Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Model of Self: Retracing My History and Healing

As part of my own pendulum swing of life extremes, I ended up in Quiverfull (QF) as an adult, though I never experienced the fullness of it. As Julie Anne Smith said to me recently, I didn't suffer the same kind of abuse as QF moms or their children, but I was also a victim of the system's cruelty. On top of my own natural grief and despite the experience of a degree of rejection by both peer groups of QF moms and their homeschooled kids, I did suffer my own heartache.

I participated in a panel discussing the challenges faced by Second Generation Adults (SGAs – those who are now adults but grew up in high demand religion and/or families that they perceived as spiritually abusive). I constructed a visual model to help me describe my experience. I borrowed some graphics that I used to help describe my healing experience, and I'll add a few that I didn't get to use.

Embarking upon Adulthood

Imagine that a triangle represents a person's identity, and the muted colors represent the natural immaturity that characterizes a young person.

In concert with the more toxic aspects of the Word of Faith experience (which I believe differs from the core of Pentecostal traditions), my mother suffered from complex trauma and depression. I really cannot separate the effects of each of these influences. Both of my parents grew up in shame-based homes, and a parent can only give to their child what they possess themselves. Sadly, their highest and best involved passing on of the toxic shame that was given to them. I imagine my sense of self as this contorted triangle – both confused as well as muted. Bounded choice also intensified that experience of shame, blame, and anxiety.

Three Decades of Therapy and Three Foci

Here is the short version of how I put my own recovery into perspective.

I became an RN at age 19, and it didn't take long for me to burn out personally and professionally. I went to the Employee Assistance Program, believing that I spent my three visits with him talking about my overwhelming disappointment nursing. The therapist angered me, for he heard me speak of my mother as a focus and gave me the diagnosis of adjustment disorder. And he referred me to a local therapist.

From there, I see my recovery as something that fits nicely into three decades at this point. In retrospect, each decade followed a theme.

My Twenties

I spent my twenties voraciously reading self-help books while in in and out of therapy. One book actually dealt with the problem of too much care-taking that nurses carry over into their everyday lives. I strongly identified with addicts that I observed in clinical settings while in school, and served as a lifeline that made therapy accessible and hopeful. During that decade, I learned about the landscape of childhood trauma, identified with those who were traumatized, but I did everything that I could to avoid the idea that I'd suffered serious psychological abuse. I knew that my parents never intended such a thing, so I was very reluctant to 'betray' them.

I see my twenties as a period of learning about tools that would help me and about how things should be. In terms of healing, I worked on building my self-esteem, though most of that work seemed like it was cognitive only. It worked its way into my head but not well enough into my heart – if at all. (Note the dark blue triangle in the diagram.)

My Thirties

I sought exit counseling and began my recovery from cultic religion, but I still wrestled with the effects of trauma. I came face to face with my problem of anger and was basically forced to learn how to deal with it in a healthier way. I'd learned to transmute anger into self-blame and illness which did not make for a functional life. As we often do in our late thirties, I lost the energy and the ability to keep up with the burdens of that blame. As I transitioned out of the phase of life wherein young adults devote themselves to relationships, to be honest to what I'd learned, I had to put healthy dynamics into practice with my family. Sadly, that resulted in estrangement from my parents. But it was time, and I was ready for it. It took me more than a decade to get to that place.

My thirties involved acceptance of the hard truths about my life, my beliefs, and my history. I did a tremendous amount of grieving while suffering other traumas, too. And I still felt like I had little ability to resist that gerbil wheel of anxiety. In addition, though this also overlapped with my twenties, I began to develop a more healthy concept of self-efficacy. I also realized that I relied on my ability to perform to make up for my past lack of self-esteem. More and more things started to come together. (The aqua blue triangle in the diagram represents self-efficacy.)

My Forties

I resorted to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) after working down the list of interventions that I believed would help me heal. I was still stuck in the emotional end of PTSD, and my primary motivator for living was not self-care and joy. It was still anxiety. This decade of my life which now draws to a close pulled all of my previous hard work of healing together, aided by EMDR. Though EMDR certainly built upon the foundation of the healing I'd experienced over the previous twenty years, I didn't begin to emotionally integrate until I began that specific therapy. (I note that I began integration, because I don't see it as a completed work in my life. I believe that it will continue to be an ongoing process for the rest of my life.)

I also did a tremendous amount of grieving of actual losses as well as the loss of those things that I'd hoped for in life but did not get.

With the emotional healing (the calming of my limbic system – the brain's emotional center) as I recovered from complex, lifelong PTSD, I found myself able to both wrap my mind around and develop an internal locus of control. I don't believe that it was possible for me while I was still so easily triggered in previous seasons of my life. I needed that emotional grounding and stability before I could work at building a healthy locus of control. (It was the last aspect of self-concept to come together for me, represented in the diagram by the green triangle.)

Beyond Integration

Integration describes the pulling together of thought and emotion so that both elements of the mind work together. In trauma, their functions become isolated from one another in favor of the very emotionally based and very immediate survival response which triggers easily.

In short, I had to heal myself before I could reach out to others to offer them compassion and tolerance. I had to integrate before I could have more healthy interactions with others. As the diagram notes, a part of that healing involves tolerance and forgiveness of others which allows us to reconnect with them after a trauma. Trauma isolates us and causes us to feel as though we are alone and that our trauma defines us – and a good deal of this process is neurophysiologic. This is why the third and final state of healing from trauma involves reconnecting. We find that after we make sense of our experience and mourn our losses, we are finally able to better navigate relationships in a place of safety created by our healing.

Forgiveness became a vital part of reconnecting with others for me, a very complex topic that I've explored in great depth on this blog in the past. I find it curious that the idea that you cannot give to others what you don't have yourself in abundance comes full circle through forgiveness. My parents had only shame and fear to give me. As the diagram describes, I had to heal from that shame first and forgive myself before I could even approach the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a destination, and though I saw it as a desirable endpoint, I feel as though it took me more than twenty years to begin to arrive at it. And I still find that have to work at it sometimes, too. Life seems to challenge my past resolve or things that I thought were resolved.  But that's a different topic.