Several years ago, I made an appointment with a therapist to try and resolve some early trauma that was causing me trouble. After I explained what had happened, the therapist dismissed the incident, told me I was wrong about the experience being traumatic, pulled out the DSM-IV, and proceeded to methodically read to me from it. Needless to say, that therapeutic alliance was short-lived.
The incident I brought to that therapist had actually taken place one dull, rainy New England morning many years earlier. I suffered significant damage which I later learned from non-DSM-IV literature, had apparently impaired a number of cortical and limbic structures in my brain. I was 13 at the time, and of the 25 or so people who witnessed the incident, not a single one of them – me included – realized the severity of the damage that had occurred. It wasn’t until almost 40 years later, as I began researching panic attacks, trauma and social neuroscience that I realized the actual, factual truth of that injury.
Backstorying to the Future
To help set a clarifying context - trauma is often best assessed in context - let me first provide a bit of backstory. Shortly after I turned four, the only option for my father for being able to regulate a violent temper – the result of World War II “battle fatigue” - was to abandon me, my two sisters and my mother. Once it was clear my father was gone, and she was able to move us into a State-subsidized housing project, my mother was then left to struggle with her own demons. The end result was that my sisters and I were minimally-parented, poor, wild, unkempt children. In some strange, ironically benevolent way, this was actually okay, since most all of the other kids in the housing project and Kathrine Brennan Elementary School were all pretty much in the same rickety, single-parent, Aid-to-Dependent-Children boat.
However, when I turned thirteen that all changed. I began to be bussed to Susan S. Sheridan Junior High, a much larger school in an upper middle class neighborhood. The kids in my seventh grade class wore clean, fresh-pressed clothes to school, together with socks that matched, and shoes and sneakers without holes. They had full sets of the World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica sitting in custom-built bookcases in their dens and libraries at home. These new kids were clearly different than me, and I was different than them. But I longed not to be.
From day one, Mr. D’s first period Ancient History classroom at Sheridan was a place I dreaded walking in to. He gave lots of homework that required encyclopedia-reading and demanded lots of class participation. After the first day in Mr. D’s class I took a seat in the back of the room where I hoped the six kids seated in front of me would shield me from his line of sight.
“Why did Sparta engage in a conflict with Attica in the Peloponnesian War?” Mr. D asked on the morning in question. I stared down at the penciled carvings in the desktop, my adrenaline rising. Punctuating the ensuing silence, Phyllis Granoff, Eddie Modell and Sara Cosgrove immediately thrust their hands up in response. And then suddenly I heard my name called, sending my rising adrenaline levels even higher.
“Why did Sparta engage in a conflict with Attica in the Peloponnesian War?” Mr. D. asked me again by name. I sat in frozen silence unable to answer. This scenario repeated two more times, increasing the tension in the room until finally Asa Berkowitz sitting behind me, simply blurted out the answer in frustration: “Because they were afraid of the power building up in Athens at the time.”
Then Mr. D. called my name and angrily asked the question again.
In that moment, sitting frozen with shame and humiliation, this single incident significantly altered my neurology, making history an unsafe subject for me and school classrooms unsafe places to be in general. For the next six years I was unable to say another word in a formal classroom setting! The structures of my limbic system – among them, the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland - had instantly paired school classrooms as synonymous with grave threat. It left me essentially a barely functional autistic when it came to school; and all without anyone, including me, ever realizing it. And all without any real mal-intent on the part of any of the people involved.
This past Spring however, I discovered that the treatments I have been receiving for the neural disorganization that resulted from that seventh grade shaming have begun to pay dividends. In June, I was attending a seminar at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco entitled, The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain. My friend Sean and I were kibitzing in the back of a room filled with almost 1000 people, when suddenly I heard my name being called out by Dan Siegel, one of the two seminar presenters. Without the slightest bit of hesitation I immediately stood up, looked around the room, made eye contact with several people, smiled and waved joyfully – something that, had I been able to do it 40 years earlier in Mr. D’s seventh grade history class, could have pre-empted many years of significant pain and suffering.
In a future column I’ll explore some of the emerging therapeutic methods that actually have been effective in addressing and resolving this kind of traumatic disorganization. And by the way - being read to directly from the DSM-IV is not one of them.