Nobody would ask to be raised under the infant abuse conditions that create a different brain. Our brains were designed by a dangerous, life-threatening environment that included the very present possibility that we would not live very long. Therefore, we are not equipped to live “the good life” that we see nearly everyone else being able to enjoy once we are “out in the real world.”
It would be similar to having a dog born in Phoenix that lived its entire life from birth under clear skies and temperatures frequently over 100 degrees. But when the dog was “of age” it was moved to Northern Minnesota in the dead of winter and put outside when it was frigid out. The dog would not live very long. And if it did live, it would suffer.
Because of what happened to me from birth to age 18, my brain is in the extreme danger category. This is a spectrum. Many people who suffered child abuse have changed brains, but are still closer enough to normal to get along. Mostly what they have, I believe, are many serious health problems that eventually kill them.
All of us with serious child abuse histories seem to have many serious difficulties in life. We do not fit into our society’s culture in a “normal” fashion. Many things that appear obvious and easy to others looking in from the outside are very difficult for us. Finding careers, stable relationships, raising our children, planning for the future, making good decisions, etc. And many of us who have survived wish we didn’t.
If a world continued to be as dangerous as ours was in the beginning, nobody in that world would have likely lived very long, or to a very old age. If they lived long enough to have offspring, that would have been about it. Life in a dangerous world is dangerous! And what I have learned is that once a brain is formed under those dangerous conditions, past a certain age it cannot be changed. It is an entirely different brain, and we have to accept this fact and quit believing otherwise.
We have seat belt laws, and laws about keeping infants in car seats. Once the threat was made to our society’s well-being, we made sure, in rapid order, that there are now tamper proof seals on everything we consume. It is called prevention.
The degree to which our brains can adapt depends upon the degree of threat we were exposed to.
There are times that I don’t even want to live any more. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to “fix” my brain. The damage is permanent and irreversible. There’s no therapy that will help, no self help that will help, no drugs that will help. I don’t want to be medicated. They don’t even know what they are doing with brains like mine. I will never know what it feels like to be a human being. Not a “real” one. Just a damaged one, one who was made for a world that does not exist.
I have intense feelings that do not match this world, and I can’t change myself so that they will. There’s nothing that I care or about or anything that matters. Just writing this book if I can pull that together and stay here long enough to do it. The only other care I have, for my children who are far away and I do not hear from – who are totally on their own. And for Ernie, who does not need me, and I am so taxing to him.
Nothing matters because nothing is permanent and everything is changing, but for me there is no flow between any of it. Not between my own life experiences and myself, either. It is a sort of amnesia that includes this terrible numbness between everything that is supposed to be all linked together into the person I am supposed to be.
Cindy says that Damasio says that there are only two emotions: calm and fear. From calmness, or homeostasis comes all the positive emotions, and from a sense of danger come all the rest of them. Danger is built into my brain, and that is fundamental. The calmness and positive emotions I feel around Ernie are transient and temporary, and in this extreme relationship, are always coming to an end. It is my problem. And I am so afraid that I am overstressing his ability to cope with me. His nervous system is on shutdown most of the time. That is the avoidant attachment style. He goes on overload, but he shuts down and he can cope. I have a really hard time with it.
I wish I could get clear enough, and that he cared enough that I could describe it to him and he would understand. Like when his foot hurt so badly, if suddenly someone out of the blue just came over and stomped on it as hard as they could, only they didn’t mean to. It’s like that emotionally for me when he isn’t concerned about transitions, especially – like yesterday on the phone when he was so abrupt, like today when he got a tow call and I couldn’t go with him because he had to leave the car across the street from Mari’s – only he didn’t even say goodbye. It throws me into pain and fear just as surely as if he’d stomped on my nervous system. Only I don’t think he can understand this.
And yet when things are OK, and I am with Ernie, it is the only time I feel OK. The only time. It is a miracle that being with my children for 35 years as they grew up evidently “kept me together” because the state of mind I had with them was of attachment, and it somehow modulated all of this – nor so that I was a “normal” mother, but that I was as close to “good enough” as was humanly possible. But there will never again be a state of mind as comprehensive as that one was for me. And I suspect that my hormones had something to do with that, that they flooded my brain and gave it the only element of normalcy that I was ever to have. Of course this is looking back in retrospect. I didn’t know it then.
Could I have perhaps found a way to have been prepared for when it all ended? All of those years of my life that don’t even seem mine now? Like I was in someone else’s life. Like I have always been in someone else’s life, not mine. I can’t connect to my own. It’s like grains of sand slipping through fingers. There’s no way to hold onto the experiences. I can’t hold them in my mind.
And I cannot generate meaning or value to anything. I am disconnected. And I am suffering. This is NOT the way the human brain was meant to evolve. What difference does it make whether or not I write this book? “They” will figure this all out in time – in the mean time many will suffer that do not need to. But would or could this book really make a difference?
I was probably OK around my children because I knew they had true affection for me. They were born with it. I am OK when I know Ernie is feeling affection for me. When he withdraws it I hurt even more because I cannot then trust that he is having affection for me when he is not “shining it” on me. I cannot read him, and I cannot carry with me knowledge within myself that he has this affection. Like he gives it to me and takes it away, and even if this is not what he is doing, I have no way to know that – to tell the difference. And I so need his affection to stop the pain, to feel OK because it is the only time that I do. Only I am only just now figuring all of this out.
I feel safe with him, I feel calm and happy. I feel connected to him, and somehow for the first time through this connection with him I feel connected to myself. It feels like the dissociation that separates every other experience in my life from me does not separate ME from my feelings for HIM. Schore writes about how the right limbic cortex is designed to grow throughout the lifespan. There is something about Ernie that reaches that level for me while I cannot connect to others. But why did it have to be to a man in this worst possible scenario?
Yet at the same time I know that the degree of damage I suffered will not allow me to ever have, like Temple Grandin says of herself, anything like a normal healthy secure balanced stable relationship. My modulation needs are too great, and my inner stimulation is too great. They feed off of one another in a relationship. I would be too stimulated, and there is no possible way for that stimulation to be modulated. It is suffering. It is overwhelming.
The hardest part is to know that it is in the future, maybe not too far, that Ernie will be removed from me completely. He has his life set up that way. Either when he closes the shop, or when his medical difficulties become too great. It will be such a huge loss I cannot even write about it. And I think on some levels he feels the same way.
So I guess I learned something today that must be important, or there wouldn’t be so many tears. It isn’t what I thought a year ago, that missing Ernie is what causes me the pain. I have the pain all of the time. It is constant. It is built into my body and into my brain. What happens, then, is that for some reason totally mysterious to me, I feel safe when Ernie is affectionate to me, and the pain goes away when I am with him. The pain comes back when I am away from him. I am in pain all the rest of the time, and there’s nothing I can do to change that or to make the pain go away. So I guess in some way I had to look into the mirror and see the reverse of what I had thought before.
Cindy asked me if it isn’t better for me to be around people, to have friends. And yet my “empathy” abilities are nonexistent (though I think I can have compassion – that is a state of mind while empathy is a different kind of ability that is built upon circuitry in the brain that I do not have). People are like the paper dolls I used to make in class in 7th grade. They do not have dimensionality to me. I used to say “it is like” they live in a different world I cannot understand or join them in. Now I know it is an “as is” situation. I cannot connect to them. The only other people I can feel connected to are little tiny babies. I can look into their eyes and see the universe. But their minds are not busy with involvement with this world. They are not truly here, just the same way I am not truly here.
Somehow it must be related to mother and her dolls. Her children were dolls to her. People are like dolls to me, too. Except I guess, because she thought I was the devil’s child, I not only didn’t get to be a human, I didn’t get to even be a doll, either. Now, isn’t that quite the cat’s meow!
Otherwise, people are on the other side of a bottomless chasm. I can talk TO them and they can talk TO me, but I cannot cross over to where they are and they cannot cross over to where I am – because where I am is alone. And even for others who suffer with the same brain that I do, we cannot be with one another, either. They stand on their tiny individual islands as I stand on mine. I can try to do no harm to anyone, but I cannot be like they are, or be with them. (It reminds me of that strange mall dream I had – looking through that window at the people living their lives so happy together on the other side, but I could not join them.)
Like Cindy says, they pay more attention to bad peanut butter, which has killed no one, than they do to this horrible condition that was entirely preventable, though now for us who suffer, it is incurable.
I asked Cindy if she thinks it is worse to know how alone we are than for us to still be holding onto some kind of hope that maybe someday we will be different, or changed, or healed, or better so that we can have a secure relationship. She says, “No, it is better to know. As Temple Grandin knows.” It is where hope is dead that pretend mode thinking no longer serves a function. I have no more hope with Ernie as far as any more of a relationship than we have now. Of course I don’t want to lose what little I have. Of course it cuts my heart in two every time I have to leave him and come home alone.
Cindy said maybe I shouldn’t have told Ernie about the pain going away when I am with him. But it is the truth, and it has to be told. It can’t get any better than it is, anyway. I don’t understand why he in particular, and especially and only he, affects me the way he does. He has a very limited way of looking at the world in many ways, lots of prejudices and stereotypes. And yet on a fundamental level I know that he is so much more than those limited and limiting thoughts. Even when he can’t understand what I am trying to tell him about myself.
I cry all the time I am writing these words, it is hard to see the screen. If I write this book right people will say this at the end and mean it, “This breaks my heart.” But it can no longer be an awareness limited to “Oh, how could someone do that to an infant or a child.” It has to become, “We have to, we MUST find a way to prevent this.” We have to get together as a society, as a species, to make the world safe for our children, and we have to understand on what level and to what extent this safety lies. It is the water our body drinks, the food it is fed, the air that it breathes. We must all share the broken heart. Each much feel their own pain, feel one another’s pain, feel the newborn’s pain.
And if not safety, then danger – and danger changes everything, and changes it permanently and irreversibly. This must be related to what Demasio is saying, that there are only two emotions: danger and safety. I would refer to these as senses: a sense of danger or a sense of safety. Yet that is how we receive all of our information and stimuli, through our senses – through our bodies connected to our brains. Degrees of arousal come into the picture, certainly. But these two emotions must be the essences. On an essential level, we feel one, or we feel the other – degrees of one or the other. They are connected to our nervous system, in our nervous system, and establish how it operates. And it is in our primary earliest attachment relationship that these primary fundamental emotions operated and formed our brains so that we either got a safety brain or a danger brain – or degrees of either.
I do not know how to write a happy tale, a cheery, carefree, giddy tale. Yet who would want to read a story full of woe? Only those who live there still, who know that tale, who can tell it true from within themselves.
If a person was like a house, you could tear all the furnishings out, tear the wallpaper off, take the siding and the shingles, stripping the structure back to where you could tell how it was made. To see the foundation with the framing standing there, naked, the same as it was as the house was made.
It’s a hard job, to do this with oneself. We go along all grown up and add the things onto who we were when we first started out as if we have changed from the inside out. Yet going back, to remember who I am is to remember who I was when I first got made. From those early branches a tree has grown, thicker now, heavy roots and knarling trunk. Always trying to grow upright, but rooted below the ground where the seed was planted, where everything began.
How to frame this story? How to tell this tale? How to wind around the alders, laing footsteps in the oozing cold mud, slipping now and then into the deepened ruts of our family’s travels up the side of that wilderness mountain where now somebody else’s mansions stand.
Who will remember? Who can tell the stories of when time began, of how things were, of what was then so different from what must be today?
One cannot ignore the smell of rain that has fallen on the dry desert dirt. It is a smell that seems to rise from below my feet high into the air, over this rusty steel wall behind my house that separates these countries, the great US of A and Mexico. I ran to the door and flung it open to see the moist earth surrounding my house. Only it is still dry out there. The rain has fallen somewhere else and the scent of it has carried upon the winds to my house, but not the water. Not the precious water. It is still dry here.
I thought the rain would come to help me now as I enter the longest tunnel. I am afraid to enter. I am afraid to go back there. I am afraid the waters of all the tears I cried as a child will drown me now, and that water would be salty upon the earth. I am afraid it will wash me away.
2 thoughts on “**Different Brain”
Do you know the books of Alice Miller? There’s an Alice Miller website too.
Yes! What do you think of her work?