“Stronger Together” is the motto for the Military Wives Choirs formed throughout the UK to help partners come together to manage their sense of aloneness while their other halves were overseas on tours of duty. The experience of forming the initial choir was beautifully illustrated in the recent movie ‘Military Wives’. Watching this movie, I found myself reflecting on their motto and how it translates as we move into a time in which social exclusion is being advocated as a means of protecting yourself against the global rise of coronavirus.
So many of the clients that we work with have practised social exclusion for years as a means of protecting themselves against a world that they found unsafe and unpredictable. Together we have worked to chip away at their isolation, providing them a safe place to land, a community that is both caring and attuned. Attuned connection is the cornerstone of work with developmental trauma – at all levels. Therapists need this within our supervision, our professional development and our ‘tribes’ of like-minded colleagues who all speak the same trauma language. Those we see need this within their therapeutic relationships, the groups they join and the friendships they form. And now….as so often happens in the journey of recovery, there is a bump in the road. In his recent interview for our favourite podcast at Birchtree ‘Therapist Uncensored’, Bruce Perry reminds us that resilience develops from being able to face stressors with an attuned caregiver at your side to turn to. So how can we apply that wisdom to the pandemic situation we now find ourselves in?
People who have grown up in a childhood marked by traumas of omission and commission often struggle with a sense of impending doom. Their implicit memory system screams out daily that somewhere just around the corner, something bad is bound to happen. Even if things are going well, that is often seen as a sign that bad times are on their way ‘after the party has ended’ as was so commonly their experience growing up. Now society and the media are supporting this belief by providing a daily diet of ‘doomsday preppers’ and graphs of the steady progression of coronavirus throughout the world. I am struck by a world that has, to use Dan Siegel’s language, ‘flipped its lid’. Our clients have had a lifetime of caregivers who have spent years with ‘flipped lids’, unable to attune to their developmental needs. They need us now, more than ever, to self-regulate around this anxiety pandemic. To reassure them that, as Bonnie Badenoch so eloquently teaches, ‘We hear you. We see you’. We know that social exclusion will hit you particularly hard, that by its nature it is retraumatizing. Therapy has allowed you space to inch your way out of this zone – now the world wants to make you return to it. How can we make this time different? How can we create some disparity from your childhood experiences? We know that Skype is a poor substitute for relational work – even though it is undeniably better than no contact. In your past self-imposed attempts at social exclusion for your own protection, you hibernated either your whole self or as Janina Fisher would say ‘parts of you’. This time you are not alone. We are all in this together – we will walk through these crossroads with you. The nonprofit organisation ‘To Write Love on Her Arms’ recently posted these eloquent words, reminding us all of the need to remain connected…
“Conversations will not be cancelled.
Relationships will not be cancelled.
Love will not be cancelled.
Songs will not be cancelled.
Reading will not be cancelled.
Self-care will not be cancelled.
Hope will not be cancelled.
May we lean into the good stuff that remains.”
How does the push for social exclusion affect our tribe of therapists? Already we have had two professional development get togethers cancelled – a two-day Iain McGilchrist training and a five day ‘deep dive’ into the Polyvagal Theory with Deb Dana. These professional get togethers allow us all time out to connect with our community of like-minded therapists. They bring together left-brain academic growth with right-brain holding and connectedness. I like to think of them as opportunities to have our batteries recharged – to reaffirm our passion for this unique work we do. I have heard many therapists express sadness at the loss of these experiences this year. While we undeniably understand the need for these health precautions, there is also a strange paradox in the situation we face as a community mirroring the stories of trauma we hear daily in our rooms.
Coronavirus invades communities disconnecting people from schools, workplaces and social gatherings. People walk around with masks on their faces impeding at best conversation and in extreme cases easy breathing. Society focuses on the base level needs Maslow places as the foundation to human existence – as such, toilet paper becomes a prized commodity that humans fight for as mammals. Money has been thrown at the problem as we desperately try to develop a vaccine that will protect us against this viral threat.
However, while the coronavirus effects are obvious externally, developmental trauma hides its pernicious effects from the world’s gaze. People are disconnected from their communities out of fear of the repeated pain of unrequited attachment. Their masks may be invisible, but their voices are still impeded. Their breathing is labored by the somatic impact of chronic states of mobilisation and immobilisation. Base level needs become the focus of existence enforced by internally ‘neurocepting’ a constant lack of safety. The implicit, long-lasting nature of developmental trauma mean that it is extremely hard to mobilise governments and private philanthropy to donate money in an effort to ‘vaccinate’ future generations against the threat of the intergenerational repetition of a cascade of ACE’s.
And so, as is common in trauma work, we return to the beginning – ‘Stronger Together’. Together we must stay connected through these periods of social exclusion communicating to all of our community – we are still here. We can use our nervous systems and our voices to communicate calmly in face of the impending threat. While we will adopt necessary precautions, we will continue to connect as needed – whether it be via text, Skype, through words or actions, we will not walk away. This time you need not be isolated in your state of social exclusion. And when coronavirus eventually lessens its grip on society, having been inspired by the beautiful women in ‘Military Wives’, maybe we will celebrate by forming a Birchtree Choir!
By Jace Cannon-Brookes