Several years ago I got to hear Dr. Bruce Perry tell the story of a little boy named Jesse. I stood next to a potted tree in a crowded conference room as adrenaline perfunctorily coursed through my veins. That was my routine baseline back then. It was normal for my heart to beat like a hand drum in my chest for fear of being seen, unseen, or worse, if I actually dared to speak, paralyzed by the thought that I’d demolish all hope of meaningful connection by saying the wrong thing. And yet, my longing to join this now global conversation persists. Yay for blogs.
Dr. Perry shared that Jesse had been horrifically abused by his parents and subsequent foster parents, for the first thirteen years of his life. He flipped back and forth between slides featuring diagrams of the brain and charts of cortisol levels; all of which I’ve come to understand as a second language: psychotraumatology. Jesse had been beaten into a coma. Dr. Perry was attempting to confirm research on the neurobiological responses of trauma and, to reach this little boy in the hope that he could help him heal.
Taking clothing from one of Jesse’s alleged abuser’s, he held a shirt under Jesse’s nose. Despite being in a coma, the sensors monitoring his heart and brain began frantically dancing across the screens. His body wanted up, out and away.
Fast forward to over a decade later, Dr. Perry sat down with Oprah for a conversation on trauma and resilience shared in their recently released, co-written book; What Happened to You. It’s amazing how much we’ve learned about the impact of early childhood experiences on lifelong wellbeing in the last fifty years. It’s also frustrating because, much of what leading researchers have discovered, native peoples, shamans, mystics and women burned in public hate crimes, have intuitively known for centuries; our experiences can both harm and heal us. Or, as Sojourner Truth said in the 1800’s, it’s the mind that makes the body.
Oppressive history aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have been meaning to share a few of my favorite insights. In no particular order, here are ten takeaways you may find helpful for your own healing:
“Over the years, I’ve found that seemingly senseless behavior makes sense once you look at what’s behind it.”-Dr. Perry
Taking a snapshot of the world today, we could simply label people as bad, mad, sad or crazy; a word I don’t believe holds any real meaning or place in our language when we contemplate human behavior through a trauma-informed lens. What we’re actually seeing, when people are screaming at each other about masks or vaccines, or when people engage in violence, lying, corruption, sexual exploitation, drug use, consumption, or, when we find ourselves unwilling or unable to return to work, all stem from the same, universal root cause: the pain of being separated from love, otherwise known as trauma.
I’m not suggesting that our pain is an excuse to harm ourselves or each other. I’m suggesting, as Oprah and Dr. Perry explore throughout this book, that by seeking to understand what happened eliminates the condemnation of shame and blame, and replaces it with our truest opportunity for restoration; compassion.
“Two hundred and seventeen episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show focused on sexual abuse and I saw a profound through-line for most victims, including myself. When you’ve been groomed to be compliant, confrontation in any form is uncomfortable because you were taught that you can’t say no.”-Oprah
Capitalism thrives when its victims remain imprisoned by fear. Unhealed trauma perpetuates the lie that we’re unlovable.
When we feel powerless, vulnerable or weak as a result of wounds we don’t want anyone to see, it drives us to act as bullies, tyrants, people pleasing rescuers, exploited ‘heroes’ or paralyzed victims who’ve been socially humiliated into silence and compliance. Encultured codependence, fueled by systemic gaslighting, relies solely on the secrets we keep both to ourselves and from each other.
The first step in reclaiming our intrinsic worth, is telling our truth in safe places to safe people. From there, we can learn to confront the concentric circles of people, groups, communities and systems who have yet to face the consequences of what happened to them.
It begins with finding the stability and courage to say no to a single abuser, which often requires at least some help from outside ourselves. From there, we learn to say no to family members, friends, employers, faith communities, authority figures, media messages, products, services and paradigms that insult our individual and collective soul.
“Finding balance can be an exhausting challenge for anyone with a trauma-altered stress response system. The search to avoid the pain of distress can lead to extreme, ultimately destructive, methods of regulation.” -Dr. Perry
Basically, no one wakes up one day and says ‘I wanna be a raging drug addict. I wanna run marathons till my joints collapse. I wanna eat sugar till my pancreas cries for mercy. I wanna build earth-destroying empires. I wanna make my family rich and famous by selling my daughter to pop music pimps. I wanna have my body cut open and shove a bunch of plastic parts in it. I wanna buy the biggest house on every continent. I wanna put on a pair of sweatpants and lay on the couch till my skin fibers fuse to the fabric and my entire existence drowns in a keg of diet coke.’ I mean, we do say that stuff, unconsciously, but we only do it because we’re desperately attempting to escape the pain we feel in being separated from Love.
All addictions, compulsions and so called ‘bad’ behavior, are attempts to feel safe, loved and regulated. Alcohol, sugar, cocaine, achievement, sex, shopping, social media likes, positions of power or authority, all release varying cocktails of serotonin, vasopressin and dopamine; the same neurochemicals that get released when we’re experiencing healthy love and secure attachment. I have a personal theory that our brain knows the difference between the quality of regulating neurochemicals that get released from experiencing true Love, versus all our survival attempts to get the same fix, which is why our unhealthy methods never seem to be enough.
“Depression, anxiety, PTSD-these seem to be the big three when it comes to the long term mental and emotional effects of trauma. So, if we know that there are fifty million children who have experienced trauma, that means there are countless millions of adults carrying that hurt through their lives…and, those adults may not even realize what happened to them.” -Oprah
Fight, Flight and Freeze are the parallel survival reflexes we label as the primary mental health diagnoses of Anxiety, Depression and PTSD. My theory on the DSM is that it’s essentially a billing code catalogue labeling the various permutations of fear resulting from trauma and stress. And, as Oprah said, far too many of us don’t even realize that our symptoms, which we attempt to eat, drink, sleep or otherwise medicate away, are trying to tell us something. Feelings are simply messengers and yet, we’re chronically attempting to run away from most of them.
Maybe, instead of shaming ourselves and each other with insensitive questions like What’s wrong with you?! we might dare to flip the script, get curious and ask, What happened?
“The fear of the grandparent becomes the fear of the parent, which becomes the fear of the child. Understanding what we inherit is necessary for the insight required to make intentional change.”-Dr. Perry
Some of you may be reading this and thinking, I get what you’re saying, but my childhood was awesome, so why am I a people-pleaser, chronically anxious, bummed out or a big, huge jerk? Well, there’s this thing called ‘intergenerational trauma’ which means, along with inheriting your grandma’s crocheted pot-holder collection, we can also inherit DNA patterns imprinted with stress, trauma or adversity experienced by the previous generation. Yep. That’s a real thing. Your childhood may have looked like a Sunny D commercial but you suffer from panic attacks because your great, great grandparents survived The Great Depression, The Holocaust, Slavery, Colonization, a pandemic or some other horrific, global crime. It’s the same thing with intergenerational poverty, discrimination, wealth, war, illness etc.
This newest Revelation within neuro-research is essentially the secret to world peace: We need to acknowledge, honor, make amends for and forgive our individual and collective past in order to heal our present and restore hope for the future. So simple, right?
“The longer you spend in a deprived developmental environment, the harder it will be to recover.”-Dr. Perry
It takes the human body approximately one hour to return to homeostasis after being cut off in traffic. I’m no mathematician, but imagine the ocean of cortisol and adrenaline that gets released if you’re abused for prolonged periods of time in childhood, or if you fight in a war, are a cop, nurse, ER doctor, EMT, firefighter, teacher, CEO, homeless, single parent, chaplain, cashier, telemarketer, president, journalist, insurance field agent, crime scene investigator, medical examiner, bartender, pilot, airline attendant, Cheesecake Factory hostess, factory worker…basically a human being attempting to function in a Western capitalist society that takes more than it gives.
The majority of us don’t have the adequate time, money or stability needed to restore proper functioning. Period. If we look at social stratification, individuals living on the street or in prison, to individuals living in actual palaces, it’s clear to see that our external conditions parallel our status, which parallels the time and trajectory of our healing.
For example, Prince Harry is still processing the tragic death of his mother, and while he and his family are living very well, he continues to struggle with nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and conflict within his extended family. His grief response is completely understandable given the context of his mother’s death.
Now imagine a guy who also lost his mom to an accident when he was little, but take away the support of all that money, luxury, status, top of the line medical care and add a 50 hour work week stocking shelves at Costco. How is he sleeping at night? How is he getting through the day? How will he get care? When will he get the time off needed to process his grief?
The reality is, he won’t. Instead, the unprocessed trauma of everyday folks shows up across that spectrum of behaviors from being ‘a jerk’, to addictions, hypersomnia, avoidance, physical illness, criminal behaviors or lifelong depression.
“Very young children can’t fight or flee. They have to stay.”- Dr. Perry
Dissociating is a superpower many of us develop in childhood. Personally, disappearing is still my favorite trick. If you’ve ever wondered why you or someone you know, seems to be really good at checking out, check into their childhood.
Dissociating is our brain’s way of literally preventing us from dying of shock. Much like a computer’s surge protector, it cuts the mind off from itself and, from the body as well, until it’s safe to return. For some of us, it’s never safe to return so we may spend the majority of our lives in a world, story or identity of our own creation. For others, we may be very good at spacing out, denying, avoiding, suppressing, repressing or otherwise preventing ourselves from becoming fully engaged in and connected to life.
The good news is, safety in our minds, bodies and environments can be much easier to restore as adults. The difficult news is, the pandemic has made it harder for agencies and providers to reach children and families in crisis. The more we can educate ourselves about the impact of trauma, the more prepared we can be when we’re eventually called on to help.
“As the writer and biochemist Issac Asimov said, ‘The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.’”-Dr. Perry
The study on Adverse Childhood Experiences began in 1996. It’s 2021. Unfortunately, Coke and McDonald’s are still more popular than addressing childhood trauma. Go figure.
Neuroscience discoveries have accelerated rapidly over the past twenty years, with some profoundly hopeful discoveries in just the last ten years. For instance, did you know we can now detect a single neural pathway rooted in trauma and cauterize it?! Yeah. We can literally zap the pathway in your brain that’s causing nightmares. It’s like Roundup for brain weeds, minus all the environmental damage. The problem with brain-weed-zapping is, if we don’t personally do the work of resolving the traumatic experience, that neural pathway will grow back because that’s the job of our brain stem; to send survival signals. We have to convince our brain stem that we’re no longer in danger; that the past is literally incapable of harming us in the present. We have to rebuild trust with life. Rebuilding trust with life is possible but, society is still operating within a largely trauma-ignorant paradigm. Meaning, the system is perpetually stressing us out. In order to heal, we have to set major boundaries with the world and all its backwards thinking.
“This is a common thread in our culture. We’re reactive. We prioritize convenient, short-term solutions, we’re risk averse, and we use material things, rather than relationships, as rewards.”-Dr. Perry
You know that song lyric let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me? That’s the solution. You are the possibility of world peace. We are the society, the culture, the world.
If we’re reactive, the world is reactive. If we take the cheap, easy, short-term fix, the world is a bandaid. If we use stuff and avoidance to run away from our problems, the world is one big revolving ball of denial.
But, if we turn in and heal our relationship with ourselves and go on to repair and build connections with others, the world becomes the restored, unified family we were once upon a time.
“Forgive yourself. Forgive them. Step out of your history and into the path of your future.”-Oprah
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we say it’s ok that you hurt me or I hurt you. Forgiveness means we’re ready to free ourselves from the prisons of resentment, blame, rage, addiction, hopelessness, helplessness and fear.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it was a joyful relief to hear how things are going for Jesse now. Human resilience is kind of a miracle. Yes, we can be absolutely shattered by human horrors, and we’re divinely designed to find our way back to Love. ~
So, have you heard of ACE’s? Does your state have any trauma-informed policies? Have you asked your employer if they’re becoming trauma-informed? What do you think we need to find our way back to Love? What’s your favorite kind of donut?