Emotional Health

Molly Fisk: Benign Outcomes

3108339650_4cba05073b_zImage by Waywuwei via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the things that happens when you’ve been mistreated as a kid is that it’s hard to be able to imagine benign outcomes. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you were beaten by your dad, you learn to expect beatings. If your grandmother molested you, somewhere in the back of your mind you’ll be thinking that she’ll do it again — a conviction that persists even after she’s dead, even when you’re in your fifties and no one has hurt you in decades, because a child’s brain is so open and ready to make sense out of experience and hold on to it for future use.

This kind of learned pessimism is sneaky. Many people don’t know they carry it, and don’t see the way it spreads to other aspects of life. That phone ringing isn’t necessarily the IRS calling to schedule an audit, or the sheriff, to inform you your brother’s been killed in a hit and run. But for lots of survivors of childhood trauma, that’s where the mind goes first, over and over.

As you might imagine, this tends to color how we lead our lives, adding a dollop of fearfulness to everyday experience that I happen to think is not just debilitating and sad but is also a health risk. The constant stress of being subliminally wary when facing the unknown jacks up our adrenaline, so we’re always in a low-grade fight or flight mode, ready to jump into action that is almost never required.

Take this result of childhood abuse and multiply it by how many of us have been abused in some way — sexual, physical, verbal, emotional; the current statistics from the CDC are one in three American women and one in four American men — and you have a lot of stressed out, pessimistic people, most of whom don’t know anything’s wrong, or attribute their feelings to something besides abuse. We’re ending up in cardiac wards, anger management classes, and prisons. We take a lot of anti-depressants and consume quite a bit of the world’s marijuana, crack, heroin, and alcohol. I was clean and sober when I started working on this stuff, so I skipped the heroin — my choices for self-medication were Prozac and ice cream.

The good news is this condition is pretty simple to change. It takes practice, like anything else, and feels awkward when you start, but it’s not hard. The part that’s hardest for people, usually, is admitting that what happened to them as kids might still be having an effect on their lives. We want to be grown up and capable, we don’t want to think we’re at the mercy of some stupid junk from the past we’d prefer not to even remember.

Trust me on this one. If you have any abuse in your history, you probably have a hard time looking into the future and seeing realistic happy endings, and you rely on things outside yourself to soothe that hopeless feeling. I say realistic because the Disney endings our culture promotes every day on television are not helpful.

So here’s what you do. The next time the phone rings, you make up a better story. It’s not the sheriff or the IRS, it’s your best friend calling, or one of your kids to say she loves you. Insert your own  realistic positive idea here. It needs to be realistic because otherwise your brain will start scoffing at you for being a Pollyanna. I tried one where the person on the phone was going to tell me I’d won a MacArthur Genius grant, which is actually at the very outside edge of possibility for me as a poet, but it was too much of a stretch: my brain rebelled.

The other good time to practice is when someone says they need to talk to you about something. This sentence puts dread into many hearts, whether it’s a boss, employee, lover, child, next-door-neighbor, or exterminator saying it. We think the worst. We’re going to be fired, sued for harassment, dumped, yelled at, or told the entire house is unsafe due to termite damage and may fall at any moment. We’re expecting restraining orders. This is absurd. There is no evidence for this pessimism. It might just as easily be that we’re going to be invited to the beach, proposed to, praised, adored, or thanked. The house may even be termite-free.

If you practice assuming goodness, then no matter what the conversation ends up being about, you’re going to be strong enough to hear it. Your body isn’t going to be pre-primed for rage or tears. Your friends and family will feel better in your company.

Try it, I dare you, I encourage you! After all, do you really have anything to lose?

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  • Molly Fisk March 20, 2016 at 11:29 pm

    Shirley, Mickey, Mary, and Regina — thank you so much for commenting, and I’m glad the piece was helpful. Childhood trauma has been so widely dismissed or ignored for so long, its effects are hard to see clearly. If you want any more info on this kind of thing, check out the ACE study done at Kaiser-San Diego in tandem with the CDC. (ACE = Adverse Childhood Experiences)

    Wishing you a lovely start to our new spring, and many good-news surprise phone calls!
    xox Molly

    Reply
  • Regina Kelly March 20, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Dear Molly,
    I have this identical form of post trauma. The problem being that I was so used to responding to life this way that it took decades to understand the difference between expecting the worst and expecting the best.
    Practicing being in the moment exactly as it is can be a very effective meditation practice.
    I have been successful at seeing the disaster stories as stories.
    There are cultural factors, my grandmother said, “Behind every dark cloud is another dark cloud.” She had a hard life and it was often true.
    Pax,
    Regina

    Reply
  • Mary Cahill March 19, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    The feeling stirred as I began to read this piece were incredible. My own experiences, really not extreme, and those situations I’ve shared with my daughter and granddaughter.

    This is a wake up call and I’m so grateful Molly, that you reached me with your own vision.

    I am sharing this with a young male friend and hope men who are discovering or are aware of their own emotions and those of their children will find this gem.

    Thanks Molly Fisk; this is the first of your writings I’ve read and I’m so touched.

    Mary

    Reply
  • Mickey March 19, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Thank you, Molly. I will incorporate this practice into my days. Thank you again.

    Reply
  • Shirley March 19, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Practical ideas. Wish we had more of Molly’s wonderfully sensible writing.

    Reply