Echoes of Abuse

Through working with myself and many others, I have come to a theory that helps me to better come to terms with how pain shapes our lives.

Developmentally, in broad strokes, the first ten or so years of our lives are spent trying to “size up,” get a sense of what the world is that we have been born in to. We are trying out our “earth suits”. If you’ve ever watched an infant getting used to being in the confines of skin, you’ll understand.

But we are also coming to terms with the nature of the world around us. What is this world, and who are we in it?

They say that the “power of reason” takes root some time around our tenth year, when we begin to fully realize that we are a separate entity and that the actions we take have consequences. We appear to not know this very well intellectually before this time.

The consequences of our actions  can roughly be translated as what happens when we express ourselves as we want to in the moment. We do something, act a certain way, use certain words and then something happens to either encourage or discourage our repeating it.

Based on the dominant experiences we have, essentially how adults treat us around certain behaviors, we begin to make decisions about “This is what the world is. This is what my life is in relation to others. This is how things go when I let myself be that.” This filter, or mode of interpretation of our experience, persists throughout our lives.

In terms of my own experience with nuns, by the age of 6 my childish mind understood that women were unpredictable, violent and dangerous. At any time, my body was theirs, they could take it, harm it and not suffer any consequences. They were the embodiment of power and it really didn’t matter if I knew it was abusive, that is what power was all about. Compared to the female nuns, the male priests were without life and impotent.

The process of living, of course, exposed me to other types of women. I learned as I matured that there was a huge difference, even a core sickness to nuns that “real” women did not share. But still, those negative impressions of what is the essence of woman lingered.

Often, without knowing it, when placed in a situation with a powerful woman, my body would have to “adjust” as I internally assessed the level of danger that I was really in, or the amount of safety I could count on.

The point I’m trying to make is that many of these experiences were seen unconsciously first through the filter of the past. Oftentimes we have to work that much harder to see or experience what is really in front of us.

To give an illustration, let’s use anger. Have you ever been in a situation where, without understanding why, a few words said a certain way make you furious and you have to calm yourself down before you can really respond appropriately? The roots of that are often the perceptions of your six year old overriding what is in the Now.

For children who grow up in a largely safe and supportive environment, the most important understanding that guides their actions the rest of their lives is that the world is, at least, something flexible upon which they can have an effect.

They may not get everything they want, but they can ask without fear of derision or retaliation. They are more akin to growing up with the tree’s innate awareness that bending with, rather than fighting against or protecting from, assures longevity.

For those of us who have been more traumatized, however, the understanding of what life is is considerably different. The biggest stumbling blocks of my life have followed the theme of, without my recognizing it, treating the world and its people as if I were still in my childhood.  In that way, the world I knew as a six year old–a world full of fear, self-protection, solitude, distrust, and chaos– became the world I was living in.

As I work with others–and continue to work with myself–I see the biggest challenge is in experiencing what is, rather than reacting to what was and passed long ago. Back then, there were only a few actions that could be taken to avoid trauma. The trick is to recognize there are many more options today.

The reason for this being such a difficult thing to shake is that, at the time, our very survival depended upon our working with that world as we knew it. Our behaviors were not guided by exploration or risk taking, they were guided by the best means of protection we could figure to forestall being harmed. When this happens, the only response is that.

There was no other world at the time. If we took the chance to gamble on there being a different type of world, chances are, at the age of six or so, we would be violently thrust right back into the world we originally feared!

A continuous cycle of reinforcement ensues. Once the outward circumstances change, as in getting old enough to move out of the abusive situation, there is a tendency to continue to seek out that which we know so well.

The impression of that threatening world got in largely non-verbally and viscerally, and without rational explanation. Our rate of recovery is proportional to the amount of time that we spend in a different, more safe and supportive world. But we DO have to impose a different awareness on our experience.

The glitch here is the innate desire to duplicate the familiar. There is not a one of us who has not been able to find a shred of security within the context of the traumatic worlds that we have been born into.

Even what others would describe as horrors are often interpreted as sources of love. In my case, for example, there was a part of me that didn’t feel loved until I got into a verbally violent argument with a woman in my life and then I was able to “soften” her.  To have that familiar experience of love, I sure had to start a lot of arguments!

Pain was what I understood as the gateway to love. There was no other, until I learned, by repeated exposure, that there is. And that takes time.


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