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COMING HOME TO SELF
By Nancy Newton Verrier
Gateway Press Inc.Copyright © 2003 Nancy Newton Verrier
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeparation Trauma
Although more and more attention is being paid to the effects of trauma on the human psyche, separation between mother and child is rarely recognized as a trauma. Authors have written about rape, incest, battering, the holocaust, natural disasters, and war, but not about perhaps the most devastating trauma of all: being separated from one's mother at the beginning of life. Yet, when else in life is one so helpless and in need of the one person to whom one feels connected-the one who is still part of the Self? The fact that the mothers of these babies were discouraged from seeing, touching, or being available to their infants meant that no one paid attention to the babies' crying and going into shock.
Fortunately, there are now means to measure some of the physical responses to this trauma, such as monitoring blood pressure, heart rate, and neurological changes. A drop in the serotonin level and elevations in adrenaline and cortisol levels have been noted in many trauma victims. According to lames Prescott, "One of the brain neurochemical transmitter substances-serotonin-has been shown to be significantly reduced under conditions of failed mother-infant bonding" (Prescott, 1997). This reduced serotonin level influences conditionedavoidance, sleep regulation, and impulse control (van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996), all problems which are often mentioned by adoptees. Brain imagining can also bring insight into the ways in which dendrites and axons connect to form synapses in the developing brain, and how that is affected by the environment and by emotional trauma.
Manifestations of Trauma
What is trauma and how does it manifest in the lives of its victims? Trauma is reality. Trauma is not an intrapsychic phenomenon which results in neurosis. Trauma is part of the history of the victim and can affect all aspects of the victim's life thereafter. "Trauma can affect victims on every level of functioning: biological, psychological, social, and spiritual" (van der Kolk, et al., 1996). This is what I tried to convey in my first book. It seems so obvious, and yet the unavailability of conscious recall of the event by the victims themselves has certainly contributed to many of the misperceptions about relinquishment and adoption. As we look at the ways in which trauma manifests in the lives of its victims, you can decide for yourselves if separation from mother is indeed a trauma.
Trauma is an event in the life of the victim which overwhelms her ordinary human adaptations to life. Who could be more easily overwhelmed than a helpless newborn infant whose very existence was tied symbiotically to that of her mother? An infant has no way to adapt to the sudden disappearance of its mother/self, especially when it has just entered a world which no longer includes the safety of the mother's womb. Anyone except this original mother, whose rhythms and resonance the infant knows and is in tune with, is foreign and dangerous. Just as a transplant patient needs special medications to keep from rejecting the foreign organ, adoptees need special emotional responses to overcome the impulse to reject the "foreign" family.
In her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman tells us, "Traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail ... the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized" (1992). The baby who cannot get his mother back, despite his cries (protesting her disappearance and beseeching her return), is helpless, overwhelmed, thrown into chaos, and eventually goes into shock. Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of Magical Child and Evolution's End, reminds us that it takes about 45 minutes for an infant separated from his mother to go into shock (Pearce, 1992). After rage comes despair and then shock. This helplessness turns to hopelessness and a belief that the world is not safe. One cannot trust. Babies in incubators may experience the same sense of helplessness, where "neither resistance nor escape is possible" (Herman, 1992). While all kinds of physically and emotionally painful procedures are perpetrated upon these infants, there is nothing they can do. Defenses against any future reoccurrence of these traumas are being put into place, many of which are almost impossible to eradicate from the psychological/neurological systems.
Symptoms of Traumatic Response
There are definite responses to trauma that help to differentiate traumatic events from ordinary difficult circumstances. One is the persistent intrusion of memories traces related to the trauma that often interfere with attending to other incoming information. In their wonderful little book A General Theory of Love, Lewis, Amini, and Lannon say, "If an emotion is sufficiently powerful, it can Quash opposing networks so completely that their content becomes inaccessible" (2000). In other words, given a choice, our brains conjure up old responses to new events that bear even a slight resemblance to old painful experiences. The authors go on to say, "Because his mind comes outfitted with Hebbian memory (neurons that fire together wire together) and limbic attractors, a person's emotional experience of the world may not budge, even if the world around him changes dramatically." This is the reason that even the best of adoptive mothers often cannot eliminate anxiety about abandonment in her children.
Another response is the tendency to compulsively expose oneself to situations reminiscent of the original trauma (called repetition compulsion). Juxtaposed to this compulsion is the avoidance of any situation which might evoke the emotions of the original traumatic event. This usually results in the numbing of emotions. Because there are elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol in the body, one loses the ability to utilize the bodily signals as a means of modulating one's physiological responses to stress: in other words, the fight or flight signal is always on, so that one can't rely on it to tell if danger is actually present. (Herman, van der Kolk, et al.) These symptoms can result in behavior which is often interpreted as personality changes, such as disturbed affect regulation, aggression against self and/or others, dissociative problems, somatization, and an altered relationship with self and others (van def Kolk, et al., 1996). The problem for adoptees, as will be discussed in more detail later, is that there is no "pre- trauma self" to which they can refer. This lends itself even more to the belief that the post-traumatic coping behavior is representative of the personality.
Furthering the difficulties for victims of trauma is their inability to regulate their arousal levels. There is a restlessness, a perceived need to be constantly on the alert, although in the case of early trauma, the victim seldom knows what the danger is. Herman states, "Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory." Hypervigilance and hyperarousal are manifestations of separation trauma. Adoptees can attest to their constant need for vigilance. There is a prevailing feeling of dread, a need to be on the alert for disaster. Because this hypervigilance is continuous, the world is seen as an unsafe place. Van der Kolk, et al. state, "These hyperarousal phenomena represent complex psychological and biological processes, in which the continued anticipation of overwhelming threat seems to cause difficulties with attention and concentration" (1996). This is evident in adoptees' problems with focusing (especially in school). They are easily distracted and have difficulty with stimulus discrimination. The inability to discriminate among the various stimuli constantly occurring in the environment means that adoptees, as well as other trauma victims, have difficulty sorting out relevant from irrelevant stimuli. What most of us would ignore, they must check out as a possible danger. Van der Kolk contends that this makes it difficult for individuals to respond flexibly to the environment and that this loss of flexibility "... may explain current findings of deficits in preservative learning and interference with the acquisition of new information" (1996). This may explain why so many adoptees are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD).
The Formation of Beliefs To make things more difficult, the emotion of the traumatic event often gets disconnected from the memory (if there is a memory). For most adoptees, the trauma takes place during the period of childhood amnesia or implicit memory. This means that the events of their lives are having a profound effect on their perceptions and on neurological connections in the brain, but there will be no recall of the events. Many adoptees, as well as birth mothers, will react to a reminder of the traumatic event as if it were the event happening in the present. For adoptees, who experienced their trauma before conscious memory, these are feelings and emotions which they can't seem to connect to any event. These are the implicit memories (which will be explained in more detail in the next chapter), which influence one's sense of Self and others, one's emotional responses and behavior, and in some cases physiological responses without there being any hint about the cause of these manifestations. Feelings of anger, hostility, panic, and sadness can come, seemingly, out of nowhere.
Dissociation often occurs, accompanied by distortions in perceptions. These distorted perceptions become disorganized and imprinted as beliefs about oneself. The "defective baby" belief is one of these. Because babies instinctively know that mothers don't give up their babies, most adoptees seem to blame themselves for their own relinquishment. This belief is consistent with the way that children respond to trauma. As van der Kolk, et al. say, "Many traumatized individuals, especially children, tend to blame themselves for having been traumatized" (1996). The "bad baby" belief allows the child to organize in his own distorted way something which had been completely disorganized. The inexplicable begins to make sense, and the victim can believe that he or she was not completely helpless in the situation. (If I had been a better baby I would not have lost my mother.) There is the illusion of control and the preservation of the idea of the birth parent as good. Yet there is an altered perception of self and others. This is manifest in a sense of being unworthy, flawed, undeserving. Equally distorted are the adoptee's perceptions about others who matter in her life. The adoptive mother seems to bear the most distortion, probably because she was the first person with whom the adoptee interacted and because she was not the mother to whom the baby was connected.
When traumatic events become disconnected from their source, as is the case in any trauma happening in infancy, they begin to take on a life of their own. For example, a child waiting for his mother to pick him up from school begins to feel anxious when she is late. He doesn't associate that anxiety with the fact that once a long time ago his first mother disappeared, never to be seen again. He just knows that he becomes more and more anxious, until he begins to feel panicky. Most adoptees' symptoms take on a life of their own because they were too young to remember the original precipitating event. However, because trauma itself produces amnesia surrounding the event, even those children who were old enough to remember the separation will seldom connect it to their panic about mother's being late to pick them up from school or baseball practice. For this reason, being late is a grave offense against adoptees.
It is important for adoptees to understand the amnesia aspect of trauma before they get angry at their birth mothers for not remembering exactly what day they were born or the events surrounding the birth and surrender. Many birth mothers, being traumatized themselves by the separation from their babies, have very hazy memories of the birth and the days following that event. Even if the connection is made cognitively, the intellectual understanding for the anxiety doesn't always do away with the fearful feelings. That's because the reptilian brain is in charge of the responses to trauma. The reptilian brain acts nanoseconds before the neocortex, which could add reason to the mix. The reptilian brain is the survival brain, in charge of the four Fs: fight, flight, freeze, and ... er ... reproduction. If one responds to one of those messages before one can think, difficulties often arise.
"Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context: rather, they are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images" (Herman). A lack of verbal narrative makes memories difficult or impossible to talk about. It would be especially true of adoptees, who, at the time of the traumatizing event, were not yet able to speak. But even if the trauma occurred later, when speech had been mastered, the events surrounding a trauma are difficult to put into words. This may be why war veterans seldom talk about the war, or holocaust victims about the camps. When an experience defies the human brain's capacity to integrate it, it floats around without context in the never-never land of dissociated images, vivid sensations, and puzzling behavior. It is like living in one's nightmare. And no one is immune to trauma. Because trauma has the element of surprise, it can happen to anyone. Not only that, but specific events often cause specific responses in trauma victims. The consequences of trauma are predictable.
The Consequences of Trauma
There are three main consequences of a traumatic event. They are terror, disconnection, and captivity. Using Herman's model, which I believe fits the abandonment experience the best, it will become evident how these characteristics apply to the trauma of the separation between mother and child.
The immediate response to trauma is terror. Something is not right and no amount of effort makes it right. In the case of the separated child, the inability to reestablish connection to the mother is a terrifying experience. Infants who are placed in hospital nurseries experience this terror to some extent. Babies live in the moment: they do not know that in time they will again be with mother. The same is true for infants in daycare. They have no object constancy, the ability to hold mother in memory when she is absent. Every separation from the mother seems like forever for the infant. This is terrifying.
Some of the physical responses to terror are an elevation in pulse rate and blood pressure, as documented by Kate Burke Cleary in a 1995 unpublished study of 400 infants in a San Francisco hospital titled "Before Attachment: The Effect of Infant/Mother Separation on Adopted Newborns." Sleep disturbance, irritability, and gastro-intestinal problems are also noted in babies separated from their mothers. There may be elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol circulating throughout the central nervous system, which makes this experience more pronounced and may result in memory traces being more deeply imprinted
Even in situations where the mother and baby will be going home together, the practice of putting babies in the nursery, instead of keeping them with their mothers, creates tension and fear for the babies, and a sense of sadness and unease for the mothers. In extreme cases, that separation can result in post-partum depression for mothers and a difficulty in bonding between mother and child. At the very time when the mother and baby should be bonding, they are in separate rooms yearning for one another. In the case of premature births, there is an even longer separation, which often results in a wound which resembles that of adoptees: an impaired bond and a lack of trust in the mother's ability of meet the needs of her child and to protect her from danger.
Excerpted from COMING HOME TO SELF by Nancy Newton Verrier Copyright © 2003 by Nancy Newton Verrier. Excerpted by permission.
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