My father was a psychopath, or at least somewhere on the psycho-sociopath spectrum. Outwardly charming and a successful businessman, he made our home life a hellish mixture of verbal and physical abuse. Although he’s long deceased, my brother and sister still have not forgiven him. I have.
But in my 20’s and 30’s, I not infrequently felt a deep anger, even rage, when I remembered what he had done, the details of which I’ll omit here. How did I overcome these feelings? How does anyone get rid of anger stemming from childhood trauma? I believe the current treatments for PTSD are a solution to this problem.
PTSD, post-traumatic stress syndrome, originates with a brain structure called the amygdala. Suppose, while walking in the peaceful countryside around Old Chatham, you suddenly come upon a black bear with its cub. The bear, in protective mother mode, turns, growls, looks at you, and seems ready to charge.
Your eyes and ears send signals to the thalamus, the brain’s “switchboard,” tasked with routing those signals to the appropriate brain regions. The thalamus then sends the bear information to both the neo-cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala decides that the situation is too threatening to wait for the sluggish processing of the neo-cortex. So, the amygdala initiates the so-called “flight or fight response.”
In response, adrenaline is pumped into your bloodstream, causing the heart to push blood to your muscles. You breathe more rapidly, taking in more oxygen for energy metabolism, which is also fueled by the emergency release of blood sugar (glucose). You’re ready either to run from the bear or fight it.
But wait! The bear charges, fortunately stopping short of you. Your stress response continues with the release of cortisol. Hopefully, your neo-cortex kicks in and tells you not to run as that would encourage the bear to chase after you. Luckily, the bear decides against charging again, and, shepherding its cub away from you, puts distance between itself and you, a perceived danger to its progeny.
Physical abuse in the home also activates the fight or flight response of the children who experience it. In later years, even the memory of the abuse can cause these children, now perhaps adults, to react with sudden fear or anger as their amygdalae react inappropriately. I’m guessing that my anger at my father was the result of this process. In other words, I suffered from a mild PTSD and was completely incapable of forgiving paternal misdeeds.
What treatments are available for such PTSD? One consists of medication; another is psychotherapy, in which the patient is tasked with repeatedly recalling the traumatic event or events, perhaps while meditating and doing breathing exercises to reduce the pain of remembering. With time, the patient is desensitized to the disturbing memory and the PTSD symptoms disappear. Another option is to use a flashing light or hand movements to distract the patient during recall of the trauma. The distraction may allow the patient to think positive thoughts that color the negative memory and eventually sanitize it.
Which method did I use? Well, “None of them,” I admit. Sometimes PTSD sufferers completely suppress bad memories and avoid any thought of past traumatic events. That’s what I did. It’s not a recommended therapeutic technique, however. “The return of the repressed” may produce other psychological symptoms. In my case, I’ve completely forgotten, not only traumatic incidents, but most of my childhood and adolescent memories. Memories are inextricably linked, and my memory repression has affected, not only bad memories, but also good and neutral memories.
Nevertheless, this forgetting of memories has also enabled me to look more kindly upon my father and even to forgive him for his abuse. Forgiveness, however it comes about, is a good thing. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus calls upon us to forgive others just as God forgives us. Surely, we must heed his call.
~ Richard Russell
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