The brain is most usefully thought of as a collection of roughly 52 endocrine glands whose primary function is to process energy and information. The early years of its unfolding are when it is most susceptible to maximum enrichment or deprivation. If we are fortunate enough to be immaculately conceived, have a loving mother and an attentive father and have our birth be attended by Wise Men bearing gifts, odds are as an adult we are going to develop a brain (body, mind and heart) capable of processing massive amounts of energy and information. That still might not save us from being crucified, however.
Without such favorable early beginnings, the rest of us will have different work to do. Ours will be a journey primarily oriented toward restoration and repair. In my own life I tend to think of this as “healing constantly trying to happen.” There are several significant ways the brain actually tries to accomplish this. One way, which I’ve written about often in this column, is through … the compulsion to repeat the trauma. And one way to satisfy that “compulsion” is to go out into the world and find collections of people who can unwittingly help us recreate the dynamics of our family of origin. “Unwittingly” is the key word here. Our brains conspire to do this not so much with the intention of wreaking further damage, but in an attempt to master experiences that at the time originally overwhelmed our processing capacity. Such events are often experienced in the moments they originally occur as neurally disorganizing, traumatic assault. They screw up our brain wiring. Healing fails to happen when we act out or run from traumatic reenactments rather than do what’s necessary to work through them. This is a kind of dry, clinical account of what can be a very messy, painful process and in my early 30s recreating our collective families of origin was precisely what a number of strangers and I ended up coming together and doing.
To begin initiating that family re-creation, I “unwittingly” took a job at a residential treatment center out in the woods in upstate New York at a posh mental health facility for young adults. Because I owned tools and had skills, my official job title at The Green Barn was “work co-ordinator.” Kids and their brains need to work in order to be healthy. So did I. In the Green Barn lived: me in the role of Day Dad, Joye the Day Mom, Brad, the Night Dad and Annaliese, the Night Mom. With us were living 6 “kids” ranging in age from 19 to 27. One big unhappy family.
These were all kids from well-to-do origins – it cost $12,000 a month to stay at the Green Barn back then – and the star among these kids was a 26 year old woman named Aubray. She was an actual TV star on children’s television. She also had done extensive work on TV commercials and the great treat for the rest of the kids was to gather round the TV at night and wait for a commercial to come on featuring sister Aubray! Aubray never watched herself on TV. She was at The Green Barn for “nervous exhaustion.” What that looked like up close was extreme mental and physical abuse by her boss, the male star of the children’s TV show. Prior to that, Aubrey had been serially abused by her father for many years.
One day, shortly after her 27th birthday, Aubray skipped work detail. When I went looking for her I found her in her room considerably distressed. She was exhibiting a significant number of the 15 styles of distorted thinking. Under stress, this kind of thinking often prevails. I managed to get her up and out of the Barn and we went for a walk ‘n talk through the woods that surrounded the center. On our walk Aubray reluctantly, tearfully and tenderly confessed that for several weeks she had been having sex with Brad, the Night Dad. Her greatest fear was that telling me would get Brad in serious trouble. She begged me not to tell anyone else; the only reason she told me at all was because she simply couldn’t keep the shame and pain of it in any longer.
Needless to say, this put me and my heart, brain, mind and body in a very difficult dilemma. This was more energy and information than I could easily process. How could I best care for Aubray, myself, Brad and the rest of the “family?” It was also more energy and information than Aubray could process either. Sadly, she took it upon herself personally to resolve this dilemma for all of us.
Exceeding the Heart’s Capacity
Without me being aware of it, Aubray and Brad had arranged an authorized trip, with the center director’s consent, to go to her Manhattan highrise to gather up a number of personal belongings and bring them back to the Green Barn. They were both gone before I got to the Barn the next morning. Around 3PM that afternoon, the call came in: shortly after arriving, Aubray had opened a window and leapt from the 16th floor of her Manhattan apartment. It was later determined that she and someone had had sex shortly before she jumped. While no court would ever convict him, in my mind Brad was responsible for contributory manslaughter. His main “crime”: being human and wounded and ignorant.
I suspect Brad is still “serving time” for that crime. But isn’t it afterall, a “crime” which, at bottom and to some degree, we are all guilty of and serving time for? I know I am.