Friday, August 12, 2016

Safety in Optimism as a Learned and Re-Learned Skill

Earlier posts looked at the grand picture in life concerning our expectations for safety in a world where things exceed our control. Camus defines well that we are stuck in the human condition which requires struggle and disappointment that doesn't end. Catherine Marshall looks to the acceptance of what Camus describes but differentiates hopeful acceptance from the pessimism of resignation that seems to be it's own kind of premature death. Today, I'd like to tighten that broad focus on uncertainty down to a more basic and immediate one.

Learning by Example

Trauma robs us of the sense of safety and peace that we hopefully learn when we are very young – that even though the world is an unpredictable place and we are imperfect creatures within it, there are abiding opportunities to enjoy the present moment. Though I missed out on the joy of nursing my own babies, one of the most perfect moments of my life must be when I held my tiny two or three week old kitten in my left hand and held the bottle as I held it in my right one. We had a bit of a routine down and both had mastered the skill by then, and it became a pure joy to me. Anna cat had eaten her fill, she fell asleep nearly instantly in my hand. She slipped from consciousness as her head slowly lowered where she nestled in it in the web between my thumb and index finger.  She didn't even need to wait to nestle safely with her brother to feel secure.

I think of it as a perfect moment because it spoke to me of how fragile we all can be, especially when we're young, but also of the process of building trust in the safety of kindness.  I was always honored by the great trust that both of these cats invested in me over the course of their lives – as it was greater and different than that of the trust showed to me by the feral cats I'd rescued. The mere fact that any cat trusts a person is a great thing, as no cat gives trust away easily, just because of their independent natures. They were fearful of travel or a visit to the vet, but they didn't have the same terror that my feral cats demonstrated.

It occurs to me that I still have much to learn about trust from my experiences with my cats – for they had innate survival traits that I didn't. I haven't learned appropriate trust well at all in certain situations in a way that came naturally to them. Trust should never be thrown away on people who do not merit it, and even my bottle fed cats knew well the sounds and signs of the things that they hated most. They all hated having topical flea treatment applied, for example, and they seemed to know when I merely thought about the process.  They hid!  I didn't have card blanche to do just anything with them against their will. They realized better than I do that life is dynamic which makes it and people in it unpredictable.

Every situation that called upon their trust in me was built upon previous experience. They knew the patterns of safety that I created for them, and that perhaps became the very foundation of our relationship. I'd given to those kittens an abiding sense of safety and optimism that the feral cats didn't have in the same way or to the same extent. I created a place for them to feel safe and powerful and valued and protected which they could rely upon when they experienced something fearful.  Just like the cats did, some people have a better opportunity to learn that skill than others do.

Expectation and Anticipation

When we experience trauma that doesn't resolve, we become disconnected from the sense of safety that we were given when we were young. For those who grew up in the trauma of abuse or didn't have a parent who possessed their own sense of safety to model, this alienation from calm safety intensifies. Life becomes an exercise of survival which lacks balance – a path from one demanding experience and drama to another. Chronic trauma requires that we go back to reclaim or stake a new claim to that place -- and some of us didn't have much from the start.

I didn't hear the phrase "waiting for the other shoe to drop" until I was well into my twenties.  A woman who had lost a child years earlier used it with me one day. She'd suffered through breast cancer, and then developed some new complications used the phrase in concern about her health and the difficulties she had as she tried to cope with that anxiety. She also talked to me about how hard the anniversary date of her son's death was for her so soon after her husband had a stroke.  What would the next shoe be? 

I would soon realize in pondering the phrase that I'd basically lived my life amidst raining shoes. I'd learned for the sound of not just one shoe to be followed by its anticipated counterpart in the pair.  I would be pushed back to the visceral childhood memory of many at once. Trouble just didn't come in twos for me, and just admitting that in light of the shoe dropping expression became a sad struggle of acceptance.

Rebuilding Safe and Optimistic Expectations

It was during my recovery from my spiritual abuse experience that I would finally develop a keen understanding of a couple of concepts that helped me rebuild safety and stabilization. As I recognized that I anticipated raining shoes most of the time as a norm, I really wrapped my head around the concept of hypervigilance. I'm amazed at how well I came to like the shoe analogy when describing this feeling. Having words to wrap around the feeling with new perspective helped me tremendously. It didn't take it away the feeling, but it gave me permission to feel hope. During the first couple of years of marriage, my husband joikingly questioned whether I was sure that I didn't have Russian ancestors because I tended to expect life to read like Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.  In some checklist in an old book that I read at about this same time, it asked if I anticipated fear.  That would also come to make more sense in time.
NOTE: I have not read this book!
Religious ideas played another part in all of that for me as well. Between the shame based identity I'd been given and the Evangelical Christian focus on the apocalyptic fear mongering, catastrophizing came naturally to me. I could not really part the personal aspects of it from the religious ones because they reinforced one another. There was a heaven to gain and a hell to shun, but high demands and unrealistic standards put me far closer to a deserved hell. I lived hypervigilance everywhere in every aspect of life.

The other concept I finally began to understand was that of “reparenting.”  I first saw it used by a Catholic author and mused that perhaps the weird-sounding term had been drawn from their doctrine as opposed to a Protestant model. It sounded like psychobabble until I began trauma therapy with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). I could define reparenting by rote, but because I was lost in a sea of emotional turmoil, I couldn't understand it until I actually started to “reparent" for myself.  "Ah, I think that I 'get it' now." I could provide for myself what my parent could not once my emotions started to come back into sync with the book knowledge I'd accumulated.

Optimism Begins With Me

With some great coaching and much support from those who love me, I have learned that while it is important to understand that we live in a world that is unpredictable, I do have a remarkable power to create a place of safety for myself.  I couldn't connect with that as reparenting, but I started with the idea of peace in the midst of a storm. And I considered that like a sick person seeks a physician and a nurse for care, I could at least look and seek and be open to finding that kind of encouragement. I am grateful to the few friends I had in the worst season on whom I leaned so hard. I would not have made it without them.

I am amazed at how often I now recall the moment when I held my tiny kitten as her tired head rested lowered on my hand after her bottle. In the way that I'd shut the cares of the world out to attend to her, I could begin to do the same kind of thing for myself.  And it wasn't work!  It was beautiful and mutually gratifying -- and I felt it and had that memory of emotion that I could find when I needed it.  I used to pray about God being El Shaddai – the breasty, all sufficient one – trying to imagine myself as a baby nursing from her loving mother. But I had an anxious mother, so that brought more confusion to me than comfort.

What a precious gift to have been given that evening as I watched in wonder as this precious, fragile, sated kitten trusted me with her very life. If I was worthy of her trust, perhaps I could begin to trust myself, too. And every time that those cats were called upon to trust me in times of their distress, while this is always an honor when any cat bestows it upon you, their trust in me helped reinforce my own trust in myself. I even started to thank them for it, especially as I started to really heal when in trauma therapy.

If all I could do in the course of a day was find a moment of rest and peace and beauty where I practiced remembering the safety of such a moment, then that is where I could begin. I started there and nurtured that feeling to grow. With practice, I told myself that I could learn to trust myself by recognizing that I was valuable and as precious to me as that kitten was to me. Even if the whole world was a place of madness all day long, I could have that one moment, and that would be my grounding. And if I could find and make one moment in my heard and in my physical body, with the image of that safe place, I could find and make more of them.

Please feel free to stop back in a few days to read more about coping with uncertainty in Stage One of Healing from Trauma.

For further reading: