Who’s telling the story of your life—YOU or your brain? Searching for reasons her promising life had crumbled into obsessive thoughts and deep depressions, Karen Lawrence uncovers an enigmatic past filled with deception, religious fanaticism and abuse.
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What you don’t know CAN hurt you in ways you never imagined. Karen Lawrence knows firsthand that unexamined memories (or lack of memory) can turn one’s life upside down. Plagued by obsessive thoughts, deep depressive episodes and behavior she couldn’t explain and that doctors couldn’t successfully treat, Karen woke up in her late twenties living a double life of outward normality and inner torment. Faced with a mysterious deficit of childhood memories but convinced something from her past was slowly poisoning her mind--Karen began to search her past for answers.
Years of unproductive emotional excavation began to take a turn in 2007 when Karen visits family and attends her 30th high school reunion. Listening to an intuitive prompt that arises while practicing mindfulness, Karen rediscovers a journal written in her own voice as a girl. It hints at an emotionally abandoned child exposed to infidelities, sexual abuse, lies and religious fanaticism. In a short period of amazing insight, Karen connects her personal experiences with research she is doing for an article on brain science. Suddenly the scattered pieces of her enigmatic past and distressing adulthood coalesce.
Combing through the journal and research notes then interacting with family and friends, Karen discovers that her symptoms have likely been driven by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fragments of Karen’s “Baby Kay” child-voice, succinct scientific research data, and personal reflection are deftly woven with Karen’s present voice. Added discussions of evolving treatments for depression, PTSD and obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders offer hope to others that following one’s heart can begin to heal a brain touched by trauma.
One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
~Emily Dickinson, "Time and Eternity"
Memory is one of those glorious conundrums about being human. It gives us context and facilitates our lives by automatically accessing how-to information for the most basic functions we execute over and over again. Early in life we develop a storehouse of things we should react to and be afraid of, then as we learn and grow our brains integrate the physical and emotional events of our lives into memory for future reference. Our brains are constantly comparing old and new memories to help keep us safe in many different situations. Our memory has helped us survive and evolve as a species.
But memory and the way we handle it can also make us sick and unable to function. It can wash in on us when we least expect it or elude us when we most desperately need it. It can be ushered in on a smell or a sound or a flash of light. It can be blocked by fear, anxiety, stress or aging. It can mix with dreams and fantasy, skewing or even completely obliterating reality. Our memory can paralyze us or send us on a wild goose chase. At times, the way our brains store the experiences of our lives is a painful mystery of distortion, omission and illusion, especially our fear memories. If we let it, memory (or lack thereof) can turn our lives upside down.
My story starts upside down.
I began to question memory and brain function in my mid-twenties. My promising life was suddenly in shambles for no apparent reason. I had a deeply troubled marriage, a failing career, and recurring depressive episodes that had me waking up each day wanting to die. When multiple rounds of medication and therapy didn’t stop repeated relapse, I went looking for explanations for my mental condition. I was unwilling to accept that I might be one of the intractable cases that couldn’t be helped or that I might just have a “defective” brain that the prevailing scientific wisdom maintained was hardwired and fixed once we reached adulthood. I didn’t know it at the time, but I didn’t really believe I was doomed to a lifetime of simply coping with despair. I felt as if it was a puzzle to be solved, and if the doctors couldn’t do it, I would.
My inability to reach equilibrium in adulthood made me start to wonder if something in my past was slowly poisoning me. I didn’t have a lot of specific memories from childhood. Why not? Had I been abused? Traumatized? Inherited some defective “madness” gene from an unstable relative? Was I repressing some horrible past? I speculated that finding and confronting where things went wrong might help me get well. So I went back to the beginning. I searched my first memories and combed through the events and emotions of my childhood looking for clues. I asked questions.
What I found explained a lot. There had been subtle hints I had missed all along. Family secrets. Infidelity. Sexual abuse. Denial. Neglect. Bitterness. Religious fanaticism. Shame heaped on shame. After a few years of emotional excavation, I thought I had the reasons for my painful existence and that in finally knowing the truth I would be able to overcome my difficulties. On the surface, I should have been ok. I did all the right things. I worked with the emotions that arose and tried to get perspective on what I had discovered. I confronted the people I needed to confront and began the process of grieving and forgiving. I tried to get on with my life. But knowing what fueled my depressive thoughts did nothing to stop them. In fact, they got worse. I began to believe my brain HAD been irreparably damaged during key periods of childhood development and that the doctors were right. I would just have to learn to live with despair. I slipped closer and closer to wanting to die.
But something began to change in my early forties. I had nearly abandoned myself to living a life without joy when I read that meditation was proving effective for the treatment of some mental disorders. The scientific study of its benefits was in full swing. Researchers believed meditation and something called mindfulness training might help with chronic, unresponsive depression. I didn’t have anything to lose. So I gave it a try. I read a few books and started to practice. When sitting meditation proved too excruciatingly difficult, I tried meditative walks in nature and gardening, and discovered both soothed me long enough to be aware of something outside my own pain. And once I stepped outside the pain, I knew I wasn’t trapped there. I knew I could teach myself to do it again and again. I began to understand that my thoughts were not me.
In hindsight, I realize I was initiating a paradigm shift. The minute I learned to step back and observe what was really going on inside my head, I began to understand that my brain often doesn’t see things as they truly are. It is fixated on making sure that the ME it perceives as its reason for being survives. And somehow it came to believe that in order to do that job well it must demand resolution when there is conflict, jump to conclusions when there is confusion and make decisions when there is uncertainty – with or without all the facts. It grabs onto one detail, connects it with something stored away in the recesses of memory and reacts as if all situations that LOOK the same ARE the same. Unobserved, my brain runs my life without my conscious participation. And while the marvels of my brain’s capabilities to help me survive and navigate the world are truly awe-inspiring, my brain is not me. I am that observer calmly standing outside the gyrations of a brain that is frantically trying to control a completely uncontrollable situation—life. And as I trained myself to view the world through the lens of that observer-self and live from the expansive space where my true self resides rather than define my existence by the thoughts of a troubled brain, my life began to change. The despair began to lift. I began to heal.
I originally began this memoir with the intention of helping myself and others by recounting how I discovered and coped with repressed memories of childhood abuse. I had read other memoirs on the same topic. Many were sensational and bitter. Others expressed hope for healing in ways that had failed me. And none addressed the excruciating shame of knowing but NOT remembering. They did not describe the price of spending a lifetime carrying around an unrelenting madness without identifiable roots.
The writing coincided with a significant series of personal life events and the discovery of new scientific research explaining why sexual abuse so severely impacts its victims. The effects are not just psychological. Sexual abuse changes the victims’ brains. The damage distorts and fragments memories and causes ongoing problems with learning and remembering new information. Internalizing responsibility for the physical symptoms can lead to more mental manifestations such as depression and anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
And there is tremendous hope mixed in with the new research. New studies show that the parts of the brain that are affected by trauma such as sexual abuse have the capacity to regenerate nerve cells if subsequent stress is minimized and certain therapies and mental training occur. The millions of victims dealing with the fallout of trauma are no longer faced with just “coping.” Finally my experience is corroborated by scientific data. The damaged brain can heal.
I finished the first full draft and several rewrites of this book in October 2009. It sat for nearly a year, waiting. I wasn’t sure for what. The few people I asked to read it had mixed reactions. One reader told me he thought the events I describe weren’t particularly dramatic or traumatic. There are more horrific stories to be told, he said, what makes yours worth reading? I was still insecure and doubtful the writing was more than personal therapy. I asked myself again and again, “Why does this story matter?”
Simultaneously with putting the book away, I entered into a friendship with a Vietnam veteran who had been dealing with the residual effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for most of his adult life. A peacetime veteran myself, I understood the sense of camaraderie I felt, but was stumped as to why my connection to his story was so intense. I identified so significantly with his PTSD symptoms that I began reading about new studies of PTSD. I ran across an article written by Dr. J. Douglas Bremner, a Yale researcher that said this:
“Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something of an invisible epidemic. The events underlying it are often mysterious and always unpleasant. It is certainly far more widespread than most people realize. For example, a prime cause of PTSD is childhood sexual abuse. About 16% of American women (about 40 million) are sexually abused (including rape, attempted rape, or other form of molestation) before they reach their 18th birthday.
Childhood abuse and other sources of extreme stress can have lasting effects on the parts of the brain that are involved in memory and emotion. The hippocampus, in particular, seems to be very sensitive to stress. Damage to the hippocampus from stress can not only cause problems in dealing with memories and other effects of past stressful experiences, it can also impair new learning. Exciting recent research has shown that the hippocampus has the capacity to regenerate nerve cells ("neurons") as part of its normal functioning, and that stress impairs that functioning by stopping or slowing down neuron regeneration.”
Reading that, I immediately knew why this story matters. My sense is that even though science now has proof that trauma causes physical damage to the parts of the brain responsible for memory and emotional response, the overwhelming impact of PTSD is not widely known. Most see it as a disease of veterans and the unfortunate children of war or physical disasters. Many people still make incorrect assumptions about sexual abuse survivors. And few have heard about recent brain research that offers dramatic hope for healing a brain damaged by trauma. Survivors can absolutely do more than cope; they can radically change the way they respond to their lives.
So this is not a story about what actually happened to me, or who was responsible, or even why things like childhood sexual abuse happen. This is a journey through the glorious and baffling corridors of memory. It is an account of how I righted a life upended by a frantic brain stuck on fear. It is an example of how understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our brains, accepting the fallibility of our memories and learning to live from our hearts can balance all the madness this earthly existence can conjure up. When the heart is allowed to lead, anything that happens can be made whole.