"....Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life's sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark" The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin.
Back in 1982, when I was 17, I moved interstate, alone, to attend university, the first of my working class family of farm labourers and shopkeepers ever to do so. One day, soon after arriving in this foreign environment, my legs began to tremble and I took myself off for tests. It seemed to the medical establishment that I was having epileptic seizures and so, for the next two and a half years, I took ever-increasing doses of anti-epilepsy drugs, whilst experiencing ever-increasing 'seizures'. The symptoms kept building until, every day, I was fighting off but finally giving in to an intense clenching of every muscle in my body. As an example, try biting as hard as you can, pressing your lower jaw into your top jaw, until you get a ringing in your head. Even this is not as hard as my body would do but it's what I was doing every day, for a couple of minutes, after hours of trying to fight it off, and eventually I would collapse from exhaustion and enter a state of semi-consciousness.
I moved back home and fell into being the 'it' girl in my town for youth affairs in the mid 80s. I was flying around the country, briefing government ministers and representing Australia. At some point between conference dates, I squeezed in a visit to a top neurosurgeon who, after three days of tests, concluded I didn't have, nor had ever had epilepsy but he advised a stint in the hospital's psychiatric ward to treat agoraphobia and panic attacks.
The only explanation available for my bizarre behaviour, the 'seizures', was some kind of personal defect, a physical, chemical glitch in my brain. So the mental health system scooped me aside and made me and my emotions acceptable within society's narrow confines again (which, of course, is a big improvement on what would have happened to me, say, less than a hundred years ago). And, for everybody, there was literally no other way to think about it.
I dropped everything and spent a month as a voluntary in-patient (but that's a whole other story). I was 'strongly advised' to take an anti-depressant which flattened everything but at least the seizures stopped...there was still no other language to describe them. The conclusion drawn by the mental health system at that time was that my brain produced too much adrenalin.
The Little Blue Pill
It wasn't until some years later that I was sitting in a workshop when the facillitator used the word 'terror' to describe a feeling many people experienced early in life at some stage but which often went unnoticed by those around them. I remember thinking, 'jeez that's a strong word...a bit scared maybe....but terror? I don't think so.'
But like Neo in The Matrix, hearing that word was like taking the little blue pill of truth and reality, after that, was never the same.
Although I'd had no way of linking everything together, because nothing was noticed or reflected back to me by anyone around me, I had experienced the 'unspeakable dilemna', childhood sexual assault many times (not by immediate family members, I'll point out); I had been tortured by a school dentist; and I think these silently experienced events in particular led to regular re-triggering in the form of being convinced death was imminent. The usual scenario was believing a man with evil intentions was on the other side of the door or already in the house with a knife and it was imperative I not breathe or move if I were to stay alive. I must have a strong heart to have withstood so much pounding. I had many terrifying, gory nightmares involving stabbing and guns and carnivorous animals trying to eat me; intense migraines; and I experienced physical violence, shaming, humiliation and utter loneliness at home and at school, which I'm sure was the norm for my generation.
And my parents were good people, to the best of their ability. They fed and clothed me. My father was a 'good provider' and my mother could be warm and encouraging and worked non-stop and I lived in a spotless house. I am grateful to them for providing the basics.
But I was chock-a-block with trauma and moving on my own interstate to a totally foreign environment at seventeen with no life skills was the last proverbial straw.
It is only in recent years that a case has been building due to hard statistical data that some seizures do not fit the classic 'epileptic' model. They have come to be called 'Non-Epileptic Events (NEE) or Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES). The research shows that almost everyone presenting with PNES has early trauma in their life history. The epilepsey drugs have usually increased the terror levels, as does any stint inside a psychiatric unit, even if only by compounding the belief in one's own defective nature. These Non-Epileptic Events are just as uncontrollable but they are physical manifestations of undealt-with terror.
What if everyone who finds themselves in the mental health system has been terrified at some point in their lives but it's not been recognised by their parents or caregivers or society, and their clever minds have set up twists and loops and turns to ensure they never feel that terror again (dissociation); or their mind keeps playing out the literal recording of the long past moment of terror, in the unconscious hope of freeing themselves of it, but because it makes no sense relative to the present moment, it gets labelled a 'psychotic episode'.
Humans get stuck in one or more of three responses to terror/trauma...fight, flight or freeze. My own limbic response was flight (dissociaton) and freeze (this led to much re-traumatising in the form of sexual assaults through high school and beyond as boys and men mistook my passivity for consent...as did I as I had no other framework for considering my lack of resistance...and so the shame and self-hatred built exponentially). I acted out as a result of unrecognised trauma/terror by turning the violence of shame and anger inwards. Others rage outwards (fight response).
The Really Scary News
At least two states here in Australia, Western Australia and Victoria, are seriously considering legislation enabling traumatised young people under the age of 18 and as young as 13 to consent to psychosurgery, electric shock, drugging and even sterilisation without even their parents' knowledge. It enables authorities to detain children in psychiatric units and to deny parents access and to perform the above procedures on them.
I am the first to espouse the rights and empowerment of young people but isn't it kind of odd that legislation is being quietly rushed through for these kinds of 'rights' whereas the right to be raised in a non-violent environment; the right to breathe clean air; the right to choose their own form of education; the right to name or have named and express WHATEVER they are feeling; the right to decide many other things have all been ignored for a long, long time.
Speak the true name, which is always terror, or deep grief, NOT the symptoms which are the acting out, the violence, depression, self-harm, out of control behaviour... and you will always see positive results. Once terror is called by its true name the healing process can truly begin. The person can be listened to, their story drawn out as often as needed, and empathy given.
This is what I want the legislators and the mental health system and parents and caregivers to understand. Well, that's my dream anyway. My partner has seen the truth in what I say and that, for me, has made the navigation through the nightmare of my life worthwhile because our daughter reaps these rewards and is probably the first in any of our generations to be so trauma-free....and it shows. I want what she has for everyone.
If you feel moved to check out the proposed legislation further, here are some links:
and here's a link on Non-Epileptic Events:
and here's links to some organisations working for change:
help for adult survivors of childhood sexual assault
general healing from trauma
and for connection and healing with young people