Wednesday, January 27, 2010

cracked: understanding why i act the way i do

hubby and i love to watch reality tv.

one of the shows we really enjoy is "celebrity rehab with dr. drew" on vh1. we also watched the "sex rehab" show that just ended. for those of you who don't know about the show, it follows a group of celebrities living in an actual rehab facility as they detox from various chemical addictions. (in the case of sex rehab, they were sex addicts.)

hubby really likes dr. drew pinsky, as do i. hubby first knew of him from listening to "loveline" on the radio. while i have listened to "loveline" a few times, it's from these shows that i really saw who he was. a doctor who really cares about his patients and tries to educate the world about trauma and addiction.

watching the series sex rehab really struck a chord with me. i am not, and never have been, an addict of any kind. i do have something in common with all of these people, though: childhood trauma. i probably would make a very good addict, if i had ever chosen to get into drugs or alcohol. lucky for me i never did.

every week hubby and i watched as these people battled with their inner demons, their past experiences, and their fears. nearly every single person on that show had been sexually abused. one particular episode stuck out to me. on this episode, the patients were taken to a facility for some art therapy. once they arrived, they were given the opportunity to throw paint-filled balloons, eggs, and dishes at a very large canvas hung on the wall. they were there to explore and express their anger in a therapeutic setting. by the end of the episode i was in tears. that was me. those people...they were me. they were just like me.

recently i started reading a book written by dr. drew, called "cracked: putting broken lives together again: a doctor's story." while this book is specifically about addicts and their rehab process, i have found much of it applies to me as a survivor of abuse. it has been very interesting to me to read it, and i wanted to pass the recommendation on to my fellow survivors, whether or not you struggle with some form of addiction. and to everyone else, it's a great book to read.

while reading it the other night i came across a passage and had a sort of epiphany. i have always struggled with handling my emotions (especially anger and frustration) in a health and appropriate way. this passage from "cracked" really stood out to me, because it was describing me perfectly. i'd like to share that with you, maybe it will make sense to some of you out there as well. this section is taken from a lecture that dr. drew gave to some of his former patients and their families. (it is a little long, but trust me, it's worth reading. i promise.)

"You want to know the common denominator among my patients?" I say, turning serious. "They all had traumatic experiences in early life that caused them to feel helpless, powerless, and in grave danger." I see some people nodding. "This feeling of helplessness creates an inability to process feelings and an aversion to exploring other minds. There's no trust. If you can't trust, you can't connect with anyone. Without the capacity to activate the part of the brain that allows for connection and exploration of other people, an individual loses the main mechanism for discovering who we are and the ability to regulate emotions.

"Think about it," I continue. "For all of us, other people function as self-regulating agents. We learn to identify ourselves when we recognize ourselves in others. We constantly think, 'Oh, that's exactly how I feel.' Or you say, 'I was thinking that exact same thing.' Our experiences of ourselves become internalized as a result of this sort of interaction. We figure out who we are.

"But my patients--many of you--automatically take the emotional posture that the abuse you fell victim to was your fault. Why? Because at least then you avoid feeling the threat of the contents of the mind of your abuser. You don't ask why Daddy hits you or Mommy's passed out on the living room floor. If it's your fault, you're more in control.

"You're sacrificing yourself in order to maintain the illusion of control in a situation that otherwise you'd experience as irrational and unpredictable. Of course, if you're at fault, you're also feeling shame. In addition, your brain kicks into an automatic biological response that becomes a permanent mechanism for dealing with interpersonal stress. This is the action your brain takes to escape these situations from which there's no escape, something called dissociation."

A gray-haired man in mechanic's coveralls raises his hand. I have treated him and his son.

"So what are you saying that I'm feeling?" he asks.

"What did I say all my patients have in common?"

"Helplessness," he ays.

"What do you feel when you're helpless?" I ask.

"Fear," he says.

"Right. The initial response to threat is fear. How does this happen? Well, chemicals flood into the brain as the flight-or-fight response is initiated. When escape seems hopeless, your brains switches into shut-down mode, releasing a flood of endorphins that provide a soothing numbness as you wait for the inevitable to occur.

"The experience that predominates this reaction is what?"

I call on a young guy seated on the side.

"I don't even get what you're saying," he says. "But I'm guessing that it's the sense that you're somewhere else, gone, shut down."

"Exactly," I say. "Dissociation. You separate and isolate yourself from the world, from feelings, from others. While such a reaction may protect you from the horrifying experience--whatever that turns out to be--the price is a long-term difficulty in integrating emotional experiences. Think back to whatever age you suffered trauma. That's when you shut down. That's when you decided you were to blame. That's when you stopped developing and growing in the part of the brain that regulates emotions. That's when you stopped connecting with others.

"So what happens? The personality that accompanies you as you mature physically tends to have a hard time in relationships. In fact, the original victimization is often recreated over and over again. It's the same problem repeated, and more problems ensue. You can't trust someone with your tender needs in a genuine relationship. Why? It's too dangerous. It's too likely to expose you to trauma again....

"So your ability to develop brain mechanisms to regulate emotions is impaired, since we tend to build these through intimate connections with others. It's a great big mess that causes you to enter your young life looking for solutions to those feelings of being, as most of you say, screwed up. You aren't able to find any peace until you find drugs or alcohol. Then, suddenly, for the first time, everything seems all right."

wow. talk about a profound wonder i act like i'm six years old when things get's that fight-or-flight, and that is also why i struggle with conflict in relationships, especially those who are closest to me.

for me, as i said, it isn't drugs or alcohol that makes me feel like everything is all right. i rarely feel that way, in fact. i've had moments of it, though. like when my husband holds me close and lets me cry it out, telling me that he loves me and that it will be okay, that he's there for me. when i hold my sweet babies. when my son says "mommy" and lays his head on my shoulder. when my daughter smiles that giant toothless grin at me. in my art. at times in my religion.

understanding why it is i act the way i do makes it easier for me to know where to start in changing it. changing it is the hard part...i am embarking on a long and painful journey, and at least i know a little better where i'm starting from.

and as a side note, i wish i had lots of money so dr. drew could be my therapist.

cracked, copyright 2003 by dr. drew pinsky


Vanessa said...

love that show. I identified a lot with Kari Ann...ha ha don't judge me for it! thank for sharing.

Marj aka Thriver said...

Thank you for sharing this. It's so important. I really like the explanation about dissociation from "Cracked." It' really straight-forward and takes a ton of the fear and freakishness out of it. Thanks so much for allowing us to use this for THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE. Great stuff for survivors!

Patricia Singleton said...

Thanks for sharing the information from Dr. Drew's book on dissociation. It makes sense to me. Like you, I have never used drugs or alcohol but I still use food to numb the feelings sometimes. I am beginning to write about how early in my life some of my issues started---abandonment issues as young as 2 years old.