My last post contained a rather lengthy quote from Dr. Louis Tinnin and Dr. Linda Gantt’s new book The Instinctual Trauma Response & Dual-Brain Dynamics. I wanted to give you a flavor of their writing and to let them introduce their thesis, unblurred by my analysis or interpretation. I hope that you took the challenge and read the quoted material. No matter if you didn’t. I’ll be spending this post and several upcoming posts discussing the material.
This book has helped me see that I am still acting out parts of the instinctual trauma cycle begun in infancy. In Tinnin and Gantt’s view, the trauma cycle has basically six components: startle, fight/flight, freeze, altered state of consciousness, automatic obedience (submission) and self-repair. Any one of these components can become symptoms of post-traumatic stress (20).
It’s actually a bit freaky to see how locked into certain aspects of trauma I still am. For example, over the course of my life, I’ve had a tendency to give up easily on things that I want. If I try for something I feel passionate about and can’t get it on the first try, I’ll give up. I’ll rationalize why I didn’t want it in the first place or why it wasn’t really important to me. Quite the opposite is true though.
I believe this behavior is linked to the early trauma. As an infant being readied for stomach surgery at twenty-six days young, I was restrained for intubation. I tried to flee but struggled to no avail. A tube was forced into my throat and a machine breathed me, my sense of agency dealt a severe blow. That early bondage and failure to free myself affected me deeply. Consider an example from Tinnin and Gantt’s book that describes the experience of a three-day-old baby girl who had an operation to correct pyloric stenosis, or a blockage in the stomach, as I did:
“She was securely restrained and—as was the practice of the time with infants—the surgery was done without pain control. Pancuronium, a curare-type paralyzing drug, was administered. She collapsed into immobility and gave the appearance of being anesthetized. She could not fight the intubation of a respiratory tube into her windpipe, and her protest must have been converted into an instinctual freeze. After surgery, the freeze state returned in episodes of unresponsiveness. This persisted for a few days and it seemed she might die. Finally, she revived and became able to take milk from a bottle and hold it down” (20).
Tinnin and Gantt state that the medical profession viewed this outcome as a success. However, the authors believe that if they worked with this person at say age fifty, she would have had “life-long neuroticism, heightened vulnerability to trauma, and would possibly present with complex PTSD or a dissociative disorder” (20). In other words, her life would have been a tortured one. What would her view of her own life be? Likely different than that of the professionals. How I wish I could speak with her.
My life up until age twenty-six, when I found a therapist who could help me, was plagued with depression, self-harm, severe self-doubt, anger, delinquent acting out, eating disorders, a smoking addiction, suicidal ideation and several suicide attempts. Of course, that’s not all my life was composed of. I enjoyed school, loved sports, had many friends, was a baton twirler in high school, was accepted into an Ivy League school for college, worked at several jobs successfully while attending high school and college. I had, what might be termed, many successes. With each success or high, however, there was a significant low. My life see-sawed drastically until therapy in my mid-twenties.
I suffered from an inability to believe in my own agency. I was engaged in a continual fight against what I thought was my brokenness. Is this suffering connected to the early instinctual trauma response, the thwarted attempt at escape, the inability to protect myself ? Of course. It has everything to do with it. Louis and Gantt have helped me realize that symptoms of PTSD, i.e. unresolved trauma, are not personality traits. I am not my somatic freeze. I am not my tendency to give up. I am something more. I’m excited about the real parts of me that I am discovering. When trauma resolves, our true nature, which is quite beautiful, breaks through!