To get through the effects of trauma, it is useful to go back to a time when you felt safe and loved in the world, a time when you were a shark, powerful and cared for.
What happens, though, when you don’t have a memory of that time when people looked at you with adoration, putting you at the centre of the world, focused on helping you blossom? What do you do if life was dangerous and terrifying from your earliest days and you scraped for the kind of affirmation and touch that your reptilian and mammalian brain needed to develop well?
In “The Body Keeps The Score,” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talks about his experience with Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor therapy (PBSP), a technique developed by Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden-Pesso since 1961.
In PBSP, a facilitator works with a group of people to re-enact experiences, creating a tableau in the therapy space which helps create new organizing structures for a participant. By helping them to experience and understand past events on a physical level they can build new ways to interpret their world, beyond the deep old hurts.
With my experience of doing things for myself, I explored what this work might feel like, how I might respond. It was very emotional for me, powerful and evocative as I created a virtual space and placed people in it, opening to my reactions.
I saw my mother, full of pain, anger, frustration and self pity, not wanting to go near her. I saw my father, kind and loving, but addled around language, not having the tools to create healthy structures that included a family.
What did I want my ideal father to say to my mother? “You are not allowed to hurt these people. You are not allowed to soak them in your own crippling pain and futility.”
When I imagined my real father in this structure, though, my heart went out to him, an intensely sweet man doing his best to care for a family he loved deeply in the face of a hurricane of self-loathing.
In PBSP, one person enrols as observer, someone to stand with you through the experience. They provide external affirmation and validation of the emotional experience, allowing you to viscerally understand that no one is alone.
In my internal session, though, I felt the rage rise. I was angry, angry, angry at this observer.
“Can’t you see what is happening here? Can’t you see the pain, the destruction and the damage? How can you let this sweet man be hurt? How can you tolerate what is being done to the kids? How can you let my mother suffer like that? These are my family and they are soaking in pain! I am doing everything I can, working so hard! Can’t you help? Can’t anyone help?”
I wasn’t focused on myself, I was focused on helping my family. I was a kid, without help, in a family cut off from social structures — no extended family, no neighbourhood, no friends — and I couldn’t stop the events.
I remembered when I agreed to go to therapy at twelve, but only if they would also help my parents. I remembered my uncle, as we met him in Arizona when I was 16, telling me I was driving my parents apart, and me responding that I was only revealing the breach that was already there.
My deepest, most primal emotions were immense sadness over two tender people who I knew saw the world in a different way, even if I had never heard of Dr. Asperger’s work, and who I knew were abandoned by the community around them. They were prickly and hard to help, responding in ways others saw as odd and off-putting, but they were my parents, lovable and loved by me.
I couldn’t find anyone to get it, couldn’t find anyone to help. That experience of the world continued as I took care of them until their deaths, being there to buffer and mitigate the world around them. That experience continues today as I work so hard to find language to explain, look to find people who can understand and reciprocate my feelings and end up still struggling alone.
In the structure I need to build, I need not just an observer who sees and acknowledges but also someone who comes in to provide comfort, affirmation and assistance. I need to have a deep belief, beneath my left brain language and rationality, that when I cry out, someone will be there to help.
In PBSP, this is often seen as the ideal mother, the one who can be there for us, not my real mother who even in her last year wanted to tell me that “sometimes your father put you kids’ needs before mine and that hurt me and made me angry.” I smiled, concierge and therapist, knowing she needed to express her pain, but the child inside of me was cut to the core again. We were kids, damnit, we needed taking care of! But I knew she was right, that her experience was of suffering and had no one who could help her.
In my creation stories, I talk about “my mother in the sky,” the one who gave birth to my soul and not my body, the mother who loves me beyond the embodied world of flesh. I see her in the moon and know that she is always there for me.
She is a part of the ideal mother, yes, but only ideal beyond embodiment. That makes my experience very, very separate.
Not having an embodied mother and not seeing how my mother, as Aspie as she was would ever be embodied in the world, left me feeling disembodied.
I’m not, though, of course, being as human as any of my siblings on this big blue marble. And my body keeps the score, as Dr van der Kolk reminds me.
Struggling to find help & safety with embodiment has been a lifetime struggle. My experience, buried deep in my basic brain structures, is of frustration.
Why will no body help?