Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Trauma Tiger: Part Two. The bully with the breastplate on.

Shame is like armor. And not that invincible spider-thread Kevlar kind of armor that could take an infrared missile to the chest and keep going. We're talking medieval armor, made out of lead, that's hot, hard-edged and heavy. It weighs you down. You try to trot around on your horse fending off invading enemies, but you just jangle crazily like your bangle-wearing grandmother driving a tank through a construction site. And your horse looks up at you with that "Dear Mother of Mercy why?" look only horses can have. 

Shame tells you it's protective. It's realism. It's clear-eyed acceptance of the sad, inevitable truth. Acceptance that will keep you ready for doom, so you're prepared. But shame is really fear. Fear pretending it's not, like that biggish kid at school who cries when his father yells at him so beats up everyone else at lunch. He's afraid to admit he's afraid, but he can't just poof! his fears away the way he wants, so instead he protests that all his fears aren't fear at all, but truth. And then he smacks you around with this "honesty": You are not afraid that you're bad. You are bad. You are not afraid of why you've been hurt. You deserve it. You are not afraid of why you've failed. You're a looser. You are not afraid of why your parents treat you the way they do. You are worthless.

Shame is fear of fear, and it cements your fears into your worldview. This kind of fear that mutates into these twisted craggy Slip-'n-Slides of self-disgust often stems from trauma, from entrenched addictions that frazzle our neural receptors, or from mental illnesses that can warp our perspectives like some cosmic string theory event. 

In Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (see Trauma Tiger: Part One for kicks), Peter Levine offers a good metaphor:
"When confronted with a life-threatening situation, our rational brains may become confused and override our instinctive impulses.... [It's] similar to what occurs in your car if you floor the accelerator and stomp on the brake simultaneously. The difference between the inner racing of the nervous system (engine) and the outer immobility (brake) of the body creates a forceful turbulence inside the body similar to a tornado."
So basically the "Oh my sweet carrot sticks! I'm going to die!" trauma energy gets stuck inside us and spins into a neutron bomb of terror that can't easily be "faced and conquered" without a hearty dose of Clozapine.

Addiction and mental illness are pretty much the same. Years of active addiction can reprogram the brain into thinking it's essentially gone without water for a week and a half when the abused substance is withdrawn. Addiction can also tangle emotional responses into hyper-sensitive feedback loops that spout upward into traumatically tumultuous torrents of anger or ecstasy before crashing into deep waves of depression or apathy. Likewise mental illnesses can trick sufferers into thinking they're on the brink of death every day.

The sad part is we're actually supposed to feel this way, kinda. Hear me out. Hypothetically we should be allowing ourselves to break down into these sobby panic-stricken states of universe-ending terror, so the energy creating them can flow out of our systems. This is the "not stomping on the brake" part of the process.  But we have a really hard time doing this in a way that releases control. Queue Levine:
"Many war veterans and victims of rape know this scenario only too well. They may spend months or even years talking about their experiences, reliving them, expressing their anger, fear, and sorrow, but without passing through the primitive 'immobility responses' and releasing the traumatic residual energy, they will often remain stuck in the traumatic maze and continue to experience distress."
Basically, even if we want to work through it, we want to do it with our talking, reasoning, big-kid helmets on. And if perchance we let ourselves slip over the edge into the quaking vulnerability quivering under our shielding, we get self-judgy. Al la Levine, we "tend to judge this instinctive surrender in the face of overwhelming threat as a weakness tantamount to cowardice."

And there's your shame. Fear of fear. The armor that keeps you pinned to the floor under a hot iron plate of histrionic self-loathing. And underneath it all is an adorably biggish kid who just needs to collapse.


  1. I think that addiction and mental health treatment defiantly go together. I really liked the quote you put up "Many war veterans and victims of rape know this scenario only too well ..."

    So true! Great post

  2. Hi Roger ~ Thank you very much. I know I would not have freedom nor joy without all the gifts of the mental health profession. Thanks for reading. Be blessed ~ The Curator


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