I work with a woman who does trauma coaching. She has a degree in trauma studies, including the work of Peter Levine who wrote Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. She recently loaned me the book, Coping With Trauma-Related Dissociation, which is a workbook designed to teach people about what dissociation is, how it develops, and how to integrate conflicting inner states.
I first embraced and then resisted the Multiple Personality label back in the 1980′s when the taboo against talking about incest was being challenged by women like me. My boyfriend at the time, who was also handling my lawsuit against my sex criminal parent, used what he read in books like Sybil to play psychologically manipulative games against me. Head games, we used to call them in the sixties. There is a book out now by Debbie Nathan, Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case that tells the story of how Dr. Wilbur abused her power over her patient in order to make big bucks. I can relate. This boyfriend made his whole career on the notoriety of my lawsuit. He made mincemeat out of my soul.
So I’m a little wary of the whole dissociation paradigm, certainly shy of the DSM IV , (The Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. When I was in my thirties I did a lot of journaling and was able to make up conversations between various inner states, but I understood this as a metaphorical treatment for a metaphorical condition. My understanding at the time was that my conscious attention was like a smock with several pockets. I thought the theory of state dependent learning applied to my situation.
State-dependent learning (state-dependent memory) is a notion that learning and recalling are based upon the physiological and mental state of the organism. It has been very clearly demonstrated that things learned in one environment are best recalled when that environment is reinstated; and, moreover, this applies equally well to “internal” environments (or states) as it does to “external” environments.
Another term for this is “context dependent learning.” What this means is that my mind learns from my total bodily environment. So, what I visualized as taking place was that whenever I had a strong emotion that reminded me of a repeated abuse, I tended to put that emotion/memory in a pocket of my smock. I could safely keep my feelings of grief separate from my feelings of helplessness, an so on. I was forced to dissociate my emotions from each other. If I expressed negative emotion as a child I was beaten to a pulp. I was never allowed to cry when I was beaten or to fight back in any way. I have been brutally conditioned into distancing my emotions, but emotions are not “personalities” and I am not different people occupying one physical space.
When my daughter was here this summer she rented the tv series The United States of Tara from Netflix and we watched it together. This story of a fractured identity that seems to be completely different people is a gaudy stew of sex and violence and a gem of a role for the gifted Toni Collette, who plays Tara and her 7 or so personalities. It was great drama, but not like my experience at all.
The trauma coach I work with has brought up the subject of “parts” and I don’t like this word at all because it implies that I am broken, that sections of my self can be separated out and excised. And there is the remaining bad feeling from being treated as if I was a hydra-headed Gorgon with a taste for human flesh. That former boyfriend wanted to destroy the aspect of me that feels anger. Kind like being castrated, huh? Female castration might be when our anger gets amputated.
I do get the idea that when I am in a “triggered” state, i.e., when something in the present environment threatens me, I go into an altered state of mind that could be called Trauma Time. (Oh Lord, Mama, Stuck Out Here In Trauma Time Again!!!) I get a visual of this: I am beaten and then sexually assaulted by my caretaker. I fall on the floor. While the body remains prone on the floor, a kind of doppleganger rises up and eats breakfast and goes to school and is a regular little girl in most respects.
This is the reality we are all in, it’s the old cartesian mind/body duality problem that civilized humans suffer from, our basic disconnection with our own bodies and with the natural environment all around us. We could not have destroyed our common natural heritage if we weren’t convinced that we were separate from it. We are all trauma survivors. It’s just a matter of scale.
I’m happy to have this book because of the simple explanation of how my mysterious quirks evolved. It makes me cry, though, because of all the barbaric bullshit I had to endure from the mental corrections system. What I needed was someone to sit with me and coach me thru the labor of mending my emotions. It’s so obvious that I could scream: Fuck your kids and they have trouble getting thru the day as they grow up. You don’t need a PhD in psychopharmacology to figure this out.