Trauma Re-Defined

“I’ve had a good life.”

The young man sitting across from me wears an expensive suit, his dark tie loosened. His face and neck splotch the shade of watermelon meat. He has no idea why he freaks out and loses his train of thought when it’s time to speak to his management team.

Vessels, from Flowers Reborn, Deborah Cox, 2011

Vessels, from Flowers Reborn,    Deborah Cox, 2011

When I recommend trauma recovery, he narrows his eyes and cocks his head.

“I haven’t been traumatized,” he says.

We’ve all been traumatized. But some trauma looks like everyday experience. And some is completely invisible to the naked eye. Here’s a long answer to the question, what is trauma?

Trauma with a Capital T

When you think of trauma, you probably imagine Big T Trauma. Earthquakes. Military Combat. Rape. Child Abuse. Anything that threatens your life or well-being, which means any kind of child abuse and neglect, car accidents, house fires, tornadoes, and assault. Even if you witness these things happening to someone else, you experience vicarious Big T Trauma. Here are some examples.

  • Premature or unexpected death of your spouse or child.
  • Seeing your father hit your brother.
  • Being bullied, especially in childhood.
  • Finding someone who has committed suicide.
  • Being forced out of your home because of war, poverty, or other danger.
  • Witnessing violence between your parents.
  • Being left alone as a young child.

Big Ts trigger a storm of physiological reactions and unhelpful beliefs about the self – and we carry these bits forward in time, like the forgotten wads of Kleenexes and gum wrappers taking up space at the bottom of your purse. The horror you experience at the time of the event can forge a neural pathway between certain stimuli and the panic response. You drive through a particular part of town and notice nausea. You start to get close to someone and find yourself nit-picking them to death. You get depressed every spring. You start to succeed at work and then get sick and lose momentum.

trauma with a little t

When I was sixteen, my first real boyfriend dumped me. I cried for two days. My parents said I was ridiculous. They were actually glad we broke up because now I could focus more on schoolwork.

I count this experience as little t trauma for two reasons. (1) It involved a primary loss – loss of an important connection (I really liked this boy), and (2) It involved a secondary layer of disconnection (my parents shaming me for being so sad). What I needed back then was to be hugged and comforted, told I was still a desirable person and that everything would be okay.

Relational Disconnection (RD) invalidates our experiences, pulls us into a kind of humiliated or isolated space. It may look like no big deal to an outsider, but RD creates real distress.

Relational Disconnection is the epicenter of little t trauma. Here are some examples.
funky old purse

  • Being excluded in a social group: not being invited, discovering you’ve been left out, etc.
  • Watching your parents endure marital problems, especially if they’re chronic and unresolved.
  • Having a friend pull away or become unresponsive, unavailable.•Going through a breakup – particularly if the relationship was serious.
  • Living in a strained relationship.
  • Learning your partner has had an affair (This one may actually be both T and t).
  • Chronic loneliness: feeling you have no friends.

But this is just life, you say.

I know. We all have little t. But here’s the thing. Little t hurts us as deeply as Big T and leaves more enduring scars – more trash in the handbag. When a parent habitually looks away from her child’s pain, or says, stop your crying, that child endures chronic relational trauma. The whole body responds to this disconnect like it would to starvation – and the body’s response creates permanent or semi-permanent neural connections that burn maladaptive stress responses into the nervous system. It may seem like nothing to cry about, but Relational Disconnection shakes the foundations of our attachment world . . . which is to say, our sense of self and other.

Loneliness, and a sense of being misunderstood run through our life stories like an ink spill. Some of us manage pretty well in spite of T and t. But we function at a lower level than we might if we could offload the anxiety and shame of old experiences and then file them away. This lets us regain capacity for creative thought. We concentrate better. We write better stories and play better music. We sleep. We parent more effectively. We stop obsessing and start breathing deeply.

No Such Thing as ADHD: Dismantling Distraction


I Don’t Believe in ADHD

There it is. I said it. It feels agnostically exhilarating to say I don’t believe something I’m supposed to believe. I may get into trouble with some great psychology board sitting around a huge table with their agendas and ballpoint pens. I may get excommunicated, shunned, or sent to the gazing stock where rotten tomatoes fly at me from all directions.

But I have to say it: I don’t believe in ADHD.

I have yet to meet one person with this diagnosis, child or adult, who did not have reason to vanish now and then.

My son and I made a list of our favorite words that we visit from time to time so we can enjoy a deep belly laugh. Bastard, Weiner, Bohunkus, Fatuous . . . Words we don’t often use. Today, I officially add the word Vanish, an underutilized word, associated with household cleaners and witch fairies.

But the term works well to denote mental leave-taking.

Sometimes at the end of the day, my husband, Joe, talks to me about his adventures on campus and I sit staring at him. I catch only periodic bits. Dean . . . Matrices . . . Committee . . . Five-Year-Plan . . . Governance. I no more track the details of his story than I can cut my own hair. Inside, I’m somewhere else. I review my own workday, think of my clients, plan my evening exercise. I ponder boredom, examine the row of apples on the counter behind Joe’s head.

I vanish.

Back in junior high algebra, at my private Christian School, I sit quietly with my friends, on the girl side of the room.

“Woman, she is folly.” Our teacher holds his leather Bible out in front of him. In brown double knit pants, his legs bend backward at the knee and his face twitches. He reads this before the algebra lesson. “She maketh the righteous man stumble.” I hold my breath. Women gossip, we lead good boys into adultery, we distract them from battles and break their hearts.

“Woman must be avoided,” he says. I picture his wife sitting on a church pew, six inches from him.

I know I should be listening, scooping in details, but I have no way to care. No way to adhere to a spot in conscious thought that allows me to take in what’s being said.  I have no fishnet for catching the gibberish being scrawled on the chalk board. I’m distracted. Little swimmers flip by me in a stream of silver.

But it’s 1981, so nobody says I have ADHD. Nobody suggests medication for my Cs. I am a smart girl, boy-crazy with glazed eyes and shy smile. A smart but silly (typical) girl. There’s no diagnosis for that – only scriptures warning me to be quiet and keep my shirt on.

Finally, as a psychology student in college, I start to understand algebra. I comprehend the gibberish after I dump a mean boyfriend. After I speak freely with a friend about that teacher who started class each day with a damning verse about my gender.

My younger brother starts taking Ritalin as a college student. Ritalin changes his life, makes him smarter, more efficient. He excels. He says, “If only I’d gotten the diagnosis in elementary school! I could have actually learned something!” I congratulate him and I feel skeptical.

A psychologist mentor once told me that when she finds herself vanishing in a therapy session, it means something important. Emotion is being ignored. And in therapy, emotion is everything. When the speaker gives voice to his pain, we return. I think she’s onto something. I get distracted when some key piece of the story goes missing. Usually, it’s the feeling. My brain searches for the true meaning and pattern of the story moment while my body sits and nods.

I vanish when I’m tired, hungry, depleted, or mystified. Distraction serves as my alarm. It invites me to examine: “What’s really going on here? How can I make sense of this?” I need to do something. Stand up. Stretch. Get a drink of water. Ask questions. Find the missing piece.

“Right now – what emotion do you notice?” I say.

“What do you feel in your body as you tell me this story?”

The psychologist has license to ask. And most people try to give me an honest answer. Even my husband humors me with self reflection. His work stories trigger my vanishing because while he describes his day in conference with colleagues, I know that every faculty meeting sits atop a mountain of political garbage, like a building on a landfill.

“Agitated,” he says. “Ready for the punching bag.”

“Ahhhhh,” I say. “I’m with you now.”

But what about the first-grade boy who gets called “distractible,” “a daydreamer,” “unable to follow directions”? Does he have the freedom to ask his parents or teachers what they’re feeling? If they like him? If they’re angry about something? Will he get a satisfying answer?

That little boy craves genuine emotion-talk with his parents. It’s universal. But what if his parents feel frightened they won’t be able to keep the family home out of foreclosure? What if they have no idea how to tell him? What if his parents are haunted with flashbacks and a tight, anxious body from a Gulf War or from child abuse that dominated their bodies 30 years ago?

Our distracted little boy, the one who has trouble staying on-task, has a head full of questions that cannot be asked. He senses something, a barrier between him and his parent(s) like a slab of Styrofoam. Sometimes he can ignore it and play his video game. Sometimes he can’t.

We all dissociate to one degree or another . . . and I have to think it happens for a reason. Some of us get sleepy when it’s time to pay bills. Lose the bills before we’ve had a chance to pay them. Have trouble finishing a project or reading a book. Have no memory of last week. Some of us cannot listen to a lecture or focus on our tennis serve without drifting into a conversation we need to have with our mate.

I think our distraction serves an evolutionary purpose. It takes us from product to process. It moves our awareness from words and instructions to the nuances of relationship. It tells us to nap or stare into space or conserve energy for navigating a treacherous social situation. It annoys us into alertness about the missing pieces.

I know, I know. ADHD medication transformed you. You focus now. You can read a whole book, get your paperwork done, remember names.

But what if you never had a brain disorder? What if that was never the problem? Could it be that even though Strattera makes you more productive, a brain disorder never existed? What if your distracted mind was just doing its job?

And what if there’s no such thing as ADHD?

If there’s no such thing as ADHD, why do so many of us have it?

Dismantling Domination: Weekend Hobbies for a Crafty Shrink


Hello, and welcome to my blog!

My name is Deborah Cox and I’m a family psychologist. I do a lot of therapy during my workweek. But it’s Sunday, and in my quiet kitchen, I set the mortar board of psychology on the stool next to me (it’s never very far away), and put on the blue rhinestone cowboy hat of creative thought.

I want to start a discussion about domination . . . and how we make the world a better place when we see it and question it.

Here’s a little of my background, to introduce a set of interlocking subjects I’d like to explore with you in coming posts.

First, I love art and music. Color and texture and shape get me energized. Good music provides me a portal to strength, peace, and creativity. Symphony and organ and piano and stained glass and recycled paper cut into flowers! The sound of a boys choir! The Dallas Symphony! A good weekend for me must include time to write, play my piano, fiddle with mosaic tiles, or paint with my fingers.

Second, I grew up “Church of Christ.” If you aren’t familiar with that sect, here’s a link to a website that contains descriptions of its doctrine.

You may know the Church of Christ for its famous eschewing of instrumental music in the worship service. Church of Christ eschews: statues, organs, bells, candles, incense, the Hallelujah Chorus, and women reading poetry (or doing about anything else except sitting quietly, listening to men).

My churchy childhood taught me that, as a group, dominators  (e.g., people who relish telling others what to do) tend to be very anxious. They appear to have steel nerves – but their inner lives are like spider webbing. Murals make them nervous. Abstract paintings make them frown. Those same power seekers get rewarded – with positions of authority. They climb their way to the top of the pyramid by stepping on the backs of others. Here’s what we call them.

  • preacher
  • elder
  • governor
  • head-of-the-household
  • Sunday School teacher
  • dean
  • therapist
  • professor
  • foster parent

I know some very compassionate ministers now. Not all of them seek to dominate (and I hope not all therapists relish telling people what’s wrong with them) . . .  but many do. So many, in fact, that I’ve decided we have a bullying epidemic that can be costumed as many things: civic boards, workplaces, institutions of higher education, democratic election processes.

I’ve been bullied in a variety of contexts: my family-of-origin, my early religious life, and an adult workplace. In my most recent bullying experience, I felt isolated and out of touch with anybody who could understand or help.  I got sick, had panic attacks, fell down a lot (literally), lost my voice (literally), gained 20 pounds, and pulled myself into a protective shell that kept me from visiting certain parts of town or writing a public blog or going dancing (which I can do now because I’m no longer Church of Christ).

Later, I’ll write more specifics about what domination looks like, but for now I think it’s fair to say that the Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) concept of Power Over (Jordan, 2009) lies at the heart of the problem. RCT is a theory about how we get distressed, depressed, dissociated, addicted, and disconnected – and it’s about how relationships either help us create (thrive) or contribute to our loneliness.

Ironic? Yes, relationships can make us more lonely.

I assign all my students to read RCT literature because I believe the true mission of the therapist (or the minister) is to dismantle domination, one handshake at a time, one relationship at a time, one multimedia collage at a time.

What do you think?