Posts Tagged ‘trauma’

Drama and socializing

September 28, 2014

Blogging is an important outlet for me, because I don’t often start conversations off-line. I was raised to wait to speak until spoken to, and to keep my answers short and to the point. I now see that upbringing as part of an abusive past, but the habits stick with me. Keeping up in conversation is also difficult for me, possibly because of autistic traits, though it’s hard to parse that out from the way I was raised.

I’m starting to develop an analytical grasp of dramatic rhythm and conversational skill, but only as an outsider looking in. My new job at a restaurant gives me a wealth of “people watching” opportunities to learn from, but when it comes to making conversation with coworkers I rely on a few considerate colleagues who reach out to me more often than the rest and aren’t bothered by awkward silences or blank stares in response to what seem to me to be inane conversation starters. They’re always the ones to initiate conversation, but they don’t seem to mind.

Lately my personal preoccupation with PTSD and other aspects of trauma has led me to feel a little jilted by the way people who don’t have PTSD seem to minimize my experiences in conversation, saying normalizing things about what happened instead of recognizing the gravity of the situation or the intensity of my fears and disorientation. But I’ve come up with a hypothesis for explaining some of those seemingly unfeeling reactions away.

Petty trauma is social drama, and conversation can’t continue without it. Finding dramatic rhythm in conversation involves storytelling, plot conventions, a climax and an anticlimax, and lots of repetitions and role reversals. Everyone gets a routine turn at airing a grievance, something exciting to talk about, an event. Alleging that your grievance dwarfs anyone else’s problem of the day is bad form.

Just getting through the day is supposed to be an adventure for everyone, and egalitarianism is strict in this regard. To be congratulated on your adventure narrative you have to have already slain your dragon and you have to show your scars with pride, not with self-pity. This is part of fitting in – you have to be prepared to minimize your own hardships and to carry on as if it were a normal day, if you want to be respected.


Conversation elevates the trivial to epic proportions on a routine basis, and the price everyone agrees to pay for this glamorization of minor insults is that major struggles are to be trivialized in turn, to maintain the illusion that everything anyone wants to talk about is fair game, to avoid the oppressive self-seriousness of formality and evaluative judgments. This is protective of everyone’s feelings on most days, but extremely demanding for those who are having a run of bad luck.

Compartmentalizing helps ease the strain of equalizing pressures and conformism a little. If you have a health problem, it’s just your doctor’s purview, and talking about it isn’t the same as talking about yourself, there’s sure to be a prescription and if it isn’t perfect that’s one of the ironies of talking about health. Talking about family is another compartment with rules favoring forgiveness and cohesion – it’s bad form to counsel someone against mending fences with family members. Family is supposed to be a bulwark against the vagaries of other social ties, and if you don’t have one to go to there are no substitutes.

But compartmentalizing eases tensions by formalizing social boundaries. Talking about health is different from talking about how you feel, it’s “just” a health problem and you have to be satisfied with the doctor’s solution and leave it at that really. A chronic condition with no cure is still “just” a health problem and you can’t keep talking about it indefinitely, you have to respect the fact that healthy people get bored with illness narratives quickly.

I’m bad at compartmentalizing lately. I’ve become resentful and suspicious about conventional wisdom and informal economics. I’m getting too strident to reason well as a social critic, too emotional. Everything seems related to me, the connections are intrusive and nagging rather than illuminating, and I have a constant feeling of information overload every time I sit down to write.


Part of me wants to become a Marxist and let my personal frustrations be subsumed in an ideological critique of capitalism that has a certain abstract coherence and reasonableness to it. Part of me wants to understand economic theory better than an idealogue would though, part of me is greedy for knowledge despite the information overload. I spend most of my free time with books.

I’m trying to spend more of my free time in conversation. I’ve joined a PTSD support group on the internet and that has helped me resolve the frustration I had with making myself understood when I need to talk about just how dismal I feel. I’ve decided to take up a meditation practice and focus on the concept of friendship when I meditate. And I’m trying to become more self-aware at work, more conscious of how I come across, more willing to do what it takes to fit in.

I want to learn more about dramatic rhythm and conversational form, and in search of a discipline that may begin by “examining listening as an activity” I got a lot out of these passages from a book I read recently about jazz piano playing and “talk” as such:

“Consider the guided hand at the piano .. The finger starts out for a note, then stops, backs off from another note, and then comes back to where it is being told to go.

[.. In time, the fingers needn’t be watched while they work.]

They feel the edges of adjacent keys not as treacherously named places to be avoided but with almost the degree of intimacy with which the fingers feel each other ..

You listen to another person speak in order to say what he is saying as quickly as he says it, repeating his sounds aloud, trying to stay in spatiotemporal touch with his speech, anticipating forthcoming places to second-guess his movements .. Your efforts to repeat involve you in talking when you need to listen still more; it is like trying to follow a dance step with your eyes and feet at the same time.”

I like the analogy between talk and piano playing, because one of my favorite piano pieces is in counterpoint, and it really feels as if your hands are having a conversation with each other to play it.


The author describes how the body ascertains and expresses a natural understanding of math, how we listen, and how we relate to each other as individuals when he describes the uneasy listening style characteristic of modern life:

“You listen to the voice to hear its nervousness.
You listen to identify the language.
You listen to see if you are interested.
You listen to be able to repeat it later.
You listen so as to write a piece of criticism.
You listen to show you are listening.
You listen for your turn to talk.”

Talk’s Body: A Meditation Between Two Keyboards

The analogy to music works for me because I used to study the piano and the viola, and I especially enjoyed the viola because it gave me more opportunities to perform counterpoint in an ensemble, where the instruments seem to talk to each other.

Lately I use music more as an emotional thermostat, and spend more time than I should on YouTube watching music videos and just zoning out.

“…we have developed a series of emotional thermostats as well, by far the most potent of which is television itself. Instead of really experiencing the highs and lows, pains and joys, that make up a life, many of us use TV just as we use central heating – to flatten our variations, to maintain a constant ‘optimal’ temperature.”

– Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information

Some days it seems therapeutic and needful, others just a bad habit. I’d rather be relating to my favorite films with a solid critical distance for analytical appraisal. To have a response to film is important to me. But right now I just don’t have the self-discipline to compose a good film review.

That frustrates me – not having anything to say for myself here on wordpress. This is a fandom blog, and lately I’ve only been using fan references for emphasis, not to explore film subjects in depth. I’m hoping it’s just a phase and that I’ll pull out of it before long.

“Those that love with irony, last.”

September 23, 2014

I’ve used this space to explore trauma at length lately, and I’m starting to want to move away from that topic again and back into “aspie anthropologist” mode. But I do have a few things left to say about PTSD and trauma services, so I’ll try and develop a segue from trauma topics back into my usual musings on the arts and sciences.

Trauma is central to relationships in Freudian theory, a catalyst to the maturation of primary relationships in childhood and a subliminal impulse operating under the surface of erotic love relations. To possess love is to annihilate the competition for one’s love, and to be loved is to be consumed by another to the destruction of one’s integrity as an individual.

In my experience, love is intimately related to fear. To be loved is to hold fear of abandonment over someone, and to assert oneself within a love relationship is to inspire fear and resist being taken for granted with physical force. There is no respect for autonomy that isn’t backed up by the power to inspire awe, either through threat displays or through competitive accomplishments and prestigious appointments, socioeconomic importance.

Love dwells in the deep shadows of adventure, more present in adversity than its reward.

Patronage politics holds sway in my family. Might is right and authority is charismatic, in the sense that only the person in charge talks about themselves and sets themselves up to be admired. Escapism is dissociative and dysfunctional, submission is taken for granted and punished as a dependency-parasitism. Ritual reenactments of violence through empty threats and rote accusations maintain the pecking order in spite of a one-sided distribution of resources.

That was the dyadic relationship style I left behind after my mother was arrested. You could say that I was always trying to usurp my mother’s control over her own earnings because I felt at home in her house and wanted to enjoy autonomy there as if I owned the place. Like an Oedipal conflict between same-sex parent and child, or an Elektra complex complete with absent father and unmarried daughter.

Trauma wasn’t just a catalyst in our relationship, it was a currency. I was preoccupied with whether or not my mother had broken any of my bones in a long series of beatings with heavy objects like a hammer or a cast iron skillet, and she was preoccupied with the likelihood that she could get away with murdering me if she ever got worked up enough to actually do it. She was impatient with me for skulking in her house like an anonymous stranger and bringing no friends home to meet her, and she was disgusted with me for being the sort of person who would not be missed if I disappeared.

The mistake we make is to attribute to religions the errors and fanaticism of human beings. —Tahar Ben Jelloun

Disgust is a way of enforcing fidelity to the values we hold true, and of someone who never gets disgusted we might ask, “don’t you discriminate at all?” Out of the furnace of my mother’s tantrums I secretly became very particular in my likes and dislikes, obscurantist in my cultural affiliations and self-indulgent in my tastes. Superficially passive and ready to go along with anything, I developed an inner life defined by convoluted ideas and idiosyncratic pursuits.

Inequalities are reconciled by compensating strengths and specialization of labor, and I cultivated skills that were specialist to a fault. I cultivated weaknesses too, zones of dependency that gratified my mother’s appetite for power and left me ill-prepared for living independently.

In The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf writes of her ghost, “She didn’t trust these names, oh no. She didn’t trust herself. She was doubtful, amid our toxic swirl of new name-giving; what she doubted was the reality of the names, though seldom accurate and that, even if it is accurate, name and thing coincide only for a short time. She shrank from stamping any name on herself [..] What are you going to be Krischan? A human being? Well, you know…”

That tenuousness to belonging is very familiar to me, that listlessness about what to say in a social situation, the tendency to second guess every possibility and offer no satisfying alternative, that inquisitive shrug that is neither indifferent nor convinced of anything yet, a life of examination that falls short of drawing any conclusions worth speaking up about, disapproving of conventionality but inhabiting it, too.

I like what Walter Bagehot wrote about the disincentives to openly discussing one’s aims or reasoning: “‘Democracy’, it has been said in modern times, ‘is like the grave: it takes, but it does not give’. The same is true of ‘discussion’. Once effectually submit a subject to that ordeal and you can never withdraw it again; you can never again clothe it with mystery, or fence it by consecration; it remains for ever open to free choice, and exposed to profane deliberation.”

Obscurantisms restore a little mystery to conversation, like a word borrowed from another language. Obscure fan references protest the inadequacy of names for things by invoking whole works of art with the stubborn enthusiasms of someone who thinks the reader’s understanding will never be complete until they’ve seen the movie or read the book.

These overelaborate metaphors and allusions exploit the vague depths of incongruous comparisons and celebrate an overextended feeling of affinity central to fandom. To not put it into one’s own words instead is to insist that art is present in everyday experience as a constellation of reference points suspended above the mundane in the imagination.


If you love what you see of yourself in someone else, you would theoretically expect to find something of your self that you love in others as well; but there is a reflex for snapping back onto the particular person as beloved, because you have a sound instinct for insisting there’s a there there, even if each person’s individual experience and identity is in another sense a confluence of external forces in the grand scheme of things.

Contingency is the rational power to explain away love, and it puts the fear into awe when nothing else does. Need compels love, but pity corrupts love. To receive love is to be reminded of how rare it is. What is mundane about love is animal in its ferocity and fecundity, and what is imaginative about love is trivial in its narcissism and illusory quality. All this is very dull because it’s so abstract, where a fan reference would be vivid and vehement, and at least still vehement if it were inscrutable.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens

“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.”

Blogging for me is both an overture to friendship and a practice in isolation, both sharing and journaling, both conversation and monologue. I’ve probably been making too many allusions for good conversation lately, but disclosing about trauma is a very isolating experience for me, alienating and unsatisfying. It feels needful but unpleasant. I’m impatient to move on.

As a writer, I think wanting to be seen for who you really are comes to mean settling for the distant hope that some people will get to know you well enough to notice the truth about things you couldn’t tell them persuasively yourself, because so much of experience is idiosyncratic yet one must form preconceptions about what is believable out of the commonalities.


Reducing burdens of enforced privacy comes at an exact price: you must make the grounds of validation mutual even in your own mind, and reduce your sense of conviction that your personal authority as a knower differs qualitatively from theirs. You must make deciding what to say for yourself more like listening for what they have to say.

Complaining about trauma is all about distinguishing a private experience of fear and pain from the common lot, claiming to be different in what you have seen and felt, asserting a kind of secrecy about what you have to say – that it can be described but not understood. To get out of this loop of introspection “for display only” I’ll have to acknowledge that traumas are a universal experience, and build a common vocabulary for how I feel from there.

Negotiating the ironies of attachment and disillusionment is part of the project of understanding love and detachment, belonging and alienation. I’ve been meaning to pursue a more formal approach to film criticism here, too, something less subjective and more transparent than the way I usually write about film.

I think the best place to begin that transition is to take an ironic look at fandom as a way of relating to art, self-situating as an implicated participant. Escapism and the dissociative side of trauma experience are strongly related to fandom for me, so I’ll try to work them into this multi-part segue out of the territory of extended monologue.

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.