Tough Love Truth #1: You Can’t Rely on Anyone Else to Fix Your Childhood PTSD

Childhood trauma is trendy right now. Grant money is flowing toward fascinating treatment possibilities involving brain wave alterations and drugs like Ecstasy and specially adapted yoga.  Mental health conferences are making it the topic of the year, and every kind of healing professional is finding a way to tie “trauma informed care” into their services. This is all positive!  In fact I can hardly believe that, at last, the world is beginning to get it about this insidious condition that sucks the life out of millions of people. And there is hope!

However…

Research has shown almost no definitive pattern of effectiveness associated with any particular approach to treatment — this despite thousands of practitioners who claim that they treat the effects of childhood trauma.

I don’t pretend to know everything that’s available out there for treating the effects of childhood trauma on adults (I’m still learning). And I know some people are finding help — especially those with a lot of funds and willingness to keep trying different things (including a lot of treatments that often cause more harm than good).

Yet every week, I speak to dozens of people who have tried common treatments and who are still struggling. They know what’s wrong with them now, but their trauma-related symptoms continue, including depression, anxiety, health problems, money problems, marriage problems, work problems and, most damaging of all, problems connecting with others.

So as someone who has recovered from most effects of childhood trauma, I want to give you my first “tough love truth”:  The best solutions are those you can use any time, for free, as needed. YOU are the one who can heal this. You owning the solution is so much more powerful than you waiting for someone other than you to take care of it for you.

I’m not saying you should shun professional help: You should search and experiment to find what works by any means you can. People who work to help traumatized people have a lot of experience and much to teach. But in the end, they can only point you to solutions (generally unproven solutions, at that). You are the one who will practice the techniques. You are the one who will read the book. You are the one who will persevere with courage.  And you are the one who will learn to change your reactions to PTSD triggers.

You are also in charge of solving the other big problems that are often entwined with our PTSD reactions — the distorted thinking and harmful behaviors that tend to ride shotgun with PTSD.

Circumstances may have prevented you from making sane and self-respecting life choices in the past, but only YOU can now untangle that damage and begin to live in a better way.

When I first understood this (at age 30), it came not as a disappointment but as a tremendous relief. I was at the end of my rope with trying to get help from others. I was in therapy three times a WEEK for Pete’s sake. I had tried self-help books, doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, psychics, hitting pillows, “rebirthing,” women’s empowerment groups, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, “the right boyfriend,” a masters degree, confronting my parents, hiding in my apartment, smoking, ranting, and pretending I was fine. But I was not fine. In fact, each year I was getting worse.

The problems were (using knowledge I have now) about 35% neurological and 65% self-created through my own behavior. Talk therapy at that time could not address the first problem at all, which meant the other problems never even made it into the conversation. I have never received any meaningful help from talk therapy, nor from doctors, clergy or teachers.

How I DID get help was from an ordinary person who herself had been traumatized — a 23-year old ex-street kid who showed me how she got free from her reactive mind, and was able to turn her life around. She showed me how to use written inventory and meditation to calm my over-reactive brain. Then she helped me begin to see (and eventually change) the self-defeating behaviors that I’d developed to express, soothe, hide or compensate for my over-reactions. I was very resistant at first, but then I gobbled it up and made it my way of life, simply because it kept working for me. After more than 20 years it is still working for me, and apparently it works equally well for many others with whom I’ve shared it.

By the end of the year I’ll have a book that details what I’ve learned, so anyone who wants to can change their life too. Drop me a line if you’re interested! In the meantime you can learn the written inventory part here.

I’ve got eleven more Tough Love Truths coming out in the next several weeks. If you want them e-mailed to you, click the Follow button that appears at the lower right corner of your screen (or in the sidebar for WordPress users) and enter your e-mail address. Then you’ll get these posts and others the moment each one is published.

See you then!

Anna

 

Stuck in the Effects of Childhood Trauma? Try Some TOUGH LOVE.

Back in my twenties, when I was drowning in life problems and misery and feeling desperately alone, I hired a therapist who promised to meet my demand: We will not talk about my childhood. 

I knew from my first couple attempts at therapy that my childhood trauma stories were very attractive for therapists… alcoholic mom, dead dad, drugs, neglect, poverty and most tantalizing of all… abuse!  For those whose job it is to help folks find a reason for why they’re so screwed up now, these stories are almost irresistible. They seem so promising! So fertile! You could talk about them for years, casting blame on people not present. And oh, yes. I had been doing just that.

Now this was back when there was scant professional knowledge of childhood trauma and how to treat its effects (today it is a little better). I didn’t want another expensive, fruitless year where — just like in my childhood — we’d focus on my mother and her problems all the time (I call this “the campfire in the living room” problem). I’d wait all week for those precious fifty minutes, and then they’d all fly away, full of mom stories and intense emotions, but no insight and no solution. I’d go home feeling more rattled than when I’d arrived.

So I made a deal with the therapist to skip the story and focus on my real question: Why does everyone keep hurting me?

With the new therapist I talked about my current experiences and feelings, and it turned out this also left me more upset than when I’d arrived, which went on for, oh, hundreds of visit. Our premise was that if I talked about my problems, and she listened, then eventually… what? Other people would change? I’d suddenly see what to do? I’d acknowledged how bad I felt, and that once I did that, I’d feel good?

Increasingly, I just felt enraged. It is now known that one of the effects of childhood PTSD can be a kind of collapse during efforts to talk about what happened. It feels like drowning. Emotions become overwhelming, reasoning shuts down, defenses stiffen, spoken expression becomes tangled, and little said can be remembered — not a great state of mind for fact-finding or problem-solving.

And then, thank God, I found a way to get that clear state of awareness. A young woman I’d met took me under her wing and showed me how to unpack my mind with a written daily inventory. When it comes to expressing painful thoughts, writing is WAY better than speaking for people like me, whose speech center in the brain becomes jello when certain unpleasant things are recalled. But the part of the brain that writes can still access access and express them.

So I would write my fears and resentments and read them to her, which calmed me and cleared up my thinking. Then she would tell me things straight. In the beginning, it was my genuine understanding that literally all my problems were caused by circumstances and other people. But she said it the problem was generally my own thinking and actions. I was offended at first that she’s actually suggest I was responsible for my problems. I thought she lacked compassion, that she didn’t understand.

Like what don’t I understand? she asked.

For example, I told her: All my life, I was angry that my mother never listened to me. I wanted her to take responsibility for all her drinking and neglect, but she ignored me to the day she died.

That’s right, my new friend told me. No one wants to hear all your resentful complaints about them. 

Stunned silence. How awful is this friend, I thought. So I gave her another example, My Great Tragedy —  a guy who had only been into me for about three seconds and then married someone else (honestly, I can’t remember why I felt victimized, per se, but it was something like — my whole life went into suspended animation over this, I had done nothing wrong, there was no “closure,” etc.)

That’s easy, she said. Stay away from married men. 

This was so nakedly obvious I could hardly interpret it. I’d spent years discussing it with the therapist, drawing in sand, making pictures, recounting dreams and so on.  It had all been very meaningful and complicated but then, in an instant, it was all very simple.

The self-will likes to blame, she said. This made me feel both relief and terror: If I’m generating the problem then maybe I can stop generating the problem (good). But if I admit fault, it would be obvious what a hateful, sniveling, little loser I was (bad). And if this were true, I would literally have to kill myself. It was sickening to even say the words. I think I just wanted her to protest, to erect a wall of protection, but she didn’t.

Ok, she said.

“OK I should kill myself?

OK, you can do what you want. 

Here, the mess of my resistance and anger and hope that someone would save me fell away. I guess they call this ownership of the problem.  “I don’t actually want to die,” I admitted.

Well good, she said, because when you’re dead you won’t have hands to write what I’m telling you.  (If you want you can see what she showed me here).

*****

My life whole life changed that day, partly because her technique treated my PTSD (though it’d be years before I knew that’s what I had) and partly because I could finally see that other people weren’t doing this to me.

I’ve shown my friend’s technique to hundreds of others. Some didn’t like it. Some found it helpful but then drifted away. Some have continued the technique daily read me their fears and resentments. I have heard more than once that the feedback I give is “tough love,” which I admit sounds like a huge drag.

It’s true I can be kind of intense, but I understand as few others can how self-delusion works, and I know how pervasive and sticky it can be. It takes some power to break through it, and it almost always requires help from other people. So if someone wants this kind of help from me, then as gently as I can I will tell them how I see it.

(For the record, I’m not saying all feelings of persecution are delusional. Some people truly have no choice about their circumstances, but this is relatively rare. Often there is at least some learned helplessness involved which contributes to the problem; in those cases some degree of change may still be possible.)

If you want some tough love, I’ll by writing about my “Tough Love Truths”  over the coming weeks. Often counterintuitive, they are suggestions I share with people who want to wake up from the effects of their crappy childhoods and build a better life. The topics are be roughly these:

  1. Talking about your pain can hurt you (and everyone else)
  2. If your therapy isn’t helping, it’s time for something new
  3. Most depression and anxiety is not a chemical imbalance
  4. It is not important to know or analyze what happened in the past
  5. Most of your problems now are self-created (which is good news)
  6. If you want to see what’s really true, stop consuming anything that dulls your awareness
  7. You will change in proportion to your willingness to be honest with yourself 
  8. Casual sex is the dubious luxury of people with healthy childhoods
  9. It is just plain crazy not to meditate
  10. If you’re having trouble with people, it’s probably your self-centeredness
  11. Change is possible, but most of it is really, really hard
  12. You can’t do this yourself

Thanks for reading. See you soon!

Anna

 

 

 

Why Does it Seem Like EVERYBODY Suddenly Has PTSD? Ten (Unscientific) Theories

Since “post-traumatic stress disorder” appeared in the DSM-III in in 1980, the concept of PTSD in the public imagination has grown from a novelty to an accepted reality to a comic hyperbole that can be used to mean “overreaction” or “lingering stress,”  as in “Ugh, that traffic jam gave me PTSD!”

PTSD is real, but its symptoms often look like plain old anxiety or depression or even Continue reading “Why Does it Seem Like EVERYBODY Suddenly Has PTSD? Ten (Unscientific) Theories”

Charm School for Feral Girls

One afternoon in the sixth grade, all the girls in my class were sent to the cafeteria for a special, one-time class whose topic was a secret. We’d already had the men-stroo-ation talk, so why the mystery?

The lunchroom chairs were arranged in rows. The teacher of the class was the mother of one of our classmates, who stood before us in a crisp yellow dress, hair teased and swept up like a movie star, with pink lipstick and white patent leather sandals. When we were all seated, she introduced herself and explained that the thing she was going to teach us this:

How To Behave Like Young Ladies. Continue reading “Charm School for Feral Girls”

Poor Girl’s First Real Job (Ten Things I Learned as an Admin Assistant)

When I was sixteen I interviewed for a job at McDonald’s and didn’t get it. Before that I’d worked as a phone solicitor and before that, a babysitter, yard worker, necklace stringer and flower-seller, and I raised and sold baby rabbits, and made nachos to sell at fairs.  When I was in college I worked selling pizza, painting houses, making sandwiches, assisting an elderly couple, being a photo double, selling ice cream, selling kites, selling my own blood and once (unwittingly) appearing as a clothed extra in an X-rated movie. After college, I worked as a temp in L.A. while doing comedy open mics at night, but struggled to maintain enough work to support myself. At the age of 23, in a burst of desire for a steady income, I talked my way into an Admin Assistant position in a hospital marketing department, with benefits and everything.

I really wanted to succeed in this job, but aside from being smart and funny and a fast typist, I had very little idea of what would actually earn my employer’s respect and get me promoted. Growing up poor, I had some wrong ideas about workplaces, bosses, and how to act. Gradually I had to figure it out. I’m still figuring it out, but here are ten things I learned:

  1. Attire-wise, “sexy” is not the same as “business-y.” Yes, high heels and dresses work with either look, and both are very beautiful, but different kinds of high heels send different messages. Same with different kinds of makeup, clothes and hair. You can’t help but be naturally sexy, but if you look like you’re trying to look sexy, it may appear to some at work that you are troubled, low-class, flirting, or manipulating. There is a time and a place for all this but not at work, not when you are trying to get ahead.
  2. While we’re talking about clothes, it should be noted that “money people” can wear clothes that express their personality, edginess and quirks, but if you grew up poor, you are burdened with a bit of a trust deficit in the workplace. So you may want to play it vanilla. A plain and sexless NPR kind of vanilla — in the first year, at least — without visible tattoos, piercings, unnatural hair coloring, studded belts, long or colorful nails, etc.
  3. If you are political or religious, don’t talk about it. If you are anti-political or anti-religious, don’t talk about that either, even if everyone else is talking about it. You can just nod vaguely and then smile brightly (to show you’re not judging) and lightly change the subject. Unless politics or religion is your job, the risks and pitfalls are way too high to risk your professional progress at this stage.
  4. At some jobs there are times when most of the team will have a drink together. It may not be a great idea for you to drink though. First of all, the trust deficit. You are already at a disadvantage for having grown up poor. And you may in fact have a cultural difference. In poverty culture, we have some room to talk about very personal things, get loud, cry and get angry, wherever we happen to be. Not so much in money culture. Also, if you grew up poor there’s a high likelihood that you grew up around alcoholism, and so other people drinking could be weird for you. I’d just say, if you’re trying to get somewhere professionally, you need all the wits about you that you can get. Order a non-alcoholic drink without calling attention to the fact you’re not drinking. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn about a company when everyone is drinking except you.
  5. If you were poor and this involved a crappy childhood, you are more at risk than money people for “rocky life events” — depression, broken relationships, financial trouble, anxiety, rage attacks and logistical mayhem  around home, family, moving, parenting, holidays, etc. If you have childhood PTSD these events will be even harder to avoid or contain. I really couldn’t tell you if poor people have more drama in their lives than money people, but I know there is more pressure on poor people to prove they are smart, trustworthy and emotionally stable. So get support from friends and professionals who can hear the horrible details and love you anyway. Then create a sturdy emotional “filter” that let’s you create mild, socially acceptable stories about what’s going in your life that you can tell at work with a little smile and virtually no details.
  6. Try never to gossip, even if other people are gossiping. This means not saying anything negative or disclosing personal information about a person not present. Even if it never gets back to the person you talked about, those who heard you will lose a little trust in you.
  7. If you resent your boss (and sometimes you will, especially if you grew up in poverty culture) you need to do everything in your power to get over it, or else change jobs. When I tell people this they think I’m too harsh, but think about it: Unless there is a problem with harassment, criminal activity or abuse, your job is to make your boss successful. If you do that, it is very probable you’ll rise. And trying to make your boss successful is generally the most direct path to learning about your job, your company and your industry. So your promotion will be earned.
  8. When your boss does not appreciate your contributions, or you think you could do better elsewhere, it is your job to recognize that and make it happen. This sounds really simple, but a lot of us leave that decision — without really being conscious of it — to others. And then we resent them for denying us the opportunities we deserve. You may agree with me on this: I, and I alone, am responsible for my advancement.
  9. Make a decision that your paycheck is a contract, and “own” your side of the contract. Don’t treat yourself as a victim, and don’t treat your employer as an adversary. You agreed to a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time, so if, on the job, you are chatting, checking your phone, browsing online, or not performing your job to the best of your ability, you are technically stealing from your employer. A lot of workplaces tolerate this behavior but you will know. These tiny “shame things” will keep you from holding your head up high, if only just a little, and cut short your confidence at critical moments. Set things right wherever you can. The absence of shame makes you stronger.
  10. Accept that as a person who grew up poor (and maybe with some crappy difficulties in your past) you may have some things that are awkward and struggly. Try not to let this set you against the world, or to use it as an excuse. Be kind, open-minded and courageous, and keep trying! Everyone is supposed to be different, and each person’s unique gifts are needed in this desperate world. When you aim to strengthen the goodness in yourself, your past experiences are transformed into a strength that can be shared. And that, right there, could just be your purpose.

Boyfriends Are Poison (and Other Tips for Girls Who Grew Up Poor)

Here’s what they tell you: Work hard in school. Love yourself. Get enough sleep. Say no to drugs and tobacco. Don’t consume sugary drinks. Use a condom. Don’t let yourself be pressured into sex. Accept your body. Get a career before you have children. Eat five fruits and vegetables a day. Breathe!  Don’t bully. Dream big.

Here’s what they don’t tell you: If you grew up poor, there is a much higher than average chance that you will have children outside of marriage, and this fact, more than any other, will push you toward the grubby end of income inequality — the widening gap between the poor and everyone else in the United States.

You’re not supposed to say this, but it’s true.  I  know. I grew up poor, and began my life as a mother without a committed relationship, let alone a marriage.

Compared to a lot of women who grew up like I did, I had advantages. I was in my late thirties when I had kids. I had a masters degree and made a decent living in a professional job. The kids’ father totally came through and cared for them half-time, and shared kid-related expenses. But my half of childcare was $1200 a month. Housing was $2600 a month. Healthcare was a whopping $2300 a month. Utilities, clothes, food, car, gas, insurance, toys, haircuts — you can do the math. Oh, and then the recession. There was no work for a year. Credit cards were my life raft. There were times I felt hopeless and desperate. This went on for a long time.

I love my kids a ridiculous amount. Being a mother is my core identity; I knew this when I was three years old. If I hadn’t followed my bumpy path, I wouldn’t have been blessed with these particular children, and therefore I wouldn’t change a thing. But I wish when I was younger someone had turned down the volume on all the sex-is-empowerment, a-woman-needs-a-man-like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle, marriage-is-just-a-piece-of-paper crap and gotten real with me about the grave lifestyle trap of single motherhood.

Being a single mom isn’t just expensive, it turns out; it’s still really stigmatizing. You get judged.

Married couples are not always comfortable with a single woman hanging around. And the stay-at-home and part-time working mothers who are friends with each other because they are involved at your kid’s school will seldom think to invite you or your kid to playdates or parties.

It can fry your brain, raising kids without another adult in the house. I worked from home, and days would pass without contact with anyone older than a five-year-old. When I would finally get in the company of another adult, I’d blabber on and on, feeling suddenly alive and relieved of pent up thoughts, oblivious to nonverbal cues that my turn was over, it was time to let the other person talk.

With no one to share the stories, or to tell you things are going to be all right, the fear can really get you. Loneliness and money and medical worries can quickly escalate into a desperate panic. You get isolated. It’s easy to lose your temper. It’s hard to look nice. It’s hard not to turn out poor.

 

One night I was home alone watching the movie Hud, and during the scene where Paul Newman has to shoot the entire herd of cattle, I began to cry the hardest I’ve every cried in my life. First it was the movie, and then it was everything in the whole world. A lot of stuff kept going wrong in my life, mostly to do with men, and I was sick of it.

I had always expected I would get married and have kids, but the right guy had not come along. I’d had plenty of boyfriends, one after another, but nothing could really hold. I was attracted to the wrong people, and ended up hurt. I was too afraid of being alone, and lacked patience. I kept finding myself bonded with guys I didn’t actually like, or who didn’t like me. Some of this was normal youth stuff, but I wasn’t young anymore.

I had no idea what I was doing wrong or what to do, but here, crying alone on a kid-stained Ikea sofa in front of the TV on a Saturday night, I had had enough. I became willing, without any reservation, to do absolutely anything necessary to change. Here’s what happened.

  • I wrote my inventory. Lots of it. I prayed each morning for the clarity to see the reality of my situation and to take action.
  • I ended all association with men in which one of us was interested in the other. I’d long had a habit of keeping guys around who were interested, but whom I knew I’d never date. A friend of mine confronted me about it, and called such men my “lab rats”. I stopped being anyone else’s lab rat. Making the phone calls to end these friendships was awkward and painful, but liberating. I became emotionally available.
  • I made an extra effort to dress nicely more of the time, to be on time, to be a better listener.
  • I made a decision that I wanted to get married. For me, the purpose of dating was not to fill up my present life, but to see if this was someone I wanted to marry.
  • So that I wouldn’t waffle, I wrote down a list of characteristics that were “musts”:  No drug or alcohol problems. No entanglements with other women. No conflicts whatsoever about being a loving, committed, giving husband and stepfather to my kids.

Then I made a list of desirable characteristics:

  • I wanted someone with a professional job, age within five years of my own, no debt, loving family of origin, plays guitar (so I can sing along, loves to came, and feels lucky be with me.
  • I decided casual sex was not for me. Avoiding this solved two things: Never again would I have an accidental pregnancy, and never again would I find myself emotionally bonded with (or ripped apart by) someone who was not committed to me. This is easier said than done, but was the single most powerful change.
  • I decided I was willing to be alone the rest of my life, if necessary. I would take life as it comes.
  • I relinquished efforts to “make” a relationship happen. I decided to let it come to me.

Within a month or two, a funny thing happened. I started to get asked out by perfectly nice men. I went on some dates. The dates were OK. There were one or two second dates, and nothing happened. I got some practice at getting to know people. My life got nicer, more stable. I slept well. The kids were thriving. Work was going well.

Somewhere in there,  I met the man I ended up marrying. I felt very strongly about him right away, but it went slowly. It took over a year before we were earnestly dating. It took three years to get engaged and five years to get married. If I had known, magically, how to date like this when I was younger, it would have saved a hell of a lot of heartache. It would have liberated so much creative and constructive energy in every part of my life and (yes, I would have liked this) I could have had more kids.

Better late than never. And since you ask, yes — my husband very closely fits the qualities on the list I made (though he announced recently that he doesn’t like camping anymore).

OK so I know, I KNOW that some people think what I did to change is bullshit, archaic, sex-negative. Maybe you don’t need such a rigorous structure for dating — maybe you don’t have the wreckage of a crappy childhood that makes all close relationships fraught and slippery, or maybe you have more tolerance for ambiguity, solitude and partings than I do. Seriously, you are lucky, and I wish you every happiness.

For me though, the comfort and safety of being a two-parent family — even on the bad days — is like a scaffold, a well, a launching pad for all the good inside of us to come forth. May everyone have it so good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Trauma From Your Childhood ACTUALLY Making You Sick?

OK, I have to start with a story.

When I was nine years old my mom remarried and we moved 900 miles away from my hometown, Berkeley — away from my friends, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and (heartbreakingly) my father, who loved the hell out of me and my younger sister. He had fought my mother at every stage of her leaving — the separations, the divorce, the one-sided custody deal, her remarriage, and her decision to move with us kids to Tucson, Arizona where her new husband would begin a Ph.D program at the university. Continue reading “Is Trauma From Your Childhood ACTUALLY Making You Sick?”