Breakthrough or Fallthrough? The Outcomes of Trauma and Crisis in Plain English

I had an extended positive blog in mind, one that might uplift me and others when I or they come back to reading it over. I had one in mind that would talk about 2012 being my breakthrough year that marks the end of the down low stretch of the past five years. One that talks about peaks and valleys and how I thought to have come back from the valley and now almost inevitably experience an upturn. It was supposed to be both reassuring to me and others in a similar situation. Because there are people like me, people who not only don’t take life all that easy, but who actually have a hard time for a reason. Or multiple reasons, most of which to do with our pasts. Our early pasts, our formative years, those years, when a child’s brain and actually their entire being is like a sponge, absorbing all those firsts in order to internalize a concept of what the world is like. It is during those years when we learn, what we’re made of, what those immediate ones around us are made of and what the initially peripheral sphere of experiences is like. In those formative years, we fill our DNA-imprinted template with actual experiences in order to manifest what our personality later in life will be. Those first few years make the persons and personalities of us, which we’ll most likely remain to be for the rest of our lives. Sure, other formative experiences may occur, possibly harsh blows to the course of life we’ve embarked on, “destiny” if you will, like e.g. losing loved ones or undergoing dramatic changes of a different nature that will leave a mark on us. But no other time in life will ever be as important and critical as those first few years, when we’ve basically come into this world as an almost blank slate, which life will write its chapters on.

Too bad, if the natural flow of these early years is disrupted with experiences we’re not yet equipped to deal with. Like e.g. being abandoned, given up for adoption, possibly being abused in some way, be it physically, emotionally or even sexually, by peers or – worse – by care takers (“care takers” isn’t necessarily restricted to parents or adoptive parents. It could be medical personnel for example). If that happens, we are prone to internalizing those experiences about people in general. Instead of being nurtured, cared for, protected and treated as the most valuable “thing” there is in the entire small universe of our first weeks or years, we’ll get a taste of the brutality of the world and the need to find efficient ways to survive it, even in situations that appear hopeless to us. When I say “hopeless”, I actually mean to express “overwhelmingly terrifying” and as such with a feel to them that appears to be life threatening. This is what a traumatic experience feels like: It is a situation that attacks and threatens the very integrity of whatever idea of the world you have so far. It is irrelevant whether or not an actual threat to life is involved or not. What’s important is that the experiencer of the situation will experience it as a situation that is capable of disrupting everything you thought was right – or at the very least common and known. A situation that defies logic, fairness, manageability on every level. A situation that shakes not only your physical being or your emotional one, but is apt to take all preexisting ideas about your world apart as well. A situation that has you go “crazy” for a short while – and possibly after. Such are some of the qualities of trauma from the experiencer’s viewpoint, i.e. my personal viewpoint and from personal firsthand experience. (On a side-note: I consciously refrain from using the wording “victim” or “sufferer” as it implies a value judgement in my opinion and as the very wording puts the experiencer in a disempowering place, thus singling them out and diminishing the gravity of the perpetrator’s acts). And I’ve had many pronounced experiences of that nature only weeks into my early life. They went on for months on end, with no relief in sight and without any hope they might ever change. I think, it is not being too dramatic to say that my small emerging world was pretty much completely destroyed right after I arrived on the planet. The outcomes of this I’ve been dealing with for my entire life. And I’ve turned 48 two days ago. Even myself, I can’t help but wonder, why in the world I’m still here and why I haven’t prematurely ended this nightmare of epic proportions by committing suicide. And rest assured, there were many times when all I wished for was for it to be over and done with. Once and for all. Finish line and then the redemptive infinite nothingness of neverending unconsciousness. But I trudged on, following an uncanny, at times masochistic curiosity that seemed to be set on wanting to find out, whether there could be something else but this dungeon of hell that my life oven feels like and has been feeling like for long parts of the journey.

Well, as you will have identified by my use of wording by now, the uplifting blog never came to pass this morning. It’s been pretty much exactly five years that I’ve been living in “solitary confinement” as a friend once put it, restricted to the narrow confines of my appartment and to days that follow the ever same routines I established for myself: Get up after only a couple hours of sleep most nights, do three sets of pushups, 30 a piece, push medication down my throat, fix myself two small bowls of cornflakes while the espresso machine heats up, have the computer boot in the meantime and when it did, sit down in front of it with my breakfast, going over emails and my social media sites or watching a funny TV episode on the web (I’m a sort of “King of Queens” addict ;). After that, I usually spend a few hours on random web surfing, manically absorbing everything that tickles my “thinking bone”, from the daily news to health related stuff, science, fringe sciences, previously also some esoteric pages, music, film, zeitgeist commentaries, blogs – the list goes on. Anything that holds my attention for longer than a minute is good enough. And then some outdoors activity like riding the bike, swimming in summer, running errands and the likes, if weather conditions permit. At the very least I go for a fast 90-minutes walk every day, regardless of the weather. Prior to times of establishing and following this routine, I’d regularly still put in some productive work – writing tech articles or doing translations -, but this came to an end quite a while ago. I have been officially disabled since 2008 and prematurely retired on account of it. I haven’t been doing any real productive work in years. When I say productive I refer to paid work with a deadline. Other than that, I’ve come back to dabbling in music, photography – and blogging of course. Like this one. It’s my way of trying to pull myself together and keep it together. If not for the computer and social media friends, I’d have succumbed to ongoing alcohol abuse and depression quite a while ago. I don’t mean to flatter myself as the self-started, disciplined “self-therapist”. On the contrary. There have been times – especially throughout 2010 and some of 2011, when I began to develop the mannerisms of an alcoholic. But yet another condition of the plethora of health challenges saved me from that, albeit in brutal ways: Hyperuricemia manifesting itsself in excruciatingly painful gout attacks that ultimately had me immobile and well on the way to becoming a full blown nursing case. When I couldn’t even make it to the bathroom on my own any more, I mustered all remaining willpower to go cold turkey from that. And I managed. I haven’t been having any alcohol in a year and only recently resumed some very moderate, occasional social drinking. And only then. There is no alcohol to be found in my home any more and I don’t purchase any for myself. Same goes for smoking. I had been a mild smoker with one or two small cigars at night along with my regular bottle of red wine (sometimes to be followed by liquor beverages), but gave up smoking along with drinking. The smoking I don’t miss, but the sedating effect of alcohol I do miss at times and sought to replace with available on prescription medication. However my system proved to be incompatible with the bulk of standard type anti-depressants, no matter what agent active in them. I suffered from the worst of side effects which almost proved fatal in one case: I was hospitalized on account of severe dehydration from “purging” for hours on end. When the ambulance arrived and gave me an injection, I near passed out and had a distinct sensation of dying. I clearly remember going “OK, this is it. You better let go now to make it easier for yourself” in my mind. This experience along with the worst of all panic attacks of my life in October 2009, which had me pass out, suffer a chin laceration and a concussion along with hyperventilating for about 2 hours due to immediate sensations of impending nothingness, were the closest I got to experiencing near-death over again. When I say “over”, I suspect that my body actually remembered the early trauma at the pediatric hospital I was being treated at for inhibition and maldigestion, probably bringing me within close reach of lethality then. When I say “probably”, a part of what went down then remains subject to speculation, as the hospital claim to destroy all records after 30 years. Since I started looking into restoring my health no sooner than around age 40, those 30 years had already passed and attempts of tracking hospital records down didn’t garner any results. But from what I do know through reports from my parents and the locally practising pediatrician at the time, they did perform two spinal taps, exposed me to artificial nutrition for weeks and all this in a semi-quarantined situation: Bio family was allowed in only once a week for an hour or so, but weren’t permitted to enter the same room and only allowed to speak to me through a glass window with a little sealed opening in it, much like those used in prisons. No physical contact other than with nursing staff. I don’t think one has to be a pediatric psychologist to figure out that these experiences weren’t exactly conducive to a healthy emotional development. Actually, a therapist once shared with me that there are four basic needs for all of us during infancy: Food (ideally breast-feeding), rest, touch, smell. I was missing all four for months on end and only weeks into my young life. This basic sense of trust most people take for granted – I never had and haven’t managed to rebuild from something else later in life so far. And while I’m typing all this, I’m well aware of how awkward and misplaced this will sound to other people’s ears coming from the “mouth” – or fingers – of a man going on 50…. However, it’s part of my recent decision to process some of this through writing about it and sharing in hopes that someone else will derive beneficial effects from it.

Whatever personal accomplishments I may have manifested for myself – and I’d like to believe that I could have fared a lot worse given my history – came from something I call “coping via cognitive intervention”. Just recently, I came across an online passage somewhere – I think, it was in the context of the recent horrible mass shooting in Newtown, CT and a discussion on Asperger’s – , where one patient is quoted sharing with this doctor something along the lines of this: “What you and other people do from gut feeling, I have to construct using my intellect.” I’m paraphrasing here as I haven’t retrieved the exact quotation again, but the point of needing to bridge the gap between intact instincts and the almost infinite sense of (emotional) emptiness and solitude a person like me feels inside for most of the time by using intellect in order to think up an appropriate response to pretty much anything in eveveryday life, struck me as “yep, been there, done that” – and naturally stuck with me. But can you imagine the stress level when needing to do so on a regular basis? And can you imagine what it’s like to be burdened with additional pressures the likes of which everyone comes across in their adult lives? Well – evidently, this is a rhetoric question. I don’t expect you to be able to imagine this. Frankly, you probably can’t as non-affected visitors of this blog will come from a different place, a different history, which makes it hard bordering on impossible for them to even imagine, what living with the outcomes of early-on trauma feels like. Suffice it to say: It doesn’t feel good for most of the time. What is more, there is limited choice in the overall design of one’s life. I used to live my life along the lines of what I had observed as the norm: You set goals for yourself and you go for them, more or less knocking down obstacles as they present themselves in one or the other way, depending on the make of personality and set of personal values. In retrospect, I was simply in denial over the limitations that my condition brought about. And around age 40, I had seemingly burnt all my fuel used on exercising resilience. And since then, setting goals for myself or even pursuing dreams can’t exclusively follow my own volition any more. The parameters of my life now have to respect certain limitations I can’t seem to overcome, but manage at best. In other words: I have arrived at the realization that my condition presents itsself in ways very similar to any incurable disease. Personally, I don’t like wordings such as disease or anything along those lines for similar reasons as I have stated above: They carry an air of disempowerment and even judgement to an extent, which is why I tend to reject such wording. On a secondary note, such wording seems to “cement” the condition and its outcomes, thus conceptionally ruling out healing. Another reason for me to reject this wording as I need to hang on to the option or hope of and for healing, even if only partial. When looking at my mind’s and body’s responses from an anthropological view, they are actually perfectly normal. What I’ve been experiencing throughout my life are more or less violent bouts of fight-or-flight response that get triggered over situations, which are stored on the physical level and which are reminiscent of the conditions associated with the early-on trauma. In other words: Situations that feel or look similar to the original ones trigger a more or less pronounced response of an acute threat to life, which the body responds to by switching to “high alert” or “code red” mode, which then translates into excess release of adrenaline and other neuro-transmitters used and needed for activating a full blown flight-or-fight reflex. So labelling such responses as a disease or disorder is misleading to me. The actual response may be inappropriate in the given situation, agreed. But it’s something we are hard wired for from existing conditions we had to survive in in pre-historic times. Being equipped with reflexes of this nature proved to secure humanity’s survival in the evolutionary competition of species. Hence, you can hardly call them a sickness or anything along those lines, can’t you?

Well… as usual… with that fleeting mind of mine – and this probably being so from the ebb and rise of latent panic or anxiety that’s present all the time, even when being asleep -, I’ve digressed. Forgive me for that. In coming back to my headline “Breakthrough or Fallthrough?”, I’m still divided. I guess it’s neither nor. I’ve managed to survive the worst five years of my life without going postal on someone or totally losing it over situations that had the worst nightmares come into being to a 100% in many cases and a close 90% in some other ways. I’ve lost my marriage, a good share of former friends, my career, all of my savings and any perspective I’ve ever built for myself along with any sense of direction. I can’t even be sure of what I thought to be personal strengths any more. Whatever life I had managed to build until then got wiped out in the process. I don’t think, I’m being too dramatic in my wording. I got reduced to a situation that forces me to ponder, of what nature the core of my being is – or how much is left of it. As I said above, maybe it’s neither a breakthrough nor a complete fallthrough. Maybe it’s just another episode of having managed without tearing down the very foundation I’m made from. In saying this, I realize, I haven’t arrived at an all blank slate, either. Maybe it was about time to start finding qualities in me I’m o.k. to give myself some credit for. Maybe it was about time to embrace myself along with the situation I’ve arrived at… ?

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