Significant Conditions

My mother’s parents- Elizabeth Mayhew and Eugene Nichols

From behind the wheel, my mom turns her face towards me, her right arm reaching across the upper part of the seat-back. She tells me she loves me. It’s ordinary the way she says it. How easy for me to tell her “I love you, too, mom.” But I am 13 years old. I am unsure, unsteady, conflicted, angry. I am blocked.

It was typical for me to ride my bike to T.H. Rogers Jr. High, but this particular morning, the one that stands out in my memory more than any other, it’s my mom that drives me to school in our copper-colored big American station wagon. She pulls to a stop at the nearby intersection and I get out from the passenger seat. My backpack is on the seat behind me, filled with heavy textbooks, spiral notebooks, and my lunch. I open the rear door to grab it. That’s when I see her face and hear her saying to me those three awkward words.

Before I close the door, all that I have lived from birth to this moment becomes compressed into a pause of two seconds. She tilts her head, and I can feel her eyes begging me for reflection. She asks, “You can’t tell me you love me?” Two more seconds of heavy silence passes. I close the heavy car door, swing my heavy backpack onto a shoulder, and walk away heavy.

I’m so sorry, mom. I couldn’t say it. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t know what to feel.

—————————————————————

No Optimus Prime Time

At this point, we’ll pick right back up from where the last two posts left you hanging. My final words in the previous post were, “Thank you for this day, sweet universe. I don’t understand you. But now I am open.” 

What the hell does that even mean?! And then the post just ends. 

Friends, followers, (countrymen?), here is what it means. Going from blocked to open was transformative. A bona-fide breakthrough! There’s no way I could have imagined it, either. I have gone through the looking glass that I did not know existed.

[Pause…breathe] I also want to be careful not to overstate what happened on Oct 12th. Those six somatic cycles I went through did not transform me from a car into a six-story tall fighting robot. No miracles occurred. I did not lay down on the futon wearing dark-rimmed glasses and get up 2 hours later wearing tights and a cape. When I say transformative, it’s on the scale of how a person might appear different from beginning to end on an Extreme Makeover reality show. But the cool thing about my “makeover,” is that changes took place on the inside.  

To get a true feel for what this transformation really felt like, we unfortunately must first spend more time talking about trauma and what it is to be “blocked” in the first place. The perversely good news is that emotionally blocked is how I’ve been all my life. It’s what I know best. Being open has only been my experience for about two and a half weeks.

But I’ll tell you, the contrast between these two emotional states of existence really pops when you cross over from one side to the other. Did anyone notice that I only began using the terms blocked and open (within this specific context) after the Oct 12th, super-sonic breakthrough? Only after reaching the wider lens of the looking glass could I then turn around to see where I had been. In the post To The Healing Side, (published on Oct 10th), I had the concept but used the word “disconnected.” Yes, that is a big part of it as you will see, but blocked paired with open feels much more accurate.

With these concepts revealed to me and the short-hand to describe them, my challenge is now to make blocked and open as clear to you as they are to me.

Trauma, Bury, Disconnect

When a person is blocked it means that childhood trauma has caused them to bury their rightful emotions and disconnect themselves from the feelings of others, and from their own feelings, too.

Notice the italics I have added to the three terms I will be diving into today- trauma, bury and disconnect. Same as the word “inconceivable” from The Princess Bride, each of these words may not mean what you think it means. Let’s begin where the trouble begins, with trauma.

A quick heads up that I will be going back quite often to the terms body-self and mind-self because they are so key to grasping the physiological underpinnings of what it is to be blocked (and then open). Review anyone?

Trauma Is Not So “Bad”

“No House of Horrors” was the subtitle I used for one of the first segments of my post, Breeding Ground for Suicide. Here is how I summed-up my childhood then: 

“What’s amazing to me is just how relatively close to center my early upbringing was. There were no alcohol-fueled episodes of physical abuse, no child molestation, no cages, no torture chambers, no material for a future Netflix documentary. The dysfunction in my childhood home was the product of two parents living inside their own blind spots.”

I know the word “trauma” first brings to mind explosions, violence, rape, incest, etc, but I want to make it clear that trauma, specifically childhood trauma, comes in many forms- angry ruptures that go unrepaired; direct (and indirect) emotional abuse; an absence of nurturing love; and willful neglect. My list is not exhaustive, but enough to make the point. Notice, physical abuse is not on the list. That’s because it is additive, not required. 

When young Gary both witnessed and experienced these less headline-grabbing forms of trauma without any means of escape, he/I learned to cope. The trade-off was to become emotionally blocked. My body-self was born to scream and cry and love, but when the parental forces around me would not support these natural human emotions, my mind-self had to figure out how to hold the whole of me together. Evidently my answer (and that for males almost everywhere) was to toughen-up, to put a lid on my emotions. This required turning off some chemical “switches” buried deep inside my body.

Backyard Burial

The next paragraph is one I wish I didn’t feel was necessary to write. It makes it seem like I’m trying to explain sciencey stuff in my blog when a scientist, I am not. Just relax, Max…I am simply passing along something I read about recently, but also quite literally felt. This I will explain after you hear what the science says…

Peer-reviewed, scientific research studies on adults who’ve had trauma in their childhoods confirm there are real-life biological, physical, and identifiable changes that occur within the human body directly correlated to trauma—lower cortisol levels, higher stress hormones, and these little things called “methyl groups” that attach themselves to certain genes, turning them either on or off. Quantities of these measurable physical attributes even correlate to the severity of the trauma.

All this is saying is that trauma affects the chemistry of our bodies in ways that can be measured. But I didn’t have to read this in a book before I knew it was true. The six somatic experiencing cycles I went through on Oct 12th, left me physically feeling changed. [Hey, I’m just telling you what happened.] To be clear, I am not talking about feeling these changes right away. I mean, I kind of did, but I’m slow to trust anything that seems too good to be true, especially while still under the elevating influence of cannabis. However, by days three and four the jury was in. The physical changes were not an illusion or a biased perception. They were just as real as a new haircut.

What kind of physical changes are we talking about? Familiar pains in my right shoulder, right hip and left knee all felt better right away. My body-self was clearly happy to finally complete some full cycles from Danger to Safe, from Anger to Safe, and from Sad to Safe. It was epic!

My right shoulder was especially different. With weights at the gym I do these exercises called shrugs so that maaaaybe my shoulders won’t look so boney. I hang onto a 40 lb dumbbell with each hand and then shrug like I’m saying, “I don’t know” over and over again. If I’m not careful in how I do these lifts, I will feel a crunchy pain when my right shoulder moves in certain ways. After the breakthrough… Gone! [Okay, so that’s not 100% true, but the age-old pains I was very familiar with were reduced by like… a whopping 90%.]

Extra! Extra!

Though the physical changes were quite remarkable, the larger headline font should be reserved for how much different my mind felt- GARY MAKES PEACE DEAL. I am telling you…the literalness of this change is still hard for me to wrap my head around. I had no concept a transformation such as this could be a real thing. The closest relatable feeling I can think of is the one you would experience after learning a piece of good news has cancelled your need to worry and stress; like a weight has been lifted. What is that, right?! Well, the stuff I read about changes to cortisol levels, stress hormones and genes was exactly the type of sciencey confirmation a born skeptic like me appreciates to explain this feeling of change (and change of feeling). In a nutshell, when my direct personal experience is backed up by science, I’m all the way in.

Completed somatic cycles changed my body’s chemistry for the better and I am happy to let that be true.

The day after my super-sonic breakthrough I wondered to myself what I’ll say the next time someone asks me, How are you? I posed the question to myself first and came up with an answer that both sounds kind of humorous and also feels like there’s truth in it. I will say- I haven’t felt this good since I was 3 months old.

Connect Four

Prior to my very first session of therapy in the first part of May, I added a note to my phone with an absurdly long header, “What I Hope to Get Out of Therapy and Questions I’d Like Answered.” In the note I list 13 things. Item #4 relates to this idea of connection. I wrote, Will therapy help me figure out if being “Mr Jokester” all the time is a crutch? Ha! Now I have my answer… Abso-friggen-lutely!

Now that I am open, it’s not difficult to make sense of my own behavior patterns as a person who was pretty dam-blocked. Being Mr. Jokester is not a bad thing, overall. [C’mon, I’m funny sometimes, right?] But my problem was always cracking jokes when the situation called for a higher degree of seriousness and sensitivity. I didn’t care about people in the way I should have. Meaning, I could intellectually care about someone all day long, but what’s always been missing was feeling it

I can recall a specific moment from when I was 16 years old and working at the beloved (and long-since closed-down) amusement park in Houston called Astroworld. I was working in the “Oriental” section near the Runaway Rickshaw ride when I saw a little boy off by himself, crying and lost. I went over to him, but really didn’t know what to say. Just being honest with you, I felt uncomfortable handling what should have been an easy task. About a minute later, an area foreman named Willie Wamble (Yes, that’s his name) was walking by so I grabbed his attention with a wave and motioned him over. Instinctively, Willie goes straight to the crying little boy and squats down so they are at eye-level. The way Willie speaks to the kid is something I’ve apparently never forgotten. He is so caring and sensitive. He first comforts the boy, then reassures him his parents are definitely looking for him right then. Willie says to the kid, “I’m going to help you, alright? You’re gonna be okay.” Meanwhile I am standing a short distance away thinking, Wow, I could never do that. 

Seeing how Willie interacted with that little boy was something I could intuitively admire, but my instincts to do the same were unavailable to me. It’s episodes like this that let me know deep down that something was wrong with me. Being blocked from having normal human feelings not only inhibited my ability to connect with others, but also to myself. It would take me 40 years of cold living, a personal blog of deep psychological exploration, and six months of somatic therapy visits before I would begin gaining access to my own healthy and appropriate human emotions. 

Hey! Better now than never, right? What I would really like to do at this point is test my hypothesis. If you happen to lose your small child, let me know and I’ll help with the search. 😉

Sorry Mom…We Got Disconnected

The opening scene at the top of this post is one of my most uncomfortable memories. Reliving this moment hurts now, but I needed to tell the story to show you what being disconnected looks like. 

What a far different, more complicated and complete, picture I have of my mother today! If my mom were still alive, this is the conversation I would like to have with her…

Mom, I know the sudden loss of your own mother when you were 13 was a rupture that no one could ever repair. While I never heard much about your father I have connected enough dots to conclude he was an abusive alcoholic and your mom left him when you were around 7 years old. He had a lot of mental problems and spent the last 15 years of his life at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. He died when you were 25 of pancreatic cancer, but also written on his death certificate next to “Other Significant Conditions” are the words, Psychosis with organic brain disease. I can translate that– Your father was horribly abused as a child.

That was your dad. How about the other men in your life?

I know your first husband (Tommy’s father) was physically abusive, and you left him. Your second husband (my father) was emotionally abusive, and you left him. You had one more significant relationship after my dad with a mercifully kind-hearted alcoholic, but an alcoholic, nonetheless. It took many heartbreaking years, but eventually you left him, too. Your vibe attracts your tribe, mom. You were blocked, and so were all of the men in your life, including all three of your sons… including me, mom. Tommy and Bill succumbed to their inner world of pain, but for reasons I cannot yet understand, I am the son that has survived.

Now I am here to tell your story and connect it to my own. All our family ever knew up until now was disconnection. Well, now it’s time for me to connect.

I do not have children of my own to repair the family’s chain of abuse, neglect, and disconnection. However, I’m writing a blog these days, mom. I think it’s really good. Maybe there’s someone out there that will read it, and it will help them make the loving connections we never could.

More Than Words

One thing you might still be confused about. I say that both my mother and I were blocked, lacking access to our emotions, right? But we all hear my mother turn to me and tell me she loves me. This speaks to the internal battle everyone living in the blocked world faces. Our body-selves crave to feel the love that trauma prevents us from giving or receiving. Our mind-self can intellectually match-up this innate craving to what we know we should be saying and feeling. In short, we try. All our lives, we try.  My mother was trying. All her life she was trying.

The understanding I now have of my mother (and every member of my family), is at an all-time high. More pieces of my family’s puzzle are yet to be discovered, for sure. But I’ve got the bulk of it figured out. The bottom line is that we were a disaster of a family. Disconnection breeds disconnection and the painful results speak volumes. All of us, blocked, blocked, blocked. 

On a brighter, more positive note, I want to tell you about my mother’s death. [Wait! Don’t smack me. I’m funny sometimes, remember?!] What I’m going to tell you is that the happiest stretch of my mom’s life was definitely the last 15 or so years. She had bouts of depression throughout her life, but I remember maybe only one episode of it in her final decade and a half. I do not believe she ever healed from her trauma, but she certainly worked at it. For that she deserves mad props. 

Dam Aunt Sana

Before wrapping up this post about what it’s like to be blocked, there’s someone I’d like you to meet– my Aunt Sana. She was my dad’s older sister and a perfectly pleasant individual, but whoa Nellie, blocked like the Hoover Dam. The family joke was that if Sana came to pay you a visit in the hospital while you were on your deathbed and dying, she would be sure to tell you first, “Well, when I was on my deathbed and dying…”  

It was only about one month ago that a few new pieces of my Aunt’s life (and my dad’s) fell into place. The family called her Sana, but her given name was Helen Randolph Breaux. Randolph is a family name intended for the first born son. (It was my older brother Bill’s middle name, as well.) My “female” aunt showed up first but still snagged the name Randolph. I’m adding quote-marks to “female,” because my aunt had uncommonly large dimensions for a woman. She was 5’11” and built like a tight-end. My dad (the last born) was more slender and two inches smaller, like a second-string running back (which he was on his college football team). 

It’s a trippy thought, but it’s as though my Aunt Sana should have been the boy, and my dad the girl. Gender identity issues were never discussed over family Thanksgiving dinner, but as I look back, it’s almost guaranteed that my aunt was never able to live life as her true self. I do know she lived into her 80’s, never had a boyfriend/girlfriend, voraciously devoured romance novels, and was a virgin to the day she really was….on her deathbed and dying. 

For my dad’s part, to think that he might have been gay, trans, or at the very least, sexually confused, and having to suppress his truest nature, would certainly explain a lot about his awkward personality traits. And also explain the degree to which he was emotionally disconnected from everyone around him. My dad even had quite a few physical “ticks” that I think were a direct consequence of the trauma he suffered growing up. He had this odd, repetitive way in which he would move the thumb on his left hand, like there was a tight rubber band underneath his skin and he couldn’t get it to snap no matter how many times he tried. 

Being Blocked Is Soooo Yesterday

Seeing myself in these two examples- the I love you non-exchange with my mom at 13, and also the story about the lost kid at Astroworld a few years later. How could I have been so cold and uncaring? It’s because I literally didn’t possess the ability to connect- the mechanisms of trauma wouldn’t allow for it. Connecting is seeing. And I mean truly seeing another person, taking the whole of them into account when you’re communicating. Being able to feel and reflect-back the other person’s emotions, not just intellectually, but because your own are available to share, as well. That is connecting. 

I can see now how my attempts to insert witty comments (to be Mr. Jokester) into otherwise serious conversations were too often a substitute for sincere listening. Frankly, it’s a tell-tale sign of a person who is blocked. Another flavor of this same blocked condition is found in people (like my Aunt Sana) who talk about themselves non-stop. [Oh, you mean like the guy who’s writing this giant blog?] What you are witnessing from people in your life that exhibit this trait in spades is a person who cannot leave their own heads long enough to connect to yours. 

The coda to the story about my mother and me is this. Eventually I reached a point in my life where I could tell my mom, I love you, but sadly, while she was still alive I was never able to feel it. Do I feel it now? Honestly, I don’t know yet. Coming into the open world is new to me. [It’s barely been two weeks!] My capacity to love freely is uncharted territory. Plus, great progress on my part does not mean my growth as a person is over. Ha, wouldn’t that be something! It’s more likely that I am just getting started.  

——-

So, that’s a lot more about being Blocked. Plus, a little more about what it means to be Open. But we haven’t even gotten to the craziest part of it.

Published by

UltimateGaryB

Gary is a Solar Technician and writer living in Boulder, CO, who loves to play Ultimate frisbee!!

6 thoughts on “Significant Conditions”

  1. Mad props to your Mom. I like that. I think we all are products of our upbringings by folks that were broken by their upbringings. Not to oversimplify, but I recently let God have it. The joy, peace and love I have now are indescribable.
    Props to you Gary for the search and introspection. Uncomfortable, but so freezing.

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  2. Gary, I LOVE the way you write. It is very compelling and pulls me right into your world. I find myself exploring my own family dynamics. I’m looking forward to reading the next entry so I can find out what you mean by, “But we haven’t even gotten to the craziest part of it.”

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  3. This is quite reflective for me. My first recollection of my dad saying I love you son, I was around 18. My recollection when I said I love you dad and felt it, he was in his 50s and me in early 30s.

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  4. Gary, as usual, I related to everything in this blog. It especially made me reflect on how coping mechanisms based on childhood trauma (“the jokester”) can also be generationally passed down. My poor father (I can honestly say and FEEL that now) passed down his coping skill of joking things off/making fun of serious situations to his kids (I realize I’ve done an effective job of that for my sons as well). I mastered that skill. It kept me from going insane from grief and shame for many years. It actually–and I’m not exaggerating–kept me alive throughout my young and mid-ish adulthood. It served me well…until it didn’t. I’m learning to do things differently today when faced with things that make me uncomfortable or bring up very intense feelings that, until very recently, autopiloted me to ‘joker’ or ‘make-fun-of’ mode. I respect and honor how those coping skills helped me to survive a very traumatic and violent childhood. I’ll always be grateful for them but now I get to tell them I don’t need their protection to survive anymore. They can certainly hang out with me, I’m good with that. I never want to discount or minimize the role they played in keeping me safe as a child growing up in such terrible turmoil. Man, I so appreciate your candor and vulnerability! It’s enabled me to sort out my own thoughts and feelings on how I cope(d). Good job, friend!

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