Yesterday I saw another person asking about autism and trauma on the #ActuallyAutistic Twitter. I didn’t have the energy to redirect them to the few resources I know, but thought I’d chronicle a couple more personal observations on the topic, whether for future use or for other folk to tell me if this is what this thing usually looks like.
I’ve written about C-PTSD before on this blog (recently here and list of some articles here), in the context of autism because figuring out that I classify as being on the spectrum helped me understand why I have the general batch of symptoms – in a life that actually doesn’t tick any of the “trauma” boxes (garden-variety emotional neglect due to emigration and cause parents didn’t get me, garden-variety exclusion by peers because they didn’t get me, but nothing deliberately toxic; no horrible “therapies” because where I lived kids were not really diagnosed with stuff then). [Short answer: because treating me like a “normal” kid was like treating a raw egg like it’s a rubber ball :D]
As a general disclaimer, if you think you have the C-PTSD pattern (or think you have PTSD, but somehow “not really”), go read the practical Bible / Quran / Vedas on the topic: Pete Walker’s C-PTSD materials and book.
Now, today I was walking and contemplating what my mind is doing as I try to have a walk in the city (yes, still in the city). I can feel the mode my mind’s in: it’s in the mode where the emotional flavor of a guy walking in front of me, the energy of a guy vulgarly peeing in the park, and the type of tea my partner made me can project me back into re-living emotionally unpleasant experiences that I still don’t know a way out of.
I kept pondering the egg vs. rubber ball analogy more deeply – though I’ve just made it up right now, but well, the underlying idea and principle.
I thought of the “minefield” syndrome. I’ve been told a good couple of years ago by an ex that talking to me is like walking a mine field – never know which topic / mention / tone will result in a downward spiral on my part (and at that time, since I had fewer tools to deal with it, for the whole conversation / day).
I then thought of the two other people I know well who clearly have the minefield syndrome: one is my own father (so I’ve had plenty of time for observation; curiously didn’t realise I’ve got it too), the other one is a friend. Both are on the spectrum, and I now wonder if that’s a coincidence or not.
I wonder if that’s one of the typical ways that C-PTSD looks like in autistic folk? Or does it look exactly the same in folks not on the spectrum, I just haven’t seen it closely enough?
Take my father: you won’t know what will set him off. Someone saying it’s -1 ‘C. Someone making a comment on an everyday topic. Someone wanting or not wanting to eat something. Someone looking some way. Someone disagreeing. You don’t know what it’s going to be. It’s easier to figure out the few safe themes you can talk about (though be careful how you do it) without sending him down an emotional spiral (to which he’ll of course never admit) than listing all the stuff you can’t say.
You can’t predict what will tick these people (incl. versions of me) off, and once you step onto the “mine”, it’s basically too late – if the person in question has no self-awareness, they will land in emotional hell and assume that you brought them there (what else?), so attack you back somehow. Even if they have quite a bit of self-awareness, a deft and dexterous rescue action is required to help them out of the downward spiral. [Again, the details on all of this are described by Pete Walker, in a literal fashion, with examples, etc.]
So I was walking and I felt that my mind is in the mode where I’m walking in a minefield – not just almost any random sight in the city can “trip me up” – I can even trip over my own feet, i.e. I can just randomly “think the wrong thing” that tips off some chain of associations to one of the “mines” and boom, there I am stuck in an emotional morass of re-experiencing a yucky interpersonal (or even almost impersonal) experience from years or decades ago. If I’m lucky, I recognise that and use one of the various ways to get out (thx Pete, thx bunch of other people who taught me).
The problem seems to be that if unsupervised (or unhealed, or not taken care of), the minefield morphs into an octopus. What I mean is, the initial painful experiences turn into painful topics, and then everything that vaguely associates with these topics becomes painful, too (the painful experience grows tentacles, let’s call it that). Some days the octopus seems indeed larger than my brain itself.
Some days it’s … a pervasive psychic pain condition? Where anything (thinking and feeling anything at all? breathing?) will come far too close to one of these subtle and finely pervasive pain-tentacles that have been cultivated in the recesses of the mind not given the right kind of attention recently. Some days there’s no escape from it (when memory can’t be avoided because it seems like existence itself somehow pushes the nerve).
Now the above sounds overly pitiful, and I didn’t have such a day today. Just some echoes of it. And these echoes made me think, perhaps, of the true extent to which I’m an egg. The situations that come back to me aren’t things that would persecute many of my friends for years (some of them I think would literally not notice them – like a ray of bad emotional energy received from someone years ago into an already open psychic wound, for example). Doesn’t matter – the effect on me is nauseating.
Now, I always liked to be (appear) tough – somehow since early childhood I had this thing where I was proud about generally not being very sensitive to having my knees bleed or not seeing my parents for a month or the kind of physical or interpersonal things that seemed to upset other kids. Stuff like that I didn’t mind taking apart dead animals and wasn’t scared of spiders and such. Fact is, I seem to actually be less sensitive to some of those. I was proud to take risks other kids were scared of. I still take risks people are scared of, though less – I think I got over the adolescent need to prove things and also over various gender-related complexes.
But I realised how “small” some of the situations are that I get catapulted back into constantly. It’s situations where someone belittled me without even saying a thing, and I felt small and powerless; situations where someone didn’t see me as human, and I haplessly took in this feeling of not being human; where someone saw me as immoral, and I took in the energy of being morally wrong. Images which weren’t even personal – where I saw how the culture treats certain people as less and because I did not see a difference between me and them (or because I’m in a given “minority” category), I really felt less, in the absence of an antidote. It’s various situations in which I was facing humans, but they didn’t face me back as a human – nothing “drastic” or unusual, stuff like a bureaucrat or a doctor not seeing me as an individual, not paying attention to who I am and that they’re hurting me (mostly in psychological ways). Stuff like a social worker or a lawyer shaming me because I don’t look like anything they know, and they assume things that I then swallow. Because there’s no alternative mirror for me (there’s almost nobody who mirrors back to me truthfully who I actually am and what I actually think). Cold people. Just all the instances where people don’t look, the “normal” modus operandi of mass-society: encounters with sometimes random individuals where I was facing another human but wasn’t fully met as a person (I don’t mean having a deep discussion). Then those with less random individuals, teachers or family, too (who could otherwise have provided compensation for the anonymous pains).
I realise how much yucky inner slime has accumulated merely from the lack of being seen and responded to in normal emotional ways. In accepting ways. Just from people avoiding, averting. Excluding passively (by not inviting, not welcoming). Moments where people implied that I’m less because I’m hurtable or have been hurt. Frankly, because I’m human and I feel. Especially the instances where people told me, without words or sometimes with those exact words, that something is wrong with me.
Are the insults taken in from strangers (the racist bureaucrat’s glance, the social worker’s moral judgment of my material situation) so painful as to give me flashbacks years later because they already fell into an open wound etched in much earlier by much closer people? What was the original poisonous seed? (Or probably the multiple seeds.)
But above all, what would be the reparative experience? What are the experiences that don’t give me pain?
I think something that bears the label “therapeutic” in anonymous mass-societies … a friend complained to me that I expect therapeutic treatment – yes in fact, I only become friends with people who are warm, validate my experience and respect needs and limits, including quirky ones. Very gentle and warm and nonjudgmental people. What passes as “normal” (invalidating feelings and sensations, implying “you’re allowed to be this, but not that”, questioning character and intentions, or just not trying / bothering to see) registers as simply violent to me.
That doesn’t mean I don’t do it to others – there’s definitely a whole track record, including cases where I just don’t get people enough to know what they’ll be offended by.
But – what was the main point of this post? It wasn’t specifically to analyse myself or complain that I’m sensitive (or say that I’m better for it). Point was the astonishment – how tracing back all the apparently minor things that flood up in flashbacks, deconstructing them into the core feeling (type of pain), reconstructing what would be the antidote to that pain – makes me realise, by God, which level of humane and empathic treatment I would have needed to avoid the poison of self-destructiveness and which level of attention and humanness my organism needs to recover from this. Another investigation into human nature: reconstructing, from the wounds, the actual needs and requirements? The original limits of the self, its intact shape and its truths?
I’m using this stuff to reconstruct who I actually am. I’m a different person than I thought. I probably have different values than I thought – I mean the original, organic values that give rise to wounds when they are disturbed or negated. Sometimes there is no way to remember them, except by trying to reconstruct the shape that would have prevented the wound or that would compensate for it.
I guess in this way “broken” aspects can still serve as a compass to self (something I’ve read about, I think, but didn’t feel like I really “get”. I thought what is lost is lost, what is broken is broken. But the “nothingness”, the lack still curiously seems to point to the specific fulness that is lacking). This is weird, overall, but I like the sense that the original self somehow persists, conserves its original fingerprint in its woundings.
In fact, that this is probably the “way back” (or a good part of it).
But I wanted to also come back to the self-reproducing nature of the brain-octopus. Having pain points infiltrate our associations to the point where the most mundane and ubiquitous sights, words, thoughts become “triggers” (to use a word I don’t really like – maybe “pathways to the pain point”). Having the conversational “landmines” reproduce themselves like the grass-shaped office plant that always has a bunch of parthenogenetic “babies” hanging off of it (I can’t remember what this is called in any of the languages I know). Giving rise to intrusive thoughts, maybe giving rise to OCD rituals in response to block them off.
I had two thoughts, which I probably won’t have the energy to elaborate on now, but (1) an important aspect, or maybe even the “essence” of these seedlings seems to be that they contain an element of self-destructivity (they are in important ways against the self, if you look at it right); (2) how come they get implanted in the first place?
The thought is that for “minor” thing to be that noxious, a primary barrier must perhaps been broken down, initially. There is an “original culprit” in the sense of a first “implant” that later prevents the self from casting off or out other forms of noxiousness – or an initial magnet / glue that then makes all the other junk “stick”.
I think of it perhaps using the model of an autoimmune disease – there’s something that “flips the switch” to cultivating noxious “ghosts” inside the psyche (the “ghosts” of all these people looking at me weird, say) without recognising them as something that under any conditions has to go out. [They can’t become me, under any conditions.] Not just that, but allowing these ghosts to gnaw at elements of the psyche, the original parts of the self, without recognising that this is happening – tolerating this state of self-attack as the normal state of a psyche (or, sometimes, being acutely aware of inner conflict but honestly not knowing which side to take).
I wonder if in my case, or in the case of others, there’s a “master switch” that is a bit meta has something of the shape of “it’s not clear whether the integrity of this self has value” (first shot) – a [felt] sense that can come indirectly from an accumulation of experiences, or be communicated more directly – a nonverbal state of being (or even an explicit belief) that tears down the original “membrane” of integrity and allows random things that random people throw in there to dwell. Ultimately allows things that aren’t this psyche’s own to reproduce on its soil, because they are judged on the wrong criteria (the “does this kill my dignity and integrity?” criterion is deactivated).
Perhaps defer thoughts on this “snowball effect” to later – today it seems I see a lot of images, but the words don’t take shape too easily.
Somehow linked into this yarn ball of thought were yesterday‘s reflections on disability and inherent worth (of humans and also other beings), that I never got around to. It’s a network of concepts again. But I realised that actually few of us really and simply accept ourselves as “good” (in essence unproblematic, trustworthy at the core, not questioned at the roots), as a basic given – it’s almost a dogma of Western culture (and perhaps some others, too) that this is the path to sin. And actually yes, despite the “self-love” and “self-care” hype. Toss all this into the “later” basket.