Home > ambivalance, attachment theory, disassociation, Emotional regulation, healing, trauma > Why can’t the past just be the past? Part II

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.

  1. Mandy
    January 9, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Dear AG,

    I was so happy to receive an email in my inbox and to see you were writing again. I missed you! Thank you for sharing and writing so comprehensive. This blog regarding dissociation lands right at a time for me when I have finally ‘caught up’ with myself. That is, managed to stay present rather than dissociate. My therapist tells me that psycho-energetically my metabolism is incredibly fast (I have a hunch your is too – otherwise known as ‘intellectualising’ or ‘overthinking’ 😊😉). My ‘gap’ is the emotional embodied truth. Allowing and holding and integrating, effectively processing the truth of my reality as a child.

    I am getting there.

    I pray that you are blessed in 2017, and that light and healing come your way.

    Love

    Mandy

    Like

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:02 pm

      Mandy,
      Thanks for the warm welcome back, I hope that you also have light and healing this year. I love your description of catching up with yourself; that’s at the heart of healing, learning who we really are and being able to be present in our lives. Who me? Intellectualising? I have no idea what you could possibly be talking about? (Somewhere BN is laughing uproariously). The emotional embodied truth is exactly where we need to go to heal, how I hated that! I had always leaned so heavily on my intellect and experienced a lot of frustration that it was not all that pertinent to actually healing. And fwiw, I found things really picked up once I got the dissociation under control ~ AG

      Like

  2. Little Blond Girl
    January 9, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    So I read this and it made me cry. it just hit so close to home. there are so many ways in which I, for one, get triggered and ways in which the past impacts on my present life so fully that I don’t have a choice but to delve into it, to find ways to slowly approach things, to slowly face the fear. And they aren’t always things that would be easily linked back to trauma until you realize you have trauma and start working on it and that maybe things can get better, you can trust people, not everyone is a bear (as my brain tends to label them…with enough similiarities and all).

    so thanks AG, you speak so clearly to some of us….LBG

    Like

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:03 pm

      LBG,
      I wrote this post for you, for people who experience that slow, agonizing march into their pain. As if ANYONE would put themselves through this if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. And I agree, it can take some time to even connect the trauma, most of us start out thinking our past has nothing to do with what we’re experiencing now. I am glad to hear things are getting better for you, however slowly.

      AG

      Like

  3. Fullmoon
    January 9, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    AG
    I’m so glad you’re back! It’s as if an old friend contacted me.
    You’ve helped me navigate the last few years with your brilliance, so though I understood the much deserved and needed break I’m so grateful you are back!!
    Excellent response in highlighting the limits that are assigned and ultimately attempt to squash growth.
    Can’t go under it, can’t go over it, have to go through it…

    Like

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:03 pm

      Fullmoon,
      Thanks so much for the welcome back, it’s nice to know that you’ve found my writing so useful. It’s really good to be back. “Can’t go under it, can’t go over it, have to go through it…” LOL The perfect description, isn’t that from a children’s song? So many profound truths are so simple.

      AG

      Like

  4. January 9, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Once again, beautifully articulated, offering such a well-measured, insightful response. Also, it’s a very good way of describing dissociation. Many books use the “floating above my head” analogy which doesn’t register with me. And yes, it’s like an old friend checked in again. I want you as a character in my novel!

    Like

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:04 pm

      Alison,
      Thanks so much for the kind response. I really appreciate the “well-measured” as I tried very hard to allow for everyone’s experience. And I would get a massive kick out of being a character in a novel (although, I’d probably end of the villian. 😀 ) ~ AG

      Like

  5. MAC
    January 9, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    Perfect.

    Like

  6. rudid96
    January 9, 2017 at 9:10 pm

    I can’t say enough how thrilled I am that you’ve decided to resume your blog. I’ve missed your insights, explanations, and your humor. You’re a rare soul!! It was my good fortune to happen upon your Blog. It makes the PTSD more bearable. Thank you for so articulately responding to Barb’s comment. You said what’s in my gut but hasn’t found it’s way to words. Your response was so comprehensive & very respectful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:05 pm

      Rudi,
      Thanks so much for the warm welcome back, I am really overwhelmed by everyone’s responses. And I am so happy that reading here helps make things more bearable, that is my fondest wish when I send this writing out into the world. And I am so glad it came across as respectful, it was very much meant to be. I wanted to honor the experience some people have while not devaluing choosing another path to walk. ~ AG

      Like

  7. January 9, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    Hi AG,
    It’s Mayo from the other website. Yes, dear Girl, your description in it’s accuracy, made me cry; and your tone so caring and respectful. It is truly amazing how you can use your own pain to help so many others. THANK YOU.

    Like

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:05 pm

      Mayo,
      As if you’d have to tell me, silly girl! So good to hear from you! And you are very welcome. I so appreciate you walking alongside for so long. ~ AG

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Peach
    January 10, 2017 at 12:25 am

    Thank you AG, If only the past would stay in the past. I have spent the whole of my life wondering what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t really live. Your writing is always so clear, and your description of dissociation was especially helpful to me. There are so, so many ways in addition to dissociation that the past interferes! Thanks, Peach

    Like

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:06 pm

      Peach,
      A lot of us have spent too much of our lives wondering what was wrong with us. (There’s a reason my post on Disorganized Attachment is named “Why You Think You’re Crazy but Aren’t”) I struggled for many, many years with those feelings. I have written about it elsewhere (SURPRISE!) that one of the reasons learning about attachment theory helped so much was that it gave me a prism to view my wounds and my healing that did not require me to see myself as defective or broken, just deprived. I found so much hope for healing in that understanding. And you’re right there are many ways the past affects us, this was a thin sliver of a description. ~ AG

      Liked by 1 person

  9. skinnyhobbit
    January 10, 2017 at 6:09 am

    Thank you so much for your articulate posts because comments from people similar to Barb can be really hurtful at the current stage of my healing.

    I was one of those with split off and repressed memories, denied the memories which did exist… no awareness of my traumas and guess what… I was still affected….developed anxiety impairing my functioning at work (I struggled in school, had no friends etc), the only place I wasn’t worthless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 10, 2017 at 5:06 pm

      Skinnyhobbit,
      (I just really love your username!) I am so glad that I was able to answer your pain. I know there was a time where hearing that would have struck deep which is why I felt a need to answer. I very much relate to what you said about functioning at work. For years, I felt as if I were such a different person in my work life than I was in my personal. I finally connected that the only success and security I experienced as a child was outside of the home and I had carried that pattern with me. Thanks for taking the time to say this. ~ AG

      Liked by 1 person

      • skinnyhobbit
        January 10, 2017 at 7:55 pm

        I feel like my username describes me so well haha. 🙂

        Since I started working, I’ve found that I experienced victimisation (bullying, sexual harassment) also in my working life. However I felt better at work (bullying in a job is intermittent after all, even if it happens often, there’s still good moments) than home and liked barely seeing my family each work day. Then I got into a decent job and realised what normal, non bullying coworker relationships are like even on a very casual and superficial level.
        (I’m still young, under 30, so only have had about 7 years working experience)

        The difference from home is quite significant. My father would start saying “is that how you talk to your bosses?” And I would be able to reply that my current boss didn’t tear me down like my father did verbally – because my current boss really didn’t. (I used to work in jobs where cursing staff out and yelling is normal)

        (my therapist says my parents were abusive physically and emotionally, and still are emotionally)

        Like

  10. Stacey
    January 15, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    Welcome back AG! It’s so good to read your wise, insightful words again. I haven’t often commented but your blog always/really resonated with me. I wish I could give you a hug! You hit the nail on the head with your explanations on disassociation – well, at least as I experience it… It’s so good to know that I am not the only one…and that it is possible to heal 🙂

    Like

    • January 16, 2017 at 5:23 pm

      Hi Stacy,
      Thanks for the welcome back! I’m really glad what I wrote resonated with you. Dissociation can be so difficult to describe that I never really feel like I’m getting it “right.” I’m even more glad you found hope! ~ AG

      Like

  11. Robin
    January 15, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    How wonderful to see you back. I’m so glad you took some time to take care of yourself some.

    Your writing is just incredible. It’s very “intelligent” yet written in a way that easily resonates.

    I used to be one of those people that thought “well, when people are adults, why don’t they just move past (whatever) from childhood”. Well, it wasn’t just move past, but if that wasn’t possible, address it.

    Then things fell apart for me as an adult when I lost someone close to me. That was a perfect opportunity (apparently) for all kinds of things to surface. Things I wouldn’t have even known to address until I went through therapy and saw how “split off” I was.

    I’m convinced that unless one is educated in psych/counseling, the only way to “get it” is to feel it first hand. This whole experience has taught me to judge a lot less and try to understand people a whole lot more.

    Thank you for sharing your life with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 16, 2017 at 5:28 pm

      Hi Robin,
      Thanks so much for the warm welcome! It’s good to hear from you. Full confession, I used to be one of those people too. 🙂 What had happened to me was “normal” not to mention a long time ago, so why would it possibly still be affecting me. This was greatly helped by the fact that I remembered so little of what happened. And you’re also right that it’s difficult to understand if you haven’t lived through it. Which is why I try to address this so carefully, I know there is rarely any malice on the part of the person asking the question, but I also know how it can hurt to not have this pain and need to heal understood. ~ AG

      Like

  12. Ann
    January 17, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    AG, You came back just in time! I am glad you got your much needed break.
    This came at the perfect time for me. I have two elderly parents (88 and 91)- both narcissists. As the only (and oldest) female of five, I was the most aware and also the scapegoat. Fast forward to now-I am 60, my dad is physically disabled with dementia and my mom is in denial, because the situation doesn’t fit her fantasy. As a result, my dad has been put in unsafe and uncomfortable positions. I have had to run interference and am having a hard time with boundaries.
    How do you deal with a mom who has left her dementia husband alone for three hours without telling someone? (Unsafe). Her response was she was embarrassed being caught out-instead of realizing he was unsafe. How can you cope watching your dad crying that he is afraid and your mom walk out of the room? It rips my heart. I am practicing everything I have learned in therapy, but at times I begin to dissociate when she mistreats me.
    I am glad I am not alone and am thankful just to read your blog. One day it will pass, but becoming an adult does not mean abuse does not end! Missed you💕💕💕 Ann

    Like

    • January 18, 2017 at 9:58 pm

      ((((Ann)))) It is SO good to hear from you, I have missed you! I’m so sorry for what you’re going through with your parents. In many ways, my mother cutting me off has been a blessing in disguise, as I have not had to face taking care of a parent who never took care of me. I want to remind you of a few things I know you already know but that I suspect would be good to hear! With our background, we tend to focus on other people needs at the expense of our own, since we had to focus outward to protect ourselves. So I guarantee you that if you do something wrong in this situation it is NOT going to consist of doing too little. You’re going to take on too much. Yes, you are the oldest and the only female, but you still have four siblings who need to take their share of the burden. You also cannot fix your parents even if you wanted to. The truth is that when we reach the twilight of our years, all ability to hide what we are is stripped from us at the same time that we usually reap what we sow. I do not doubt that it is heartbreaking to watch your dad cry, but I have to ask. How many times has he turned away from your pain? If things were reversed would he be treating your mother any better? There is a terrible grief in facing and accepting who our parents are. So… bottom line, you can decide what you want to do in order to be the person you wish to be and then beyond that, nothing. You do not owe it to anyone to drain yourself dry and you cannot take on anyone else’s feelings. You’re only responsible for your own. And I certainly understand you dissociating with your mother but also remember that you are no longer a powerless child. If she mistreats you, leave. Draw strong boundaries and enforce them as well as you can. Have your ever read Captain Awkward’s blog? She does an amazing job delineating what good boundaries look like, especially with difficult family members, including scripts for setting boundaries. I think you would find it really useful in your present circumstances. Take good care of yourself!! xx AG

      Like

  13. January 20, 2017 at 1:37 am

    Thank you AG. You have been incredibly instrumental in my healing via your blog, vulnerability, honesty and your unique ability to put into words all the mumble jumble in my head. Your insight has given me insight. I would not be this far along in my journey had it not been for the ability to read your experiences, which fortunately for me and many others occurred before mine. The past is finding its rightful place in the past and I am moving onward to the life I so richly deserve. Thank you for unknowingly helping guide the way

    Like

  14. February 11, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    Thank you AG! This was very well said! If only it was as easy as forgetting, we’d all love if we could do that! Unfortunately abuse doesn’t work like that though! Thank you for articulating all this and being brave enough to put it out there! xxx

    Like

  15. February 23, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    Dear AG.

    Beautiful and thoughtful as always. While I have missed reading your insights, I am pleased to hear that you are taking care of yourself.

    I especially appreciate the part of this post about attachment. It is always a struggle for me to accept and deal with, a source of constant frustration. But I loved your description and I am hoping to share with others as it describes perfectly what I often fail to be able to wrap my brain around, let alone describe in words!

    Pink

    Like

    • February 28, 2017 at 6:38 pm

      Pinkmom,
      Good to hear from you. I am glad that you liked the post. Thanks for your understanding about my absence. Gosh, struggling to accept attachment and not be frustrated? I have no idea what you’re talking about. BWWAAAAHHAAAAA. Sorry, couldn’t keep a straight face. I went kicking and screaming every step of the way. You’re not alone, trust me. I am glad that this provided some clarity around your experience.

      AG

      Like

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