How I Was Traumatized

I realize that when I described feeling like George Floyd being held down and suffocated, I didn’t explain what happened to me and how it felt.  I had a dear friend who had been horribly abused in a physically abusive family.  She told me more than once that she thought I was dealing with PTSD, but I discounted it.  My parents were both alcoholic, but they weren’t physically abusive.  I thought trauma had to be a result of something violent.

My friend began to do Somatic Experiencing and found it was helping her.  She gave me a copy of Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine’s understanding of trauma through studying animals.  He came to the conclusion that trauma was caused by a natural process that had been derailed.  He developed a way to heal trauma by paying attention to sensations in the body.  In Waking the Tiger he says: “An infant can be traumatized by being left alone in a cold room.”  This is because the infant’s ability to regulate her temperature has not developed yet, and she’s not capable of getting a sweater and putting it on.  Levine essentially describes trauma as happening when the organism’s ability to process the event is overwhelmed by the event.  I realized that an infant can be traumatized simply by being left alone.  Maybe she gets hungry and cries and nobody comes.  Mom may be down in the kitchen warming a bottle of formula, but the baby doesn’t know that.  If no one comes and brings food, the baby will die.  The moment the baby’s reptilian brainstem concludes that death is possible, the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in.  But a baby can’t fight and can’t flee, so the process goes into default mode which is freeze.  This is called “playing possum,” but the possum is not playing.  Instinct has literally frozen the possum’s body.  If the coyote noses its body and concludes it’s carrion and walks away, the possum comes out of freeze, shakes itself off and walks away, restored to normal functioning.  I was nearly 60 when I discovered that I had been traumatized.

Once I accepted that I was dealing with PTSD, I deduced that I had been traumatized by being left alone too long.  I had been severely depressed until I was in my 50’s and got on medication, I had chronic insomnia and constipation, trying to be sexual was difficult and painful, I used to self-mutilate with razor blades.  My mother had made it very clear to me that I was not to be a “nuisance,” i.e. not to have any needs.  As a result it has always been hard to tell when I am tired or hungry, in fact I don’t feel hungry, I look at the clock to see if it’s time to eat.  I know I was fed every four hours (that was the rule in the 40’s) so my mother never had to figure out the difference between a hungry cry, a “change me” cry, or a “tired” cry.  So it was easy to imagine my mother leaving me alone when it was inconvenient, or she was drunk.  I know it must have been very hard to have her first baby when her husband was abroad fighting WWII, and hard for her being alone with a baby most of the time.  But it also wrecked my life.

As a result of the trauma, I would get triggered into a state of frozen terror.  I described what happened to me when I went back to Cincinnati in February of 1971 to spend a week with my parents.  It was pretty bad.  I was suicidal that winter, and didn’t kill myself due to luck.  The first piece was I didn’t know that I had enough of the tranquilizer Mellaril to kill myself.  I had heard a story about someone who tried to commit suicide by swallowing a whole bottle of tranquilizers and didn’t die, just was very relaxed for days.  It wasn’t until years later, working on an emergency hotline in Boston, that I found out that the minimum lethal dose of Mellaril was 600mg.  I had been given 300mg a day during my breakdown in California in the spring of 1970, and I still had plenty left.  WELL.  I just looked it up and it’s not a tranquilizer, it’s an anti-psychotic.  The second piece of luck was that some friends were telling ghost stories on Halloween, and I realized that there might be life after death, and I would just float in space, without a body, all alone. That was scary enough to keep me from actually making plans.

When I started doing Somatic Expriencing with a practitioner, I began to be able to pay attention to what “frozen terror” felt like in my body.  Trying to imagine a real thing that could have happened that would fit my feelings, I came to this:  I am lying in a street at night, I can’t move.  A steam roller is headed toward me, and the driver can’t see me.  There is no one in sight that I could call out to.  Because I’m just a baby, I don’t have words for death, for what is happening to me.  All I know is that I am completely helpless and I’m going to be annihilated.  I don’t exactly feel like I can’t breathe, but I know that something necessary to life is unavailable.  All I needed was a description of what happened to George Floyd, just seeing a picture was enough to remind me what that felt like.  I didn’t think I had got badly triggered, but I’m noticing that in the weeks since I have been finding it harder and harder to function.  I’ve been told that a baby left alone will become apathetic. That’s what I’m feeling.  No words, no motivation.  It’s taken me hours to write this. That’s the best I can do.

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