in both physical and mental health for the person later in life. Continue reading

The Road to Reconciliation: How to Re-Traumatize Yourself

First, a bad thing happens. Rape, murder, combat, abuse. You don’t have a lot of control over it. That’s the point. Something happens way, way out of your control. You barely make it. Now you’re left with the memories. That’s the trauma.

Second, the memories come up. You don’t have a lot of control over them, either. They come up when you come across something you associate with the trauma. A plastic bag on the highway that looks as if it may be an IED. A dark alley like where you witnessed the murder. A program on TV too similar to the incident. I knew someone who had a hard time every Saturday throughout her adulthood because, when she was a kid, her step-father would creep into her room Saturday nights. You find yourself caught up in the memory and start feeling as though it’s happening all over again. It’s like a trance you are in, a spell you are under.

You’ve learned to do things that’ll break the spell. You found a dramatic action will do it, the more outrageous, the better. It has to be extreme enough to compete and overpower that memory. You’ve got to drive fast, run hard, take a risk, get a good, stiff drink, or fuck the living daylights out of a stranger. You pick a fight, get some blow, or find a high, high place, hang your toes off, and flirt with death. Maybe, you don’t go quite that far. Maybe you just go over the incident, again and again. Maybe you feel everything you had been feeling. Maybe you reenlist and return to the war zone, find another abusive man, or return to the old one, one more time. Maybe you blame yourself for what was out of your control. Maybe you figure you deserved it.

Congratulations, you’ve just re-traumatized yourself.

It gets to be that the original trauma is nothing; it’s just the beginning. The bulk of the injury occurs over the years afterwards. If, for instance, you were raped while walking through your college campus, that, in itself, is an evil thing. But, if for years afterwards, every time it comes up in your mind, you feel terrible, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you can’t have sex with your husband because you feel the shame and the terror of that rape, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized every time you try to have sex. If you cannot be reminded of it without getting blind drunk, driving recklessly, shoplifting, yelling at your kids, or doing something regrettable, just to break the spell, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you watch Law and Order – SVU till you’re numb, go to the scene of the crime, confront the rapist, sleep with a hundred men just to get over it, but feel that terror all over again, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. It gets to be that the original trauma is just a small part of the pain you feel.

If you go to a therapist to get treatment for PTSD and tell the story, only to fall again into that pit of terror, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized.

It seems as if you can never get past it. It seems that every effort to straighten out the mess only ensnares you more thoroughly. It seems as though people are right when they try to deny it ever happened and avoid anything associated with it.

However, you can get past it. PTSD is one of the most readily treatable conditions there are. Plenty of people get past it. ONE STEP AT A TIME.

The first step is not to tell your story. Don’t go into your therapist’s office and get into the whole thing all at once without first considering what will happen when you are done. Oh, you have to say a little bit about it, just so your therapist knows the issue is there, but don’t go into detail. Talk first about what happens when the issue comes up; how have you coped with it so far.

For example, many traumatized people will turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with their trauma. But, if you’re going to need a stiff drink or to shoot up after leaving your therapist’s office, then nothing will be gained. You will only have succeeded in re-traumatizing yourself by adding one more drink you don’t need, one more relapse to the series of problems associated with this trauma.

Therefore, the first step is to take a look at the ways you have been re-traumatized, not traumatized, and get control over that. Let’s be sure what your reaction will be to dealing with the trauma before we try to deal with it.

The second step is to tell your story, but maybe no second step will be necessary. It may never be essential that you go over the original injury. It’s not like you’re going to change what happened, anyway; and it’s not like you were responsible. What you want to change is how you respond to the triggers. That’s something you can change. In the case of the woman raped on her college campus, she probably wants to be able to watch Law and Order without freaking out. She wants to be able to have sex with her husband, be free of nightmares, and see her daughter off to college. She doesn’t want to have the need for all those crazy, dangerous, unhealthy behaviors that she used to turn to in order to break the spell. Really, all the important stuff is in step one. It’s essential to end the re-traumatization.

By the time you get to step two, you may want to tell your story, anyway; if only because now you can. You are no longer silenced. You can speak out, testify, warn others, and join with those who’ve had the same experience. You no longer have to be alone with the secret because there is no longer the risk of re-traumatization.

If you take step two and tell your story, then tell it in a place, at a time, and with a person who can contain it. You’ll want to be able to leave the room in better shape than when you walked in. You let some feelings out as you tell the story; you may not be able to contain them within you, but we want to keep them contained in the room.

When you are done telling the story, the story is told. You, at last, may have been able to fit the pieces together in a way you haven’t been able to fit them before. You couldn’t complete the story because you were getting re-traumatized. The hurt would start all over again, so you had to drop it. This left it unfinished and scattered in pieces all over. When you end the re-traumatization, it becomes a story and not just fragments, jagged pieces of memory that don’t seem to fit together.

Step three? Step three is up to you. Step three is living your life as you want to live it. Something awful still happened. You still have a memory, but it doesn’t matter as much. You no longer are getting re-traumatized, you no longer have to bear a secret, unless you chose to, and the story is complete. You’ve reached the end of trauma. Soon comes personal peace and maybe, if the offender is willing and able, reconciliation.

How to Re-Traumatize Yourself

First, a bad thing happens. Rape, murder, combat, abuse. You don’t have a lot of control over it. That’s the point. Something happens way, way out of your control. You barely make it. Now you’re left with the memories. That’s the trauma.

Second, the memories come up. You don’t have a lot of control over them, either. They come up when you come across something you associate with the trauma. A plastic bag on the highway that looks as if it may be an IED. A dark alley like where you witnessed the murder. A program on TV too similar to the incident. I knew someone who had a hard time every Saturday throughout her adulthood because, when she was a kid, her step-father would creep into her room Saturday nights. You find yourself caught up in the memory and start feeling as though it was happening all over again. It’s like a trance you are in, a spell you are under.

You’ve learned to do things that’ll break the spell. You found a dramatic action will do it, the more outrageous, the better. It has to be extreme enough to compete and overpower that memory. You’ve got to drive fast, run hard, take a risk, get a good, stiff drink, or fuck the living daylights out of a stranger. You pick a fight, get some blow, or find a high, high place, hang your toes off, and flirt with death. Maybe, you don’t go quite that far. Maybe you just go over the incident, again and again. Maybe you feel everything you had been feeling. Maybe you reenlist and return to the war zone, find another abusive man, or return to the old one, one more time. Maybe you blame yourself for what was out of your control. Maybe you figure you deserved it.

Congratulations, you’ve just re-traumatized yourself.

It gets to be that the original trauma is nothing; it’s just the beginning. The bulk of the injury occurs over the years afterwards. If, for instance, you were raped while walking through your college campus, that, in itself, is an evil thing. But, if for years afterwards, every time it comes up in your mind, you feel terrible, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you can’t have sex with your husband because you feel the shame and the terror of that rape, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized every time you try to have sex. If you cannot be reminded of it without getting blind drunk, driving recklessly, shoplifting, yelling at your kids or doing something regrettable, just to break the spell, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you watch Law and Order – SVU, go to the scene of the crime, confront the rapist, sleep with a hundred men just to get over it, but feel that terror all over again, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. It gets to be that the original trauma is just a small part of the pain you feel.

If you go to a therapist to get treatment for PTSD and tell the story, only to fall again into that pit of terror, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized.

It seems as if you can never get past it. It seems that every effort to straighten out the mess only ensnares you more thoroughly. It seems as though people are right when they try to deny it ever happened and avoid anything associated with it.

However, you can get past it. PTSD is one of the most readily treatable conditions there are. Plenty of people get past it. ONE – STEP – AT – A – TIME.

The first step is not to tell your story. Don’t go into your therapist’s office and get into the whole thing all at once without first considering what will happen when you are done. Oh, you have to say a little bit about it, just so your therapist knows the issue is there, but don’t go into detail. Talk first about what happens when the issue comes up; how have you coped with it so far.

For example, many traumatized people will turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with their trauma. But, if you’re going to need a stiff drink or to shoot up after leaving your therapist’s office, then nothing will be gained. You will only have succeeded in re-traumatizing yourself by adding one more drink you don’t need, one more relapse to the series of problems associated with this trauma.

Therefore, the first step is to take a look at the ways you have been re-traumatized, not traumatized, and get control over that. Let’s be sure what your reaction will be to dealing with the trauma before we try to deal with it.

The second step is to tell your story, but maybe no second step will be necessary. It may never be essential that you go over the original injury. It’s not like you’re going to change what happened, anyway; and it’s not like you were responsible. What you want to change is how you respond to the triggers. That’s something you can change. In the case of the woman raped on her college campus, she probably wants to be able to watch Law and Order without freaking out. She wants to be able to have sex with her husband, be free of nightmares, visit her old college, and see her daughter off to college. She doesn’t want to have the need for all those crazy, dangerous, unhealthy behaviors that she used to turn to in order to break the spell. Really, all the important stuff is in step one. It’s essential to end the re-traumatization.

By the time you get to step two, you may want to tell your story, anyway; if only because now you can. You are no longer silenced. You can speak out, testify, warn others, and join with those who’ve had the same experience. You no longer have to be alone with the secret because there is no longer the risk of re-traumatization.

If you take step two and tell your story, then tell it in a place, at a time, and with a person who can contain it. You’ll want to be able to leave the room in better shape than when you walked in. You let some feelings out as you tell the story; you may not be able to contain them within you, but we want to keep them contained in the room.

When you are done telling the story, the story is told. You, at last, may have been able to fit the pieces together in a way you haven’t been able to fit them before. You couldn’t complete the story because you were getting re-traumatized. The hurt would start all over again, so you had to drop it. This left it unfinished and scattered in pieces all over. When you end the re-traumatization, it becomes a story and not just fragments, jagged pieces of memory that poke you all over.

Step three? Step three is up to you. Step three is living your life as you want to live it. Something awful still happened. You still have a memory, but it doesn’t matter as much. You no longer are getting re-traumatized, you no longer have to bear a secret, unless you chose to, and the story is complete. You’ve reached the end of trauma.

When Madness Takes Cover

So, you’ve stopped drinking, or drugging, or gambling, or sleeping around. Your depression seems to have lifted. You haven’t been violent. Your anxiety no longer makes all the decisions. You’re up in the morning and dressed when you need to be. The madness seems to have gone away.

Has it, really?

Madness takes cover sometimes when it feels threatened. It’ll hide in the bushes and come roaring out when you least suspect it. Make no mistake, madness is cunning, baffling, and very, very patient. While you’ve been collecting key rings at your NA meeting, the madness has been doing pushups in the dark.

Madness prefers the dark. It likes to perform its dirty deeds in secret. The night belongs to Michelob. However, madness is rarely ever a real secret. It’s kidding you when you believe it leaves no trace. You can tell when madness is still afoot if you are willing to read the signs.

These are the signs:

You haven’t done the things promised for your recovery

If the problem behavior is gone, but you still haven’t been to see a therapist, attended meetings, written that letter of apology, changed associates, or done any of the things you promised, then the madness is just hoping you won’t notice.

The behavioral changes have been minor

The more serious the madness has been, the more excited you’ll be when there’s been a slight improvement.

You were drinking every day, now you’re thrilled that you cut down to once a week. You used to gamble away all of your paycheck, now you only buy a few scratch-offs. You used to beat your wife, now you only puts holes in the wall. The underlying attitudes towards drinking, gambling, or violence have not changed; the only thing changed is the frequency and severity.

When gardeners trim bushes back a little, they call it pruning; it doesn’t destroy the bush, it makes it grow more. The same thing happens when only minor changes are accomplished. You wouldn’t be satisfied with your surgeon if you had a mastectomy and he left some cancer behind, so don’t fool yourself by minor behavioral changes.

Other problems have arisen

Sometimes the illness plays whack-a-mole by extinguishing one problem behavior, only to transfer it to another. We see this frequently with addicts who will use one drug until the heat is on, and then switch to a different drug. Instead of scoring heroin on the street and using dirty needles, they get their narcotics from a doctor. You’ll think that’s an improvement, until you start to abuse those pills, too. The underlying issue remains.

Thinking has not changed

If the rationalizations that have justified the madness are still in evidence, then the madness has not gone away. You used to say you needed to drink, so you drank. Now, you don’t drink, but you still say you need to. Guess what? You’ll drink again. If the madness was truly gone, you’d no longer believe you needed it.

No fence has been built

It is not enough just to change the problem behavior to eradicate an illness. You also have to know the route that it takes before it arrives. You need to put up a gate and shut out behavior that, in itself, is not problematic, but leads up to the problem.

Madness comes masquerading as something harmless so that you will not see it coming. Pedophiles start off by making friends with a child. There’s nothing wrong with making friends with a child, right? But, then they gradually groom the child to accept more and more sexual behavior. We protect children from pedophiles by not permitting them to live near schools. This is not because it is bad to live near a school, but it is bad for pedophiles to live near schools.

Authentic recovery means that you see through all the disguises.

History is minimized

If the story you tell about the illness differs significantly from your partner’s, then the madness is still lurking about. If you talk about your depression only in terms of your suffering and leave out how it affected others, then you’ve not incorporated other points of view into your own. Your limited perspective is still all you have. You have an incomplete appreciation of the costs of your choices. You should be able to tell your partner’s side of the story as well as your own.

You’re withdrawn

If your partner complains that you’re virtually unreachable, emotionally inaccessible, or sexually uninterested, then the madness may be in hiding. It doesn’t want people to ask too many questions, know too much, or get too close.

You’re always angry with your partner

You may be blaming other people for calling out the madness and challenging it. you may be using anger as a way to keep others away, off balance, and uninformed. You may still be taking sides with the madness, against your partner.

Your partner is working harder at recovery than you are

Your partner has been on you like white on rice. Ever since you had that affair, she’s been monitoring your phone, checking your whereabouts, scanning your emails, opening your letters. She met every single female acquaintance you have and gave them all the stink eye. She scrutinizes your expression when every waitress approaches. She tried every new position you wanted in an attempt to reawaken your sex life. She found a therapist for you, set up the appointment, went to every session, paid, and did the homework assignments. Your partner is working harder than you are.

If you have not taken responsibility for change, then you will not make the right choices the moment your partner’s back is turned.

You say everything is changed

You’re not the one to judge whether anything has changed. When your madness fools people, it fools you first.

You want to move on and not get stuck in the past

That’s the madness talking, trying to convince you to not learn from the past. Truly recovering people remind themselves of the past regularly, so that they’ll not repeat it.

You want credit for improvements

An adult straightens the house every day. He scrubs the toilets when they need it and mops the floor when it’s dirty. He doesn’t expect a medal for it. He just does it because it needs doing.

A toddler tickles the furniture with a feather duster once in a while and everyone will fall all over him, saying he was very helpful. That’s what they do for a child. Are you a child?

When madness takes over: the less you do, the more credit you think you deserve.

In a healthy world: you don’t earn special points for doing what you should have been doing all along.

It’s still all about you

Not only have you stopped the problematic behavior, but you’ve been going to therapy, attending AA, writing in your journal, and getting in touch with your feelings. These are all good things, but you’re still as self-involved as ever.

Real change means taking action towards becoming more loving, generous, caring, and empathetic towards others.

There are no signs

You looked over this list and you did not find a single thing that indicates madness may be lurking. There seem to be no signs. Well, that’s your sign. If you aren’t seeing signs, then you’re fooling yourself. There are always signs.

The road to recovery is the same road as the road to ruin; you’re just traveling in a different direction. You pass by the same markers as when you were heading to ruin. You should be seeing them now and recognizing them for what they are. You should also be seeing some signs that indicate you are heading in the right direction. You should be seeing meaningful change.