How to Live on Earth When You Were Raised in Hell

collection_photo_share_email_thumbThe Two Worst Things for Mammals

Why We Don’t Just Get Over It Already

There are times I would wake, after a nightmare so amped on my own adrenaline I wanted to knock myself out with a hammer. “Despair attacks” made me so numb I wanted to slide naked down an iceberg into freezing water to feel something.

I’d pray to God to hydrate me because wasn’t it my lack of fluids rendering me unable to cry or orgasm?

But there was dry terror too, provoked by my own intrusive thoughts, some blend of memory fragments marinated by fear. They would appear in my mind and fight for my attention, pulling my focus from work, conversation or French braiding a cousin’s hair.

I called them “IT” (intrusive thought) for short and wore thick bracelets, like Wonder Woman, to cope. I imagined the images coming from my dark brain being directed to my thick bracelets where they would then ricochet off of before dissolving in the light of day. It was my own cheap jewelry alchemy.

And I didn’t speak of IT, even in therapy, for fear I was bat-shit crazy and not just post-traumatically stressed out.

Decades later, I am a middle-aged writer, parent and trauma survivor back from the mother of all trauma conferences and digesting notes from the first of thirty talks. Stephen Porges, Ph.D., a University of North Carolina Research Professor in the Department of Psychiatry professor opened the event. This isn’t a clinical take on his Polyvagal Theory or anything else he researches. You can find those on his website at

This is me sucking on concepts as though they are hard candy. This is me digesting what trauma does to a body like mine, a person like me who is the subject and object of study and talked about at trauma conferences such as this one.

Spoiler Alert: There is not one expert in neurobiology, psychology and epigenetic gene expression had a a working plan as to how to treat Complex PTSD (also called developmental trauma) effectively and with enduring results. Not one. Though I’ve I doubled up on yoga, mindfulness and will learn more about neurofeedback and Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy it’s still the Wild West still when it comes to understanding what trauma does to bodies, souls and mammals.

With a brain, damaged by trauma, I have to try to piece together and sort out, what trauma research, practice and protocol might help me most. While I’m at it, let me serve as the not yet invented computer app translates how this form of PTSD actually feels to clinicians, and who tells the other unfortunate people figuring out how to live on earth when raised in hell what’s being reported at the ivory tower.

I am a trauma whisperer. I am a trauma translator.


Porges: All mammals need rooms (or nests) to safely eat, sleep, defecate and mate.

Me: It’s not a failure to be self-sufficient or a desire to irritate adults? I wish I knew this earlier in my life. Maybe if I had I wouldn’t have felt like I was inept at humanness. Maybe if my parents had known I’d be writing about building bird houses right now rather than rebuilding the self.
Blame it on being a baby, not as in childish baby, but the actual fleshy infant who couldn’t change her own diapers, make meals or sufficiently self-soothe, as in all newborns are needy.

Porges: Mammals, if they are to play, grow and develop need “immobilization without fear” (which is the opposite of relentless doing, thrill seeking or drug induced numbing out). Without safe immobilization mammals won’t spontaneously seek out other healthy mammals. Instead, we (I mean they) cling to other frightened mammals.

Me: Adulthood is a one-way ticket out of childhood. Abuse and neglect end, but the impact of developmental trauma, lingers. In other words, I arrive at maturity but my baggage can’t be unpacked. It resides in my body where land mines get folded into my bone marrow and baked into my being. The whole – surviving not thriving thing.

“Where do you feel safe?” my curly-haired therapist asked me when I was a recently diagnosed PTSD person of twenty-two.

“Huh?” I said.

“Where do you feel safe?”

“What do you mean by safe?” I asked.

“Not afraid. At ease,” she said.

“Maybe in my car. Or in the tub. If the doors are locked.”

“Where do you feel safe with other people?”

It wasn’t a yes or no question but all I did was shake my head left and right.

Immobilization without fear doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Still, I return to the phrase again and again like a tongue searching for a gone tooth in the fleshy bloody gums.

The lack of fear is crucial, Porges says, which makes sense. I can’t enjoy the radio while my car hydroplanes. I can’t enjoy a meal when someone in the restaurant is choking. It’s not just my failure to multi-task. No one enjoys steak or song while alert to danger.


Developmental trauma causes the danger tracking device within to go on and stay on. In essence, we have a nervous system without an off switch. This makes immobilization without fear next to impossible.

Apparently, normalish people have a see saw regulatory system inside which was created in childhood. It predictably regulates highs, lows, emotions and sensations. It comes when a kid goes too high in the air and a parent helps them off the see saw. Or, when the same kid goes too low and the parent is there to put some weight on the other side. Balance is regulated, with assistance, because it’s impossible, as a child to self regulate.

For abused kids there’s no see saw.

For abused kids, there’s a cannon.

Children are cannon balls. Parents do the lighting up and firing. Children get sent flying, splattering onto pavement and land disoriented. Children land, are lost, and limp home craving safety. They return back to the cannon.

If they are “lucky,” a sibling gets fired off in the next round. Guilt replaces pain. This isn’t optimal for nervous system development or sibling bonding.

Canons create different regulatory systems than see saws. That’s also called developmental trauma or complex PTSD – complex because happens during child development and is complicated. Those experts are clever and direct which means I can follow along.

Perhaps a break from metaphor.

“Are you a good boy or a bad girl?” my step-father asked his five-year old daughter who was me.

“I’m a good girl.”

“Are you a good boy or a bad girl?” he would repeat.

I’d cry, stutter or make frustrated scrunchy face because “good girl” was wrong.

I didn’t know how to be good, a girl and me all at the same time.

“Stop it,” my twenty-three year old mother would say to her forty-eight year old husband.

He did not.

I failed to squirm from his wet lips and lap. She failed to help me. My eyes rested on her back as she poured mashed potato flakes into boiling water.

His hot arms reached around me to play solitaire which was splayed out on the table. Sometimes he’d take his hot spoon from a new cup of tea after spinning the sugar into boiling water. He’d put it on my wrist or forearm. If I flinched he laughed. I hated the way his belly shook when he laughed but the heat would always startle me. He was a ride I couldn’t get off of or regulate.

At 9 or 10, I’d come out of the shower, naked, wet and like the sugar, dissolve before him. He needed to “inspect” me as I turned in circles to “prove” my cleanliness. I left my body in the room but disappeared in the floor or ceiling. Visibility meant vulnerability and I hated his eyes one me. Still hate eyes on me. And nakedness.

Porges: The two worst things for mammals are forced immobilization and isolation. Forced immobilization is the loss of control. Isolation is the loss of concern.

Me: Step-father was the loss of control. Mother was the loss of concern.

I was raised in the two worst things for mammals.


Three things I despise:

1. People who ask, “Why aren’t you over it already? You’re not a child anymore.”

2. People who say, “Friends are the family you choose.”

3. People who say, “Get over it already.”

1. My feelings of fear and unease were spices sprinkled all over and baked into my skin before I could say, “I hate that.” Sometimes I smell and taste the flakes of the past. I am made of them. It’s the cat pee on a comforter you can’t get rid of no matter how many times you take it the cleaners. I don’t control nightmares or anxiety – only how I cope or react.

I wish people would care less how long it takes to heal and more about preventing the abuse children and experience and which adults must live with symptoms of.

Healing takes a long time but it’s urgent that I learn how to live, love and parent well after being raised in hell so my daughter has a better life. Still, how do I teach a language not my native tongue?

There’s no Rosetta Stone for Recovering from Childhood. It takes effort and education.

As for my own journey, talk therapy is the only resource covered by insurance, only modestly helpful for some and even damaging to others which slows the learning curve.

2.   People who Pinterest “Friends are the family you choose,” forget that the friends of a toddler don’t help change diapers and the friend of an infant isn’t going to breastfeed or supply bottles. Children need families.

Sure, adults get to choose who they spent the majority of their time with – children don’t.

Here’s what I know: There’s no quick fix or rescue. It’s near impossible to heal from developmental trauma with or in the family where it happened. To heal, to choose health, can often mean loss of biological family.

Breaking the cycle means losing or straining family relations temporarily or permanently. This is not ever easy.

In essence, a childhood of secrecy, violence and abuse can be followed by an adulthood of being stigmatized, marginalized or tolerated by family of origin. The abuse isn’t prevented or stopped and talking about or having symptoms from it is viewed as a problem, character flaw or weakness.

The need and desire to belong to family and community is primal even when dangerous which is part of the reason more people don’t break the cycle.

New relationships and lives can and are built (mercifully) but we never stop aching for attachments and closeness to family of origin. We manage to live with the losses better and enrich our lives.

I’ve felt guilty envying people with dead parents, not because of their loss, but because they don’t have to pretend Mother’s Day or Father’s Day is anything but awful. This is the reality of developmental trauma and recovery is possible but slow.

It’s not called breaking the cycle because it’s a gentle walk in the park. It’s not called Complex PTSD because it’s simple.

web rocks 2

Porges: The two worst things for mammals are forced immobilization and isolation. Forced immobilization is the loss of control. Isolation is the loss of concern.

My childhood was a cage where I lived with the two worst things for mammals.

Am I victim now? No.

Do I still feel the impact of having been a victim. I do.

I’m not over it.

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  1. Cissy,
    I am a private person, so writing here makes me a bit nervous but felt the need to let you know how wonderful your words are – I not only identify with them, I have said many of the same things myself. Thanks for your honesty without apology. Your voice speaks clearly and boldly for so many that have yet to find theirs.

    • Cissy White says:

      Your bravery in commenting fuels my bravery to keep writing. Honestly, speaking with and for those still silenced and struggling to shake off the shame is the reason for this site so thank YOU for YOUR commenting. It means the world to me.

  2. Margaret Bellafiore says:

    I am amazed with how you find the words to express what this is like. You really are a ‘trauma whisperer.’

    • Cissy White says:

      Thanks Margaret!
      I can’t wait until the show and finding images and structures and sounds too 🙂

  3. Pamela Brooke says:

    I love the irreverent dialogue with Stephen Porges and my own trauma files are filled with similar sidebar notes arguing my objections and irritation. It’s a thrill to see someone else take on the devil advocate irreverence that is so needed to ground the high-flung attempts to describe very real human experiences in the professional language of colleague to colleague. Talk about depersonalization! I’ve been in several webinars with Porges (sponsored by NICABM who’ve presented all the mindfulness, trauma experts for free over the past couple years) and I know he’s onto something, but I crave the irreverence you’ve just added. Well-done! And I’ve paid the big bucks for neurofeedback which was promising but didn’t work and ploughed through Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems with the exiles, firefighters and managers which is also promising but hard to do on your own. And on and on.

    • Cissy White says:

      Honestly, I’m disappointed to hear neurofeedback wasn’t helpful. Did you do it without someone who does it for developmental trauma? I want to try it if I can afford it. I love IFS concepts too which I find quite similar to a lot of Buddhist thought. It seems most respective about an inherent whole / higher / Buddha self and I like the approach.
      I’m thinking we need a think tank of people doing, trying and studying all of this stuff. I’ve met four or five women since doing this site who are like one-woman research centers doing the research, trying practices and I’m thinking we need some combination of a support group and a brainstorming group. Lots of us are doing work, for ourselves, but also wanting it to be easier for others. It would be great to collaborate more and resource share.
      For example, I tried tapping. It made me anxious. EMDR helped a bit but not as much as I’d hoped. Those are my personal experiences but I might have had a crappy practitioner or done it at a time when less was known about how it does/doesn’t work with Complex PTSD or whatever. I think even being able to share those experiences, as well as the endless discussions about drugs and herbs and doing one or both or trying to get off of them.
      Or about menopause and parenting or all of the issues that many people slog through silently and alone. We find our resources or create our resources and not all of them happen best in therapy. So far, for me, the single most connecting practice (connecting me to myself and me to others) is free-writing in a group setting. It’s a format and space where I feel free to create, listen and respond.
      Someday, I’d love to have a free-writing group with other survivors of trauma because I think that alone would be validating. IT WILL HAPPEN! O.k., I could and will go on and on. But in between, I must get some breakfast and to work 🙂
      Thank you so much for this dialogue and I can tell you’ve done LOTS of work and research and I’d love to read your writing if and when you ever want to share on or off line.
      Yes, I also respect and admire and am irritated by the tone of many of the academics and researchers. YES to the depersonalization!

  4. Pamela Brooke says:

    Sounds like you already know Monica Cassini’s wonderful work on coming off the meds, but you may not have seen her “find your tribe” post today. I just sent an email to the address on this site and hope it reaches you.

    • Cissy White says:

      I don’t know her site either. I’m making a resource round-up and these are FABULOUS resources. I like the lay out of her site for being able to search for what you want specifically too. Anyhow, I did respond to your email. And wrote you back from my personal email. Great to meet.

  5. Pamela Brooke says:

    Monica posts almost daily on FB with links to wonderful people and resources. I’ve gotten a lot of stuff through FB newsfeed from her even though our issues are very different. She’s also active in Mad In America which has wonderful website, great essays and great advocacy for peer support and for standing outside the mental health mainstream that has been so damaging for so many.

  6. There are so many points you presented in this article that I identify with. The realization of being raised with the two worst things for mammals hit me like a ton of bricks! You described my childhood exactly as it occurred. I don’t know whether to let that realization empower me or make me cry. Thank you for being so brave and putting your story out there for those of us that have been through child abuse. Your words describe exactly what I feel inside yet sometimes can’t always find a way to express in words!

    • Cissy White says:

      Thank you for writing to comment. The two worst things for mammals, when I heard it, hit me hard as well. I couldn’t let it go. I think it’s both sad and empowering to realize. These topics are still so taboo to talk and write about. But, I got tired of hearing myself complain that no one is talking or writing more openly when I wasn’t willing to do so myself. I’m glad to be able to be doing so now. Thank you again for your comment!

  7. So well expressed – thank you – words like this should be broadcast far and wide. I appreciate this for myself and also work with survivors and will link to this article now xx

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