Archive for August, 2014

From compartmentalizing to repression

August 31, 2014

The process of memory repression is just an extension of the mind tricks involved in compartmentalizing, a tendency for “working memory” to neglect and habitually omit experiences that interrupt the everyday rather than belonging to it.

A failure to integrate traumatic events with one’s normal expectations and day to day habits – a lack of preparedness to respond cogently to threat – can become chronic, until recollection of the events in question only occurs in a dissociative mood at odds with reality-testing and everyday functioning, until remembering is a symptom of succumbing to cognitive distortions that extend the edges of fear in all directions like imaginary lines on a global map.

My dissociative worldview posits an accessible alternate universe best described as “safe and sound,” as if the leap of faith involved in making a trauma disclosure invokes magical thinking and my fears could be expunged merely by exposing them to the light. Sustaining silence about the trauma with which I tend to be preoccupied is like waiting for a bubble to burst, suspending disbelief in the promise of a transformed reality just waiting to be unveiled.

My integrated worldview posits instead a monotony of bystander indifference easily stirred up to contempt by countertransference any time I bring up my past in an attempt to elicit social support. I’d actually be safer, less disorganized and less isolated if I jettisoned the “just world” hypothesis for good.

What sort of monstrosity would I be free to nourish in myself if I did? The capacity to miss the excitements of being victimized, the capacity to be bored with what isn’t traumatic, the gruesome revenge fantasies of someone who has developed a taste for the smell of blood, the vicarious pleasure of mastery in crimes to which I was the ambivalent bystander.

The Ferris Wheel

.. You’re thinking that you
mustn’t imagine the wheel as a circle
but as a music releasing the mind from its curfew.

when the cogs skipped – that’s why you’d stopped –

just long enough to know how the runt feels

             on the outskirts of the litter;
long enough to know the exact chilliness
of a prison, how cold a metallic bar feels to the fingers?

            But then the cage shivers and begins again
to move, the faces below becoming huge, arriving
so fast you can see the mechanic’s greasy overalls,
his loose-limbed boredom, his flashy ruby ring.

            And you remember, are remembering,
the way your father stood there in the dazzling sun
laughing at the way you never want to get off, even though
the wheel had stopped to let more children on.

– Jennifer Harrison

Freud’s personal obsession with childhood trauma led to a theory of developmental psychology that glamorizes relatively banal upsets to the “innocence regime” of childhood as formative traumas, elevating the everyday to intellectual significance and naturalizing the cognitive content of abnormal psychology. But therapeutic practice is still in tension over the politics of child abuse allegations and the question of what should be affirmed in trauma disclosures.

Practitioners now fear countersuits from an aggressive defendants’ organization known as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and assiduously avoid involving the police in the resolution of troubling memories of violence. They may even offer antipsychotics specifically to suppress traumatic memories, counseling clients to overcome their paranoid preoccupation with imagined abuse.

“Down in the dirt, children played safely in the shadow of a noose, while the aging judge prayed for a vision in the morning coolness of his naked wooden chambers. They had shoot-em-ups and ran shrieking from the sun, hiding in the cottonwoods, out of breath and pretending to load guns.

“His face was scarred with the anguish and hatred of injured parties. He saw with no-one’s eyes all the living, all the dead. There was no joy in his work, no satisfaction from his needful efforts. Only consequences.”

– Viggo Mortensen, Linger

PTSD was originally carved out of the schizophrenic patient population by the Veteran’s Administration as a special case to protect combat survivors from the standard of care allotted to all patients with psychotic symptoms. What to do with the sequelae of trauma for non-combat veterans remains a largely unresolved problem in clinical practice.

Delusions of reference can simply arise from hyper-alert anxiety and a narrowed ability to scan the environment that de-contextualizes perceptions and makes interpreting them as directed at one’s personal attention tempting even if it would logically be a stretch, were the context noticed. Modern antipsychotics operate on the perception of salience (whether or not one’s perceptions are relevant to the self) and can dampen reactive responses to heightened salience even if the pattern of interpretation is not well-controlled. They have off-label uses for PTSD treatment.

However, the treatment effect is notoriously difficult to differentiate from sedative side effects, as is the case with older antipsychotics and often antidepressants. The treatment effect of antipsychotics is also cross-listed (rephrased) as a side-effect of general disinterest in one’s surroundings, unresponsiveness, and flat affect. This can be seen as a serious problem with everyday functioning, but it does confer a measure of resilience to be unflappable under pressure.


Object relations theory in psychoanalysis provides another angle on psychotic symptoms of PTSD, in connection with the way built environments and social conventions incorporate “disinterested signage” that passers-by have the option of taking personally. If you’re not paying close enough attention or your concentration is failing due to stress or exhaustion, you make mistakes about which traffic signs apply to you as you pass them by. A passive environment can seem to be animated with pervasive threats if cognitive distortions are shaping your perceptions and interpretations.

Isolation itself is a reliable predictor of florid psychotic symptoms (including seemingly preposterous hallucinations, not just a sense of paranoia), as is chronic insomnia. PTSD victims are often socially withdrawn, heightening their vulnerability to psychotic episodes. Sleep problems are especially common in this patient population.

I have four dogs to declare:
one is already buried in the garden,
two others keep me on my toes,
tiny wild
with thick paws and hard canines
And one scruffy dog,
fair-haired in her gracious manner.
She barks only late at night
so that just a few chosen hidden persons
hear her on the roads
or in other dark places.

– Neruda

Countertransference is normal outside therapy, in fact it is just what drives people into the refuge of clinical therapy. The topic can feel less profoundly alarming if we talk only about shortfalls in compassionate nursing care that shorten the disappointing much-examined human life, among those who can afford the most attentive medical insurance bookings on the market. Incremental gains in quality of service can be made if the problem is studied closely.

Informal social norms are more accidental, more final in their distribution of externalities. Grief, guilt, despair and dissociation flow freely into poverty traps and circulate their narrow corridors like comic book villains in a victim-blaming morality tale about vicious cycles.


We are avoidant when we care, and cannot even tell we care until we hear ourselves extend the trust involved in framing doubt as a loving regard for someone who ought to know you would listen to them, if they knew what was good for your heart and told other truths instead of dwelling on the feeling of having been wronged.

What in mere flame-wars among experts are called logical fallacies and “cognitive biases” are types of intellectual mistakes reflecting the level of misjudgment that would be pathologized if it caused problems outside the context of a qualified expert’s professional opinion, i.e. an idle academic debate. Those with up-to-date professional certification get a pass, whereas in real life, if it has to be formally adjudicated, a mistake is taken seriously. The parallels between pathologizing and litigating disputes over conclusion-based choices are unmistakable.

But there is a facile level of personal greed invested in cries of injustice, a me-first attitude that beggars compassion and resolutely rejects healthy distractions from the joined projects of mourning and vengeance. Pathologizing complaint in those who lack the means to bring charges in court is nearly a common sense solution to a neoliberal dilemma in the allocation of public resources. A neat little example of triage.

Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives. ~ Maya Angelou

Do other people’s children have malicious design features? For someone preoccupied with childhood memories, I have relatively little interest in childhood as an experience, and tend to look at actual children with a mixture of awe and disdain for the amount of caretaking labor they have at their command. They’re like black holes, with bottomless appetites for money and time, and a sublime level of ingratitude for everything that already belongs to them.

“Nought loves another as itself,
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to Thought
A greater than itself to know:

And Father, how can I love you
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.”

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Sincerity, says I. A. Richards, is “obedience to that tendency which ‘seeks’ a more perfect order within the mind. When the tendency is frustrated (e.g., by fatigue or by an idea or feeling that has lost its link with experience, or has become fixed beyond the possibility of change) we have insincerity.”

Yet confusion can produce a kind of transitional ambiguity that is neither, receptive but not decidedly responsive yet, not yet preoccupied with convictions to which any fidelity can find friction with “the life of the spirit” and its inconstant aims.

Concretely, sincerity in one’s own thoughts is free of self-doubt, “as when we hate a bad smell,” and no less so when “we love what is beautiful,” though not all responses are above suspicion even with ourselves. So we ask what is good, and challenge our own understanding as far as we think helps, and we fear the depravities of someone who does not “hate a bad smell,” who “will not attain to sincerity.” It is in the desperate search for ways of measuring sincerity among ourselves that we resort to philosophical questions of the most extreme or most mundane nature, and to religion.

Man lives that list, that leaning in the will
No wisdom can forecast by gauge or guess,
The selfless self of self, most strange, most still,
Fast Furled and all foredrawn to No or Yes.

– Gerard Hopkins

But we are deeply ignorant of which are the bad smells, why we respond to some combinations of colors as lovely and others by the same common names in shade and shape of composition as garish or worse, and can only offer post hoc explanations of the vaguest sort. If the human eye can detect energy wavelengths “between 0.00038 and 0.00075 millimeters” Victoria Finlay writes, “these are magical numbers for our eyes and minds.”

A scientific list of phenomena by which an object perceived by the eye can “be colored” also registers as a silly catalogue for recitatives, perhaps complicated but not by that virtue convincing as better than analogy and new stuff for metaphor concerning the ways in which we already understand seeing, limited though those may be.


“But, in simple terms, coloring can be divided into two main causes” depending on whether light causes a chemical transition in the object perceived that brings about its particular color, or a physical feature (an uneven surface) refracts light without pigment transitions instead (as is true for peacock’s tails and mother-of-pearl, both colored by grooves, as well as the prismatic rainbows).

In the search for sincerity, there is time for analysis, even if the fruits of reflection are strange and somewhat bitter. In analysis, respect for the business of “having time for” can reemerge, maybe even respect for timeliness. Without good timing, their is no satisfaction in intercourse – no pleasure in conversation, no sense of resolution in the intersubjective. And sometimes the entire trick to timing is elision.