It feels somewhat surreal that December is here. With the slowing down of time sensation that accompanied a year of lockdowns and disconnection with people, place, and space, we land at the festive season and all the emotion that entails.
I was recalling today one of my favourite moments from Bessel Van Der Kolk’s excellent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score. He is talking with an adult client about her history and, sensing something isn’t adding up with the story she is telling and her clinical presentation, he asks her to draw a picture of her family. She takes pencils and paper and studiously draws him a picture, handing it over and reinforcing what a happy childhood she had in a great family.
On the page in front of him is a picture of a little girl, her parents towering over her and emanating from them a massive, ominous phallus. He looks at the image, and back to her, as she smiles with seemingly no awareness of what she has created.
The point of her drawing is that often we are completely blind to the trauma of our childhood, even when it is staring us in the face. We have consciously blocked out the implications of what it means when our primary carers are both our protectors and the source of our trauma.
Van Der Kolk’s client was demonstrating a significant trauma in her attachment story, but many of us have less graphic experiences in childhood of attachment rupture: erasure, silencing, ridicule, invalidation, simply being unseen and uncelebrated in the small moments that matter to our nervous systems and their service to safety. Those wounds lodge within us, they subtly adapt our behaviours to seek approval, to fit in with those people who are most critical to our survival. These knowings sit silently, neurally reminding us well outside of our conscious awareness of the danger that is present when we show our true nature of self, while we continue to perpetrate the dance of our pasts in our here-and-now.
I was working with a client recently and had the revelation as they told their story of resilience and trauma, how they had set up a work environment that reflected their family dynamic, with all the inherent dysfunction and chaos of their childhood. This re-creation was completely unconscious until this moment in therapy, that even though they consciously were working hard to integrate their past, their nervous system was keening towards the structures that it knew and had adapted to feel safe in.
I believe we do this far more frequently than we realise, and not just on an individual level. We create ‘family’ structures collectively in our legal, political, and bureaucratic systems that mirror the paternalistic qualities of our culture, and allow the roles of parents and children to continue to be played out in an attempt to make meaning of our situations.
Authors of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher look at the attachment-based adaptation of the human system as a procedural adaptation, held in the non-memory system of our muscle memory. Like we learn to drive a car or ride a bike, we learn to adapt and create safety from our pre and ante natal experience. It doesn’t sit in our conscious memory or recall, and this is how it becomes a procedural act rather than an emotional one.
We recreate the systems we know, rather than the systems that will serve us. It’s a paradox of the human condition – we can hold the twin truths that the people that love us are the people that hurt us, and we love and hurt them back as we strive for survival and to find our way back to the meaning of who we are.
Our work as therapists is often to stand in those mother/father/carer roles as safe and competent agents to allow the transference of experience on and through us, creating a third space for meaning to be discovered. The power of the attachment wound is profound, and should have much more time, space and education allotted to it in all our lives, as it absolutely affects us all, through generations, through genetics and through our collective cultural experiences.
And here we are, in December, heading towards Christmas, a social construct built around family and celebration outside its religious implications. A time that many of us simultaneously love and fear, that brings up old hurts and memories amongst the discarded giftwrap and the rituals of eating and drinking, which often spill into numbing and medicating.
Take time to honour your own paradoxes as you move through this time in a year that has primed many of our senses to already be hyper or hypo vigilant. Give yourself time for celebration on your terms, time for restoration and repair that is quiet, calm and nourishing. Put some time aside to feel how you are, and whatever you feel, bring it in close as a part of yourself that needs acknowledging.
Love yourself with fierce compassion, and if that feels too hard or vulnerable, like yourself in that way. Extend the same grace to your families and friends, with firm boundaries in place. Thank you for being on this page with the Mannaz team this year, we look forward to curiously entering 2022 alongside you.