14 February, 2010


Malchick (singing Canary with a Russian name) isn’t green anymore.  It’s sad, really. When he came home with me, the brilliance of his green feathers were second only to the fact that his tiny throat could bulge while his beak stayed immobile, and my entire cottage would flood with song.  Not just any song.  Malchick sings a series of notes that cascade the wood beams, roam up to the cobwebs visible only when sun hits the dust, roll, then plunge down past the slate blackboard carefully removed from its original job in a high school in Dorchester, and float cadence-by-beat and back to his solidly yellow body clutched on his perch.  But Malchick is a ‘Green’ Canary. That’s what the woman told me when I paid her and she tipped her head in mild regret.  Apparently he was her favorite.  He was green when I got him.  He’s not green anymore.  And this despite all evidence of my trying: a special bulb for a special bird-light in  a special big cage with special food, sun as much as possible and always fresh water. 

The environment into which one is received after trauma (loss) is the imperative (determinative) factor impacting  (one could say precipitating) the intensity, longevity and treat-ability of subsequent adaptations. Mitigation after the fact is certainly possible, though impacted profoundly by the validation received from the primary surrounding milieu.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an adaptation to trauma - an attempt by an agile mind to make order out of chaos.

Because we are a survival-driven, gregarious species, when we face our death (whether through physical actions that could precipitate an end to our physical lives, or through psychological ‘actions’ that could precipitate the same) we take whatever steps necessary to optimize both a physicality of living and a possibility for connection.  To survive the truth of a psychological death (secondary here for our purposes because it occurs after the original trauma) imparted by a loved one through lack of validation of the reality of our circumstance (regardless of said loved-one’s intention), often a splitting (mental, spiritual, physical, psychobiological) occurs.  Through this splitting, we continue to engage while simultaneously portioning off the aspect of self that’s been negated.


Human beings do not come out of the womb wanting to wound.  

It turns out that my Malchick isn’t the only super-adapter in the house.  There’s me.  My color changes aren’t so obvious. They’ve been rooted for many years. But I think they still count.  When the truth of what we are now is discounted, it actually changes the weaving of the threads that color our reality.

Last night my son told me about the Guppies.  And the Finches.  This led me to some fascinating research.  If you dear reader, want to read it for yourself, and are moved to extrapolate in your own unique direction, I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.  There are many source sites but this one made for easy reading. Apparently the article my son read made an additional case for the fact that out of a shift in the intensity of predator presence, the guppies changed color.  More color in less fear.

For Finches, there is a readily identifiable alteration in physical characteristics, visibly apparent in only one generation.  Apparently the size, efficacy and color of the beaks change as weather and therefore dominant plant growth shifts.  Again, there are many source sites but I found this one most accessible.

We cannot forget the Chameleon. “(family Chamaeleonidae) They are a distinctive and highly specialized clade of Lizard. They are distinguished by their parrot-like zygodactylous feet, … their swaying gait, … and the ability of some to change color.” (Emphasis mine. Thank you Wilkipedia) This tiny (sometimes) Lizard is able to visually shift in response to color changes in its surroundings and/or perceived predator presence.

So what is this obsession with adaptation? How does it impact our understanding of PTSD, families, parenting, relationship, and ultimately forging an ‘AFTER’ when the ‘before’ has been first traumatic and second steeped in exclusionary denial?

I’m giggling here, still in my slippers past noon on a sunny day, because the compelling possibility of parsing this out in an accessible manner is as seductive to me as I imagine nectar is to Malchick.  The thing that gets me is that our country allocates billions of dollars in research grants to scientists.  These people (let’s face it, largely male) get to observe and document to their hearts content.  I run a minds-eye-movie where an identifiable, scientifically viable shift is observed in a study population, and everyone gets a day off.  Food and liquor flows. ‘High-fives’ abound.  The point here being that the ability of animals and plants to adapt to a shift or reduction in their survival needs is applauded.

As an artist who works both with new and ‘found’ materials, one of my greatest pleasures is watching how the very materiality of a palate changes with time and touch.  In fact, there is a major movement afoot in the art world.  ‘Green’ art is currently being featured as the wave of the future.  The implication being that to reuse, re-contextualize, re-visualize materials in a new way catalyzes a viewer to see an artist’s observations of the world (as manifested in the work they spawn) in a more accessible manner.

‘Covers’ of music previously recorded and now woven with new interpretation bring songs a new level of audience.  Movies remade with different actors and directors often are viewed with a different perception of story.  Recipes find new life under the tutelage of changing cooks.

And yet creating work without crediting the predecessors, no matter how obscure, is considered quite gauche in many circles. And – just as critical – neither I nor any trauma survivor I know, wants to live through obscurity until death and then get reworked to something more understandable.

What is this denial, so rampant in our culture, that prevents us from offering  acknowledgment and validation to trauma survivors (like we do for adaptive, non-human species)? I have to add here that this is true most particularly in the context of rape.  Both the rape-es and the rape-ers are virtually erased from the common vernacular of our world.  This could be an issue of ‘naming’.  It’s an undeniable challenge to find words to adequately discuss the complexities of that which is denied.

Surely we are one step removed when it comes to animals, plants and objects. We can look and notice their adaptations and shifts (and sometimes get wealthy from doing both) because, aside from the possible fear of anthropomorphic labeling, they are so apparently ‘NOT US’.  [God forbid we acknowledge our investment in a patriarchic-ally supported hierarchical worldview and admit there may be more to other species than we can ‘prove’.]  Other than this, what else could possibly be the problem?  To deny the reality of the adaptations necessitated by the PTSD must serve some purpose, or it wouldn’t permeate our culture. Would it?  Come on.  This is people I’m talking about.

So here’s what I currently think.  It has to do with my as-yet-unpublished book. One of the chapters is titled: ‘The Boogieman Under The Bed’.  As long as we can label what someone else has done, what someone else had done-to (them), how someone else adapted to either or both, as ‘OTHER THAN US’ (other than we would do, be, think, feel and certainly speak) then we are safe.  Because it’s them not us.  Couldn’t possibly be us.  And therefore will never be us.  So ‘we’ don’t have to worry.  When we pull out the boogieman, and the only thing left under the bed is old dust and the possibility of a lost treasure, buried deep by the always-too-short vacuum cleaner cord, ‘THEM’ IS US.  Most people are too selfish and afraid of their own discomfort to recognize an ‘us’ in all of the ‘them-s’.

The mental adaptations of the traumatized are fucking brilliant. PTSD allows people to tolerate what most others are unwilling to contemplate. It allows a multiplicity of mental tracks to run simultaneously in the recesses of one human mind. It allows the eyes to cry while the rest of the body offers comfort to another.

The mental adaptations of the traumatized are also debilitating. PTSD allows for a challenge of living unparalleled in the non-institutionalized. When untreated, it can catalyze tremendous violence. When un-acknowledged, it will trigger and re-trigger until the core of shame we allocate to the floor under our bed becomes the predominant felt-sense of a person.

To be both survival-driven and gregarious is as much a conundrum as to be both mortal and conscious. Yet this is what we all are. Given these realities, to believe that humans are supposed to be happy and comfortable would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Moments of brilliance? Yes. Moments of joy? Yes. But all of the time? No.  We have to be willing to be uncomfortable, to walk in each others’ shoes, even if the steps are not palatable. To harness the courage necessary to take these actions IS A CHOICE.

When my PTSD is running rampant through my nervous system, at this stage generally only set off by the triggering brought on by a loved one’s blatant disregard of the realities I live with every day, my dog Pushkin knows and responds in a fraction of a second. He is not afraid. When I’m what I call ‘fallen in’, and my blood pressure drops (among many rather disgusting manifestations), my children see, know and respond. They are not afraid.

When our children are in reaction to the adaptations that have allowed us to survive, we can prevent a second generational subversion of experience and thus a next level (our children’s emerging PTSD).  Their experience has to be validated so that they can develop the tools to cope without having to resort to their own severe dissociation.  Labeling our own aberrance for what it is allows our children to know and validate the truth of their perceptions. Therefore, they grow, knowing it isn’t about them in these moments.

How magnificent a discovery is this?  Epigenetics. As I understand it, what I’ve labeled ‘vicarious, multigenerational PTSD’ for the past 24 years in my practice treating primarily trauma survivors and their families, is at last proven by scientists to be valid, verifiable and true. In a nutshell, trauma actually changes the way the brain works so that a layering occurs on certain genetic carriers. Thus, the adaptive nature of the whole morass passes down through the generations FOREVER. It seems to have been firmly established as truth when the trauma originates in childhood. For more extensive reading, please go here.

For members of our species who live a so-called ‘relatively safe passage through childhood’ before they are traumatized, I will postulate that the epigenetic impact on these individuals is similarly significant. Certainly the incident (s) itself, its lengthiness, awfulness and fear-of-ones-own-death quotient are all important.  However I have found that the most potentially detrimental factor has to do with the level of denial encountered and the level of validation received. When a person’s perception of reality is disavowed and disallowed, they face a psychological death scenario that triggers the fight/flight survival mechanism in the adrenals housed inside their body.  My supposition is that this cycle spurs an epigenetic layering as potentially damaging as when originating in childhood. This is particularly evident in adult children of both Holocaust and Rape survivors.

Hiding the realities, not speaking the stories, not seeing the adaptations, perpetuates a cycle that is massively destructive. Because, as I say: denial begets denial begets denial.

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