The Cure for PTSD Terror: you’re soaking in it

This post may trigger PTSD sufferers.

In our search for mental health care, we once sat in a Kern County, California, mental health clinic listening to a psychologist exclaim that our patient could not have PTSD because she had never served in the army.

In fact she had been conscripted at birth as all the rest of the family had, and our sergeant major was a bat-shit crazy man, known initially as daddy and later as grandfather. His sadist attacks were so traumatizing that we dared not reveal them even had we been able to remember. So it was that the patient had been repeatedly taken back to that house of torture by her mother, the author of this blog.

(To be fair, mother could not recall that her own life had almost ended when the b-s crazy man raped her as a child. And she has spent the last 30 years since b-s crazy man died and she did remember, in profound guilt and grief. But enough of personal angst.)

Suffice to say Dad could have given the North Koreans or even the CIA lessons in torture or a 2.0 course in mind control. He himself had rather an unpleasant death, which I describe at the end of my e-memoir, Never Tell, recovered memories of a daughter of the Temple Mater. joycehowe.com

That’s the back story as to why the patient developed suicidal impulses and then intractable insomnia. For most of her life, she was able to repress the trauma, going so far as to contend that the rest of us experienced it, but she didn’t. This was lucky, because by then we had put in years of dealing with it, worn out therapists and come to realize that terrifying as it is, the past is dead and gone.

As, by the way, were quite a few people outside the family, who encountered our very own psychopath. And, no, a million dollar police investigation, involving three police forces couldn’t prove that.

How to deal with such insomnia? Even the strongest drugs couldn’t put her to sleep for long. In one 5 day hospital stay, five other drugs were tried. The fifth one precipitated a heart attack. So we cast about for other methods.

Finally last April, I concluded she couldn’t sleep because she was afraid to dream.

At one point, she fled to Toronto and her loving mother’s arms. I would sit at her bedside until she fell asleep, sometimes for 90 minutes. It is a moving experience to sit in the dark beside someone you love as she does her best to sleep. Going to sleep for her isn’t easy, but it is easier than staying asleep. I wasn’t up to being there at 4 a.m. when she usually comes wide awake. Or 3 am or 2 am. Sometimes she doesn’t sleep at all, just lies in a semi-conscious state, which surprisingly can generate bad dreams.

While I was studying the NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) Treating Trauma Master Series , I came across the idea that therapists don’t do their clients any favours by trying to make them feel safe. That is a technique that Grandad and hosts of his fellow abusers use. Trying to make the trauma survivor relax is an immediate trigger – they want to run a mile.

Our patient came at the idea from a totally different angle. She watched a terrifying movie, went to bed late and slept like a baby.

We reached the conclusion that, instead of avoiding fear, she (we in fact) had to soak in it – like that Palmolive dish detergent commercial years ago where the woman is in the nail salon -“You’re soaking in it”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bEkq7JCbik

We are in the research phase. Our patient has spent the last several months reading about psychopathic serial killers and watching shows like The Mindhunters. The Mindhunters interview serial murders in prison in order to understand them. Patient reports that the single scariest scene so far was one in which the woman on the mindhunter team was at home in her apartment at night wearing only a long  man’s shirts and pouring herself a glass of wine at the kitchen counter. She was at the left of the shot. The right side showed the rest of the kitchen and hall, an empty floor. An absolutely terrifying space. Into which something could suddenly come. I myself found the next scene where she goes down to the building’s laundry – still dressed only in the shirt – and while the washer starts, hears a cat meowing outside the open basement window and decides to feed it her leftover tuna. I will not divulge what eventually comes through that window.

Who says recovering from PTSD can’t be fun?

I’ve always hated Hallowe’en and horror shows, but now I begin to see their value. We can’t evade our terror. It may be buried, but it’s there, so we might as well face it, embrace it as far as possible. We don’t need to defy it. We can acknowledge it and even say this is what made me who I am. We can say, ‘I have been to the edge of death more than once, but I can still permit myself to sleep’. At least six hours most nights.

And of course, we can refuse to put ourselves in real life situations with people that scare us.

See also https://115journals.com/2013/10/18/the-cure-for-pain/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janet and the Still Face: attachment theory

Janet was my mother-in-law. I knew her for 26 years from my 16th year to my 42nd. She passed on the same year that my marriage to her son ended. By then, she was 73 and suffering from advanced dementia. The Durant family reconstituted itself for a brief graveside ceremony in a Scarborough cemetery, 41 years ago, on a cold autumn day.

The central mystery of Janet was not why she had to rein in her dislike of me. Blake was her only child. I was beneath him. The central mystery was how could she send that child, age 5, across the Atlantic Ocean through the German u-boat fleet, for what turned out to be 5 years with a foster family in Canada.

Yes, the Nazis had bombed Middlesbrough. Yes, little Blake had watched an airman crash to his doom. Yes, she expected Hitler to land any minute and turn Blake into a junior brown shirt and steal his soul. Yes, it could be seen as an act of self-sacrifice. But I was never convinced. Or to put it another way, I could not imagine doing that even when I was 16. I had a 5-year-old brother. Once I had my own children, I was even more baffled.

Yet I admired the Jewish parents who put their children on a Kinder Train to the British Isles. And I reminded myself that I had not felt the terror of the English people in those early, unprepared days.

Then I fell heir to Janet’s diaries.

They were tiny little books, often labelled “gentleman’s diary”. They stretched from the 1920s to the early 70s, I think. I’m not sure because I threw them all away. Why did I perform such an act of desecration. It wasn’t because they were mostly a record of the weather on any given day or brief notes of meeting so and so for a film. It was because I looked up what she wrote on the day my daughter, her first grandchild, was born. Sandwiched between the weather and a note that she met Mable for lunch was a line that Blake had phoned to say that Joyce had had a girl. After she finished the entry, she went back and penciled in “proud grandparents” between the lines. The birth of my son, a year later, the only person who still carries on the family name, was even more innocuous.

The next thing I knew the tiny books, along with most of Blake’s photos, had vanished down the garbage chute.

I am already custodian of 146 large, thick, extremely detailed journals of my life and the Durant family’s. They may look as if they are written in ink, but they feel as if they were written in blood and tears. So sorry, Janet, no shelf space.

“Avoidant attachment” said my daughter, Janet’s first grandchild.

We had both, along with other family members been studying NICABM’s (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) Treating Trauma Series. Watching the video sessions and reading the transcripts, I began to see that today’s psychiatric theory sees personality development as inter-personal rather than individualistic and based on needs and drives as Freud and his heirs did. The key to mental health, this theory postulates, depends on secure attachment. An infant finds that her needs are answered by a responsive caretaker, who picks her up, attends to her needs and soothes her upset. In this way, the child learns how to self regulate and withstand stress.

Alternately, the caretaker, like my own mother, could respond with ‘What do you want now?’ I had colic. My tummy hurt. I cried. All the time. My father, who gets no other accolades for parenting, was the one who soothed me down, sleeping with his foot out of bed to rock my cradle whenever I started stirring awake. He also beamed at me like a lunatic, talked baby talk and generally didn’t take my hysteria seriously. That is how I came to experience ambivalent attachment.

There were other mothers in our small northern Appalachian community. Some, like my Aunt Mae were champions at secure attachment. My mother’s cousin Maude was another. Either one could take me off my mother’s hands and calm me down.

Experiments show that a mother with avoidant attachment may actually pick her baby up as often as a mother with secure attachment, but not in the same way. Instead of smiling and speaking in a reassuring way, the mother may have a still face. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0  This short video shows how the baby deregulates quickly in the face of that stony response. And quickly compensates when mom comes back to life.

No doubt my mother eventually moved on to ambivalent attachment once my colic improved as colic usually does as the baby matures. Sometimes she would engage and show warmth, but then again, she would be absent and distant. She had her own issues, even excluding the fact she was married to a psychopath, a baby-loving psychopath, but a scary dude nonetheless. (I can clearly remember being in her arms and hearing him threaten to murder her pa and her ma if she carried out her threat to go back to live with them.)

An upset baby for whatever reason – wet, hungry, in pain, scared, lonely – who is picked up and comforted, learns to regulate herself, to soothe herself and move back to equilibrium.

A young child with secure attachment can tolerate her mother’s absence, even though she will still react on her mom’s return in a way that indicates she was upset.

A baby with an attachment avoidant mother will eventually give up seeking consolation and will become a child who avoids attachment. No point crying. No point acting cute. Don’t need anyone anyway.

How surprised I was to discover I had married such a person! Here I thought we had a firmly bonded marriage and family. We shared a profession and even a workplace. We went on long car trips together, four people in a tiny car all over Europe. We sailed a 29-foot sailboat through hell and high water. Then suddenly, he was spending nights in someone else’s bed. He had cared enough to act as though he was attached to his two children, until he couldn’t. That fall, his mother – the founder of the feast – passed on.

I found a few pictures of her mother as I went through her son’s collection, a grim-faced English woman and no doubt there was another earlier grim-faced grandma. My own mother had a mother who hadn’t had great mothering even before her mother died young.

I had motherhood thrust upon me at an early age, by which I mean seven or eight. My first sibling needed a friendly face when I was that age. By the time, the second and third siblings arrived, I was getting the hang of it. Smile, sing, talk silly, get them the heck out of the kitchen when hell broke loose and it wasn’t clear which parent would survive. I had had that hill community and attached mothering from other mothers to draw on, but we had moved to town by the time the other three arrived. All they had was me. Oddly, they turned out well and one of them stayed married.

Blake was an only child in an industrial city with one grim grandma and another poverty-stricken grandmother with seven sons. Then he saw an airman crash to his death and got sent through Nazi u-boats to live with strangers.

Just before he died, he told me he was lucky to have had the love of good women. I did not say that there were certainly a lot of them. His choices went downhill as he aged and his last lady struck me as problematic for many reasons, not least of which was that she  slept on the couch for five years. Avoidant attachment.

We keep repeating those old patterns.