Reel Time Review: Rams (Iceland) 2015

Reel Time: Rams (Icelandic title: Hrútar)
Written and Directed by Grímur Hákonarson
Starring Sigurdur Sigurjónsson and Theódór Júlíusson
three stars

Rams is the story of two brothers, Gummi and Kiddi. They’re both gruff, they both have a characteristically Icelandic affection for their sheep, and, as the story goes, they both have flocks that have been recently infected with scrapie, a disease impacting the central nervous system of sheep. The men, both in their sixties, haven’t spoken to each other for forty years, even though they’ve lived within a hundred feet of each other on the same block of land their whole lives. Scrapie is bad news for the community, whose livelihood revolves around the sheep that will consequently require slaughtering.

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And because it’s Gummi who initially  discovers the sheep’s infection in Kiddi’s award-winning flock, it’s bad news for the two men who until now have had little cause to speak to one another. It’s never explicitly mentioned why the two brothers aren’t on speaking terms, but a wild stab in the dark would guess that it has something to do with the fact that Gummi was solely bequeathed by his father to the land that he and his brother now begrudgingly reside on.

Decades-long resentments run high in Rams, a movie sheepishly touted as a comedy, though it’s probably more of a drama with the occasional funny scene (bearded Icelandic men shouting monosyllabic profanities at their sheep as a means of rounding them up probably wasn’t intended as funny). The film’s vivid views of Iceland’s grassy plains and sweeping snow storms manages to emphasise the isolated tragedy of the two brothers’ absurd feud, and adds an element of sombreness to the additional hurt that losing one’s livelihood would entails. Nevertheless, the movie’s charm is understated. This is due in part to the bleakness of the Icelandic pastoral landscapes, Director Hákonarson’s minimalist approach to verbal dialogue, and the blunt familiarity with which the two brothers seem to convey their respective points.

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It’s not all bleakness, however. Although the two brothers interactions are short and blunt, their petty rift manifests itself in some elaborate, comical ways: Kiddi blasting his neighbouring brother’s house with a shotgun to communicate his resentment; both brothers’ use of a scene-snatching border collie to relay messages so as to avoid actual conversations; Gummi delivering his drunken brother’s passed out body to the nearest emergency room via the bucket of a dirt mover.

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Rams’ ending, although somewhat abrupt, isn’t disappointing. Culminating with a very intimate embrace between the two brothers in a blizzard after attempting to escort Gummi’s hidden sheep, the viewer is left with a sense of life’s uncanny ability to mend the rift between a family’s burned bridges, and to warm some hearts along the way. I give it three stars.

On Denial, the Ethics of Public Disclosure, and the Considerations of writing “A Blog on Recovery.”

Denial has played an extensive role in my family of origin, and so writing a blog has been an essential way for me to build anew the psychic and emotional foundations that such denial has inflicted.

Writing a blog on recovery has been something of a multi-edged sword. It publicizes the horrors that I was subjected to as a child, and the resulting feedback from both known and unknown readers has helped me to challenge many of the longstanding notions I’ve remained irrationally loyal to. Among these notions, the toxic, underlying belief that “What happens in the family, stays in the family”; the idea that being slapped, hit, or otherwise physically assaulted as a child by your parent is commonplace, or permissible, or that ignorance is a justifiable defense against such abuse; the idea that if there is an absence of overt or ongoing physical violence, then no domestic violence is being perpetrated, and; the ‘umbrella’ belief that my experiences growing up were in no way causally related to the “mental illness” I was consequently and unfairly labeled with. The latter is perhaps the biggest lie fed to people like me by family members and “upstanding” institutions purportedly existing to aid in my recovery. I suppose in this way, I can identify with an anti-psychiatry sentimentality.

As an aside, and for those considering undertaking a similar project, it’s worth noting that this blog helps me to challenge these longstanding notions in only a very minute way. For me at least, the real meat of my recovery has not been found through the validation of “Likes”, “Followers” or misguided – albeit well-intended – commentaries offering advice, pity, or some strange combination of the two. No. If recovery is a battle, then the gains I’ve made have been in the trenches and on the front line, as is the case with most traditional “overnight success stories.” The inches I’ve gained on Recovery’s battlefield have thus far been won by my courage to undertake projects such as this, and with the support of others, rather than due to the apparent fruits such a project may or may not bear at an uncertain, undisclosed date.

Further to this, my ongoing recovery has been gained by forming alliances with those courageous enough to get real about their traumas, and with those who choose to deal with them in spite of their fears. There’s courage in this, and I aspire to be courageous in a world filled with powerful people top-heavy in cowardice. I haven’t gained recovery by remaining obedient to those who instruct me to be or act a certain way. Nor has it been found through their judgments, or through the unsolicited advice from codependent others. Such people are usually kidding themselves, and need to take a good, long hard look at why they feel it necessary to impose their views on those seeking to establish their own. Finally, I continue to reap the benefits of recovery through independent research, which informs the evidence-based therapies I then choose to invest my money in. But to be clear: a blog on recovery has not been enough for me to sustain my ongoing recovery.

Though the blog is essentially anonymous, it has in many ways exposed certain family members’ histories, as well as their actions (and inactions) without their consent. When I created the blog, I made the conscious decision for the blog to automatically appear in my Facebook feed. The blog’s purpose has evolved in parallel with my own recovery, and so the content has perhaps become more objectionable to some without any apparent consideration to the level of publicity it continues to receive. Fact is, I have considered changing the blog’s level of visibility, and as you might have guessed, my decision has been to keep it public. So long as the blog’s purpose continues to serve my recovery, it will remain a fixture on my Facebook feed, and I don’t apologise for that. Let me be clear about this: If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Nobody’s put a gun to your head.

In any case, I’m aware of the ethical dilemmas that publicly identifying (or at least alluding to) perpetrators in my narrative entails. Any decent (or self-aware) person would be. But it should be noted that no names have ever been used that would identify family members, or even friends whom I’ve confided in and consequently written about. All names are pseudonyms. It should also be noted that I’m not interested in publishing stories for the sake of vengeance, as some people have suggested. As a rational and intelligent human being, I know that to expend positive energy to achieve a negative end is to still expend energy – my energy – which I would much rather exert to further my own spiritual, emotional, psychological and emotional causes. So long as the writing of this blog remains congruent with the broader aims of my recovery, then I will continue to speak of the hurt that my family has caused me.

This is because my abusive past has exacted a heavy toll, one that my body and mind have suffered in total silence through, and continue to pay dearly for. This blog is therefore just an elementary vehicle for my voice, which has long been stifled by my family’s, and the broader system’s, crippling denial. I hope its message transcends the small, incestuous world of Facebook. Additionally, the blog is just writing practice until I get the wider audience my talents were intended for. And to the naysayers who are never in short supply: Hard work and a lot of hope are the only beacons I look to for guidance and affirmation in achieving this conviction.

It feels important for me to mention that the purpose of this blog is not to demonise or otherwise shame my caregivers, or any other of my family members for that matter. Admittedly, doing so might offer me with a temporary, albeit misguided sense that justice has been served to some of the people who continue to live in their own denial. But, no. That’s their stuff, not mine, and I suspect striving for this outcome would be akin to seeking the fool’s gold spiritualists speak of. Nor would such a destination be worthy of the journey I have fought so hard to travel through.

An additional purpose of this blog, if it were to be so explicitly identified, is to ‘speak out’ the effect that such abuse continues to have on me, and on my efforts to ‘get ahead’; Notably, I continue to make decisions based on the effect such decisions will have on my ability to cope – an ability that was prematurely developed, and eventually exhausted – in a dysfunctional family. My history is such that I now carry a self-identified diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and this is obviously to my detriment – I’ve mentioned before the crippling effect that traumatic flashbacks continue to have on me when I start a new job. So I write. Unashamedly. It is an almost tangible problem for those labeled with a “mental illness” to feel worthwhile, and to be able to identify areas in their life in which they actually are competent. I can say with staunch confidence that I am a good writer, a competent writer. By writing about things that are true to my experience and my core, I honour the voice of my inner child that once was quashed.

Perhaps another blunt edge of this multifaceted blog-sword is the truth that in writing about my experiences, I’ve lost one or two friends, embarrassed more than a couple, and probably (and unintentionally) alienated a few more. Perhaps they found the candid reports of my childhood offensive, or unpalatable, or perhaps “too much information”. Maybe some even think my style is arrogant, and my willingness to disclose so openly is abhorrent. I don’t know. In any case, I subscribe to the advice that ‘other people’s opinions about me are none of my business.’ Whereas before I pruned my God-given spontaneity to fit the mould of others’ oftentimes-warped standards, now I own my experiences and draw on them as a source of identity and strength. That’s my right.

I’ve thus far enjoyed the challenges of maintaining a bl0g. I am usually proud of my creative efforts, and rarely when I read over my thoughts do I feel the need to internally  criticise, pull apart, or re-write what’s already been written. That I am for the most part a fan of my own writing truly is a gift of my recovery, and of trusting in the creative process. Though I do at times wonder whether being so blunt in my posts is unintentionally blunting the prospect of finding gainful employment with a “respectable” employer, whatever that means. I was always told, verbally or otherwise, that the image we choose to project to the world is unequivocally the most important thing. But an image is just an image, and a projected one at that. It speaks nothing of the rich inner world each of us has been gifted with. By getting honest about my past, my present, and the future I a hope to create for myself, I’m playing an active role in my recovery. In any case, I will ideally find an employer who celebrates and accepts my honest self-expression. This would truly be a positive step in the direction of good recovery; it’s said that we seek out employers that mimic our family of origin, for better or worse.

Jimmy Bartel’s Message of Courage, and My Beef with the Herald Sun

Jimmy Bartel really is a gutsy man to have shared his story yesterday in Melbourne’s The Herald Sun. The article details the AFL player’s experience with the domestic violence his father perpetrated against him, his siblings, and his mother growing up.

 

jimy bartel
Picture courtesy of the Herald Sun

The article’s pros are that it raises awareness about the insidiousness of domestic violence and the trauma it causes. It centres on a man discussing his recollections of domestic violence as a child. This is not the typical narrative we hear about domestic violence either in the media or in the community. Women are the victims, men are the perpetrators, and that’s that. By circulating the article, a grey area in an already complicated issue is revealed, and a typical narrative is challenged. And that’s a good thing. Further, children are rarely spoken of as perhaps the biggest victims of this type of violence. Children don’t choose the relationships they’re exposed to, but they nevertheless adapt to them, and it’s in their adaptation that their developmental needs are thwarted.

Those are the pros, not necessarily negated by the cons discussed below. So, what are the cons? First, I take issue with the Herald Sun referring to a person’s addictions as their “evils”. Trauma begets trauma, and Jimmy’s father clearly had his demons. By the grace of God, as they say, Jimmy Bartel did not become the man his father was.  This could be due to the difference in socio-economic status between the two men, as well as the changing views on masculinity, male and female sex roles, and on the awareness we have around appropriate child-rearing practices. In any case, children learn vicariously, which means they emulate what they see. Thus, we know both from a plethora of research and intrinsically that a person exposed to such violence is far more inclined to perpetuate such behaviour than not. Upon closer inspection, perhaps the article is celebrating Jimmy’s luck as much as his courage.

Jimmy Bartel also makes it clear that his father had gambling and drinking addictions. This makes his father an addict, and addicts are characteristically shame-based people. But people are not inherently shameful; they learn it from their own caregivers, for better or worse. In many ways, addicts are our community’s most vulnerable people. The article thus demonises and victimises people with addictions – vulnerable people – and I take issue with this Us versus Them mentality. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Jimmy Bartel suffers from his own, perhaps less “traditional”, more socially accepted addictions, such as sex, love, food, or approval (codependence) addiction. Or perhaps his own mental health problems, such as issues surrounding body image or low self-esteem, which he arguably alludes to. How could he not have his own issues given the upbringing he describes?

Understandably, such addictions are still too taboo or poorly defined, collectively less understood, to discuss openly and without reprise. This is unfortunate. But it does raise the question: Would the Herald Sun demonise Jimmy Bartel if we were to learn that he has his own addictions? How swift would his fall from grace be if he were to step out of the lines this newspaper has painted him in to? To take a more compassionate view of addicts, and of the people who perpetrate violence, would probably betray the moral boundaries the Herald Sun has decided should be the norm for its readers, and I take issue with this too.

Another con of this article is that the Herald Sun has historically, notoriously and often shamelessly touted its very own interests to the detriment of what can arguably be ‘objectively true’ – as much as something can be – and this, to me, lessens its credibility. A media organisation should strive for objectivity, and while all media organisations fall short of this objective by virtue of the fact that they’re run by humans who are fallible, the Herald Sun doesn’t appear to ever really strive for this objectivity to begin with. This makes it difficult to take seriously anything it produces. Its reputation precedes it, regardless of how altruistic-seeming its articles are.
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The Herald Sun also has a history of subtly and overtly objectifying its readership. Woman and men are portrayed in traditional ways, with women as sex objects and victims, and men as offenders who are then just as quickly demonised for falling short of some constantly shifting ideal. Just look at the public beating and shaming that Richmond football club’s Dustin Martin took in the media for his violent behaviour towards a woman in a restaurant. What’s the bet he was the victim of domestic violence and emotional neglect too? Should we take an all-or-nothing view of him because of his actions and cast him out also?  Do we negate this possibility and just label him a troublemaker, as the Herald Sun did? Issues surrounding the perpetration of violence are usually complex, and the Herald Sun seems to ignore this complexity in what could be seen as the latest in a series of moral crusades. The message the Herald Sun provides is thus inconsistent, and seems a broader exercise in black-or-white thinking. If the article were a stand alone one not associated with the Herald Sun, perhaps it would carry more weight, but it’s not, and it doesn’t.
No doubt, Jimmy Bartel was brave to share his story. And the article does indeed give coverage to an issue that’s close to my heart and my experience. But it’s hard not to be cynical about the paper that gives him his platform to do so. I take such articles with a grain of salt, but am happy to see that the issue of domestic violence is being pushed in to public consciousness from the perspective of the biggest and most vulnerable victim – the child, who in turn may become the perpetrator ((Jimmy Bartel’s father, perhaps) of such violence. Such people are destined to become the misunderstood, offending, addicted and victimised adult so long as newspapers like the Herald Sun opt for a simple take on a complex issue.

Indeed, in order for change to occur both at a grassroots and systemic level, people need concrete examples of how one thing affects another, and this article perhaps offers us this. When the Herald Sun and other media outlets responsibly convey the inherent complexity of issues such as domestic violence, then our society can move toward a more compassionate view of the vulnerable groups that comprise addicts, prostitutes, and those we might consider ‘disenfranchised’. This in turn will force governments to create policy that reflects this reality, which can only be a good thing. But we might be waiting a while for that to happen so long as newspapers like the Herald Sun abuse their power rather than use it to educate the public.

You remember it wrong.

An old family friend commented on one of my blogs about a week ago. He said that while he respected my memories of growing up, he didn’t recall the emotional abuse and neglect that I spoke of in my recent blog post. The only memories he could recall were of my being loved and respected by my family. Nor did he believe that my parents were anything but caring and nurturing. Besides being a covert challenge to my authenticity and the credibility of my memories, his comments did get me a little panicked about whether my abuse was “objectively true”. I questioned whether I could really trust my experiences of growing up in my family. The voice that whispers, “You’re fucking insane, man, and everyone else thinks this too” crept in. Could I be wrong? Could all those visits to psychiatric wards (both voluntary and involuntary), the suicide attempts, the confusion, the panic and shame attacks, the alienation and chronic fear of intimacy – could all that have been the result of some chemical imbalance, something unfixable, or inherently arbitrary? Could my parents have been as loving and nurturing as this friend of the family seems to recall?

I decided to delve deeper in to my memories. Perhaps my experiences of my dad insistently berating my mum for every damn thing she did wrong, insulting her intelligence and her dignity were not real memories, or at the very least were not real instances of domestic violence. Perhaps the memory of having to cover my ears to muffle the overwhelming booming sound of my father’s voice as he hurled insults at her and at us in the car trips to Sydney at the age of twelve didn’t really feel as though my fragile boundaries were being shattered. That even though I felt like a trapped rat in a cage with a cat, I couldn’t escape my family? That this feeling felt threatening to my very survival?

If the authenticity of all these experiences were subject to questioning, then maybe other memories were too. Shit, maybe I didn’t really have those thoughts of wanting to kill my dad when I heard him hit my mum in the other room, and maybe I didn’t really feel all that powerless when he would storm in to my room and proceed to hit me and my siblings too. Perhaps being whipped with a belt at the age of five was common practice, along with threats to “Shut up, or I’ll do it again!” Perhaps I developed an identical inner dialogue whenever I feel a similar feeling of distress out of nowhere, and perhaps I am intrinsically hostile towards myself for no apparent reason. 

Still, I played devil’s advocate in my head, wanting to be sure that I’d covered all bases; there was still a chance that my family friend was not ignorant, and rather that he knew what he was talking about. Years of psychotherapy had imbued in me the sense that other people were the experts on my life, and that I couldn’t trust my own crazy mind. Doctor knows best. Such a dangerous mentality to foster. Nevertheless I thought to myself, ‘Even if such memories were that bad, maybe my parents were still nurturing, loving, and caring. After all, they’d provided a roof over my head and kept food in my belly. What was I complaining about? My basic needs were being met, and I wasn’t homeless. My basic needs were met…And besides, I turned out alright, right?

…Well, no, not exactly. I’m not saying that I’m a hopeless case – far from it. The best years are still to come I’m sure. But taking an honest inventory of one’s self means just that. In the last fifteen years I’ve: been hospitalised voluntarily and involuntarily; been called a liar and told to get over it by my father, stepmother, and extended family members; been victimized by the mental health system, by clinicians who told me to swallow pills that made me put on 15-20kgs, and that numbed my feelings of rage and grief – feelings that needed to be out rather than in – and when the pills didn’t work I was told that I was “treatment-resistant.” I’ve been chronically bullied in school systems by teachers and peers, chronically unemployed at times and underemployed all of the time, and I’ve been told that it’s “just depression and anxiety: the common cold of psychology.” Truth is, at face value I look like the guy with it all, though I’ve suffered chronic low self-esteem. Something’s amiss, surely.

Which begs the question again: Am I wrong to call a spade a spade just because someone calls it something else? Were my experiences not as bad as all that? And if they were that bad, perhaps there really is something inherently backward about me to not have “gotten over it” by now? Perhaps I really am treatment resistant? Hmm? Well?

…Well, the answer is Nah. As in Nah, fuck that. I am unequivocally right. I know what I experienced, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to entertain someone else’s denial or ignorance. Been there, done that, and got the t-shirt that says “It Doesn’t Work To Do It That Way.” Part of my recovery is to set internal boundaries, to stop listening to the people who try to instill in me, for their own personal or professional reasons, why I shouldn’t feel a certain way or question whether a certain thing really happened in my past. I see those people now as dead weight on the recovery journey. Because really, what do they know? Were they there? Can they really be so arrogant as to tell me what my reality was? What it is? Do they realise how ridiculous it sounds to tell someone that what they experienced didn’t happen the way that they remember?

I’m not sure. I’m powerless over others, but not over myself. Now, I start to recognise when someone is trying to deny my reality. I put my breaks on it as best I can. Though it’s rarely expressed as such, I am mindful of words people use like “ought to” and “should” to describe my recovery journey. When I share my reality, and when the response is a vague or sharply defined sense of ‘No’, I give myself permission to mobilise, to set standards for who’s worthy of my time and my reflection, and to walk the other way. That’s my right in recovery, because recovery is and always should be self-defined. Case closed.

 

Luck, Unluckiness, and What’s Old is Now New Again.

Perhaps one of the hardest things about being unemployed and living with complex PTSD is how quickly the old patterns of thinking can re-enter my consciousness. It’s impeccable – and frightening. If it can be said that our thoughts are a precursor to our actions, then the negative thinking that I’ve reluctantly embraced is leading to some evidently low level, self-destructive behaviour.

It’s tough. Everyone wants to feel like they’re needed, like they’re useful. It’s no different for me, either. The trauma I want so desperately to be rid of seems lately to be robbing me of the belief that I have something worthwhile to contribute, more now that I am unemployed than before. And it’s stifling. I find myself going in to fantasy, getting to bed later, eating junk foods that are consumed at a cost to both my hip pocket and my health. I’m talking to friends less too, and feeling frightened at the prospect of leaving the house. I’m bunkering down for a storm, and I’m going in to survival mode. Notably, none of it is helping me to deal with my adult problems.

And if I do leave my house, I leave my body too. I dissociate. Maybe this is the hardest part about C-PTSD. The disconnection that accompanies any circumstance that is merely perceived as threatening or overwhelming. I catch myself becoming adamant that I can’t cope, that I won’t, and that I refuse to, too. Every situation becomes evidence for my hyper-vigilant, outspoken Inner Critic that I’m not faring so well. The “See? I told you that you couldn’t cope!” storyline plays on repeat. God, it’s irritating.

Such toxic thinking. The world of a trauma survivor is apt to get claustrophobic quickly without the necessary tools to manage this feeling of collapsing and shrinking in to oblivion. And even then, it ain’t easy. Intellectually, I understand that I am simply feeling overwhelmed, and that if I just bring myself back to the present moment and do the next best thing to take care of myself, I’ll probably be OK. The path to recovery is at times a nightmarish paradox: do the thing that feels most frightening and you’ll thrive; stay present at all costs, and it’ll pass. So this is what I’m doing, to the best of my ability.

Numbing out is a fantastic strategy when you’re small, helpless, and reliant on giants to provide your safety and your broader needs for touch, emotional nurturing and physical safety. But what happens when they’re not met? What happens when such caretakers are narcissistic? Or abusive? Emotionally volatile or manipulative, and physically violent? I won’t speak for all people who grew up in domestic violence family systems, but I know that for me, I became an exquisite ‘dissociater’ at the slightest hint of confrontation or perceived threat. I jumped ship, so to speak, and abandoned myself with record-breaking rapidity. The reality back then was too painful because, as it turned out, the giants entrusted with ensuring my basic survival needs were the very ones threatening them. Thus, numbing my senses seemed like an entirely sensible thing to do!

It’s tough, and a little bit tragic, too. Because I know that the degree to which I felt unsafe as a child directly correlates with the amount of energy I now unconsciously put in to numbing out to survive. That’s the tragedy: that I must have been thoroughly terrified, and consistently so, throughout my formative years. The tough part is that a very dominant part of me still sees these strategies as totally viable and effective ways for dealing with all types of threat, be they proximal or distant, physical or abstract. It makes being gentle on myself hard, and creates in me a sense of incongruence which is unnerving and uncomfortable. And while outwardly I’m looking for paid work, I know I’m already holding down the full-time job of re-wiring my hyper-aroused brain with self-soothing techniques. You might say I’m doin’ double-overtime, and the penalty rates ain’t payin’ dividends just yet.

Changing these patterns is a lifelong process that requires support, hard work, and a lot of good luck. Threats to where I live and the prospect of working yet another stressful, underpaying job that underutilises my intellect and my potential make it hard to feel safe, and hopeful. This is where I’m at right now: finding and creating zones of safety in which to heal. Even starting a job that draws on my strengths is stressful because it brings up traumatic feelings and self-defeating thinking patterns from eons ago which, if not managed well, lead to overwhelm all over again, to quitting, and to the despair of being right back where I started.

So you see, it’s a really tough gig. I see it as an exercise in being broken down and re-created each time I fall and have to pick myself up again.  A stable place to live, as well as a regular income from a job that affirms my personal philosophy and draws on my experience, is a by-product of recovery from trauma that protects me from relapses. Such things, though, are also pre-requisites for recovery. Herein lies the frustrating injustice of a person suffering under the sticky label of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. I’m fortunate enough to be able to articulate this, though as yet such eloquence hasn’t eased my burden or magically secured me a stable dwelling and a vocation that makes my heart sing.

There’s hope, though, because I’m a stubborn mother. In spite of growing up in a traumatic and unforgiving family system, in spite of the empty promises of a broken mental health system and in spite of the ill-offered advice from psychiatrists, with their over-emphasis on medicating feelings and ignoring the body’s wisdom, I’m still here, still being broken and still being reconstructed; the best is surely still to come!

Unemployment, The Universe, and Feelin’ the Feelings

So, I’m unemployed now. Prior to becoming unemployed, I’d experienced in my body panic at the prospect of not having an income. “What will I do?!” I thought to myself obsessively in the wee hours of the mornings leading up to my termination. It felt as though I would die. My heart would pound and my back would ache in silent protest; I couldn’t sleep and I was agitated at the people around me more than usual. “Fucking people,” I thought. People weren’t the problem, though.

Funny then when the date came and passed and I did not, in fact, die. What a relief. Life goes on after one job finishes, soon to be replaced by another. Probably the biggest difference between this latest transition in to unemployment (unemployment is a common aspect of recovery when you have PTSD) and other previous events is my steadfast commitment to staying present to my internal self. My Body.

Some of you will dismiss the feeling of feelings as some new age wank-off crap. That’s OK. Others of you who are familiar with the numbing effect that trauma has on feelings and connection to one’s own body will appreciate just how big it is to have stuck with experiencing my emotions in a time of considerable stress. It’s a win, and I’ll take it. I didn’t act out with most of the socially acceptable drugs – caffeine, booze, begging my parents for financial or emotional support. No. I recognise now that all these forms of ‘acting out’ don’t help me. All they do is numb what needs to be felt: Panic, anger, rage, resentment, sorrow, and grief. I didn’t hide from these feelings, and as a result, a gift of self-realisation has been forwarded on to me; more insights as to where I’ve come from, what I’ve endured and triumphed over, where I’m heading and what my preferences are for living a full and abundant life. The pain from my past and the hope for my future are both being fused in to a comprehensible and consistent story of whom I am. This is good news for me. Prior, I had little notion of who I was due to the stop-start effect of dissociation.

By staying present to myself and by allowing myself to feel what needs to be felt, certain inescapable truths have slowly risen to the surface of my conscious mind. Namely, I like to write. I’m good at it, and using this skill for paid employment would give me great satisfaction. I’m working on that. In the past I dismissed my talent. My sister is the writer and the reader. ‘We can’t both be writers,’ I used to think. But who made that rule? It’s a belief, I’ve learned, that is a result of the neglect and emotional abuse I endured in my childhood. It’s one I’m thankfully letting go of. Also, the subject of psychology interests me. I have a Psychology degree that I’m not doing justice to by answering calls in call centers. This will change eventually.

Maybe I need to return to study to realise these inclinations more fully. This might mean share housing again, or moving further out in to ‘the sticks’ if I wish to continue to live on my own whilst I study. But living on my own has transformed my recovery from PTSD. It’s provided a safety that I hadn’t previously known while share housing. And it’s so much easier living on my own. You know all the usual annoyances. Big black hairs clogging the bathroom sink, loud and offensive music playing at 9 a.m. on a saturday morning, and taking a bite out of the block of cheese and putting it back in the fridge – and those are just my quirks.

I have to find a way to make it work. Unemployment, flashbacks, returning to study, stress. These are all factors that I have to learn to mitigate in the recovery process. I complained to my friend, Sam, the other day about how slow the recovery process seems to be of late (not true, but you know when it feels like progress is slow?). He said, “You know, you sound exactly like someone who is on the verge of change. Maybe you’re exactly where you need to be right now.” Thank God for friends who say these things during times like this. One day at a time. Just for today. These are the maxims I stick to in my recovery. I stick to routine and hand it over to the universe. After all, if it’s meant to be, surely the universe will intervene and offer encouragement?

universe

Childhood Trauma and the 6 Ways We Cope

It should go without saying that children are people too. Of course they are. So when a person is violated by means of power, coercion, or while under duress, they experience rage like any other because their rights and their boundaries have been infringed upon. This fact continues to be overlooked (or ignored) by those who insist on sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Nevertheless, children lack the aforementioned verbal skills required to articulate such violation. And practically speaking, a child is small, weak, and quite literally dependent on his abusive caregiver’s resources (e.g., love, attention, food, shelter) for survival. It thus makes sense for him to mute the objections he is capable of uttering when his rights are violated (e.g., crying, raging, outbursts of physical violence) to ensure his ongoing needs are met. This leads to a tragic and insane learned helplessness, and rather than rage fruitlessly, the child learns to adapt to his abusive family system.

Children are extremely resourceful, and so adaption takes many unique forms. But research (and theory, to pay Freud his dues) has for some time pointed to clusters of adaptive processes that children engage in when their caregivers are neglectful, abusive, or both.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, Fuck, Feed: The six childhood responses to developmental trauma
For children to survive the trauma of being emotionally, psychologically, sexually or spiritually abused by their caregivers, they develop specific coping mechanisms Here’s my take on what these mechanisms are. It’s worth mentioning here that I have a BA in psychology. Funnily enough, though, I learned most of what I am about to discuss in this article not through studying undergrad textbooks, but through my own personal experience of and consequent research on childhood trauma.

The Fight Type. Fight types don’t hold back their rage, but nor do they learn to control it in adulthood. Prone to outbursts and tantrums, people with this coping style learned early that, in order to have their needs met they had to become hostile, or go without. Rage is learned through modeling, and can lead to aggressive and anti-social tendencies without appropriate figures to re-model such behaviour. Domestic violence, physical, verbal and sexual assault, as well as more extreme acts of violence like murder are common means of acting out that Fight types engage in. But often the fight type find socially acceptable ways to use and abuse power, and may work they way to positions of authority in Government or in corporate life (e.g., the ‘charming psychopath’) These forms of acting out are used as a means of controlling their circumstances and other people to establish an internal sense of equilibrium, usually when they experience threat.

The Flight Type. Though it could be said that all adults who develop one or more of the six coping styles as a means of escaping the pain of trauma, Flight types are the escapists who’ve honed the skill of numbing out to a T. They run from life’s problems and from the feelings that accompany them. They numb pain through alcohol or drugs, or develop soloist hobbies that allow them to isolate from people and community – the perceived sources of threat – often in socially or culturally acceptable ways (e.g. online gaming, various IT professions). One way that Fight types escape is through fantasy. This can take the form of dissociation (i.e., numbing, zoning or checking out behaviours) to more severe severances from reality (e.g., through the experience of visual and auditory hallucinations, obscure beliefs about self and others, and paranoia). To the very sick Flight type, such breaks from reality act as very powerful distraction from the experience of emotions in the present moment. Arguably, many people diagnosed with schizophrenia or various other psychiatric illnesses have developed exceptional flight behaviours to avoid life’s inevitable stressors. When I think of Flight types, I think of Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Freeze Type. Freeze types do exactly that: they freeze in the presence of perceived threat, and suffer the consequences dearly. Those in this category seem to typify the premise of researchers like Alice Miller and Bessel Van der Kolk aptly. That is, that trauma remains frozen in the body until it is released through a safe and therapeutic re-experiencing of it. Freeze types especially are prone to re-enact the abuse they originally suffered in childhood by choosing partners or lovers similar to their abusive caregivers. This is known as repetition compulsion, which is the repeated attempt a trauma victim makes to ‘finish the feeling’, that is, to finally find the caregiver who will show them the love and protection they craved in childhood. Repetition compulsion explains why many women abused in childhood women continually “end up with” abusive partners in adulthood.

The Fawn Type. Fawn types develop codependent tendencies. They’re apt to unconsciously cultivate a ‘helper’ mentality in the hope that their caregiver will meet their needs, or at the very least disengage from abusive or neglectful behaviour. Unfortunately, many codependents end up being complicit in their own abuse or trauma, much like freeze types. Fawn types can be perpetrators too, by acting highly agreeable, sacrificing their own values or beliefs, and being manipulative or dishonest – all dishonest forms communication – as a way to get heir needs met or to avoid the experience of their own or another’s negative feelings. Because Fawn Types did not have their needs met in childhood, they learn to manipulate outcomes through more ‘passive’ means, such as through blackmail, ‘guilting’ or playing the ‘martyr’, rather than through honest and direct communication which, in reality, they were never taught or modeled in their formative years.

The Fuck Type. ‘Fuck’ is something of a misnomer, though it’s appropriate all the same. Children who discover sex, inappropriate touching, or masturbation as a means of dealing with their neglectful, abusive or otherwise emotionally unbearable circumstances discover the pleasure their bodies can provide during high stress situations. Having not been taught the value of experiencing and trusting their emotional experiences, adult Fuck types may develop sex, love or porn pornography addictions to soothe intense emotions. Such addictive patterns include engaging in sexually risky or perverse behaviour (like exhibitionism and voyeurism), to more extreme perpetration involving rape or child sexual abuse. Arguably, Western Culture has a collective preference for the Fuck type’s adaptiveness. This is when we give pause to the highly profitable porn industry (supply and demand, right?), the escalating sexualisation of women – and increasingly men – in popular culture and in commerce (“Sex Sells”), and the quiet yet alarming sexualisation of children. Indeed, one needn’t look far to see the droves of sports stars and religious leaders whose fall from grace has involved inappropriate sexual escapades.

The Feed Type. Feed types learn early in childhood that food is their most important need, and so seek to idolize it. Emotional neglect and abuse leaves a child feeling overwhelmed in the face of their own volatile feelings. Feed types also understandably believe that caregivers ultimately disappoint, but food won’t. Obesity, as well as other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is common in the Feed Type, as are many of the symptoms of body dysmorphia – self-loathing, shame, disgust, and a distorted view of oneself.

As you can see, people who suffer emotional, sexual, psychological, or spiritual abuse at the hands of their caregivers are prone to develop self-destructive -albeit universal -coping mechanisms in order to deal with the trauma of consistently having their needs unmet in their formative years. In a later post I will discuss what current research is demonstrating are our best hopes for breaking free from the shackles of childhood trauma.