I had a plan to go through my books in order of reading, and that plan has, like so many before it, fallen totally apart. I am working on writing up thoughts and reflections on everything I read in 2020, but I’m still reading, and it seemed really easy to just write up the books as I finished them rather than to go back and remember. Plus, going back and remembering made me feel like reading those books again. Which I’m also doing, in between the new ones. So, to heck with linear time. I’m just going to put these posts out as I am able and try to put some temporal context in the beginning, like those movies that jump back and forth from “now” to some past which will maybe explain how we got here.
The Tao of Fully Feeling, Pete Walker
After re-reading CPTSD Thriving to Surviving, I realized I have a deep appreciation for this author. The Tao of Fully Feeling is a much earlier book by him, and he mentions it a few times in CPTSD, mostly in terms of what he felt he has learned since then, and things he wishes he could have included. I feel like reading them “backwards” was a good choice because I got to read Tao with the author’s hindsight in mind.
There are obvious similar themes dealing with childhood trauma and it’s effect on us as adults, but this book focuses on one main message: feel your feelings! This resonates with me because Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability was a huge turning point for me in 2012 when I had been pummeled into a terrible life condition by an abusive relationship and ravaging illness back to back from 2004-10. I had started to physically recover in 2010/11 and by 2012 I was done wallowing in pain and decided to do something about it. Learning how to regain access to my genuine emotions was a huge step because we cannot, as Brené says, numb selectively, and if we want to feel genuine love, joy, wonder and other positive things, we must also allow ourselves to feel anger, sorrow, pain and other less pleasant feelings.
Things I particularly liked about the book include the myriad ways he gives examples of what kind of damaging behavior he is talking about, the way he is open about his own experiences without suggesting any need to compare experiences (it’s not the Pain Olympics, after all), and the absolute validation to go ahead and BE MAD. Grieving the loss of love, the death of a fantasy of parental security, the loss of who we might have been if we were not treated this way, the pain, the injustice… feeling all of that is important. He talks about how to feel and express the emotions of anger, sadness, grief, etc in healthy and cathartic ways, and advises on how to avoid expressing those emotions in ways that could harm ourselves or those around us.
Walker approaches this concept from the goal of processing trauma, healing enough to curtail the damaging behaviors it causes in us, and learning to forgive. That last part is a little tricky. Walker himself was urged to forgive his abusive parents before he was ready, and it caused more problems than it fixed. He advocates against “false forgiveness”, and includes in that when we delude ourselves into wanting to “forgive and forget” in order to move on without doing the work. He says we have fully feel our anger, sadness, and blame impulses in order to process them. Suppressing the pain of past actions just means that pain stays around and sneaks out of us in messy and unexpected ways. He also stresses that forgiveness doesn’t mean we start talking to people who hurt us. Finally, he underscores the importance of forgiving ourselves. Many adult children of abuse, emotional distance, or neglect have internalized blaming ourselves for what happened to us. A critical part of recovery, Walker states, is forgiving our past selves for assuming and perpetuating that self-blame.
Generational Trauma & Empathizing With Your Parents
This is also the only book I’ve read so far that addresses the parents themselves as something more than merely the deliverers of trauma. He talks about discovering his parent’s own history of childhood abuse, and further, his grandparents’ painful youth. The generational trauma that goes back untold centuries can cause us to suffer for the abuse our great great grandparents suppressed and repeated. He acknowledges that we can have empathy for our parent’s extenuating circumstances (they were badly abused, they didn’t have any positive parenting examples, they did the best with what they had, but were pretty damaged themselves) while still being angry and sad that we were mistreated. Feelings aren’t simple and we can and should welcome ambivalence into our lives when it’s called for. There’s even a small section of the book directed at such parents who were both the victims and perpetrators of abuse/neglect on how they can work on healing themselves and on helping their adult children. The book ends with a helpful if not comprehensive list of things we can say to our children (inner children or the next generation) at different developmental stages to help them grow up feeling seen, heard, and loved with a strong sense of self-worth and curiosity.
The “Good Parent” Fantasy
My personal ah-hah moment in this book was realizing how it was possible for me not to see what my mother was doing for SO LONG. Walker explains that because children are so fully dependent on parents not only for physical security, but for emotional connection, self-esteem, and intellectual development, that young children simply can’t accept that their parents are unloving or cruel (intention on the part of the parent is pretty irrelevant at this stage of child development). As a result, young children develop intense defense mechanisms to simply not see or not remember when a parent acts in a toxic manner. Most children with early trauma have massive memory blocks that can last from birth to 12 years old. Although many start developing memories as early as 5, the memories are heavily redacted by the brain’s own internal self-guard. In my case, my father was scapegoated for leaving (took me 20+ years to learn that my mom gave him a pretty good reason for that), and my step parents were not … kind. It was easy for me as a child to revile 3/4 of the parental figures in my life, but then I turned all my need for parental connection and love onto my mother, who was oh so narcissistically happy to have it. Even when I knew things were bad between us, I assumed it was my fault and although I didn’t give up on being independent or moving out, I did seek to regain a loving connection with her after I’d been an adult for a while. I don’t think it was until I saw her repeating her behavior towards my sister’s children that I really broke through those decades of denial. When I did recognize my mother’s abusive and toxic behavior, I tried instantly to shift my ‘good parent’ fantasy over to my dad, which didn’t work because … well, he isn’t. He may not be as bad as my mom wanted me to believe, but that doesn’t erase the very real damage he did.
When Is Confrontation Helpful or Harmful?
I spent most of my life thinking that I had to confront my father (or anyone else who hurt me) in order to express my pain and move on, and Walker helped me to realize that is not only unnecessary but potentially harmful. Yes, a person (parent or otherwise) who is continuing to act toxically in the present needs to be addressed. We shouldn’t ignore it, and as Schulman suggests in Conflict is Not Abuse, we also should not simply cut people out of our lives for bad (non-abuse) behavior, but we might need to give them limits to protect ourselves if they are unwilling or unable to stop the harm.
Tao of Feeling helped me to understand that part of the reason I struggle so hard to have any kind of adult relationship with my father is that every single time we are together, I’m in a state of emotional flashback and hypervigilance. I want to have an adult relationship, but I can’t help but clench every muscle in my gut when I see his name in my inbox. I’ve learned in the last year or two that I need to take my time with those emails, get mad/sad, yell/cry, etc. then sit down to respond after a few days when the emotional flashback is subsiding. I know that identifying this is a good step, but as of this moment, I’m still not exactly sure what to do with it. I’ve done a little verbal or written ventilating since starting my recovery work, but I need to do more. Verbal ventilating, as Walker defines it, is a process of giving our past traumatic experiences and feelings words. It’s a huge part of healing because most traumatic memory and pain exists in a non-verbal part of the brain, and transferring it into words gives us the power to process it in to the past. This is the root of my feeling that I had to confront someone to “work it out”. A confrontation would force me to put it into words, which is the actual healing tool. The other person does not need to be there. As much as I need to say it, my father doesn’t need to hear it. Yes, he needs to understand there was hurtful behavior if we are ever to move on together, but he will not be served by listening to or reading an unexpurgated recollection of our time together the way I will be helped by saying or writing it.
If another person’s behavior is causing harm in the present (recent past, likely to happen again if not addressed) then you need to address it with the other person, but if our own emotional flashbacks are causing us to have disproportionate emotional responses, we have to address within ourselves. This is no place more difficult than with parents. A parent’s past abuse or neglect is the source of the trauma, the original cause of the painful emotions, while a parent’s mere existence in the present can be a trigger which causes an emotional flashback to that trauma they caused before. It’s almost impossible to untangle. For example, when my friend acts like my mom and triggers a flashback, I can (now) realize what’s going on, tell her I need a time out to handle my flashback, then when it’s passed, I can talk with her about what the trigger was and whether it’s something that she needs to take any action about. However, when I see an email from my dad, or some FB memory of my mom’s emotional manipulation, I can get triggered into a flashback in a snap just by seeing their names. How do we deal with that? Walker says I need to get it all out by fully feeling; remembering enough of the painful history to rail against it in full expression of bodily rage, and total surrender to open grief. It doesn’t sound fun, but it does sound better than squashing all my feelings because I can’t confront them directly.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Duncan Perry
I was very skeptical when this book popped into my inbox. I didn’t actually remember placing the library hold, so clearly, I’d been waiting for it for a long time. The title also made me worried that I was about to read a non-stop trauma-rama of abused child case studies. However, it turns out that it is much more a ‘Neuroscience for Non-science Majors’ kind of book. Dr. Perry is an accomplished scholar, doctor, and researcher who spent most of his career on the cutting edge of childhood trauma research and treatment. The book does include several case studies, some of which are pretty much guaranteed to make you loose faith in humanity, at least temporarily, but it isn’t a voyeuristic inspiration-porn thing. There’s just enough details to give you the basic idea, then there’s a lot of discussion of therapy sessions, research, and basic neuroscience.
Neuroscience for Dummies
I’ve personally been fascinated by neurology and neuropsychology since I learned about it mumblemumble years ago. I enjoyed reading books by Sam Harris, watching every TED Talk on the function of the brain, perusing studies performed with the wonderful fMRI, which wasn’t even invented until 1990 and certainly not widely available for random research for a while after that. Plus lab research takes TIME, so the late 2000s to early 2010s was kind of an explosion of neuroscience research into the public sphere. I often wish I had been born just a little later, so that I could have found out about it before I went to college. I’ve also had some very financially irresponsible thoughts about going back to school just for this, but … money.
In general, if you need a good intro to the science of neurology with a focus on child development and trauma, he does a great job of explaining a very complex topic in easy to follow and engaging ways. I share his hope that by understanding what is happening inside our brains and the brains of those around us, we may learn to be more compassionate with ourselves and others when we are not able to instantly achieve best behavior through willpower alone. I think that is also a big reason I tend to talk about mental illness and trauma in terms of brain function so much. When we think of this as a physical function, like a diabetes, asthma, or myopia, then we can recognize that no amount of wishing or positive thinking will make it just disappear. (yes, positive thinking plays a very important role in healing, but it’s not The Secret). We need to learn to live with it, how to accommodate it and treat it, but also recognize that it isn’t going anywhere, and it isn’t a moral failing or lack of willpower.
The Evolution of Trauma Science
The other part of the book I enjoyed was the historical perspective. It is a bit painful to realize that I’m talking about events that happened in my own lifetime as “historical”, but in the last 40 years, there’s just been so much growth in research, understanding, and treatment of childhood trauma (and adult trauma for that matter) that I can’t really think of it as anything besides a historically important development. He talks about the things that even well regarded doctors believed in the 80s, how very very wrong they were, and some of the absolutely terrifuckingfying things that “professionals” advised parents do to “treat” /problematic/ children. (No amount of punctuation is going to express my combination horror-disgust about this.)
He walks us through the neurological renaissance of the 90s and the way that understanding the physical function and development of the brain changed the way we understand behavioral problems and mental illness. The book was published in 2007, so there have been even more developments since then, but the big re-think definitely started in the 90s, and it gives me a lot of hope for the people who are parenting now and have access to this kind of information that my parents just didn’t have. Maybe, just maybe, if we understand these new discoveries and the long term damage that trauma does (even when it happens on the watch of or at the hands of well-meaning and generally caring parents) then we can stop the cycle of generational trauma and start raising whole and emotionally healthy human beings.
There were several cases and studies refereed to by Perry where physical symptoms provided the first clue to doctors that there was a bigger problem. I don’t mean “mysterious bruises”, but issues of sleep, appetite, weight gain or loss, resting heartrate, and so forth. There were also discussions of how often children were being misdiagnosed with behavioral or learning issues even when the trauma was a known factor. Trauma from abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events in a child’s life was often totally disregarded because the pervasive attitude of the day was “kids are resilient, they’ll be fine” or “they’re just doing that to get attention”. This argument is still used today to downplay things like the traumatic impact of school shootings, ICE camps, catholic priests, and anything else that’s too inconvenient to stop doing because it primarily affects children.
Part of the reason I think case studies and personal anecdotes are important in the field of trauma psychology is the same reason group therapy works. We need to see our own experiences reflected in others to feel valid. Every time an expert in this field says something that resonates with me, I feel a little more validated and a little less broken. I had another “omg that’s my mom” moment while reading this book. On it’s own, the fact that multiple authors have described my mother’s toxic behaviors is kind of stunning. It reveals the fact that she isn’t even very original in her crappy behavior. Perry says, “people like [that] have a pathological need to be seen as nurturers and caregivers”. I had been trying to find a way to verbalize this aspect of her narcissism for a while. A lot of narcissistic people want to be seen as attractive, smart, better than you in every way that matters, but my mom’s narcissistic ideal is to be seen as the most wonderful caring nurturer in the world. It was so liberating to see this renown psychiatrist go, ‘yeah, that’s a thing that happens fairly often, usually in healthcare workers who were also abused or neglected as kids’ (check and check). Knowing that my mother’s specific type of narcissistic abuse is common doesn’t fix it, but it does help me feel more grounded in my own experience – less gaslight and more electric bulb, if you know what I mean.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog
Spoilers. For those of you reading and thinking, “ok, but what about that boy in the title? What kind of shitty parents did he have?” I will relieve you of your mystery. The case was an infant (Justin) whose parents were unable to keep him at home, but rather than go in to foster, he was left with a relative (Arthur) who had zero childrearing experience, but did breed and raise dogs. “Left to his own devices, Arthur made care-giving decisions that fit his understanding of childrearing. He’d never had children of his own and had been a loner for most of his life. He was very limited himself, probably with mild mental retardation. He raised Justin as he raised his other animals—giving him food, shelter, discipline and episodic direct compassion. Arthur wasn’t intentionally cruel: he’d take both Justin and the dogs out of their cages daily for regular play and affection. But he didn’t understand that Justin “acted like an animal” because he’d been treated as one—and so when the boy “didn’t obey,” back into the cage he went. Most of the time, Justin was simply neglected.”
This is terrifying, but it isn’t evil in the way that many stories of extreme childhood abuse can be. The man didn’t hate or resent the child, he simply didn’t know what to do, and in addition had his own cognitive challenges which made him unable to process this new task. It is a good (if extreme) example of how a damaged/ignorant yet caring parent can fuck up royally.
The absolutely most terrifying part of this story isn’t that Justin was left with a mentally challenged man who treated him like a dog. (yeah, that’s not the worst part) The worst part is that the DOCTORS WHO SAW JUSTIN DECIDED HE WAS JUST RETARDED. Arthur didn’t try to hide anything. He took the boy to doctors when he realized that Justin wasn’t developing into a human child. The doctors who saw Justin in his first few years of life actually did some very intense testing including chromosome analysis and brain scans searching for the cause of his developmental delay and just NEVER ASKED about the boy’s home conditions. They told Arthur that the child was permanently brain damaged from an unknown birth defect and would never be able to care for himself. They straight UP abandoned this child because they did not want to look for trauma. This happened in the 1990s. If not for Dr. Perry’s intervention (1995), Justin would still be trapped in the life of a dog, unable to speak, or connect with fellow humans. You can read the full excerpt on Oprah’s website, but honestly, I’d recommend just reading the whole book.
Adventure Time: Distant Lands
This is not a book, and it’s not labelled as therapy (although I am of the opinion that the creators know what they are doing). Adventure Time is (ostensibly) a children’s cartoon set in the far future of Earth, now called Ooo, where mutants made of candy, ice, fire, and slime rule the many kingdoms. Our hero Finn is the only human, and he is 11 when the series starts. But I am not writing about Finn’s adventure. After 10 seasons of watching Finn cope with puberty and adulthood, the series came to a close, but the world of Ooo was not finished. A few longer episodes were released under the title “Distant Lands”, a nod to the theme song, and cover what is happening with a few of the supporting cast outside of the main series. Maybe you can watch it as a stand alone, but I don’t feel like it would make any sense, and I know it would not have the same emotional impact.
Why am I talking about a cartoon here?
I have noticed a trend in newer cartoons toward addressing actual emotional issues children experience rather than the things adults think are happening. I don’t really understand this disconnect. I can only assume that most adults forget or more likely suppress the memories of their own childhood, because I can’t understand why else they have no idea how complex the inner world of children really is. Not to sound like an old biddy, but “when I was a kid”, most of our cartoons were meaningless advertising for toys, cereal, or anti-drug campaigns that did no good whatsoever. Going back further, cartoons were full of casual racism and violence along with some war propaganda. I love some classic Warner Bros, but dang. And, I think it’s totally fine for cartoons to be meaningless entertainment. Not everything has to be a PSA or a life lesson. (NevergonnastopbeingmadatSpongebobforpromotingbullyingtho) Ahem.
But it IS nice to see kids content that actually deals with emotions and childhood issues in a genuine and healthy while still being fun and entertaining way. I’m pretty blown away by the reboot of MLP compared to the original. Same for the new She-ra. Big fan. There’s a growing number of these sort of “art house” cartoons that help children navigate the language of emotions and interpersonal conflicts. I mentioned Steven Universe in my last post, and I’ll talk about it again because it’s been a part of my healing journey. Today, I’m talking about Adventure Time.
Distant Lands episode 2 “Obsidian”. Spoilers ahead.
Marcelene spent her whole life feeling like a monster, acting out, being angry, feeling unlovable. Her father was a demon king, so I guess she was sort of half monster, but that’s not really what this is about. For Marcelene it was a thousand years of teen anxt, shitty abusive relationships, trying and failing to have an adult relationship with her estranged father, and deeply self destructive behavior before she found love and learned that being a half demon vampire queen doesn’t make her a monster because that’s not what “monster” means.
In “Obsidian” we learn that she feels this way because her mother sent her away as a child after her (demon king) father abandoned them. As a child, she used her demon powers to defeat a mutant wolf threatening her mom, then shortly after, her mom lied to her about some stuff and sent her away. Child Marcelene didn’t know why her mother would do that, so her child brain made it her own fault. “Mom is scared of me and ran away because I’m a monster.” A thousand years later, she learns the truth: her mom was sick, dying, and not only couldn’t care for her daughter in the hellscape of postapocalytic Earth/Ooo, but also didn’t want her daughter to see her that way.
The problem is: It doesn’t matter why parents push us away- illness, stress, survival, 3 jobs, personal emotional issues, divorce, any number of reasons that are very legit and do not involve a lack of love on the parents’ part and are frequently things they either can’t control or don’t know how to start to change. It doesn’t matter because the child will always find a story that makes it their own fault.
Mom and/dad can’t be sick/weak/crazy or I could die (literally small children can’t survive without adults), so I must be the problem. I must deserve this. I am broken. I am a monster.
Somehow, reading this in multiple books had not had the deep emotional impact that seeing one of my favorite characters experience it would have. It hasn’t been a thousand years for me but it feels that way. It has been a lifetime of anxiety, shitty abusive relationships, failed connection with an estranged father, deeply self destructive behavior and a thorough feeling of being a monster who is unworthy of love. I cried and cried and screamed and raged, and then cried some more. (Remember, Pete Walker says we need to do that.) I’m angry that I have felt this way as long as I can remember and I’m just now finding books and shows to help me understand it. I am angry for myself, but I am so hopeful that the existence of cartoons like this means we are starting to teach people how to see it and talk about it before a lifetime goes by. Our inner child needs to heal just as much as our adult self. Maybe these cartoons are a good companion to books and therapy as a way to reach that part of us. I couldn’t connect the child in me to the words I was reading in the books (and there’s good neuroscience about why), but seeing young Marcelene on the screen, hearing her sing about being an unlovable monster, it reached deep down to my past child self and brought those feelings home. After I cried it out, I was able to use the words from my books to connect my present adult thoughts with my past childhood feelings, and that’s healing.
Thank you for reading and for coming along with me on a very different type of travel. I know that this blog started as travel and adventure, but not all journeys are geographical. I look forward to the day we can visit each other’s nations again freely and safely, but until then, the internet remains to connect us all, and we must tend to ourselves and each other during this time of global trauma. Be kind, be gentle, persist.