Posts Tagged ‘Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma’

Earlier this month I read about the suicide death of Aaron Swartz, a beloved computer prodigy involved with developing Reddit and RSS internet feed technology. Swartz believed that “information wanted to be free,” so he went about doing his best to liberate it.

He “illegally” downloaded nearly 5 million articles from JSTOR – the national research repository housing research paid for with public money. The Government arrested Aaron and elected to prosecute him all over again (they lost an earlier prosecution from a previous similar foray). This second event apparently proved too much for his heart and his brain – Aaron reportedly hung himself rather than face the possibility of spending 35 years in a federal penitentiary.

Healing’s Always Trying to Happen

Aaron Swartz1986-2013

Aaron Swartz

I don’t know much about Aaron’s life history, other than he periodically suffered episodes of depression. Depression, by many accounts, mostly results from the brain’s and body’s reduced flow of energy and information. In my own experience it resulted mostly from never learning the extraordinary disadvantages of life lived through the noise of the mind, especially the thoughts generated mostly in the bully left hemisphere.

In every moment of my life when I’ve been depressed, I’ve had enough to eat. I wasn’t overly affected by the surrounding air temperature – feeling too hot or too cold. I wasn’t in physical pain. I had plenty of air to breathe and water to drink. In other words, in every moment when I was feeling depressed, everything was basically all right.

Except for the thoughts running through my mind. Or not running through as the case might be. And how they up-regulate or down-regulate the flow of energy and information in my brain. Something thoughts profoundly do.

I can readily imagine the thoughts running through Aaron’s mind: “I’m not going to be able to survive 35 years in prison. Horrible things happen to people like me in there. Day after unfree day of fear and boredom hanging around … convicts, murderers, rapists and drug addicts.”

Those exact thoughts may not have been emerging in Aaron’s brain, but whatever his actual thoughts were, I’d be willing to bet they played a significant part in his death.

A Brilliant Emotional Dunderhead

As a result of the left hemisphere being held in reserve for the later development of language when that particular neurological window is wide open (18-24 months), all the anxious, poopy, scary experiences children have before they acquire language get stored in the right hemisphere. That becomes the lifelong trauma default repository. Memories lurking in there are called The Unthought Known – memories with no words connected to them, only images and bodily sensations. I think of them as zombie memories.

highwaymulti-car-pile-up-multiple-vehicle-collision Zombie memories present a dilemma for the brain. Such memories are often made up of excitatory neurons ready and willing to fire wildly. Only they now likely find themselves cordoned off from the larger network by their counterpart – inhibitory neurons. To keep those memory-holding brain cells cordoned off forever would be like never clearing a multi-car pileup from Interstate 80. An important and valuable cross-country flow path would be compromised for an extended period. Those neurons are programmed to want to come back online, to reconnect back into the larger network – I call this “healing wanting to happen.”

The brain appears to come to full flower sometime around the middle 20s. Aaron was 26 when he died. What was the emotional climate he found himself in for many of the years preceding? How literally “together” were the connections in the right, emotional hemisphere? How much time did he spend before his mid-twenties hanging out predominantly in the world of the left hemisphere hard at work with the sharp edges of intellect and the rough edges of reason? Hard to tell, but such time spent far away from the emotional repository of traumatic memories stored in the right hemisphere of the brain could certainly be a factor in his death. Without repeated early exposure and lots of opportunities for practice with them, afflictive emotions can highjack and overwhelm human consciousness anywhere along the road.

Recapitulation Without Resolution

Neurologist Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet the French neurologist first recognized the psychological phenomenon they named “the compulsion to repeat the trauma.” To my way of thinking though, it’s not a compulsion to simply repeat. The compulsion is to try and heal the trauma. We could call my body going to work to heal the finger I severely cut last August a compulsion to heal the trauma. Why should healing the brain be any less “compulsive”?

My account is all speculation, of course, but I’m guessing Aaron’s first arrest had many traumatic elements to it. My own arrests certainly did. Routine police apprehension almost always triggers an adrenaline rush – think of the last time you were pulled over for a traffic ticket – and often a freeze response and then keeps it going by exerting all kinds of continuing suppressive forces (From a brain perspective, defendants in court would be best served by actively and vocally collaborating with their defense attorneys – i.e. taking every opportunity to discharge the Freeze Response).

How then does the brain go about attempting to heal that trauma, clear out those inhibitory neurons and get flow going again? Perhaps I unconsciously go out and perpetrate another crime to get myself arrested a second time, hopefully with a more empowered, healing result? Which fails to happen far more frequently than it actually does. What happens more often is recapitulation without resolution – no healing neural reconnections result. In which case, we now have two multi-car pileups on I-80. Is it any surprise that a doubly decreased flow of energy and information now severely compromises our neural network systems? And that the term we give that reduced flow is the catchall phrase – depression (which, by the way, can be immediately amped up with low doses of the party drug Special K – ketamine)?

So, one reason “something wicked this way comes” might be that these zombie memories are already living in suspended animation as early childhood trauma in our right hemisphere. But they show up in our lives in a valiant attempt to reawaken, trying to rejoin the party. Too often though, those zombie memories don’t find themselves on the Party Guest List. Thus they rarely receive a hearty embrace and a warm welcome home. In which case, I can sadly imagine suicide offering welcome relief instead.

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Once, in a significant relationship of long duration, I very reluctantly initiated a breakup. I initiated it for many reasons. One “senseless” reason was to avoid having to re-experience the feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect so familiar from childhood. What I ended up feeling, of course, were crippling, pulsating pangs of loss, abandonment and neglect.

To the logical brain, initiating a breakup to avoid feelings of loss, abandonment and neglect makes no sense. To the feeling brain and a heart desperately trying to heal, it makes perfect sense. The Pain Body (an Eckhart Tolle term that I particularly resonate with) in concert with trauma long buried in unconscious Implicit Memory looks out and pinpoints the precise people to help us reenact the trauma – in unconscious hopes of healing it at last. But with abandonment and neglect, by their very nature, that rarely happens. Partly because every way you try to reenact it you lose, and partly because when you’re in the middle of a reenactment, a greater awareness of the larger picture is seldom available: it doesn’t feel like healing trying to happen in the least. More often than not ALL people involved end up in triggered states of emerging traumatic memory re-creation. And being in an actively triggered emotional state seriously compromises coherent brain function and possibilities for healing in everyone. It feels much more like a return to the wild, than trying to collaboratively and sanely navigate treacherous terrain.

Lacunae R Us

Children who experience abandonment and neglect repeatedly feel at risk when attachments of any kind are broken. Whether physical, emotional or neuro-cardiological, we also have large gaps in our developmental unfolding. Those gaps are called lacunae in the psychiatric literature. Spiritual teacher, A. H. Almaas simply calls them “holes.” These are missing structures that form normally from experiences of people/parents being there for us come hell or high water. As a result, we often end up with fewer inner neural reserves to call upon to help us navigate safely and securely together through the hard stuff. Our physical Pain Body simply becomes overwhelmed with emotion, greatly impairing coherent thinking or action. Often, the only way out, it seems, is to flee. Or to isolate. Isolation, different than deliberately chosen solitude, is rarely an optimal strategy.

Choiceless Unawareness

Some people, like Eckhart Tolle, assert that we all have choice in how we experience such re-surfacing memories. From my perspective they have little understanding of how transient disorganization happens when the stress of traumatic memories becomes activated in the brain. They also fail to understand how much activity of the brain is completely unconscious and easily manipulated (all we need do is look at Stanley Milgram’s at Yale or Phil Zimbardo’s obedience experiments at Stanford for confirmation). Furthermore, few of those who assert such notions concerning choice, while they may be victims of other forms of abuse, they have rarely suffered abandonment and neglect themselves. Choice may be available to some of us later, in the wake of traumatic memory activation, after the poo has been cleaned out of the loo. But Tolle and his advocates would be better served, I think, to hold the matter of choice and free will as an open question rather than to offer it as rigid dogma. I suspect neuroscientists David Eagleman and Bruce Hood live in my camp on this matter of choice, since each recognizes that every brain is enormously complex and operates the best it can in any moment in every situation.

Children at Risk

Those of us who hail from a history of abandonment and neglect are also at greater risk for abandoning and neglecting relationships and our own children than those who don’t. I came very close to unconsciously organizing the family (brain-body) stressors in my own life such that I nearly abandoned my daughter Amanda at age 4, the same age that my father abandoned my own sisters and me … the compulsion to repeat the trauma. The compassionate heart of one of the very few good therapists I’ve worked with over the years, helped me hang in … until Amanda was 13. Then, my understanding of the real limits of the psychotherapy profession at the time, and too many traumatic memories mounting an emergent assault on too many fronts, proved to be beyond my ability to manage. They shut down coherent functioning in my brain and severely limited my choices. Separation and divorce ensued. But I did manage to hang in a little better than my own father did: I continued to provide financial support and spent as much time as Amanda and we could manage together. An Authoritative Community might possibly have helped me hang in better. Possibly.

So, what will help to heal abandonment and neglect? I can only speak from my own experience, but what I most greatly yearned for during those periods of regression and painful traumatic reenactment was for someone who deeply understood how healing attempts often show up chaotically. They would be someone who could stay fully present in the midst of my regressed stony silences, plaintive wails or angry outbursts, and to each of them simply calmly say over and over again, “That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving. That’s fine. I understand. But I’m not leaving.” That’s what it would mean, at least for me personally, to meet The Big Brain Question with The Big Heart Answer.

P.S. If you want to see the specific and startling impact that abandonment and neglect have on the brain, click HERE.

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