Archive for February 24, 2013

Afghanistan, 9/11 and the Parent’s Bedroom

War, terrorist disasters, childhood sexual abuse. What do all these have in common?

All can cause changes in the human brain resulting from trauma. Trauma is trauma, no matter how it occurs. The neurobiological results are the same.

What constitutes trauma? First it must be an event that is intolerable. Second, it is inescapable. When the human brain is faced with an event so terrible it cannot be tolerated and from which there is no escape, human survival has always depended on the brain’s ability to undergo changes. How does one survive a war zone, famine, child abuse? One of these adaptations is amnesia. The human brain is capable of forgetting something terrible happened. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory actually atrophies from lack of use. The victim of trauma may exist in a fog or with no memory of the traumatic events.

There is a downside to forgetting. Whatever we do not remember consciously we are doomed to experience unconsciously. Nightmares, flashbacks, rage and depression result. All of the emotions connected to the original suppressed traumatic event now burst forth triggered by innocent stimuli. The sound of a car back firing can send the war veteran diving under the coffee table. The screech of brakes will cause the person who survived a terrible car accident to panic. Ice cubes tinkling in a glass may awaken in the incest victim all the fear she felt as her alcoholic father climbed the stairs to her bedroom.

A pounding heart and rushes of fear are common to anyone who has been traumatized whatever the original cause.


Recently I received this email on the subject of forgiveness:

“Mary, I think it was you who said that she was sexually abused by her father, and you eventually, forgave him. I don’t believe I’d be able to forgive him if he did that to me. Can you please tell me how you managed to come to forgiving him? I will be very grateful if you tell me, as I have had a hard time forgiving someone who drugged me and used me for money.”

As a start I sent her this message in an email:

“Forgiveness (in my mind) is about settling the hate and rage that clog up our own body energy. Forget about the perpetrator. What matters is the victim. I don’t want to carry around the awful feelings of hate for the perpetrator. That would harm me, not the perpetrator. What do I need to do to free myself of the ugly emotions?”

She wrote back:

“The reason I sent you the email is that I have always thought – maybe wrongly – that by holding onto the anger I am giving myself some power over my abuser. I was emotionally abused by my mentally ill brother since age five. He stopped abusing after I rebelled against him, but that was after twenty-seven years of inflicting emotional pain on me. Sometimes I feel confused. I heard that if I don’t feel anger then I don’t have a sense of justice. I thought the kind of abuse you suffered is something only God can forgive.”

Here’s what I think:

Simply deciding to forgive doesn’t work. Nothing has happened to make things better for the survivor. The inner work has not been done to release the wounded person from the shame, hatred and sense of betrayal. I call this process skipping. Healing may take years. It’s not an act of willing to forgive.

In a perfect situation the perpetrator would come to understand the harm he or she has caused and feel remorse. Then the perpetrator would ask for forgiveness. This could lead to true forgiveness. Unless the perpetrator acknowledges the harm done and apologizes, the only person suffering is the victim. The victim’s anger does nothing to hurt the perpetrator.

What matters to me is the way the victim carries the traumatic memory. What really matters is attending to one’s own shame, pain and sense of betrayal. However you choose to do that –through psychotherapy, bodywork or whatever – it’s your wellbeing that matters.