Day Two of the childhood trauma conference opened with Joe Tucci using the analogy of whale song to describe the growing song of trauma knowledge and application which felt very ‘right’ and certainly how the journey feels since I have been on it, watching it develop over the last few years in the way it has. The connection I feel around the world through this learning and application is profound.
We have many speakers today so I will give you the highlights, that resonated with my learning through my lens and through my ability to understand the material being presented.
The first speaker was Peter Fonagy, the Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre and Director of Psychology and Language Sciences at UCL (University College London). His focus is ‘Mentalizing’, a form of imaginative mental activity, understanding human behaviour in terms of mental health states.
Peter’s journey from attachment to socio biology starts with him showing his own attachment story (which was nice as I always show my own when I start training). It is our attachment story which forms the basis for ‘mentalizing.’ where we learn to represent the capacity that enables us to interpret people’s faces for safety or non safety, happy, sad, surprised, joking, funny, etc. emotional states, in other words, the skills needed to be able to read people’s faces. Where there has been trauma, mental state reasoning is impaired. The challenge with attachment theory is that it focuses on one child to one caregiver. However, rather it is about the social … we need to assess the entire network that the child is in and that they are being responded to sensitively, the system that then responds to a child. “how can i can ensure that my child knows who to trust so that they know they will be safe? …. epistemic trust and attachment. “How can I ensure that my child knows whom to trust and how to share appropriate social connections to others.” – Thomas S. Weisner
Epistemic mistrust becomes chronic (impaired epistemic mistrust) where there has been a neglectful environment/early maltreatment. Epistemic trust becomes damaged. Actually there is also epistemic misjustice… where we cannot trust the information we are given… problems in adapting and learning in the social world. Deprivation and trauma generates chronic mistrust and a fear of mentalizing so we feel persistently misunderstood and have an inaccurate view of ourselves.
The benefit of therapy is not simply what the therapist does but rather what the person then does as they go and then open themselves up in the world and are received.
Next up was Helen Milroy sharing her experience as a commissioner on the Australian Royal Commission Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. “In 1978 a little boy stated crying. In 2014, he still is…” She found the experience profoundly disturbing and incredibly inspiring where around 8000 accounts of abuse were heard in sessions. People brought a huge sense of injustice to the commission which Helen connected to Peter’s epistemic mistrust and sense of misjustice. “We had to learn how to listen, listen with our hearts, minds and spirits”
Helen acknowledges all the prisoners that spoke their truth and how their trauma had a part to play in them being in prison and the presence of men coming forward to protect future children. This inquiry was about institutional care rather than family but the abuse tended to cut across both… children coming into care because they had been abused and then receiving more abuse once in care …in some cases, you could trace 5 generations of children taken into institutionalised care.
- On average it took 23.9 years to disclose and where some people they had disclosed as a child they were often not believed and nothing was done. 10.3% Royal Commission was the first time they had spoken to anyone. They heard of over 3800 institutions where abuse occurred
- There is no typical profile of an adult perpetrator; they have diverse motivations and behaviours that can change over time. 10% were women. Very strategic but sometimes opportunistic
- 94.9% identified impacts on mental health
- 67.6% described difficulties with interpersonal relationships
- 55.7% poor educational outcomes and economic insecurity
In the afternoon I decided to listen to Lou Cozolino again as he had changed his keynote today (by popular demand) to talk about Healthy Ageing, the journey from attachment to compassion and wisdom. The standard dogma around ageing is that we have little to offer as ‘old people’, that they are a burden on society and that depression and memory loss are normal.
What is it about 65 years of age as a transition point into old age? When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, the official retirement age was 65. Life expectancy for American men was around 58 at the time. In Germany government would create a retirement system, which provided for citizens over the age of 70—if they lived that long.T his was a big “if,” at the time. That retirement age just about aligned with life expectancy in Germany then….therefore has far less to do with health than economics. Inevitably!
The brain needs to be studied in the context of relationships and in the context of lifelong development. The tribe, the group, must survive for the individual to survive and vice versa. Ageing is not a loss of youth, it is the beginning of something new. There is a decline in new learning (the hippocampus develops slowly and declines quickly) decreased lateral specialisation (older people use both hemispheres to complete tasks whereas younger people don’t so can do more quickly but are drawing upon less) and a slower processing speed.
BUT we do maintain with the same strength:
(1) our need for attachment (gets larger and takes centre stage as the tolerance for nonsense diminishes)
(2) our acquired expert knowledge (which increases)
(3) episodic memory and the ability to generate narrative.
I felt rather challenged today as my buttons were pushed more than usual and I observed that happening across many moments. “What was happening for me” I reflected within myself? Sitting in an audience and not having our humanness, our connectedness, our sameness recognised, challenges me. The dualities that I felt were present were troubling; therapist/client, trauma experienced/non trauma experienced and to add to this complexity for me personally, the day had started with care experienced young adults.
Many people who work in these fields have experienced trauma, many care experienced people go on to work in these fields and many people have undergone therapy (I hope!). As someone who has experienced trauma (it is after all part of the human experience), is care experienced, has had extensive therapy and has also worked therapeutically with thousands of people in varying capacities across many platforms, it is vital that it is remembered that there is no them and us, just humans having a human experience.
I always honour this knowledge in my training so that people in the audience can acknowledge their own pain, feel quietly heard and can become aware that they may be triggered. At a trauma conference, there can be no place to hide whether that is behind science, statistics or labels. As I left the room and searched for a coffee, I met a woman, a child protection social worker, who talked about her brother who had been abused in care and how the inquiry session with Helen had triggered her terribly.
The dominant narrative that persists with the idea that there is a ‘normal’ and we are labelled in opposition to that ‘normal’ pervades everything. Complexity has no place and Western thinking makes moving out of this quite a challenge. Until we are open and honest about our own frailties, life experiences and sameness and complexities, the systems that cause so much damage will never undergo becoming, in Peter Fonagy’s words, mentalized and the sense of ‘nothing ever changes’ will linger on because nothing WILL change. And if we are to be truly inclusive, then we will stop looking at naming in opposition and start looking at and removing the barriers that people might face instead of adding to them.
I’ll be back tomorrow with Day Three of the Childhood Trauma Conference.