A Head Trip (Therapy Books Cont. 2021)

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.

Forgiveness

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.

Expert Validation

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.

A Trip Inside: Where I Went in 2020 (1/?)

TW: sexual assault, abuse. There are NO graphic details, but I don’t want to take anyone by surprise. I hope that those of you who are able will take the time to read this, and those of you who feel you are not will get help with your own trauma soonest. You deserve to heal, too.

In early 2018 I experienced a(nother) sexual assault. I talked about it to some friends, and I pushed it away so I could start my new job. I thought I was going to be ok. Then, in late 2018 and into 2019 I began to experience severe panic attacks. I didn’t recognize them as panic attacks at first. They didn’t present like the typical media depiction of a panic attack. I didn’t even see it as a pattern until the third one. When I started to try to understand what was happening to me, I discovered the role of the amygdala in panic attacks including it’s tendency to shut down the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain where all your thinking lives). I began to understand that I was experiencing an amygdala hijacking of my brain. I tried a few things to help like grounding and meditation exercises, but what I really needed to do was find out what was causing (and triggering) my panic attacks.

I thought seriously about the events that preceded each one and I discovered that it was happening in response to a feeling of having my clearly stated boundaries ignored and trespassed or of feeling trapped in a painful situation with no escape or relief. I thought more about where this was coming from. Where was it rooted? Triggers are events that involuntarily force us to relive past traumatic events, they aren’t the cause of the feeling, merely the catalyst. I realized that I hadn’t properly dealt with the trauma of my assault. Then in working toward a healing process, I uncovered a larger pile of unprocessed trauma relating to previous assaults and an abusive relationship. Although I had spent some time on each of these, I had never finished processing them, and they still had hooks deep in my subconscious, controlling my involuntary fear response and amygdala hijacking.

In 2019, while trying to work through some ongoing conflict with my mother, her behavior induced another panic attack. In the months that followed, I realized (with much pain) that she was unwilling to take any ownership of her role in our conflict and I imposed a cessation of communication with terms. In simpler language: Because she was unable and unwilling to even try to find a mutual solution, I had to stop talking to her until such a time that she would be willing to engage in healing work. As of this post, she has declined to make the effort. I’m not going to go through all the horrible things. You can think I’m a “bad daughter” or that she is a “bad mother”, but reality is rarely that cut and dry. In the present, I can see that we are two hurt people who (without understanding) sometimes have allowed and still allow our pain to cause us to hurt others. The nature of our relationship has changed from parent – dependent child to parent – adult child, which could allow us to examine, understand, and heal if we both work at it. I am working on that in myself, but I can no longer safely engage with her until she is willing to do the same. I also have to accept that day may never come, and that I have no control over it.

The upshot/side effect of all this is that I was working hard to understand myself, the origin of my trauma and how it was impacting my quality of life and treatment of others by the end of 2019. The advent of Covid-19 and it’s isolating effects have given me a lot of time to read and think. Along the way I have come to understand that it was not only the traumas of assault and abuse I experienced as an adult that were hanging around my neck, but also those of my childhood. I’ve learned a lot about trauma: causes and responses, PTSD/CPTSD, conflict, abuse, toxic behavior, misplaced blame, blame vs responsibility, shame vs understanding, and hopefully … healing. I am by no means finished, but this has been the journey of my last year, and as this is the place I share my travels, I thought I’d write this one too.

I’d like to share a list of the books that have helped me so far, along with a short description of the main ideas each one brought to me. I highly recommend and and all of these book to everyone because even if you yourself are lucky enough to have no trauma, I guarantee you that someone you love is carrying their past around in painful ways, and understanding them may help you both.

(caveat, I read A LOT, and my brain operates on an “absorb information until critical mass causes transmutation of thought” principle, so some of the things that I’ve been thinking/working on are a result of all the things I’ve read, including the 2019 long list of history books, any number of random TED Talks, and the ongoing sci-fi fantasy background reads. I can’t possibly include them all, so this list is very focused on books which I think of as “breakthrough books”)

Educated, Tara Westover

I did not seek this book for help with my trauma. It was recommended by a friend, and since I’m a teacher, I thought that it was about … education. It turns out to be autobiography of a young woman who was raised in a closed off, survivalist minded, fanatically religious family and her process of waking up to what was happening to her. There’s a lot of baggage that gets shoved onto this. When you read the synopsis or reviews you see a lot of focus on the physical abuse (present but not a dominant theme), or on the nature of the religion itself (Mormonism, but also going to Brigham Young University is what helps her), or the “crazy” things her parents believe. A lot of people react with “how could she not know?” and shut it down, preferring to believe that she is lying or exaggerating or anything other than the idea that an intelligent, well loved, and compassionate person might be unable to recognize abuse when they are stewing in it.

When I read it, I was also curious how she could not know, but instead of dismissing that possibility I tried to actually understand the answer. I knew already going into this book that I had been unable to recognize my “bad” relationship as real abuse until a couple years after I was out, some legal battles, and some therapy. I experienced a lot of shame about it, but I’ve come to realize that it’s actually terrifyingly common for intelligent educated people to become trapped in abusive situations. In Tara’s case, it wasn’t the few instances of physical abuse from her brother, or the content of her father’s beliefs that were the real problem. It was the gaslighting, the control, the neglect and failure to protect.

I was told my whole life what “abuse” looked like and I had been wrong about it in a romantic relationship. Reading Tara’s experience, I knew that the details that happened to us were different, but I began to realize the feelings we had were eerily similar and maybe I needed to take a good hard look at my upbringing. The fact that I was several months into not speaking to my own mother, and many years into an uncomfortable estrangement with my father at the time this book compelled me to have this thought is just more evidence and how good we humans can be at justifying, ignoring, or minimizing the damage caused to us by those we love and who are supposed to love us.

I was unprepared to think about my parents in terms of “abuse”, but I was willing to explore the idea that they had unintentionally damaged me due to their own psychological issues. I was (am) still suffering pretty hard from a pile of trauma related symptoms, and the only way to get at those is to find the roots. I wanted to start trying to understand what had happened to me and how it was affecting my adult life, and I wanted to find some tools to help me communicate with my parents and finally get a healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling adult relationship with one or both of them. This seemed like a good book for that.

The book itself doesn’t focus on what is or isn’t “abuse” which I think was helpful for me where I was. Instead it talks about behaviors that can cause painful feelings and lasting behavioral problems, how to recognize them, how to heal from them, and even how to cope if you are stuck in a situation where you can’t avoid or reconcile with the parent(s) in question. It very much confirmed for me that many of the feelings and thoughts I have that I find damaging are directly connected to my parent’s behavior.

People get hung up on the idea that if you had your needs met, and weren’t being beaten or regularly shouted at/called names, or (worst case) sexually abused as a child, then you are FINE and STOP WHINING. Of course those thing are terrible, and the children who experience them most likely have varying degrees of lasting trauma, and they have very valid feelings of anger. I felt a lot of conflict about coming from a middle class family that provided for me, even above and beyond my basic needs in terms of food, shelter, education, healthcare, and opportunities for creative and intellectual outlet, yet still feeling like there was something wrong, something so bad that it was a dark painful secret I could never talk about, never tell anyone I was hurt from.

This book gave me permission for the first time to acknowledge that what happened was NOT OK. That I (and every child) deserved better. That my feelings were valid, and that my trauma was real. That there are things which happen when a child is totally dependent upon one or two adults for everything in life that do not fit the current social understanding of abuse, and yet do comparable lasting damage which can even be measured with an MRI, or even worse damage because the survivors don’t feel like they can ever get support for their experiences and feelings or even be able to acknowledge the root cause of their pain in later life.

There’s a lot of useful stuff in this book, but one more thing that really dinged for me was the idea of the Healing Fantasy. Dr. Gibson gives some advice on how to interact with such parents after we become adults, and most of it is “avoid/minimize contact”. I really did not want to hear that. I wanted to find a solution. I wanted to fix my relationship with my mother. I missed her and desperately wanted to restore a loving relationship. I needed to know what I could do or say to reach her, to help her, to make things better, and Lindsay told me that I had to let that go. She told me about the Healing Fantasy:

“In addition, [some adult children of emotionally immature parents] are secretly convinced that more self-sacrifice and emotional work will eventually transform their unsatisfying relationships. So the greater the difficulties, the more they try. If this seems illogical, remember that these healing fantasies are based on a child’s ideas about how to make things better. … Their healing fantasy always involves the idea It’s up to me to fix this. What they can’t see is that they’ve taken on a job nobody has ever pulled off: changing people who aren’t seeking to change themselves.”

There was a lot more on the Healing Fantasy, but this was dead on ME, and the book really made me own the fact that I cannot be responsible for healing my mother, or my father for that matter, because they both insist they do not need to change in any way. I cried a lot. I went through a very real grieving process, I had dreams about my mother the way I have done in the past when someone I love has died, but instead of nice conversations and happy times, these were dreams of my mother behaving as she always has, as I now recognized as unacceptable and damaging, and me standing up to it over and over until I wrenched myself awake as if from a nightmare. I suppose it was. I am pretty sure I’ve gone through all the stages of grief about this multiple times (the acceptance doesn’t reliably stick either). It’s slowly getting better, and I couldn’t have started the rest of my healing journey without the “ah hah” moment offered by this book.

Definition of CPTSD as paraphrased from the book:
a more severe form of PTSD, different from PTSD in 5 main features: emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self abandonment, a vicious inner critic, and social anxiety.

I stopped writing and went back to read this again because it’s just that good. The main things that I got from this book the first time around were the “four Fs” and “emotional flashbacks”. The second time through felt like a deeper layer, a more nuanced understanding. The basic ideas were no longer a shock, I wasn’t fighting against certain healing concepts anymore the way I had been last year. I don’t know if I’ll reread it every year, but I think it should probably go in a not more than 5 year rotation.

The Four Fs are an expansion on the “fight/flight” premise. All humans (and really most animals) have a response to fear or attack known as “fight/flight”, but more extensive study reveals there are 2 more options: freeze and fawn. Most people are familiar with freeze as “a deer in the headlights”, and fawn is when the being feeling in danger sucks up to a bigger stronger threat to placate it or gain protection, perhaps an example in nature can be seen in dogs who grovel to bigger dogs or their owners when they are being scolded. These 4 Fs can manifest in a LOT of ways in humans that are not super obvious, like fight doesn’t have to mean yelling, screaming, punching walls (although it can). It also manifests as narcissism, passive aggression, and controlling manipulation. Flight may look like perfectionism, workaholism, or OCD. Freeze can be lethargy, daydreaming, reading/playing videogames, or even dissociation. Finally, fawn can look like caretaking, people pleasing, co-dependency, or never expressing one’s own opinions/needs. There’s a longer explanation on his website:
http://pete-walker.com/fourFs_TraumaTypologyComplexPTSD.htm

Walker says that every traumatized person is likely to have one dominant trauma response trait, and one secondary. We can all end up using any of the four depending on the situation, and there are HEALTHY manifestations of all 4 as well, but the book focuses on how they manifest in unhealthy ways and cause us lifelong mental and emotional health issues. I personally recognized the freeze behavior in myself in another “get out of my mind’ moment. The author self identifies as a flight type and I wasn’t really feeling any connection to what he was saying. Then he started describing freezers, and I was like, excuse me but you don’t have to call me out like that! It’s still hard, but now I can see what has been happening to me for so long, I can start to make sense of it and to notice it when it happens in the present. My dissociative episodes were incredibly strong when I was a child and teen, to the point that I drifted well away from reality, even having hallucinations and fantastical delusions. I was petrified of going to a doctor because I knew in my very bones that my mother would use any diagnosis to control me forever, and I’d never be free. The farther away from her I got, the more grounded in reality I became, but I’m still missing huge chunks of my memory both from my time in her home, and my time in my abusive relationship because my “freeze” nature caused me to simply check out from as much as I possibly could.

The other huge lighting bolt moment of this book was the revelation of the emotional flashback. Just like soldiers with PTSD have flashbacks to the war, CPTSD sufferers can also have flashbacks. However, where PTSD flashbacks tend to incorporate a visual element (sufferers report being able to see/smell/hear as though they were back in the moment of trauma), CPTSD emotional flashbacks do not have any context. They’re all emotion, no visual cue. It can be impossible to identify what is happening because you simply start to feel a strong and terrible emotion. We often end up linking it to whatever or whoever is triggering that flashback, but it’s not the case. A trigger causes a flashback, causes a (C)PTSD sufferer to relive a past trauma. It happens in the “experiencing” part of the brain instead of the “remembering” part of the brain, so it feels like it is happening right now. So when we feel a strong negative emotion, it can be very easy to say that it was caused by whatever just happened in the present. But the present action is merely the trigger.

I’ve found that some of my triggers are things that will never be “ok” behavior, like “don’t violate my consent”. Someone who ignores my “no” and keeps going is never in the right, but my flashback will cause me to have a disproportionate emotional response that may result in a laundry list of symptoms and could take days to resolve. Other triggers are behaviors that are genuinely innocent in most people but were at one point weaponized against me by an abuser. These are much harder because the person in the present didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m suddenly having a full amygdala hijacking. The thing is, realizing that my feelings, my fear, anger, suicidal ideation, and my inner & outer critic were all results of an emotional flashback and NOT based on real present dangers or attacks was mind-blowing.

In addition, Walker provides a very helpful 13 step list on how to handle an emotional flashback when you realize you’re in one: http://pete-walker.com/13StepsManageFlashbacks.htm

I can’t recommend this book enough. The author is deeply compassionate in his explanations. He offers vulnerability of his own experience, as well as case studies, and references from other psychiatrists whose work focuses on trauma and recovery. There is so much more here like understanding how emotional neglect causes CPTSD, how CPTSD causes us to minimize or deny our own damage if it wasn’t “as bad as” some others, how anger and crying can be used for good, and how we can manage day to day the long process of coping and healing with an appendix full of tool kits.

Please stay tuned for part 2 and more excellent books.

If you are feeling upset, anxious, or find yourself retreating into a trauma response or emotional flashback, please follow Pete Walker’s 13 steps, practice a 5-4-3-2-1 grounding activity, a parasympathetic breathing activity, or other soothing action such as a hot shower, a hug from a trusted person, or a few episodes of your favorite feel good cartoon. Mine is Steven Universe.