Why can’t the past just be the past? Part II
This is the second of a two part series. For Part I, see Why can’t the past just be the past?
Barb commented: While I respect so much about what you say
Isn’t doesn’t it get a point to where what’s done is done – forgive and forget what can’t be changed and not keep bringing up old hurts over and over? Not saying anyone should deliberately say that it’s easy to just get over. But it can often be worse for some people to constantly bring up old hurts, thinking about it, as well. if one feels the need to speak about it, get things off chest fine. But even then they should do it on “their” time when they are ready. Alls I’m saying is this whole language of “dissociation” and what it “is” can be totally confusing to so many. Go read blogs.
Sometimes we think too much instead of doing what’s natural to us. As long as it’s not hurting you or others who cares? Plus, no one can seem to list an actual relatable common sense example of how not always being deeply focused effects you in ways, instead of confusing people into thinking they have something wrong with them because they may daydream, or relax watching TV, or look in their phone, or simply choose to not focus on their painful problems too much. And Heck most people who “get in the zone” can do good things too.
Barb, as I said earlier, welcome to my blog. I truly do appreciate you commenting. It is always an honor that someone would take the time to read my writing and then even more time to respond to it. I also am certain that your post was a honest one, and meant to be helpful. I do not mean to put you on the spot by doing this, but there was a lot in your comment that I have seen said many times in many places so it provided a great opportunity to address those issues. I hope you will feel comfortable commenting on this post if you have more to say.
The first thing I want to address is something that also appears on my About page. Every person is a unique individual, and therefore, has their own unique path to healing. What is important for one person may not even be necessary for another. Yes, there tend to be broad patterns associated with different types of problems, but how it plays out and affects an individual is going to be unique to them. I do not think that the only way to heal is how I did so, nor do I believe what I did would be effective or necessary for everyone. I even realize that BN, while being, in my opinion, a skilled and gifted therapist, would not be the best therapist for everyone. I am blessed, in that he is the right one for me. So what I share here is my story and the principles I believe I have learned while healing. I share in the hope that other people may find what I say to be helpful in their own journey. I am under no illusion that I have all the answers. So I want to freely express that I am sure that there are people, even with significant injuries, who would not benefit from therapy and digging into their past. The pain of doing so might not be worth it to them (and as I have stated on many occasions I have no right, nor wish, to make that choice for someone else). They may not have the time or money to expend to make it worth the return. Their past may not interfere too severely in their present life. So no, there is no requirement to do this work or go so deep. So the rest of what I am going to say really applies to people who cannot do without this work and still lead a fulfilling life.
Isn’t doesn’t it get a point to where what’s done is done – forgive and forget what can’t be changed and not keep bringing up old hurts over and over?”
If forgetting were possible, if the past stayed in the past and did not affect someone in the present, this would be a very reasonable attitude. People who did not face long-term childhood trauma can have a very difficult time comprehending how deep and widespread the damage is; for most victims of long term childhood trauma, the past lies uneasily at best. These buried memories of the past are not those that have been processed and integrated into their sense of self. They are split off, buried and unprocessed. Raw material so to speak. They are buried because when the events happened there were no resources in place to be able to process them and integrate them, so rather than be overwhelmed, our desperate need for survival stored these memories in a different part of our brain. When we remember them, they do not come back at an emotional distance and we remember feeling scared, or alone or ashamed. No, they come back with the immediacy of present experience. We feel scared, we feel alone, we feel ashamed and even worse, we again experience the terror that these feelings will destroy us.
Which all sounds like a really good reason to leave them alone, doesn’t it? But that is based on the assumption that what is not conscious does not affect us. We can not risk remembering, because of the terror of annihilation, so unconsciously we avoid anything that might remind us strongly enough to wake these sleeping demons. And unfortunately, because our caregivers are such an intimate part of shaping who we are, truly basic experiences need to be avoided. Acknowledging needs, expressing needs, moving closer in relationship to get our needs met, trusting and relying on other people, seeing ourselves as worthwhile. This isn’t a matter of feeling bad we couldn’t be a ballerina, this is interference in the basic tasks of being a human being and living a full life. We live in a cage of our own devising, afraid to move lest we run into this buried pain. It’s no way to live. So the point is not to just bring up old hurts, over and over again. (That’s actually just a way of re-traumatizing ourselves), but to allow the hurts to emerge, to be heard, to be understood, to be grieved, so that they can be integrated into who we are and finally put in the past where they belong, instead of an unquiet, alien entity threatening us from within. Often for people with long term trauma, these memories will continue to press us throughout our lives until we give them the attention they deserve to make up for the fact that we did not get the attention we deserved when we needed it. And we need a therapist because part of healing is having someone there, focused on our needs, helping us bear and regulate these overwhelming feelings. We are social creatures and need other people. It’s not enough to just speak the facts, we need to also allow ourselves to feel. And for some of us, that is too daunting a task to face alone. Besides, we already tried that once and it didn’t go well. It’s how we ended up in therapy.
Plus, no one can seem to list an actual relatable common sense example of how not always being deeply focused effects you in ways, instead of confusing people into thinking they have something wrong with them because they may daydream, or relax watching TV, or look in their phone, or simply choose to not focus on their painful problems too much.
There is nothing wrong with not always being deeply focused. Honestly, I think you’d be hard pressed to find very many human beings, if any, who are always deeply focused. An important part of self care is to allow ourselves to relax, and daydream and do things which refresh us. Even when someone is in therapy focusing on healing, I think it is good to occasionally step away. I also do not see the things you are listing as dissociative behaviors. Distracting at times, yes and I am sure that some people can use them as an aid in not being present (I say that because I can use playing games on my phone very effectively to avoid feeling or thinking or being present), but that does not mean there is anything inherently wrong, or even negative, in those activities. I am not, and have not at any time, insisted that someone should go to therapy who is comfortable with how they’re spending their time and how their life is going. It’s the people who are not happy and for whom this kind of distraction is not a choice, but necessary, for which I am writing.
Dissociation is an unconscious defense mechanism. Yes, everyone is dissociative to some extent. Who hasn’t driven a familiar route, only to arrive at their destination and think “How did I get here?” Dissociation is a spectrum and most everyone shows up on the mild end. The level of dissociation I am addressing is much further along the spectrum. It is a learned defense in response to the threat of annihilation. Circumstances were too much, and no one was there to help, so a child just “leaves.” This protects them in the moment, but it also deprives them of a chance to learn how to handle their own feelings. Have this happen often enough and early enough, and it becomes an unconscious reaction when the sense of threat hits a certain level. When a person feels threatened in any way,with the emphasis on feels, they “leave.” This can take many different forms for different people. For some people, it’s feeling fuzzy and disconnected. For some, it’s as if they can see and hear what is going on but cannot take it in or understand it. Some people describe floating above and observing themselves from a distance. Being numb. Your brain is knocked off line, for lack of a better description.
And it’s not a choice they are making, such as turning on the TV wanting to veg out a bit, or picking up their phone to relax. It’s a hijack of yourself and usually blindsides you at the most inconvenient moments. Dissociation is driven by implicit memories. So even innocuous things, if associated with hurtful things in the past, can trigger a sense of danger and going offline. An example from my own life of how this can have a negative effect. I was sexually abused by my dad, so you can get why lying on my back, having things inserted into my vagina, and even causing pain (uterine biopsy), done by a man could be triggering, right? It doesn’t matter that I understand a doctor is helping me, not hurting me; that he is safe and not dangerous. The parts of my brain that recognize danger are not very sophisticated. There’s a checklist and if enough things match up, a signal flare goes up. The differences are ignored, it is only the similarities which register. And that part of our brain has deep override privileges; it does not care if you are happy, just that you survive.
Early on in my life, whether I wanted to or not, it was difficult if not impossible to stay present during a gynecological exam. Not being able to be present would often lead to my coming across as either an idiot or really difficult to deal with, which layered shame on top of the shame welling up associated with the memories. Before I remembered the abuse, or learned what dissociation was or that I did it, there was NO context or reasons for these reactions. I really thought something was defective in me. So you start avoiding getting those exams because who wants that stress? Or to feel utterly crazy? I have dealt with my memories and dissociation enough at this point (I very rarely do so any more), that I am able to keep up with all my exams and tests (although it still takes effort to manage). But I know many women whom find it so uncomfortable and disconcerting that they go without routine health care. Which can become dangerous as you get older, and more frequent exams are needed to catch disease in it’s early stages. Again, the measure of someone needing to deal with this is, in their opinion, how much is dissociation interfering with things they wish to do but are incapable of doing?
And don’t get me started on trying to parent when your kids’ behavior leads to you checking out when you least should. It’s how we pass the damage along.
Barb, I do not necessarily mean this as applying to you, after all I know nothing about you beyond this comment, but in my experience there are two types of people who reduce these issues to “Hey, can’t we just forget about it? What’s the big deal?”
The first is someone who has not been injured deeply enough to understand how far reaching the affects of abuse can be. The function of attachment during development is to be a taken-for-granted, not noticed, background in which a child explores, and learns, and grows, never doubting someone is there to attend to them. It’s such a bedrock that a person is not even aware that it’s a bedrock. It’s part of reality, part of how things are. That is how deeply integrated that security is into our sense of selves if we have “good enough” parents. So setbacks, even the difficult ones, are seen as something temporary and outside of ourselves. It is close to impossible, without a huge amount of work and experience, to comprehend the depth of pain and the hardship created in even simple tasks that not having that causes. When something goes awry it evokes overwhelming and terrifying feelings of abandonment and shame and feeling defective, with no sense of an ability to face or handle the circumstances. You were never taught how to. The literal physical freezing that can take place. The absence of any sense of worth, or even sometimes self. So the length of time and energy it takes to heal looks incredibly excessive. It’s as if a person is being told about the Grand Canyon, but the only thing they have to compare it to is a hole dug by a small dog. So their reaction is “just throw a little bit of dirt in it or step over it,” which isn’t going to come close to solving the problem of the Grand Canyon.
The second type of person is someone who carries split off, repressed or denied memories and pain who does not wish to disturb them. People who stop to look and focus on these issues and examine their pasts are experienced as threatening, because if there is a real need to examine this stuff, how do they get out of it? They get out of it by insisting it’s not necessary and the rest of us are overreacting. Oh, that it were true.
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