Tuesday, 29 March 2011

How a brain should process difficult events

Yesterday in my therapy session T and I talked about reactions to negative events. The conversation started because I was briefly talking about some memories I have of 'bad things' and how I avoid thinking about them because they make me feel like they are happening again.

T said that the memory had never really been processed so that it always produced a reaction similar to the reaction you might have if the thing was happening here and now.

She said that for something else like a pet dying, you might feel sad at the time and might get really upset when you think about it, but in time, you would be able to think about it without feeling all of the sadness you felt at the time because you have processed the memory.

I could see where she was coming from with this and I could see that this is probably how it is for most people, but when she said that, I thought about how I still can't think of the time when my cat died without becoming really sad and tearful, even though it was fifteen years ago. I was then thinking about other things that one might think I would have processed by now and I came to realise about myself that I don't seem to have the ability to process ANYTHING properly, big or small.

On reflection I see that there are two ways it can go with me. The first way is that something bad happens and I can't seem to deal with the emotions and years later I am avoiding thinking of the thing because I know I will still feel the pain of it. An example of this would be the cat dying thing. I think with things like this I have a marvellous ability to accidentally on purpose forget events too.

The other way it can go is that the bad thing happens and I don't have any emotional response to it. I don't react badly at all and don't 'feel' anything when I think about it. The event is just a factual piece of historical information in my mind.

With the second scenario, it can occur that the emotional response will then arrive a LONG time after the event. An example of this is the experience of being crushed by a man as a teenager. I remember vividly it happening, the long seconds of being on the ground, squeezed by his huge weight, hearing and feeling his breath on my ear, his cheek pressed on mine; the sound of my ribs popping and breaking. I still remember lying on the floor unable to get up afterwards. But there was no emotion. I remember pain, but I wasn't angry or offended. I didn't get a sense of having been violated and the emotions you'd expect to go with it.

But ten years later and I'm starting to feel those things: anger...other feelings that I can't put a name on yet.

I'm only starting to wonder now, why did he do it? And I'm coming up with the theory that it was to feel power over someone. And even now, the anger is just a glimmer that sparks and then fizzles out again.

My T said that she thinks that I must have learnt not to have any response to events like this somewhere previous to that. She also said that she hypothesises that I have gone through my entire life not allowing myself to acknowledge any negative feelings anytime anything has happened and that it's all been shoved away somewhere.

I can't argue with this theory. The scary part is thinking that all of the feelings are still in me somewhere, or in some person within me. Where did I shove them? Into one angry alter who feels like her rage could make the whole world explode. It makes sense now when I think about how I can become so angry I feel like I am going to burst and the cause could be something minute like a look from a stranger or a clumsy stubbing of my toe. Sometimes I can't even put my finger on what could have caused the sudden surge of rage at everything. It does scare me. A lot.

These reflections are all very well but it leaves me with questions. One, the old never ending question that I fear will never be answered while at the same time dreading that it will: what happened to start all of this off? And two, what about all of this hidden emotion? Should I try to let it out in little bursts and will that eventually be enough to get rid of it all or is it like a dam that once let go will burst forth and destroy everything in its path? And how do I find where these emotions are all hiding if I decide that I do want to have a look at them? It's all very well saying they are there but what if I am the 'me' that feels all of this stuff is a million miles from anything I can relate to?

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