When Traumatic Abuse is a Barrier to Communication

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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The ball bounced off my body as if I was a human wall, but no sounds emanated from my being. Trapped in a freeze response, my life force could not seek release. I was four years old displaying a natural state of paralysis known as tonic immobility, a predicament of profound motor inhibition coupled with post-traumatic mutism.

Perched on the lap of my older sister, who was also traumatized by chronic attachment injuries incurred from our schizophrenic mother and narcissistically malignant father, I quietly registered her efforts to introduce me to the children attempting to engage me in play. Their bewildered looks reinforced my marginalization. It was clear that I was not like them.

Shut down, I turned to fantasy and books. Ironically my vocabulary was vast, but communication eluded me. Relatedness was dangerous and my skills were deficient having spent months held hostage indoors. In my world survival meant complete retreat.

When fight or flight are not perceived as options, what is akin to ‘playing dead’ becomes a default mechanism. Psychoanalyst Rene Spitz referred to this state as anaclitic depression, based on the stuporous catatonia he identified in the foundling home children he observed in the 1940s. Similarly, Harlow’s cruel studies of maternally deprived monkeys in the 1960s elucidated how the rupture of primary bonding, whether in humans or other mammals leads to catatonic contracture.

These protective responses to trauma, especially when they occur in early childhood signal a detrimental impact on brain activity and development, inclusive of speech and language abilities.

What is known as preverbal trauma refers to damaging injuries incurred from birth to three years old prior to or during the development of speech and language. When trauma occurs so early in life the brain’s cortical volume and functions becomes impaired, which directly affects language and executive functions.

Studies also indicate that socioeconomic status plays a significant role in the development of vocabulary skills, as children raised in poverty evidence a substantial vocabulary gap and lower test scores for verbal ability. Poverty’s impact on vocabulary acquisition has far-reaching implications in terms of ongoing reading comprehension, oral language development and academic success.

As Dr. Carol Westby explains in her article Adverse Childhood Experiences: What Speech-Language Pathologists Need to Know, “children who have experienced five or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) within their first three years of life face a 76% likelihood of having one or more delays in their language, emotional, or brain development.”

Undeniably, the combination of trauma, helpless impotence and poverty are deleterious to a child’s brain development and cognitive abilities. Adapting to these conditions necessitates shutting down. This disconnection of body and spirit establishes and reinforces what is referred to as the Dorsal Vagal freeze response. The Dorsal Vagal freeze response signifies an absence of engagement to one’s body and to others.

Specifically, the vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for regulating arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. If sympathetic arousal is extreme such as when a traumatic threat occurs, the dorsal vagus nerve kicks in. In the case of chronic trauma, this results in a freeze response which is stored as memory. This defensive progression impedes the possibility of feeling safe and regulated. It also impedes the possibility of mobilizing social interaction.

Thus, since it is in the ventral vagus state that social engagement occurs, “dorsal dominant” children are walled off from relationships and the skills acquired through socialization. The frozen child is unable to gravitate towards others who might be available to provide safety and comfort. As long as a person is “dorsal dominant” they will have little capacity for connectedness.

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Illustrative of this dilemma is a memory from childhood in which, after prolonged confinement, my mother dropped me off at a daycare facility when I was three years old. It had been almost two months since I’d seen anything outside, breathed any air outside of the squalor and stench of my home environment. Walking through the streets, I took in every color, every shape, but everything seemed flat, two-dimensional, like scenery on a stage.

Somehow I found myself at a table with other children of my own age. The teacher instructed us to ‘create’ using the shiny colored pieces of paper, markers, pipe cleaners and scissors. Her commands resounded in my ears, but I just couldn’t speak. Nor could I move.

Perhaps she felt ignored or disrespected. Whatever the reason, her hand came down hard on the side of my face. No one noticed, no one blinked or said a word. At that moment, I knew I didn’t belong in this world, that I was different, somehow less than. Banished to the corner, I silently sat looking through storybooks, fantasizing about magical realities.

It wasn’t until much time had passed, after years of trauma therapy was I able to find the words to write about that incident and my plight.

Trauma set me apart to my own little world. Just a fetal like speck of a frail little girl. Curled in a ball with a book in my arm, I’d cling to a vestige of nightmarish calm. I’d be so still- my heart rapid-fire. Gripping my fear until I would tire. Reduced to nothing until nothingness was all I could see. Did you succeed in killing off in me what you could never be? Cuz mommy, by three I truly believed only death could set me free.

That memory was unfortunately one of many episodes of unbearable cruelty in which words eluded me. Even when at eighteen years old I was nudged by my caring therapist to allow him to provide me with the help I desperately needed, I could barely articulate my suffering. Nor did I feel entitled to do so. Yet my body expressed what language could not.

Author and director of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and The Trauma Research Foundation, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. wrote in The Body Keeps the Score, “The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

Yet accessing and effectively identifying and engaging with the high sympathetic activation that lay just beneath the freeze response is a complicated task. As van der Kolk explains, severe early life trauma results in the shutting down of brain areas (i.e.- Medial prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the insula) that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. This remarkable adaptation has tragic repercussions as the capacity for self-awareness becomes markedly blunted.

Thankfully the plasticity of the brain reveals to us that all is not lost, as the brain is not static. Even though the system’s default wiring is set to freeze, the brain’s capacity to alter neural pathways offers the potential for healing and growth. The rewiring and strengthening of neural connections that meliorate the impact of chronic trauma is attained through myriad recovery modalities such as dynamic trauma focused psychotherapy coupled with mindfulness training, EMDR, social support, trauma focused cognitive therapy and psychopharmacology.

The amount of time and effort needed to recalibrate the brain and modify trauma-induced patterns of selective mutism is extensive. Naturally, early diagnosis and timely treatment improve the overall prognosis, but for folks presenting with complex trauma, medical and psychological intervention was typically not attainable.

Moreover, when language disorders are recognized in children they are generally isolated from social and emotional functioning. Accordingly, they are often not approached as communication deficits due to traumatic stress.

As for me, groomed to be the sentinel of my emotional territory I embodied the lost child (aka the invisible child). In this role, I sought safety through insular retreat. Even when I came to understand intellectually that my freeze response was an involuntary response to danger, I harbored deep-seated shame and self-hate over not having the volition or the words to defend myself or express myself in meaningful ways. Mending this wound would eventually necessitate giving words to all that was silenced.

The love of my Ukrainian grandmother Dora who took me in when my mother was institutionalized, helped me begin to reclaim my aptitude to speak. Grandma Dora’s weekly ritual of reciting the Shabbat prayers and the mitzvah of lighting the candles had a curative effect on me. I felt safe and loved, and began to heal.

My thirst for learning, my bond to my older sister and my affection for my hamster Desmond (aptly named after the Beatle’s song Ob-la Di Ob-la Da) also aided me with plodding on. Throughout the years' therapy, performance arts, world travel, academia, yoga and martial arts encouraged me to come out of hiding. Indeed, breaking out of the freeze of traumatic mutism took everything I had.

At long last, after decades of tireless effort, I realized the words that Edgar Allan Poe defined as ‘the exquisite horror of their reality.’

In order to claim these words and attain the ability to impart them, I was challenged to manage the dark forces of despair and alienation. I had to choose to live and manufacture enough hope and mettle to discover ways to rise above my circumstances. Having reaped the benefits of recovery and finding my voice, it’s a great privilege to serve as a witness and source of comfort for those who are challenged to do the same.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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