Another story, after a relationship ended.
“She said she had made a list of all the qualities she wanted in a partner. At the end, she concluded, “he has less than half. And none of the important ones.” ……this was the end of my sanity, for a long time. I don’t know why. I just stopped being a person. I was a blank page. And anything written on me turned into invisible ink.
…..Less than half, and none of the important ones. I hate that phrase. It still haunts me, practically every day. After years together, I felt like she knew my best qualities. She knew ME. But…..of all the good qualities that make a person worthwhile….I have less than half. And none of the important ones. Not one.”
The clinical literature on relationships very clearly describes how these types of experiences reinforce patterns and deepen the ruts that were laid down in the person’s psyche. It is akin to pushing a system over a “tipping point”. Seemingly harmless utterances, mere words, can destroy a person’s self-confidence, health, well-being. Emotions become unstable. “Coping strategies” turn into addictions. Things like “joy” and “passion” become abstractions one cannot relate to. Then they become just a cruel joke, like dangling a roast beef dinner in front a starving man and then yanking it away. Life becomes a never-ending slog. And the more the person knows they should be grateful for the good things in life, the more they feel like a failure.
The process by which a person falls apart is not much different from the process by which a relationship falls apart. After all, they are both social systems of communication, at different levels of scale.
Researchers such as John Gottman (of the “four horses of the apocalypse” fame) described clearly how dysfunctional patterns of communication reinforce each other, implicating emotions, thoughts, and escalating the tension and negativity in interpersonal experiences. It can play out in so many different ways. You may start to feel guilty, for everything. Even if you succeed, you feel guilty, selfish perhaps. The judgement and resentment builds, growing through criticism, conflict, stonewalling…Names fly around with increasing frequency, and volume….insensitive, selfish, crazy, a bitch, an asshole, a loser. Withdrawal and criticizing, become eye rolling and sighing and hard looks, which become yelling and slamming and leaving and cursing, which become hitting and throwing things and threatening………if humans are good at anything, it’s being terrible to each other.
Most people have experienced some degree of this; every family has skeletons in the closet; every relationship goes through difficult periods; every person goes through times in life when they are less stable than others. Which means, most people carry around some degree of “trauma”. But don’t think you can linearly extrapolate from the normal slings and arrows of life to genuine, deep, Trauma. There is an incalculable difference between the normal, inevitable hardships of life, and the truly mind-body-reorganizing effects of severe or long-term trauma.
And triggers? Yes, all it can take is a single smell, an image, a specific look on someone’s face, a phrase — and it all comes flooding back.
I remember once, a person telling me, “when I hear the words “jesus christ”, the IMMEDIATE reaction I get in my head is…someone screaming….”what the fuck is wrong with you?” Because that’s what always followed the words “jesus christ” when I was growing up.” They were told, over and over again that they were “disgusting”. This person had spent 30 years basically harming themselves, and was struggling to “heal”, but could barely even imagine what that actually meant. How do you “heal” when you are a disgusting? How do you “heal” when the people you love reject you because you, apparently, don’t have a single good quality?
Especially when, as the years roll on, you DO cause harm. To yourself. To others. You waste more time, burn more bridges. The guilt and shame and sense of failure pile up, as your waistline expands and your skin gets saggier and you feel more tired. You’ve put on 25 extra pounds, or 80, or 200. You’ve smoked another decade’s worth of cigarettes, done another decade of drugs, racked up more meaningless sex with people you can barely remember, broken more promises and destroyed more opportunities. Your failures pile up, your shame deepens. You hit life milestones, like turning 30, or 40, or 50, or retiring, or whatever, and you know that you never really got it together. Your life is half over, or more….and you STILL have not taken the reins and reclaimed your life.
And THEN (Yes, this gets more negative….but we’re almost done!), the REALLY HARD THINGS in life come along, and when they do, wooooweeee, they knock you on your ass. If you’re already barely functioning….this so often doesn’t end well. Just ask a homeless person, someone in jail, someone who hit bottom, someone who “fell apart”, someone who has walked that razor’s edge of suicide.
There is no guarantee that “everything will turn out well in the end”. No, it might not. Life IS hard. You WILL face all sorts of hardships. People will be cruel, will let you down. There will be fighting. You will feel betrayed by somebody. Relationships will end. You will get sick, and struggle with your health, maybe for the rest of your life. Your loved ones will suffer. And die. You will carry the pain of their loss and the growing loneliness that so often comes as one’s lifetime of memories are shared by fewer and fewer people.
….. I know this isn’t fun to think about, but hey man, this is Life. No sense pretending otherwise. The Buddha had very good reasons for emphasizing the First Noble Truth.
So, when the shit really hits the fan for you, what CAN you do? And if you already carry the scars of trauma, what CAN you do?
I don’t really know. I don’t know “the answers”. I’m sorry for that.
But I do think I know how this process starts. I hope by sharing all this, it helps someone and encourages you to share your own insights.