It’s Nothing But a Neuron! Exploring How to Re-train the Brain and Heal from Sexual Abuse
Have you ever walked by a pie shop and, upon smelling a fresh backed pumpkin pie, been transported back in time to a fond memory of Thanksgiving? Or maybe caught a glimpse of a stranger with certain features and found yourself thinking about that girl or guy from way back when? How about a significant other who one day playfully wrestles with you, and all of a sudden you find yourself lashing out at him without really understanding why? What exactly is occurring neurologically and what are the implications for the recovery from abuse?
According to Daniel Siegel in The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (1999, Guilford Press), “understanding how trauma affects the developing brain can yield insights into the subsequent impairments of memory processing and the ability to cope with stress.” Before exploring the impairments and coping he refers to, let’s take a quick look at how memories are created and recalled in the first place.
There is a saying – neurons that fire together, wire together. When we have an experience, neuronal pathways
In the dregs of a typical Midwest winter, in the year 1986, I was a ten year old girl with a Bipolar, Antisocially disordered mother. Every winter, my mother’s cycles became even more extreme than they were in the more temperate seasons, her highs were higher and the lows were so low I marvel at my ability to survive. My mother’s highs included a succession of days of activity, grandiose distortions that were later replaced with a paranoia that only increased with each successive day of sleep deprivation. Mother ran from the snow, ran from the inevitable solitude winter brings, ran from responsibility; ultimately, she ran from herself. I, her youngest and only child still at home, was often a favored travel companion. I was easy to manipulate, never questioning her distortions and I wanted her love so much that I never dared to argue with her edicts.
It was in the midst of this frigid, sloppy, grey winter that my mother simply did not send me to school one day, so we could run away again. That year’s destination was Miami, FL. The flight was booked, with only a few hours to spare while my Dad worked. We hurriedly
Since I was a small child I have periodically felt a longing so deep and so wide it consumes all of me. Until recently, I’ve never been able to identify the source of this longing or what it would take to fulfill it. I’ve never been able to put words to it, other than repeating over again as I weep the non-sensical phrase, “I want to go home.”
I remember clearly when I moved from Pensacola, Florida to Birmingham, Alabama with my mom and dad when I was 11. I was laying on the fold out couch in our temporary apartment while my mom anxiously attempted to quiet me. I was crying so hard and wailing the phrase to her, “I want to go hooooome!” She thought I meant back to Pensacola and she tried to reassure me that Birmingham was my home now and in no time it would begin to feel like it. But, that wasn’t what I meant. I didn’t know what I did mean but I knew that wasn’t it. I knew wanted home but I had no clue how to define it.
Now, after years of therapy and life experience, I have a better understanding.
There’s a place I call the Pit of Despair, and sometimes I end up at the bottom of it. It’s not a geographic place of course, though that might make it easier to avoid. I could tell my GPS to avoid routes that lead to the Pit of Despair, but I’m working on training my Emotional GPS to avoid those routes, and how to recognize when I’m starting to slip to the bottom of the Pit. Only recently have I named the Pit, been able to talk to other people about it, and learned what I need to do when I’m at the bottom of the Pit: reach out for help.
But that’s easier said than done. I’ve dealt with depression and disordered eating for about half my life (and the anxiety those bring), I cut as a teenager and I still battle self-destructive impulses. I’m lucky to have many loving, supportive friends and family members, I see a therapist, and I still struggle with reaching out for help. I worry about whether I’m inconveniencing someone by asking for support, if it will send me further down if they aren’t available to help, if they’ll get mad at me for what
In 1989, I was a sixteen year old with a mother who was a very heavy sleeper. Nights meant I could finally “dress” in the outfit I’d collected by sometimes unsavory means. Mostly from shoplifting sometimes at the mall down the road. A black skirt, high heels, and a simple blouse weren’t something I could just carry to the cash register and buy. I knew stealing was wrong, but I could finally soothe that nagging feeling. The purr that quickly turned into a roar, and me into a monster who yelled at my friends incoherently. Maybe because they all seemed so comfortable in their skin, and the eyes of society. I was angry, and dejected from a night of not fitting in, so I began dressing up as soon as I was home for the night. It was very late, and I was as drunk as I had ever been.
Up to that point I was buying cigarettes to share with my friends when they came over really desperate. In my cloudy haze I began to think I should go get a pack for myself. This was something I was absolutely mortified of normally, but right then I was feeling
I’m used to relying on my intellect. I’m no genius, but I have to survive on my wits, because my looks aren’t paying the bills. Over the course of my life, I mostly trusted my capacity to reason, as did co-workers and professors. So, once I went off my antidepressant meds, and OCD falsely told me that I was a pervert, a rapist, a murderer and about a million other things, you’d think I’d still be able to discern fact from fiction, and dismiss OCDs outrageous claims. Nope. For years, I viewed these strange thoughts and fears as the result of a moral flaw, as evil thoughts that made me crazy, but that I could not tell a soul about. I was eventually hospitalized for a week after my body could no longer handle the perfect storm of OCD, anxiety and depression.
I became paranoid, considering every hypothetical possibility. “What if I had uttered threats? Would the NSA hear me in my cell phone?” This thought would occur to me despite being in the midst of a prolonged period of silence.
Life gets really small when you’re afraid that everyone is listening to things that you didn’t say, but fear
In retrospect, I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t know what was wrong with me — or if anything was even wrong with me — and I certainly had no idea that I could feel any differently until I was nearly 25-years-old (I’m 32 now). That’s when I went to my doctor, spurred by my dad being diagnosed with depression. He had described to me how he felt and I recognized it as the same thing I had felt all my life — most notably, the sense of going through the motions of a life and not truly feeling much. He was prescribed Lexapro and it made a huge difference for him. My curiosity was piqued; I wanted to see if this pill could do anything for me.
It changed my life.
I remember swallowing the first pill before bed, hearing the doctor’s words echo, “It may take a month before you feel any effect.” — I had no faith and I felt hopeless that night. I woke up the next morning with something I would describe as a tiny “buzz” in my brain. It was as if a teensy switch
“If you haven’t done anything, then you have nothing to worry about.”
Right. In a perfect world that would be great. Oh sorry. Let me explain. Growing up as a black male, I have heard non-black males say that exact same thing to me. It is in reference to cops harassing black males. Ideally, that quote is correct. If you haven’t broken the law, you should not fear the police. You should see them as your friends. An organization that is out there to serve and protect us. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The following is one account of my run-ins with police officers.
My first major incident happened in 2002. I was at college and was studying for final exams which were in two days. I was a 19 year old freshman. It was approximately 1:45am. I was rather hungry, so I ordered a pizza. I paid for it over the phone with my credit card. I had done this many times before, so it was nothing new. Because I lived in a not so nice area of the campus, the pizza delivery guys wouldn’t actually come up to the room. We would have to go down and