Thursday, November 03, 2005

Half a World Away

This could be the saddest dusk
I’ve ever seen.
Turn to a miracle,
High alive.

My mind is racing,
As it always will.
My hands tired,
My heart aches.

I’m half a world away, here.

~ REM, “Half A World Away”

Well, last night I was in a weird mood. Well it wasn't weird it just... I felt like something was crushing my chest (emotionally not physically).

I just, I wanted to hold on to [my boyfriend] for dear life. It didn't matter how close we were, it wasn't close enough. It wasn't tight enough. I fell asleep in his arms. After, I fought for nearly 2 hours to not cry. I did it though. I didn't cry.

I'm becoming stronger. I just… I'm drowning in a sea of unknown emotions.

Nostalgic. That's what I'm feeling. I love [him]. I'm hanging on to him for dear life because I don't want to lose him. I don't want the same thing to happen to us as it did with everyone else.

I just don't know what it is I'm feeling anymore.

~ Anonymous internet journaler, nearly one year after her first abortion

We will continue with our analysis of Lt. Col. David Grossman’s book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, probably finishing in the next segment in which I hope we will discuss conditioned learning: how it is used in the military to help men and women overcome our innate aversion to killing another member of our own species; and how it is used in society to do the same by abortion. Before we do that, however, we will finally discuss dissociation as it is described in The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D.

Some housekeeping issues: first, regarding the references I am using, I encourage you to read these books if you find this subject matter interesting. There is so much material that I am unable to cover here, and if I tried, it would be unfair to the authors who worked very hard on their compilations. Please ask for them at your local libraries, or purchase copies at your favorite bookseller. For complete bibliographical information, I’ve included links at the sidebar to aid you, or you can email me at

Secondly, in these chapters in which I am comparing the killing done in combat by soldiers to the killing of aborted children, I want to be clear that I am not comparing women who abort to soldiers doing their duty. We are examining the psychological consequences of killing, and we can find similarities between the two groups because both can and do suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. There can be honor, and even glory, in what a soldier does in war. I only have to think of the liberation of the death camps after World War II to understand that, or of the courage displayed by a group of soldiers described by Lt. Col Grossman who collectively, but without prior planning or discussion, refused to fire directly upon a boat full of civilians in an atrocious act of terrorism. They “conscientiously objected,” as Grossman says, by firing over the top of the watercraft, only realizing they were in accordance with each other’s resistance when no shots could be seen hitting their intended target. Their commander was furious; but the soldiers winked at each other in satisfaction. In Grossman’s research, he found soldiers were particularly eager to discuss the times like these, when they were able to choose not to kill.

In contrast, the soldiers he interviewed were more reluctant to discuss the times they did kill, even when it was justifiable and surrounded with awards and honors. While the psychological consequences of killing can be compared in women who abort to soldiers who kill in combat, since both are sanctioned, there is no honor or glory in aborting an unborn child who is guilty of nothing but existence. This is why we specifically discussed the psychology of atrocity in our last chapter. We can also compare the reluctance of soldiers to discuss specific acts of killing to the documented reluctance of women to disclose information about their abortions: nearly 50% of all women who abort will never tell a single person they have done so, not even their physicians (HT: After Abortion).


“A psychological defense mechanism in which specific, anxiety-provoking thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations are separated from the rest of the psyche.”

Like all psychological tools, dissociation has a proper function in normal life. Daydreaming, for example, is a form of dissociation. Daydreams that do not interfere with our ability to function are not bad; in fact, they can often result in creative ideas and pass the time during boring business meetings. It is when dissociation is used dysfunctionally, as when we try to escape or deny the pain of trauma that it becomes a problem. Post-traumatic stress disorder is generally considered an anxiety disorder; however, it also has dissociative properties.

The definition given above is nice and technical, but what does it mean to us in real life? How do we know if we are dissociating from our own memories and experiences? Dr. Glenn Schiraldi lists the following helpful indications that a person is dissociating, (Schiraldi, p. 24):

Body becomes stiff or still

Miss[es] conversation

Person is slow to respond to others

Derealization (people or world don’t seem real; feel like a stranger in a familiar place; don’t recognize yourself in a mirror; world seems like a dream, veiled, like you’re not really there)

Things seem to move in slow motion or fast forward

Feels like one is watching things from outside his/her body

Emotions become flat, numb; no feelings

Life split before and after (I’m a different person since the trauma)

Not feeling expected pain

Twitching or grimacing

Out of touch with surroundings

Clouding of alertness; foggy feeling…

Drifts off, goes away, spaces out…blanks out, loses track of what’s happening

Unusual, inexplicable behavior…

Downward stare

Attempts to remain grounded in the present (stroking side of chair, tapping, jiggling leg)

Eyes darting anxiously from side to side, or rolling upward

Self-soothing (rocking back and forth)

Eyes blink rapidly or flutter

Things look or sound different; colors are faded or brighter, tunnel vision, “wide-angle view,” sounds are louder or more muffled than expected, things seem far away or unclear/fogged

Far away or dazed look

Tunes out

Not involved in present

Feels like an observer of the present situation, rather than a participant


Memory lapses

Fantasies, excessive daydreaming

Overactivity or withdrawal

Being on autopilot…feeling like a robot

Falling asleep


It is interesting to note that these same symptoms are associated with fibromyalgia; the memory and cognitive impairment is known as fibrofog or brain fatigue. It is found in an estimated twenty percent of fibromyalgia patients, in addition to dizziness, clumsiness and dropping things (which indicates distraction), visual changes and eye pain (Wallace, All About Fibromyalgia, p. 62).

You may remember that Dr. Scaer, in The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease, compares dissociation in humans to the freeze response found in animals. Dr. Schiraldi does the same:

“Have you ever seen an antelope clamped in a lion’s jaws? It seems to stop struggling as its consciousness shifts. Where does its consciousness go? There seems to be an innate mechanism – called dissociation – that allows mammals to temporarily escape distressing experiences. Thus, we can mentally escape a present distressing experience, as the antelope did, by mentally ‘going away.’ Or, we can temporarily escape a traumatic memory by separating and walling off the memory,” (Schiraldi, p. 14).

The problem created in the brain by dissociation is the lack of integration, or the fracturing of the psyche. “Scientists have learned that under normal conditions various parts of the brain are activated to process memories in an organized way,” (Schiraldi, p. 15). The dissociated brain is an unorganized, disordered, brain. The brain runs on electrical signals; disorder in an electrical system can be expressed by surges of electrical activity, aka kindling.

Schiraldi explains why walling off dissociated memories creates disorder:

1. The walled-off material is highly unstable. “The parts of the brain that would normally file traumatic memories in long-term storage were overwhelmed during the trauma. So traumatic memories remain in the forefront of awareness, easily triggered by reminders of the trauma,” (Schiraldi, p. 16).

2. The wall is highly permeable. A lot of energy is expended trying to maintain the wall, but it is like a leaky dam, (ibid).

3. The dissociated memory is highly emotional and mostly non-verbal, (ibid). We discussed why these memories are difficult to verbalize before. They are stored in the amygdala of the brain. Because they have not been integrated, they cannot form part of our narrative, or declarative memory.

4. Traumatic material is not only walled off from associated adaptive material, but the traumatic memory itself might be fragmented into various aspects, (ibid). Schiraldi gives an excellent example of this in a woman who became uneasy and sick to her stomach while at dinner with friends; she didn’t realize at the time that a man at her table was wearing the same cologne as the man who had raped her, (Schiraldi, p. 17).

Our dissociated memories will trigger in response to environmental cues, usually those which would otherwise seem harmless. When we discuss conditioning, we will see this demonstrated in Pavlov’s dogs, who started associating the sound of a bell with food, which elicited the uncontrolled response of salivation to an otherwise neutral stimulus. The circumstances in our environments during a traumatic period are fractured memories, mostly sensory, with no place to go because they have been separated. Like an endless loop in a bad software program, they run over and over again. This requires brain energy; it distracts us from ordinary thinking, which results in confusion and anxiety, much the same way a looped program will use up the resources of a computer’s hard drive.

This resulting anxiety and the chronically stressed response can lead to debilitating, sometimes disabling illnesses that involve chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia; chronic fatigue syndrome; reflex sympathetic dystrophy, or RSD; and mysofascial pain syndrome. Chronic stress has also been linked to potentially disabling and fatal illnesses: autoimmune disorders such as lupus and multiple sclerosis; heart disease and high cholesterol; some cancers; and diabetes.

Outside of these potential illnesses which result from chronic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder alone can be disabling in the extreme. Grossman describes the nature of psychiatric casualties in war, which creates some of these most extreme reactions because it is on the extreme end of the spectrum in creating trauma. These are some of the neuropsychological symptoms that he reports:

1. Fatigue, which includes “…such somatic symptoms as hypersensitivity to sound, increased sweating, and palpitations,” (Grossman, p. 45).

2. Confusional states, whose “…symptoms include delirium, psychotic dissociation, and manic-depressive mood swings. One often noted response is Ganzer syndrome, in which the soldier will begin to make jokes, act silly, and otherwise try to ward off the horror with humor and the ridiculous,” (ibid).

3. Conversion hysteria, which can occur during the trauma, or post-traumatically, years later. It “…can manifest itself as an inability to know where one is or to function at all,” (Grossman, p. 46), and include amnesia and convulsive attacks. “…during both world wars cases of contractive paralysis of the arm were quite common, and usually the arm used to pull the trigger was the one that became paralyzed…Whatever the physical manifestation, it is always the mind that produces the symptoms, in order to escape or avoid the horror of combat,” (Grossman, p. 47).

4. Anxiety states, “…characterized by feelings of weariness and tenseness that cannot be relieved by sleep or rest, degenerating into an inability to concentrate,” (ibid).

5. Obsessional and compulsive states, including “…tremors, palpitations, stammers, tics and so on…,” (ibid).

6. Character disorders, “…paranoid trends accompanied by irascibility, depression, and anxiety, often taking on the tone of threats to his safety; schizoid trends leading to hypersensitivity and isolation; epileptoid character reactions accompanied by periodic rages; the development of extreme dramatic religiosity; and final degeneration into a psychotic personality,” (Grossman, p. 48).

Can we find these neuropsychological symptoms in women who have aborted their children? In Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion, by Dr. Theresa Burke, this woman is described as being “chronically dissociated,” from the trauma of abortion (Burke, p. 131):

“After two abortions, I felt very alone, depressed and confused. I never knew what was wrong with me. I would cry and cry. I would cut myself or burn myself on the oven racks. I would punch and bruise myself. I was out of control, and when anyone would ask me, “What’s wrong?” I honestly answered, “I don’t know.” I felt as if I were going insane. Who cries all the time and hurts themselves without knowing why? I was always feeling numb during the times that I would hurt myself. It was like the pain would help wake me up. I hated myself. Years of counseling did not help; anti-depressants did not help; nothing seemed to help. It was all kept pretty much a secret. Only a select few knew of my extreme depression or my abortions.”

With the exception of the number of abortions, I could have written this testimony myself. I chose a cigarette for burning instead of oven racks, but that was probably just a lack of imagination on my part. At that time in my life, I would not have turned away any tool with which I could inflict self-abuse.

Dr. Burke describes the following physiological symptoms of psychological trauma that women who have had abortions report experiencing: nausea, painful abdominal cramps, upset stomachs, pelvic pain, vaginal numbness, heart palpitations, sweating, or shortness of breath (Burke, pp. 131-132). Often these physical symptoms came in response to environmental triggers that, had they not been associated with the trauma of abortion, would have been normal. One woman was given orange juice in the recovery room after her abortion; she can no longer look at it without feeling nausea. In the same way that Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food, she has associated the smell of orange juice with dissociated traumatic memories. Her nervous system responds to this stressor, and her digestive system rebels in response. The body will remember what the mind wants to forget.

“I began to feel nausea and cramping abdominal pressure whenever I would enter the place where I worked. It was so uncomfortable, I often thought I would faint. Each time I returned to this office, I had the same reaction as I passed through the entrance where there was hung a poster on fetal development,” (Burke, p. 132).


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