Looking at the neurobiology
Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score is a harrowing read and I did skip quite a lot of it because I don’t read quickly and a lot of the material is about helping with the clients’ horrific conscious memories of the trauma suffered.
There are plenty of memories that make me wince, but now, in this new way of looking, they are secondary to the original pattern laid down when the brain was still preconscious. At that stage I was mainly what Jeremy Lent calls ‘animate intelligence’, which we share with all living things. Basically, it boils down to feelings.
Jeremy Lent’s book had explained that I am not a unified entity. Neuroscientists now think of the self as a society of different minds with different levels of maturity, like a family, which is a perfectly good metaphor and is the basis for a form of therapy called internal family systems therapy (IFS).
So it’s perfectly reasonable for me to see this tiny, preconscious newborn as a very real part of me and my project now is to be kind to her.
Let’s call her the Trout, cos that’s what my mother’s mother called me. A trout in a fish basket. Well, it’s a word.
Thinking about it, there seem to be two different aspects to the Trout. I’ve been sort of assuming that the howling and the sadness are just different degrees of the same thing, grief I suppose. But the sadness (call it Trout S) drains energy out of me, whereas the howling (call it Trout H) has a lot of energy behind it and is the one that does the most damage in interpersonal encounters.
Hope for the future
I can see now how trauma cascades through communities, and there is hope in van der Kolk’s epilogue where he talks about working in the US with schools on new ways of dealing with disruptive children – to listen to them, take them seriously, and give them choices and safe space if they get upset. That should help to nip a lot of unpleasantness in the bud before they go out into the world. As van der Kolk puts it, we are becoming a ‘trauma-conscious society’.
So what next?
I can now ‘own’ the feelings when they crop up because I’ve discovered the source. In this I have two things to be grateful for: 1) that I only have to manage the residue, not the memory of the episode itself, and 2) that I was told the story, albeit in snippets, because if I hadn’t been told I would never have guessed.
I can also extend gratitude to the woodturning club for bringing Trout H into my awareness.
So the strategy now is to find ways to be kind to the patterns that were laid down.
Taiji or yoga maybe?
People say try yoga, or qigong/taijiquan. Van der Kolk has a section on yoga and also uses qigong techniques.
But he also mentions that the trauma imprint involves the vagus nerve, which has been hitting headlines in places like the New Scientist lately. Qigong and yoga work on freeing up the vagus nerve, and trauma patients find that this can bring it all back, because it triggers the fight-or-flight response.
And indeed that is what I found. Taiji practice, which I’ve been doing on and off for 45 years, often makes me want to cry. And now I know why. When it comes to pursuing the ‘internal arts’ I have to tread carefully around the vagus nerve.
So, while I shall return to taiji and qigong classes when my sabbatical is over, I’m doing a bit of isometric strength building, which carries no threat to Trout S.
The BROH trick
Trout S has had a lot of help over the years from the BROH trick (see the main menu above) which I wrote back in 2000. It’s a case of remembering it’s just the Brain Running Old Habits, and it shortcuts a lot of the ruminating.
There are, of course, things to be sad about. Some of them, obviously, are beyond my control, but some have coalesced into a pattern, a sort of ‘oh no not again’ and these need to be addressed somehow. However, I’ll work on that when Trout S herself feels properly cared for (by me).
Trout H is a tougher nut to crack. The new therapies, it seems, are enabling new narratives to be formed around the traumatic situation. Not that van der Kolk says so exactly, but it’s almost as if the accuracy of the new narrative is secondary to the relief it brings.
So, like I said at the beginning, the project is to find a narrative that fits well enough and to internalise it.
Trout H is full of words, and so it’s much more a case of dealing with the residue, all the misunderstandings that have haunted me for so long and, it seems, still happen. It is charitable enough to put nearly all of it down to misunderstanding. That can include what a friend referred to as a ‘visceral dislike’ that people can feel about an autistic like me. We all know the feeling of disliking someone on sight. The gut instinct is not always reliable. And the original trauma was a misunderstanding. It could not possibly have been deliberate. I was the wrong gender, but that doesn’t account for it. I haven’t been haunted by resentment about that.
When it comes down to it, the people I blame, and hate with a passion, are the people who should have known better. The worst ever were the therapists I tried, and the faith-based groups. I can blame them easily enough and feel no shame about that.
That’s it for therapising for now. It brings all the bad memories back. I feel the need for more ontology.
Back to Jeremy Lent and his Web of Meaning. In particular, the understanding that we share what he calls ‘animate intelligence’ with all living things, including plants, but we also have the conceptual, purposeful consciousness, which I now understand is not a single entity but a ‘family’ of different patterns, or ‘natural attractors’.
With that reminder to hand, I’ll now look at something that dovetails very well but is also quite different.
Next stop: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta, 2019.
When Trout S meeps, I can tell her, in words, that it’s OK, it’s over now, and give her a mental cuddle. Get to the point where she can cope with the vagus nerve. No big hurry. Give her time to find an honoured place in the cortex.
Trout H is fierce and it will be good to have her on my side. I’ll have to persuade (if that’s the word) her that it was all a series of misunderstandings. We just have to express ourselves better.
But I’m reserving judgment on some of the situations and people that have hurt me. Balance here, balance there. Not all howling is inappropriate. But, like truth, it has to be expressed in the right place.
I can start to see at least a part of myself as an adult at last. The Trout is honoured but hopefully soon not in charge any more.