Friday, August 5, 2011

Brain Damage


I’ve recently learned that there are two periods of rapid brain growth in children.  The first occurs between birth and age three or four.  The second occurs between age ten and puberty.

If you miss those windows of growth it is much more difficult to develop the vital connections later on. 

So, what happens if you undergo emotional abuse during that vital period of brain growth?

Trauma occurs to the medial prefrontal cortex. 

Not only is the brain stunted from growth in ways that make learning new skills much more difficult, the brain is literally damaged in ways that affect a broad spectrum of functioning.

The medial prefrontal cortex has nine functions.

1.       Body Regulation – digestion, heartrate, immune function
2.       Attuned Communication – mirror neurons that automatically interpret the motor actions of another as one’s own
3.       Emotional Balance – balance between rigidity and chaos – the ability to not become overwhelmed
4.       Response Flexibility – the capacity to pause before action
5.       Empathy – conscious awareness and sensitivity to the mind of someone else
6.       Insight – limbic firing that gives emotional texture to the emerging themes of our present awareness, life story and image of the future
7.       Fear Modulation – neurons that release calming meurotransmitters
8.       Intuition – registering the input from neurons from the heart and gut – a gut feeling
9.       Morality – the ability to think of the larger social good and enact those behaviors, even when alone

Well, it just so happens that during that vital period of rapid brain growth I was living with caregivers who were emotionally abusive, neglectful and fear inducing.  I was in a constant state of stress which flooded my brain with hormones and literally gave me brain damage.

The bad news – If I don’t make sense of that period of time in my life and learn to integrate what happened to me into my overall concept of myself, then I am doomed to repeat the same behavior.  I can already see how, when I get pushed to that limit, when I’m tired, hungry, stressed, I completely lack empathy and can feel myself being unkind in a way that is immoral, emotionally unbalanced and harmful to other people’s minds, especially my children.

The good news – it seems there is something I can do about it. So, I’ve been writing about that period in my life. 

It is both painful and liberating to write, mostly liberating.  I’m giving a voice to a little girl who had none.  But by writing it I’m also making all these connections between what happened then and the behaviors I have now.  And learning all of the functions of the medial prefrontal cortex makes me understand why I’ve suffered from having problems in many of the areas from digestive problems to impulsiveness and emotional imbalance.

I feel like Humpty Dumpty.  Those fuckers just pushed me off a wall, but I’m gradually putting the pieces back together again.

It’s hard work.  I’m a broken person.  And sometimes I get pissed off – feel like I’m swimming upstream all the time.  It’s exhausting.  And it’s so hard to be going through this “on the job training” when there is so much at stake.  I want so badly to not do the same things to my kids.  And I am often, often pushed to the limit by the stress of this life with these three.  I’m trying to learn habits that can help me keep myself from getting to that point – putting myself in time out, keeping my mouth shut when I want to shout, narrating what has happened rather than shaming, etc.  But I have SO MUCH to learn.  And I have zero time to do it.  I’m trying to be patient with myself and also hold myself accountable.  And I’m trying to allow that brokenness to open me up and allow great empathy and compassion to come out of seeing my own behavior.  

My greatest hope is to come to a place of forgiveness. 

I’m holding on to hope.  I’m singing Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

The birds they sang 
at the break of day 
Start again 
I heard them say 
Don't dwell on what 
has passed away 
or what is yet to be. 
Ah the wars they will 
be fought again 
The holy dove 
She will be caught again 
bought and sold 
and bought again 
the dove is never free. 

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in. 

We asked for signs 
the signs were sent: 
the birth betrayed 
the marriage spent 
Yeah the widowhood 
of every government -- 
signs for all to see. 

I can't run no more 
with that lawless crowd 
while the killers in high places 
say their prayers out loud. 
But they've summoned, they've summoned up 
a thundercloud 
and they're going to hear from me. 

Ring the bells that still can ring ... 

You can add up the parts 
but you won't have the sum 
You can strike up the march, 
there is no drum 
Every heart, every heart 
to love will come 
but like a refugee. 

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in. 

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in. 
That's how the light gets in. 
That's how the light gets in. 


Check out Dr. Dan Siegel for more information about brain development and interpersonal neurobiology.


2 comments:

Tanya said...

Heather, if we lived nearby we'd be great(er) friends. I'm in the same boat. So much of motherhood for me is learning on the fly, and I'm always in a panic that I'm fucking up these kids in the same way I was.
It was suggested to me recently that I write "letters" back and forth between the adult me and the child me. I think I'm going to give it a try!
: )

Sarah Park said...

The work you are doing is vital, and brave! I love the anthem you have taken up.

If it's at all a comfort—while I know of no similar brain damage during my own childhood, I still find myself behaving with my children in awful ways. This line: "I completely lack empathy and can feel myself being unkind in a way that is immoral, emotionally unbalanced and harmful to other people’s minds, especially my children"—this, I identify with, wholly.

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