For those of us who feel as though we're addicted to (or can't control) bad patterns and behaviors in our lives, the term 'withdrawal' carries a dread that goes well beyond the physical discomforts that go with ending an addiction. I for one have tried all sorts of ways to right the wrongs many dysfunctional patterns and relationships have brought me, only to find myself repeating old bad habits, in brand new situations. Before I can explain what typically goes through my mind when I'm faced with a situational dilemma, I have to define the word "withdrawal' and what it means to me. The formal dictionary definition of withdrawal is "the act of taking back or away something that has been granted or possessed". Merriam-Webster further describes withdrawal as the syndrome of often painful physical and psychological symptoms that follows discontinuance of an addicting drug. This definition works perfectly fine for me because just like alcohol can be used as a calming depressant, so can chocolate, and even love, be used as a calming stimulant. Often times the comfort measure I'd seek would depend on the level of stress I was feeling, the coping mechanism I was using, and the immediate result I wanted for myself.
In 2008, it was reported neuroscientists focused on the brain's reward circuitry were able to connect the dots between neurological function to emotion and ethics. Based on their findings, they were able to conclude the release of hormones like dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (the lets you relax and sleep hormone, aka The Love Drug) are released when a person receives messages that are processed as pleasurable experiences, (like compassionate acts of kindness or selflessness, or orgasm). These findings support the studies/research done in the late 1990's, which studied the ways in which stress ("a toxic agent that interferes with the normal, smoothly orchestrated progression of brain development") leads to enduring psychiatric problems.
What traits or capacities might be beneficial for survival in the harsh conditions of earlier times? Some of the more obvious are the potential to mobilize an intense fight-or-flight response, to react aggressively to challenge without undue hesitation, to be at heightened alert for danger and to produce robust stress responses that facilitate recovery from injury. In this sense, we can reframe the brain changes we observed as adaptations to an adverse environment.
Although this adaptive state helps to take the affected individual safely through the reproductive years (and is even likely to enhance sexual promiscuity), which are critical for evolutionary success, it comes at a high price. McEwen has recently theorized that overactivation of stress response systems, a reaction that may be necessary for short-term survival, increases the risk for obesity, type II diabetes and hypertension; leads to a host of psychiatric problems, including a heightened risk of suicide; and accelerates the aging and degeneration of brain structures, including the hippocampus.
We hypothesize that adequate nurturing and the absence of intense early stress permits our brains to develop in a manner that is less aggressive and more emotionally stable, social, empathic and hemispherically integrated. We believe that this process enhances the ability of social animals to build more complex interpersonal structures and enables humans to better realize their creative potential.
Society reaps what it sows in the way it nurtures its children. Stress sculpts the brain to exhibit various antisocial, though adaptive, behaviors. Whether it comes in the form of physical, emotional or sexual trauma or through exposure to warfare, famine or pestilence, stress can set off a ripple of hormonal changes that permanently wire a child’s brain to cope with a malevolent world. Through this chain of events, violence and abuse pass from generation to generation as well as from one society to the next. Our stark conclusion is that we see the need to do much more to ensure that child abuse does not happen in the first place, because once these key brain alterations occur, there may be no going back.
[From: The Scars That Won't Heal ]
While I'm the first person to admit I can get nutso over certain things, I never ever believed I was crazy or had a mental illness. I simply felt misunderstood because no one seemed patient enough to listen to the reasons behind my reactions. It was through several significant personal relationships I have been able to become the walking proof of a 2008 study: love helps heal the hurting beast enraged by those who caused so much harm.
Living with the internal scars is not easy. In fact, I often wished people could see what was done to the insides of me, "the abused adoptee", but then, again, those who know what abusers will do to the vulnerable, I tend to question who's creative genius it was to keep the scars inside. Not to seem vain or arrogant, but having a pretty face and a measure of wit and intelligence has made me an odd target... one that had to prove all types of stereotypes were either true or untrue. [I often wondered, if I were ugly, or visually disturbing, or an air-head, would the high expectations of others have been less, and therefore more forgiving?]
In my own case, withdrawing myself from people and situations has been my life-saving blessing and alienating curse. In fact, I look back at some of the most seemingly bizarre reactions of mine, and laugh at how strange I must have seemed to the person who'd look at me and think, "WTF am I missing?". Classic Kerry, for example, would quickly and suddenly walk away from a person (conversation) I was done with. In my mind, the task at-hand was done. There was nothing left to say; no reason to stay. I had to be taught how to end a conversation, in a social and pleasant way. I had to be taught not to assume I'd be punished and alienated from the things I loved if I said any more.
I've noticed withdrawal symptoms are found on syndrome/disorder lists associated with adoptees. The Mayo Clinic puts withdrawn behaviors first on it's Reactive Attachment Disorder symptom list. I find the list a little sad and disturbing, because if one knew the signs and symptoms of grief and loss (trauma) in an infant/toddler, many of the same symptoms would appear.
- Withdrawn, sad and listless appearance
- Failure to smile
- Lack of the normal tendency to follow others in the room with the eyes
- Failure to reach out when picked up
- No interest in playing peekaboo or other interactive games
- No interest in playing with toys
- Engaging in self-soothing behavior, such as rocking or self-stroking
- Calm when left alone
I've also noticed how withdrawn behaviors are given a very negative twist, suiting the desires of attachment therapists known for their dubious practices. For instance, according to Evergreen Consultants in Human Behavior, ("pioneers in the treatment of adults with Attachment Disorder"), the person unable to bond and attach is the person who demonstrates a wide variety of symptoms, some of which include:
Lack of impulse control
Intense display of anger (rage)
Aggressive acts toward others
Inappropriate sexual conduct and attitudes
Cannot tolerate limits and external control
Inappropriately demanding and clingy
Marked mood changes
Deceitful (lies, manipulates, and controls)
Abnormal eating habits
Persistent nonsense questions/chatter
Unstable peer relationships
The list continues on the Evergreen check-list, but the theme remains the same -- the person with an attachment disorder is unable to relate to others in a positive way. Which is fascinating, since many victims of child abuse would describe their parents as listed and these abused children not only experienced a traumatic event, they also did not receive kind, loving, consistent nurturing care from a primary care-giver, after the traumatic event.
I know in my own case, the only time I got positive attention was when I was around strangers... strangers who did not know too much about my Aparents or Afamily... strangers who seemed to like me, Kerry, the girl who could do all sorts of things, and wanted to please others and make them happy. The problem I had was strange in the sense that I truly did want to be around really great warm positive influences... my Aparents had some fantastic friends who really knew how to talk to me and play with me and reach core parts of me... it was my Amother's insecurity and jealousy that would prevent me from having too much contact with these people. It seems my Amother preferred I stay in the company of F-ed up people. [It took decades for me to realize she would guilt me into staying, that way she would not be left alone; my Adad did the same. Guilt/shame was the glue that kept all those relationships together.]
Because I was not encouraged to talk about my real-life circumstances or my real thoughts/feelings about various situations and people, I learned at a very young age to keep quiet, and say nothing. I would have to withdraw parts of my life and myself from each and every one of my stories because I knew no one was going to take care of my most troubling issue.... my Amother and all that went along with her.
I learned to maintain a veneer of normalcy that would sustain a superficial relationship, but kill a more intimate relationship. I developed a language that left gaps... gaps that could be filled only by me.
I still withdraw from situations and people when I feel very insecure. Even on PPL, I will withdraw posts, or post them in a private section because I fear public reaction. I dread the moment someone comes with an attack, or worse.... (far worse).... ignores what was presented.
I not only fear criticism and rejection, but my low-self-esteem keeps me from showing signs of confidence, like maintaining direct eye contact with a stranger, or networking with others. [Is there anything worse than pretending you're an equal when you feel deep-down, "I'm nothing but a piece of unwanted shit"?] The problem with constant withdrawal is simple -- if I remove myself from a potentially dangerous/threatening experience, I also remove myself from a potentially pleasurable experience. The potential for positive reinforcement gets nixed because I'm too afraid every person I meet will turn-out to be just like my Amother. [Thankfully, I have friends who teach and nurture me in a way no mother-figure ever did for me.]
In my mind, my reactions to people have always been logical. Maybe my behaviors would not seem that normal to a 'normal person', but given the stress I might be feeling in a given situation, even "walking away all of a sudden" is a much healthier normal response than perhaps, grabbing the person who pissed me off, sitting him down, (with his hands tied behind his back), and cracking his skull with a baseball bat, like it were a ball on a T, and I was playing a little game of T-ball. (Funny how "normal" becomes relative...and how torture techniques tend to change over time.).
Before I was born, I was rejected. (I think this is an adoption issue not many people can fully comprehend). Since my birth, I was put in far less-than ideal situations, begining with a care-system that did not want to keep the infants "chosen for adoption". I have always managed to make the best of my circumstances, but it has not been without profound pain, loss, grief and stress, as outlined by a grief-specialist, familiar with "normal responses to grief" for a teen. There have been many times, (in my late teens, early 20's), I thought suicide seemed like a really great alternative. But few would ever know this, if all they did was look at the superficial layers of my presented life. How could any person with so many "things" (so many positive possibilities) be so unhappy? Try living without a few simple basic needs, like love, affection, and comfort. See how long happiness, in a big well-furnished house, can last.
I am 42. I prepare for the negative in a situation, knowing it's not what I want for myself. In some cases a negative quality is what I choose to focus on in a given situation, but there are also times I need to accept a very negative situation for myself, simply because all the choices available are not that good or positive. Meanwhile, over the past few years, I have been reminded a very simple core truth about myself... something I never lost: I am not only capable of experiencing joy and pleasure, I am a pure delight in-person when someone takes the time to do something nice for me. People seem to really respond to my pleased reactions. I like this. It creates a positive circle, one that feeds upon itself as easily as a negative circle can. Of course, in the still quite parts of my mind, I find myself asking the age-old question, what if I was placed in the home where the mother-figure was consistently kind and nurturing and protective, would I be the emotional train-wreck, with many secret hiding spots, I have become? But I'm old enough now to stop thinking about the little girl who used to be; instead I focus more on the woman I want to become.
I no longer grieve the loss of a parent or "normal" childhood. I no longer long for a large supportive extensive family. What matters to me now is not re-working a lost and broken bond with a mother-figure. Given the choice between wanting to work with older extended family members who are selfish and dysfunctional or wanting to be an orphan, free to choose who I will bond-with, I prefer being an orphan. (I like having to protect and preserve only myself).
The challenges I face now are related to the various ways I will withdraw and withhold parts of myself in a more intimate relationships. ['Intimate" meaning close, but not necessarily sexual, as I consider my role as "mom" very intimate, but not at all sexual.]
I realize my seemingly unpredictable behavior is confusing to those who think they know all sides of me. I see it from their perspective: one day I am more than happy to snuggle and whisper sweet stories in my little-love's ear, the next day I am quiet and withdrawn... like a blackness has taken over me.
The difficulty I have is admitting the truth - confessing the offense - that goes behind my 'odd' behaviors, because some of the stories are just too difficult and painful to put into words. [I hate crying, because it distracts people from the issue-at-hand that needs to be addressed... and I do think some traumas defy words.]
How does one explain a problem, without going into very uncomfortable upsetting details? [None of my therapists could help me with this -- they all told me I had to learn to trust and love myself, first.... and they would see me in three weeks, (so they can evaluate the effectiveness of the increased dose of medication chosen for me). ]
I know once I have the answer to that question, (how to tell, without telling), I can better explain to friends why the seemingly smart, normal, and pretty girl-next-door (who seems to have everything) will use drugs, alcohol, food and sex as the preferred means to reward and punish herself - and others. (In my mind, it all makes perfect logical sense.)
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