The Secret Epidemic of Complex Trauma
- By Aaron Mills
- 19 Dec, 2017
"Our brains are sculpted by early experience. Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes the brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds. Childhood abuse isn’t something you 'get over.' It is an evil that we must acknowledge and confront if we aim to do anything about the unchecked cycle of violence in this country." – Martin Teicher, M.D., PhD, Scientific American
Childhood plays a role in addiction, just as it plays a role in all future adult behavior. For good or ill, what happens to us when we are small will have a lasting impact. One in ten people reported to having been sworn at, insulted, or put down on a regular basis by a parent or another adult in their home. One in four people in the same adverse childhood experiences study said that they were regularly pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at them.
One third of women and nearly one fifth of men reported an adult tried to sexually abuse them at some point during their childhood.
Only one third of those in the study reported not having adverse experiences as a child. That is a staggering number. That implies two out of three of us had some form of abuse when we were very small.
Complex trauma destroys the self-image
Abused children seem to be disconnected from a sense of self, almost as thought hey could not recognize their own image in a mirror. Our sense of self develops out of thousands of small interactions with our caregivers when we are small. John Bowlby discovered the captivation children have to faces, tone of voice, expressions, meter and tempo of movement.
In many ways we gain our sense of self by the way we are treated by those who love us when we are young children. We know we have value, worth, and dignity because someone else communicates that we do through their words and actions.
"Our brains constantly form maps of the world. Maps of what is safe, what is dangerous." – Dr. Bessel var der Kolk
Perceptions are an interesting window into abuse. An abused boy looks at a picture of a family and tells a story about how he crushed his father under a car by kicking out the jack. An abused little girl explains that the child in the picture is about to smash her father's head with a hammer.
Little kids tell sexual tales from a photo of a pregnant woman. Images that are simple and innocent bring up emotions of anger, fear, aggression, sexual arousal, and absolute terror.
In this study of children, many were diagnosed with ADHD because of their disorganization, wrongly placed excitement, or in ability to focus.
The effect of a mother's touch
The way our mothers hold us as children helps our developing minds understand that the body is the place where they psyche lives. It is what makes a foundation for us to understand what is and what is not real.
When a mother is not capable of understanding the baby's physical reality, the child will discount their own responses and this makes them vulnerable to shutting down feedback from their bodies. This in turn affects their perception of pleasure, purpose, and direction.
Improper attachment to mom can lead to disorganized attachment. This means the child does not know if they should run to
their mother or away
from her. They are in a state of fear, but without a solution.
I think in our minds we can all imagine a television show where the police officers find an abused child in a closet. The child stares with a blank face, unsure if he should run to their new protector or run away from them. They do not know what safety looks like.
By kindergarten many disorganized children are either aggressive, checked out, or entirely disengaged. They go on to develop a range of psychiatric problems.
It is not only abuse that can cause disorganized attachment in babies. For instance the mothers from 9/11 with PTSD were six times more likely to have emotional problems. Sometimes after a trauma or death the parents of babies are incapable of offering emotional stability, comfort, and protection to their babies.
We still need attachment, even as adults
Human beings need attachment. This does not lessen or go away after our childhood. In fact people who are disconnected may even find other way to connect like lawsuits, illness, or feuds. Anything is better that being disconnected and not mattering. We need to be needed. We want to be wanted. Even being hated is better than being forgotten.
This is why emotional detachment as parents is so damaging in the long term.
Childhood sexual and physical abuse can predict self-inflicted harmful behavior. Abused people are far more likely to commit suicide, or to engage in cutting.
Loving a home where there is no love
Children exposed to torture and brutal abuse will almost always prefer to stay in that home rather than be placed into a foster care system. Wanting to cling to an abusive situation or relationship is not limited to children, though.
This loyalty to an abusive environment creates the rage of helplessness, despair, and endless feelings of loneliness. Whatever we suppress in one place will boil over into another. These feelings of anger and rage become self-directed. Self-hate and self-harm can follow.
Abuse can create physical changes in children
Events in our lives can trigger a process called methylation where extra information is added to the outside of one's genes. This allows genes to be turned on or off. These triggers can also be passed down to children through something called epigenetics.
In studied rats, a good mother rat who licks and cleans her pups will turn on and off over 1,000 different genes. This will have the effect of creating lower stress hormones and more intelligent rats.
Monkeys who were raised without parents would cling to their peers. They had short serotonin allels. In humans this condition is associated with sensation-seeking suicide attempts, severe depression and aggression. Those same monkeys also had increased cortisol levels, which is the hormone that causes stress.
How do we approach healing complex trauma?
The first approach is to re-connect with other people, to become aware of what is happening, and to process the memories of the trauma. The second approach is to use medication to shut down improper reactions and alarms. We can also use technology to affect the way the brain organizes information.
This can be coupled with experiences that contradict the message of the trauma. When we experience having value, being competent, and having success, it helps us establish a new better and more accurate sense of self.
Lastly, we must practice the social and emotional skills that trauma prevented us from developing. It is never to late to work on these skills and learn to be a more complete and fully developed person.
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break." – William Shakespeare
Choose not to be a victim for the rest of your life
None of us chose to be a victim of abuse in our childhood or at any point in life. But we can
choose to remain victims.
Addiction and trauma are closely related for many dealing with sobriety
. We can point back to trauma and say ____ happened to me and thus that is why I am the way I am, it is not enough.
Simply pointing to the cause and effect of our broken self-image and under-developed social perceptions is not going to heal us until we decide we do not want that trauma to rule over the rest of our lives. At some point we have to decide to decide. We must make an effort to correct the damage that has been done, so we can escape our victimized perception and grow into the complete, healed human beings we are capable of becoming.