My course of counselling is coming to an end. But the therapy will be a life-long endeavour that I now have to take full control of. Between my counselling and various books I've read, I have learned an awful lot that I wish I'd understood years ago.
There is a commonly misunderstood and fascinating system that explains the human response to trauma, based on neuroscience. This system is seen at work in dissociative disorders, PTSD, and, to a lesser extent, all of us. For who hasn't experienced some level of trauma - even if 'only' emotional?
Our everyday, conscious, adult 'self' resides largely in the left hemisphere of the brain. This self is sophisticated; it uses language, it can rationalise like an adult and it 'keeps on keeping on' even when life is imploding all around. But in the right hemisphere, things are different. The right hemisphere doesn't think; instead, it feels. It has no ability to rationalise what it is feeling, and it's driven by a number of survival responses common to all beings and particularly noticeable in children and animals.
These survival responses are:
Whenever we become flooded with emotion, that is one of these responses kicking in, after some traumatic trigger. The right-brain survival responses inhibit the rational left-brain self, leaving us unable to verbalise or rationalise what we are feeling and why. But as a matter of course, we refer to these feelings as our own - 'my' feelings, without realising they are somewhat separate from our rational selves.
I have been aware of my 'Fight' part for a number of years and even gave it a name: Cameron. Cameron is hyper-vigilant, always waiting to respond to a threat. Any time I liked, I could call on Cameron to give me strength, although sometimes he encouraged me to deal too harshly with people and damage relationships. I thought of Cameron like a protective garment that I could put on in readiness for some difficult situation - like wearing a wetsuit to go swimming.
But the truth that I hadn't quite realised about Cameron was, sometimes on finding myself near a lake unexpectedly, the wetsuit appeared unbidden.
Our other parts do this too, and even more seamlessly. Anyone with anxiety will be familiar with the crushing inability to make decisions, such as what to say in social situations. That isn't your rational self having problems. It's the Freeze response taking over.
Flight is a common head-guest in those with addictions, such as eating disorders or drug or alcohol problems. We cannot deal with our trauma, so we try to escape it through some numbing addiction. Self-harm, such as cutting, can fall into this category too. But Flight is not always so extreme. Flight can be cutting your hair after a breakup ("I'm a new person now!"), or just one glass of wine after a hard day. We all indulge in Flight sometimes. As you may be beginning to see, these responses are not all that helpful. They can lead to bigger problems.
Submit is our defensive reaction when we don't have the resources to escape trauma. So we accept our fate, perhaps 'going somewhere else' in our heads. It's sometimes referred to as 'flop'. It's a childlike behaviour, but can be seen in adults who have been conditioned to Submit through enduring trauma at an early age. Those adults grow up continuing to Submit, even though they now have the resources to escape or fight. Submit and Freeze are essential for surviving trauma in childhood, as attempting to fight or escape would only result in further punishment.
Attach is the youngest, most vulnerable part. Like a toddler, Attach longs for connection and closeness, and cries out for help when it is hurt. When Attach is triggered, the other parts leap to its defence like older siblings. The key to working with trauma is here - if the child 'Attach' part can be intercepted and soothed before it cries out for help, those unhelpful responses will not need to kick in. Of course, this is easier said than done. The best method I have found for doing this is to remind myself repeatedly that the trauma is in the past. This is what our right-brain parts can't understand - the difference between then and now - traumatic experience and simply the memory of it.
However, our Fight part can be helpful as a warning system. When you get a 'gut feeling' that something is not right, that's your Fight part warning you. When I fell in with a bad crowd that pretended to be my friends and only wanted to take advantage of my good nature, Cameron simply would not shut up. He surfaced a lot around one of the worst offenders, responding to his emotional abuse with insults to keep him at a distance. If I had heeded the warnings from my Fight part, I could have extricated myself from the situation safely - but of course, my Attach part battled with Fight, wanting their friendship. Ultimately, those 'friends' compromised my safety in order to make money. You can bet I will never ignore Cameron again - but I also won't let him take over. In these situations, the rational self must step forward.
Understanding this system can help us understand not only ourselves, but others too. It causes inner conflict, paradoxical beliefs, and confusingly inconsistent behaviour. Whenever we see this in ourselves or others, there is trauma involved.
So my task now is to figure out my real identity, as distinct from these survival states that have been dominating my life. It's a long road, but I'm making good headway, and I'm exploring these themes through a series of new songs that I'm writing. This is useful work, both cathartic and artistic, in much the same way that my good friend Liz Kearney is also exploring her own trauma through writing. Hopefully in 2019 we'll both have some creative work to show for it - but even if not, the journey and the catharsis is an end in itself.