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