Along with a large segment of the American population, I have recently been intrigued by the Netflix phenomenon, Making a Murderer, a documentary series that details Steven Avery’s involvement with the criminal justice system after he serves 18 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. While in the midst of a $36 million civil suit against the county that imprisoned him for damages related to his wrongful conviction, he is accused and later convicted of the brutal murder of a young woman with whom he had brief professional interaction.
Now, I’m a psychotherapist, not an expert in criminal justice and I am certainly not here to argue in either direction in this case. In my work as a psychotherapist I’ve gained a deep understanding of how memory works. As such, while I watched the docudrama, I questioned the accuracy of the testimonies provided by witnesses months, and even years, after the fact.
Cindy sat in my office, seeking relief from the intense psychological anguish that she had been experiencing for the several months since having survived a fatal head on collision with an SUV. The driver of the other vehicle was intoxicated, swerved into Cindy’s lane of traffic and impacted her vehicle head on. That driver was pronounced dead at the scene. Since that time, Cindy had been experiencing insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and difficulty functioning – classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
From a neurological stand point, her brain was essentially “stuck” in a primitive survival mechanism known as “fight or flight” – a protective measure that is designed to identify a dangerous situation and put the entire system on the defense at warp speed, all in an effort to ward off any threat to survival. Fight or flight is a mode of defense that operates on a “better safe than sorry” mentality. In Cindy’s case, even though the threat to her safety had ended months ago, her system was still stuck in that defensive posture “just in case” the threat, or anything like unto it, resurfaced. Although Cindy understood on a rational level that the threat had long since passed, her neurology was reluctant to let it’s guard down in the event that there was a mistake and the danger had not really passed. Scenes from the event were relived again and again in her mind because literally that memory had been loaded into her neurological network in a manner that caused the rewind button to be continuously pushed by anything in her environment that even slightly resembled the near fatal accident – riding in a moving vehicle, the sound of a car’s engine, sirens in the distance, flashing lights, etc….
If you haven’t heard of Dr. Brene Brown that likely means that you are not a psycho therapist. She has become a ROCK STAR in profession therapy circles and I have become an ABSOLUTE Brene Brown JUNKIE!! I have read and re-read every book she has written; listened and re-listened to those same books; high-lighted, outlined and committed to memory her main premises because her research findings are revolutionary and understanding and then applying them holds the key to what she would term a “whole hearted” life.
What exactly does Dr. Brown study, you might ask. Promise yourself that you won’t lose interest and stop reading when I tell you because as unappealing as the main emphasis of her research might seem on the surface, it is essential to understanding how to develop, among other things, a sense of worthiness, the ability to feel loved and the experience of feeling that we have a place where we belong in this big bad world.
Dr. Brown studies SHAME, which is, as she puts it is “the thing that gets in the way of our sense of worthiness.” Shame is defined as, “The belief that we are not enough,” that we are somehow flawed, imperfect, less than, don’t measure up, inherently bad, that we are a mistake. We use all kinds of ineffective and downright damaging tactics to try to avoid feeling shame such as trying to be perfect so that we can avoid the judgement of others; numbing our feelings through any of a number of methods including, but not limited to, drugs, alcohol, food, television, social media, work (anything that will allow us, for a time, to escape from uncomfortable emotions); and, of all things, attempting to protect ourselves from feelings of loss by what Dr. Brown calls “foreboding joy” which is an ineffective tactic designed to diminish the experience of loss by not fully embracing the joyful moments that life has to offer – the thinking being that if we don’t fully embrace some aspect of our lives, when it’s gone, we haven’t lost anything because we had nothing to lose.
You would have to have a description of my friend, Barbie Dahl, to understand the irrationality of her decision. Barbie Dahl is not her real name, but it is so befitting this statuesque beauty with the piercing dark eyes and the stunning features. “Red carpet beautiful” – that’s how people always described her. “She is so beautiful she could walk the red carpet with ‘The Stars’ and fit right in!”
Barbie, as beautiful as she is, however, struggles with feelings of low self worth. Somewhere in the course of her life, she has developed the erroneous belief that all she has to offer the world is her good looks. As she was nearing 50, her looks were beginning to fade and she was SCARED!!! When she confessed to me one day that she “just doesn’t feel good” about herself because of the way that she currently looks and she had scheduled some plastic surgery because she believed it was just the thing that she would need to “boost” her self esteem, everything inside of me screamed, “NOT YOU TOO!!!” She already so closely fit society’s definition of the “Perfect 10” that if she felt the need to permanently and surgically alter her appearance than virtually no one is insulated from the lie that a woman’s worth is based on “how good she looks.”
I was moved to tears today when I read the heartfelt and inspiring letter penned by Kayla Mueller, the American hostage whose murder by the terror group ISIS was confirmed in the media on February 10, 2015. Kayla was kidnapped while volunteering for the humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, in Syria in August 2013 and was held captive until her death in early 2015. The letter that former cell mates delivered to her family subsequent to their release reveals a beautiful, courageous young woman with a remarkably resilient spirit. In part the letter reads:
“Everyone, if you are receiving this letter, it means I am still detained but my cell mates have been released…..I wanted to write you a well thought out letter, but I could only write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears.
“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one thing you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no one else…..and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.
When my mother began raising her family nearly 60 years ago, the conventional wisdom could be encapsulated by statements such as “Children are to be seen and not heard,” “Big boys don’t cry, ” and “If you hold a baby too much, you will spoil her.” So it should have come as no surprise to me when I was caring for my fist baby nearly 25 years ago that her advice was “You just need to let that baby cry…….it will help his lungs develop.” That counsel felt wrong in my soul and was contrary to everything that I had been taught in both my undergraduate and graduate training. Mother’s often know best, but in this case my mother was dead wrong!!! (I still love you, Mom!!!)
There was a time when the “sage advice” that my mother offered was unquestionably in line with the “best practices” in parenting; the underlying belief being that if parent’s responded to their children’s emotional outbursts that would lead to dangerous spoiling of one’s off-spring and would undermine the goal of fashioning independent and strong adults who were prepared to face the harsh realities of the world. Thanks, however, to the work of a brilliant British psychiatrist by the name of John Bowlby and a host of other “attachment based” researchers who followed, today we know that one of the primary tasks of parenthood runs contrary to that old conventional wisdom and requires that effective parents “attune to” or respond, tune in to, show empathy and understanding for their child’s ever changing emotional state and, thereby, a strong parent-child bond is formed. Countless research studies demonstrate that children who are fortunate enough to have formed a strong emotional connection to a primary care giver are more confident, secure and capable of facing that harsh world – completely contrary to the notion that responding to children’s emotionality would actually create weak and dependent adults. We now know that this strong bond creates for a child, what is known to attachment theorists and therapists, a “safe haven.” With this safe haven in place, a child can go out into the big, bad world and face whatever dangers might be lurking there with the assurance that at the end of the day, someone is at home awaiting their return – prepared to lick and bind up whatever wounds the day’s adventures may have inflicted.
Bethany Johnson*, a 25 year old young woman, sat in my office. Presenting symptoms: near debilitating insomnia, hyper vigilance, hyper arousal, irritation, nightmares and flashbacks. This was classic PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) Surprisingly perhaps, Bethany wasn’t a soldier who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather had been teaching English as a second language in the Philippines – and she happened to be working at a school that was right in the eye of Hayian, the category 5 typhoon that struck the Philippine Islands in November 2013 and according to a CNN report “was probably the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land anywhere in the world in recorded history.”
Let’s face it – life is not easy!!! We all face an onslaught of daily challenges that can tax us to the limit. Whether you’re a student struggling to balance an academic load while trying to figure out how to maintain some semblance of a social life and simultaneously coming up with the financial resources to pay for that advanced education or if you’re an empty nester struggling to find your sense of identity now that you are no longer known as “Tommy’s mom,” life is fraught with challenge (and these are just a two of the vast number of possible scenarios that you may be facing!!)
As daunting as all this difficulty may be, there is very good news: it is through facing these very challenges that we grow; these challenges are the very opportunities that grant us the knowledge, experience, maturity and wisdom that makes life meaningful. They deepen us as individuals and broaden our perspective – IF we can effectively rise to the occasion.