The Dark Side of Mildred’s Mountain series – Angel book 2 beginning with the POP! Goes Alaska letters – chapter 16
16. Wordless places
March 29, 2013. Twenty years ago when I was visiting my older brother John in Ashland, Oregon I told him I would not have wanted a single thing to have been different in my childhood if any change would have meant that I would not have been able to live in Alaska and on our mountain homestead. My brother told me that if I really believed that I was nuts. It has taken me this long to finally know what John meant.
I needed that land because of the way my childhood was. I needed that land to save me. Had I not suffered the abuse that I did I would have been spared the need for being saved and therefore spared also of my deep need for that land. Book closed. End of story.
I have no belief that had we not moved to Alaska, had we not homesteaded, had we stayed in California or had we moved anywhere else that the horrors present in my childhood would have been removed. At this point in my life I understand that the lifelong physiological changes to my body caused by severe exposure to chronic traumatic stress would have happened to me anyway. If fact, most of the problematic changes happened in California to me before the age of two, and certainly by my age of being nearly six when the Alaska move took place.
Although I have reversed my declaration as I would state it to John now, nothing changes the past. My speculations are fruitless unless they provide me with insight into my life in ways that are useful to me today. As it stands I cannot imagine being alive now had Alaska not provided me with what I needed to counteract all the negative forces present in my childhood so that I could survive it.
What does child abuse do to people?
After I completed my BA in psychology in 1983 I took a graduate course in counseling. I worked as hard as I could in that class but received my first disappointing “C.” Most of our grade came from pairing off to practice empathy and “active listening” techniques. I followed the steps carefully but obviously they made no sense to me. Thirty years later I know why I could not do what my professor required. I do not understand the most important communication signals between people.
Nothing that happened to me during the first 18 years of my life was designed to build into me the ability to process human social-emotional information in ordinary (as I use the word) ways. Because I was a very smart child I got by because I learned how to fill in the blank spots created by a nearly complete lack of caring, genuine, compassionate and empathetic interactions by other people with me. In other words, although I had no way to know it I learned how to pretend to be someone resembling an “ordinary” person.
I have always known what all the superficial indicators of expression and intent mean on a surface level. Yet my ability to engage in social exchange with other people cannot be considered effective by ordinary standards of communication except in the simplest, most trivial and trite ways. With a few very rare exceptions what I give in conversation is not what other people expect, want or evidently need and what they can give to me is not what I want or need, either. Genuine, authentic conversation based on mutual exchange of integrity is therefore mostly missing from my life.
Part of what I seem to be missing is an ability that appears innate in ordinary conversation. The capacity to filter what is not from what is considered appropriate to know about a person and then to form a return response that includes reference only to this acceptable information is not, however, an inborn skill. It is one that is formed into a very young infant-child’s developing physiology very early in life through safe and secure patterns of communication between little people and their attachment caregivers.
Over time the foundational aspects of communication provide the inner ability to interact appropriately in increasingly complex emotional-social situations with members of one’s species. I was not given the opportunities required to form this kind of interactional foundation. What I needed later on to build upon my missing foundation was not available to me, either.
These shortcomings in my early experience as they were compounded by deprivations in the quality of interactions I had with others all the way through my childhood, coupled with my exposure to horrific long-term chronic traumatic abuse, combined with lengthy periods of isolation left me nearly “synch-less” when it comes to participating in successful, mutually satisfying communication with others. While my counseling professor evidently noticed this condition in me with a critical assessment to the negative, he certainly did not offer any kind of helpful interchange with me that could have assisted me to learn thirty years ago what I have finally come to understand about myself on my own.
Bump and chop in conversations
It seems to me from my perspective that people who were raised in the absence of debilitating deprivation and trauma naturally incorporate patterns of ordinary existence into their life so that ordinary is natural and comfortable to them. Ordinary would of course then be a completely valuable inclusion in their discourse with others who also completely know from the inside out what ordinary is. Yet even if this is true people are people and life is life and nobody escapes difficulties.
Part of my troubles with being in contact with other people is that I was formed to know things in extraordinary ways. Most of the time the information I detect from others is private to them and is not what they intend for me to know about them. Because I do not have ordinary filters I almost always inevitably experience a very awkward and uncomfortable pattern created for me (and often for the other person) as I try to slow down my responses enough to use a conscious filter that will let me include what I suspect I am supposed to include and exclude what I imagine I am supposed to exclude from my responses to others.
Given that humans are designed to gather information from tiny facial muscular changes in others at the speed of minimally twenty signals per second, and given that the ability to process this emotional-social information accurately and appropriately (or not) is built into the rapid-forming right limbic brain hemisphere during the first year of life, inadequate infant-mother (caregiver) interactions inevitably harm the physiologically developing ability in the brain to carry on future interactions between self and others in ordinary ways. People expect to be attended to, heard and responded to FAST. Because most people in mainstream American culture are geared to keep ordinary visible and difficulty invisible to other people (Mildred’s mental illness amplified this split), those of us who have been formed in environments of trauma are always at a disadvantage in the race of ordinary conversation (whether we know this or not).
My difficulty is not that I do not accurately read (watch) people. My difficulty is that I read them too well. I can detect the truth of their reality – as they are ACTUALLY expressing themselves without words – so fast and gather so much information that without the proper emotional-social filter that ordinary people have I am forever out-of-step with social expectations and tolerances when it comes to communication. What I end up with is an assessment that nearly all social exchanges appear to be a sloppy, inarticulate, inaccurate, phony unsatisfying mess while my contributions can never be upgraded to anything over a “C.”
I could call my native language “traumaspeak.” This is the language I began to learn even before I knew what a word was. I learned this language through a long childhood of having to hone (automatic) super-vigilant abilities to detect what was really going on within my home environment where nothing was ever what it seemed to be until Mother EXPLODED and then the truth of my world became obvious. I was raised without safety and therefore formed no ability to trust humans – period. Because I was a human in a human world my existence was extremely complex.
In an environment where rage is always present (somewhere) waiting to loom and take over the experience of a child some degree of physiological alertness has to always be present. My world had always been this way from the time I was born. I naturally developed alternatively to endure within this alternative environment. (Now I understand that not only was this world not ordinary, it was psychotic.)
No human being, certainly not a small one, can survive being in a chronic state of reaction to danger and threat to life without being able to live through some periods of rest, some periods of quasi-restful calm without being directly aware of the presence of danger and threat. The spans of time I was able to snatch for myself to be a child existed because my body itself “dissociated” my awareness of my chronic trauma state. My body-brain manufactured a way for me to live a “second life” along with the chronic trauma state in between Mother’s direct psychotic attacks.
So distant from one another and so entirely separated were these two lives I lived that when I was in my own-self child life I was never prepared for one of Mother’s attacks. I was never ready. I never anticipated or expected any one of them. I felt as shocked at each attack as if it was the first one happening to me for the first time.
Every attack took me by surprise. I was completely startled every single time. I was incredulous when fairly late in my adulthood I realized how strange this was. It has taken me a long time to understand what caused me to be so oblivious to the ongoing presence of the threat of harm during my childhood. That repeated feeling of shocked surprise was one of my strongest memories, and for a long time I criticized myself for “being so stupid” that I should have had that reaction.
Every time was the first time? Every time I stared at her lunging toward me with wide-eyed profoundly stunned amazement? Every time I was completely taken by surprise? I never had an instant’s pause to have the conscious thought, “Oh, NO! Here she comes again!” I NEVER saw an attack coming. Not one single time.
Mother was psychotic! How could I have known when she was going to switch into one of her psychotic states of insane rage? How could I have survived if I had no way to turn off the flow of chronic panic, confusion and terror if my body had not taken over complete control of how I experienced myself in my life? In my two LIVES?
These separated islands of perceived calm were broken into very small individual pieces as inevitable trauma after trauma repeatedly interrupted my experience of being my own self-child living my life in between attacks. I had no bridge of language between the two worlds I lived in. I had no way to think about the trauma in any way.
I therefore had an equal inability to conceptualize, understand, prepare for, anticipate or defend myself against the harm that happened to me. The pure act of enduring happens without words. I was therefore continually jerked back and forth from one life I lived that had words and the other one I lived through that had no words. (I am not talking here about Mother’s horrible verbal abuse. That is an entirely different subject from my OWN missing words.)
Nobody ever talked to me about the wordless world. I never talked to anyone about the wordless world. I could not talk to myself about the wordless world. At every instant I was forced to crash out of my own life into Mother’s brutal psychotic one all words disappeared. There was no way I could ever be prepared for that switch to happen except as my body automatically took care of me – without words. The inexplicable had no words.
I was left without words for as long as it took for me to be able to return to my own (other) life. I was not able to begin to discover there were words for the wordless world until I experienced my first counseling when I was 29 years old. Without words I had no context. I had no frame of reference. I had no way to even begin to know I had ever been abused at all, not even when it was happening to me.
I went a long, long, long time not in denial but in a void of wordless oblivion regarding the essence of what difficulties I had lived through. Perhaps what I see so often in other people I meet is their own wordless oblivion. Perhaps there is much in people’s lives that they do not speak of because they have never had the words to do so. Perhaps it is a lack of words that creates that imperceptible but very present communication filter within and then between people in the first place.
Lack of comprehension
I had an 18-year experience of being ultimately alone which included vast areas within me that I could not know. There was no bridge of lasting stature ever formed between me and another human being. I was able to discover bridges elsewhere between myself and factors of the world I lived in because I was surrounded by the place of Alaska which on its own defines no separation between itself and anything or anyone else.
Of course if I had disappeared into the wilderness my lifespan would have been greatly shortened. I had a place called a home within a family that did keep my body alive. But past that point there was very little given to me from which I could build myself into a person capable of negotiating life with others of my species in any helpful or meaningful way.
While I understand that humans are not pieces of debris tumbling down a massive river through time, birth to death, I now understand that in this lifetime I will never be able to comprehend who they are or what they are actually doing from their point of view any more than I can comprehend an ant, a leaf or a bird. I tried to learn as a child. I can see in Mother’s letters where, when and how she was able to – and did – reach out her long arms of abuse to remove from me opportunities I had outside of our home to try to learn at warp speed what other children are able to learn gradually over the span of their entire childhood. (This included her removing me from my grandmother.)
Mother could not and hence did not remove all opportunities from me. I naturally made the greatest possible use of every available chance I had to make progress in my development in any way that I could. I remained alive and grew up to be the best person I know how to be.
I was, however, made to be a watcher of life which includes being a watcher of people. I watch humans in the same way I watched the focused and determined activity of ants that spent their lifetime occupied within the universe of their rotting logs on the mountainside, in the same way I watch leaves bud and open on a rose bush and birds gather dry grass and bits of string to build a nest.
There is no pressure of expectation, suggestion or demand that I act like an ant or a budding leaf or a bird. At 61 I am tired of trying to belong in the world of people. And I mean tired as in tired out. Tired of. Worn down. Worn out. Exhausted.
I know myself now much better than I did thirty years ago when I tried so hard in that class to do what I could not do while I didn’t know I had no ability to do it. I cannot accurately mirror other people’s reality back to them in a way that they will accept or understand because I have no way to ever cross any bridge of comprehension that would let me know in the least what any experience of being an ordinary human feels like.
As I write these words I realize that there will be some readers of my words who will know exactly what I am talking about. Not one of these readers will have come out of a safe and secure childhood. Not one was born loved. Not one was given what they needed as they grew up to know on a feeling level what trust in humanity could possibly be. These people probably share with me this inescapably, inexhaustibly lonely way to live.
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