It has been a while since my last entry and I apologise for that. The last 3 weeks have been so very busy and I became a little unwell (nothing too serious – just allergies) so that’s put me a little behind on the documentation of reflections. I can’t help but wonder however if some of the delay in getting another story out, was because I’m a stickler for chronology and really wanted to talk about & reflect on an experience I had in Albuquerque, the night before heading to Cal Farley’s in Texas. The difficulty being that I was auditory witness to what sounded like a horrible domestic violence incident in my hotel that left me nothing short of scared if I’m to be honest. I think it’s taken me time to process and think about that experience and how to reflect upon and turn it into something I have learnt from, but can also help others to learn from.
In all the training and staffings I have done as part of my NMT certification with the ChildTrauma Academy I have a pretty good understanding of Dr Perry’s notion of the arousal continuum and the impact of increasing levels of stress and fear on the way in which our brain operates. I even use examples of my own stressful situations to illustrate the arousal continuum when I teach and train.
Arousal continuum, Chelle what are you talking about? In short, there is a universal human phenomenon whereby activation of the stress response system or the experience of stress or threat, moves us along a continuum of arousal from calm to alert to alarm to fearful to terrified. Now as Dr Perry often says, in today’s world it’s quite rare to achieve a state of calm and for most of us we operate on a day to day basis in the mental state of alert. At each different state of arousal and because all of our functioning is brain mediated, there is a different part of the brain that is most active.
So when we are in a state of calm or alert this is when we have access to our cortex – the thinking and problem solving part of our brain. We can recall information, manipulate thoughts and come up with solutions. Moving up the arousal continuum to a state of alarm, fear and then terror sequentially reduces the access we have to our cortex. Essentially the more stressed or afraid we become the less access we have to our thinking brain and our ability to problem solve and think clearly. Dan Seigel describes this here in his hand brain model https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DD-lfP1FBFk when he talks about rising emotions leading us to flip our lids.
Unfortunately on the evening of the 17th of May, I was staying in Albuquerque, where after tucking up in bed, excited about the week ahead of me I could hear very clearly the screams and pleas for help from a woman. Coupling these terrifying screams were loud bangs, the sounds of things being thrown around, threatening yelling from a male voice and then the sound of skin hitting skin. It was clear that somewhere very close to me a woman was being assaulted and needed assistance.
Now if I were in my own country and feeling less isolated I may have had a different response, but what happened that night was that I became overwhelmed with fear. Here I was a woman, alone, in another country and not having immediate access to the things that make me feel safe – my husband or my family. I could feel my heart racing and I found myself almost paralysed with fear. I couldn’t move, didn’t want to move. Initially I thought about the notion of calling 911, but the fear of being heard or drawing attention to myself was so great and the possible threat to my own safety took hold. Instead I found myself lying completely still, like a mouse not making a sound and jumping on Facebook messenger to connect with my safe base – my husband. Essentially in that moment I “flipped my lid”.
Not only did I have the first hand experience of the arousal continuum where I found myself unable to do anything but focus on what I needed to do for my own safety. I couldn’t think, sort out solutions or even contemplate what I might need or be able to do to assist this poor woman being assaulted. My cortex, the thinking part of my brain was shut down and the survival parts of my brain in full force – keeping me safe. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, not even after the three hour ordeal settled, I was hypervigilantly on guard for additional threat.
The next morning, when I had resumed a baseline level of alert arousal and my cortex accessible again, I was struck by my experience of shame. I didn’t let this consume me – reminding myself of neurobiology and the response I had as being natural, but nonetheless for a short period of time, with emerging access to my cortex, I felt bad for not having acted to protect that woman. For those concerned, someone who wasn’t as scared was able to seek help for the woman and her abusive partner was arrested and taken away.
In the time that has passed since then however, I have spent a lot of time thinking about being a child in another room of the house, while those you love are being hurt and/or hurting each other. I am a grown adult, I’ve had a really solid upbringing and I have relative security in my attachment and relationships, I had no personal connection to those individuals being violent and yet I still found myself terrified and immobilised by fear. Imagine being a child, vulnerable, alone, scared and unable to do anything to help your loved one from being hurt.
I’ve heard all too often from parents, “the kids don’t know or see it”, “they are in another room”, “our fighting (aka domestic violence) doesn’t have an impact on them”. I have always challenged these notions and beliefs of parents, knowing that this is nothing short of a fallacy. Of course kids know and hear. What concerns me more now though as I reflect on my experience in Albuquerque, is that when you can hear domestic violence and not see it, it might be just as, if not more scary than actually witnessing it. When it is not in front of you and you “flip your lid”, your imagination about what is happening or what might happen can take hold, exacerbating your fear.
What’s more, if you have grown up in an environment of such violence and aggression between those you love, you are more likely to have an overactive stress response and hence be more alert to the cues of aggression and violence and more reactive to them. The witnessing, be that visual or just auditory, will only serve to reinforce and exacerbate that overreactive stress response and possible resultant shame for not being able to help due to fear.
My experience has left me further adamant of the fact that hearing and not seeing domestic violence is absolutely in NO way less frightening or damaging to children, than being visual witness to it!!