War is the most exciting and dramatic thing in life. In fighting to the death you feel terribly relaxed when you manage to come through.
Do you know who said this? He also said this:
If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.
The first sounds like almost any honest and articulate battlefield survivor. As a therapist I heard many tales of domestic wars and surviving them leads to what the experts call the “Honeymoon.” Bessell van de Kolk has devoted his life to studying the neurology of trauma including violence. He is one of my gurus. He notes that all the chemicals designed to allow you to fight and survive are like a crack rush. Winning–in the case of war that means surviving a battle, brings a different flood of chemicals that lead to a sense of power and relaxation.
One of the things I came to realize in my trek through life in the company of so many victims of trauma was the power of both the fight and surviving the fight. To me it explains a great deal about human behavior.
Explains why children love abusing parents, why an adult stays with a violent partner. As a foster parent I wondered why so many of the children I cared for liked violent stories, movies, and video games. In time, I realized these fantasy acts were part of what is described in the first quote. Violence whether directed toward you or another starts energizing and often sends feel good chemicals racing through the body.
One very important part of surviving violence is being strong enough to fight back and win. Children have few fighting tools, but they do develop survival tools. The most common one used during extreme abuse is what the experts describe as dissociation–the ability to go to a new reality in your mind.
One victim of repeated rape by an uncle told me she always took herself out of her body and into a corner of the room where she watched the rape without feeling it. Another woman raped in Central Park, said she heard a bird singing and went out of herself to become the bird that could keep singing. Trauma is better survived if you can do something and when you are physically helpless going somewhere in you mind is doing something.
An important part of this picture is that young children believe they cause all that happens. So when living with violence, the child assumes s/he has created it. This creates the guilt and shame so many innocent victims of violence carry as a life long burden. This also means when peace comes, the child also tends to take the credit and that can strengthen both the child, but also the need for the soothing part of that comes from surviving. Survival, as the first quote notes, gets those feel good chemicals going.
A very small example of the survival rush: I love a slightly challenging puzzle; I get a rush when I finish one. Jerome Kagan, child development expert says after the biological drives to survive and procreate, we are driven by a need to find certainty and that includes a quest to deal with uncertainties, but mainly those we feel we can resolve. Think of the puzzles or games you enjoy or don’t enjoy. If you consistently solve some puzzles you get bored; if you consistently can’t solve some puzzles you give up. We crave challenges that we can master and avoid the ones we fear are beyond us.
When a child cannot escape violence, the barrage of chemicals often creates a never-ending puzzle and challenge and one that the child may not be able to solve, but are forced to keep trying to solve. Some children solve it by growing up and turning on their abuser. Other children never expect to win the battle, but learn to endure and wait the violence out for the chemical benefits of survival.
In order for a child to survive violence, s/he first learns what the experts call conflict avoidance. This involves reading the signs that the truce is crumbling and in the cycle of violence, most truces are temporary. When the truce starts crumbling the child starts a campaign of appeasement which usually is doomed particularly when a chemical addiction to the chemicals of violence has become strong in either the abuser or the child. Some children sensing the failure of appeasement will deliberately provoke the violence. This is a psychological and mostly unconscious effort to control as well as to get the violence done with and get on to the calm of the honeymoon phase.
Others are beginning to see this pattern. Here is an article that popped up today on my Twitter account. I started this article three days ago. Synergy at work.
Understanding this mechanism should help all of us deal better with violence. Both chemical rushes can be found in lots of healthy ways. Exhausting physical exercise is one path, meditation another. I suggest for non-meditaters a visit the Wiki-How I started How to do a One Minute Meditation.
Life is a struggle and often full of trauma; hope this helps you stay strong.
The quotes are by Moshe Dayan.