Coercion

 

I was eight years old when I was coerced into acts that haunt me to this day. The boy was older, bigger, enjoyed his status as my senior, and took advantage of being given the responsibility of looking after me to satisfy his sexual curiosity at my expense. Only it wasn’t just sexual curiosity between two minors; I was confused, horrified, transfixed by disgust, and made to feel complicit because I accepted my reward of soda. The first time.

The following occasions, he didn't need to reward me because he already had me captive in the guilt and silence that pass as complicity.

Harvey Weinstein didn’t pin down all his victims, in fact, some of them willingly got in their car and went to meet him. Just as I walked down the garden path to the shed where I was abused as a child. Just as I obeyed when Harvey called me into his hotel bedroom.

One of Harvey’s victims endured nine months of being sexually abused. She was a 21-year old student, he was a movie mogul in his sixties. She has chosen to stay anonymous because of the judgment and cruelty that is unleashed on those who fought back or escaped (“stop whining” “career advancement” “why did you allow yourself to be alone with him?”), imagining quite rightly that there would be even more scorn and shame for the women who didn’t respond according to some imagined universal code of self-defense but instead submitted.

When you are in danger, there are four possible survival responses. Two of these are driven by the release of the hormone cortisol, which readies your body for the ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ reactions glamorized in the bust-ups and car chases of action movies. Less well understood is the ‘freeze’ response. This is what happens when an older, more primitive part of our biology takes over. If fight or flight are not an option, our nervous system shuts everything down and prepares us to become prey by releasing the body’s natural painkillers. The ‘circuit breaker’ in our brain switches off communication between different parts of the brain and we end up viewing the event in slow motion, or from an out-of-body perspective, or even not remembering it at all. This is called dissociation – a natural response of the brain when it is threatened with overwhelm. 

As children, when we experience adults using their power over us in a harmful way we don’t have many options. It would be foolish to fight someone much bigger than us, and we don’t have the means to run away. Faster than the rational, thinking part of our brain, the primitive brain makes a rapid calculation of the odds and defaults to ‘freeze.’ If this happens often enough, freezing becomes our hard-wired response. I froze when Harvey revealed himself naked and started pawing my shoulders. I froze when the boy did things to me in secret that still make me shudder.

The fourth survival response is called ‘fawn’ or ‘friend,’ which is driven not by cortisol, but by the ‘tend and befriend’ hormone, oxytocin. Women release oxytocin after childbirth and during breastfeeding. It is the hormone that creates the ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling just being in proximity to someone you love. Both sexes produce it, but unlike men, women release oxytocin when under stress. This is why women are more likely to pick up the phone and reach out to their support network. Women who have experienced childhood abuse – especially emotional abuse – were found to have higher levels of oxytocin.

This does not produce the hearts and roses kind of bonding, but a deep emotional enmeshment that is designed for one thing only – to keep us alive. You may know this as ‘Stockholm syndrome.' We begin to identify with the abuser, even to believe that they are our friend.

If a child is deprived of maternal love, there is a permanent decrease in the production of oxytocin. A predator zeroes in on this. His or her attention at first is flattering, fulfilling a need for being seen and valued. The ‘grooming’ is, in actuality, a boost to the oxytocin levels and can be addictive, especially for someone who has not experienced a safe, stable nurturing relationship with their childhood caregiver. It is one reason domestic violence victims often return to their abuser. It is not a real choice – the victim feels degraded and afraid – but the ‘trauma bonding’ is the closest thing they’ve ever known to love.

When you are in danger, you don’t get to choose which survival response kicks in. What’s more, your childhood does a good job in conditioning you both in terms of which response gets hardwired and in making you oblivious to danger cues. And if your boundaries are constantly violated as a child – physically, sexually or emotionally – what practice do you have in setting limits and protecting yourself?

I was not pinned down by Harvey and I was not pinned down by my childhood abuser but both cases were most certainly an assault on my body and a violation of my right to safety and dignity. We need to educate our children on how to protect themselves, and the first step is for adults to respect children’s bodies, their feelings, and their rights. We also need to educate the sanctimonious critics and casually cruel commentators on the complex psychology of victimization because it is not well understood… except, of course, by the predators.

Here is part of my response to the young Harvey survivor after she shared her story: 

"Some people may see your situation and think that as an adult it was different for you and you could have called a halt to what was going on, but given the difference in age, size, and more importantly, power, it reminds me of myself as an 8-year-old. Your mind can't quite seem to make sense of what is happening. You go along, feeling more and more guilty and responsible as it progresses, aware that you are being manipulated into doing something you don't want to do, and yet there is a part of your brain that is trying to adapt to and rationalize the situation - you are spending so much energy in seeing the room the right way up after it's been turned on its head it's almost as if you don't have any extra brain cells or force to react to what is happening physically. I think of a woman standing in the street turning in circles after the thug has snatched her bag. Is she to blame that she doesn't run after him or call for help? Is she complicit because she didn't wrestle to keep the bag from him?

My abuse was not a one-time incident either. If you don't protest or report what happened, the abuser knows he has you. Now you share the secret and he will drag you further down the path by making you feel complicit. The adrenaline of being engaged in something illicit makes you feel sick, disgusted, shameful but also charged. He senses the charge and uses it to create an unwanted intimacy where you are both now engaged in something the outside world would not understand. He has duped you into thinking you are equally responsible and willing when actually your stomach turns and your poor frozen soul shouts 'No!' 

Does that sound familiar? I feel so bad for the 8-year old me, and the 21-year-old you, and again the 28-year-old me whose brains were desperately trying to process abnormal circumstances and find the correct way to respond. There was no correct way to respond - it shouldn't have been happening in the first place! We have gone from being victims to survivors because we have at least figured that much out."

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From a neurological point of view:  in situations of terror people's thinking/planning brain (prefrontal cortex) goes off line.  That's so you don't hesitate, question, wonder, assess.  You fight, flee, or freeze.  The amygdala takes over and prioritizes physical survival.  And if "freeze" was a strategy that "worked" in your childhood, freeze becomes more likely in adulthood, because the patterning gets stronger when it is used again and again. 

If a child experiences very early trauma, especially at the hands of a parent, the freeze strategy is the only available choice.  Babies CAN'T flee.  They CAN'T fight.  So "freeze" becomes the go-to neural pathway for overwhelming, scary, threatening situations.

My CASA kid, who was badly abused in early life, would freeze/disassociate even when she felt strong emotions-- especially anger-- because over time freezing became a sort of 'mute button' for her own feelings, that could not be regulated any other way, and that she had learned would only provoke more hostility on the part of her mother.   An upwelling of strong emotion would provoke 'freeze' because emotions themselves were dangerous.

Neurofeedback was the critical component of her healing.  Neurofeedback "talks" to the non-verbal right brain, which governs FFF 'choices.'   When the right brain is made aware of its own activities, it can notice and modulate them.   It's hard to believe the immediacy of the effect when the right brain comes down off the ceiling and learns it has a toggle switch. 

I am so grateful for this article, I experienced over a decade of sexual abuse and to me seemed to "fall in love" with the pedophile who groomed me. Although I understood and as a counselor could explain why I wasn't  fault nor those I worked with those, this article explains the chemical reaction of oxytocin that lead to my false sense that I "loved" him. I will definitely keep this article to remind me as I encounter my shame, and work with others. There is a science behind how this happened. 

#metoo

... and in just the past month - as a HS Student Engagement Advisor - I've had three teenage females admit (for the first time to anyone) that they are ready to begin recovering and healing from the trauma of CSA.  It is a testimony to the power of sharing our stories and creating a climate of acceptance vs shame. #TogetherWeRecover

 

Our state MH Consumer Council, in 2008, set the goal of developing a position paper on "Coercion". By December, 2011, it had yet to be pursued. I had been on the 'Executive Committee" [in 2011] and tried to 'move the issue' forward, but my other concerns about 'Trauma-Informed Services' apparently also bothered the Chair-person at that time. He approached me in a hallway to the meeting room, with the apparent intent on having a "One-Way Conversation" with me, in essence: Coercing me not to talk about "Trauma-Informed Services". I made it a point to raise the issue of the Coercion position paper- at every Executive Committee after that, until the end of his term as Chair.

I'm glad Louise wrote this post, because it is one 'aspect' of "Coercion" I hadn't yet considered, and as I reflect on similar events in my childhood, I see some "marked similarities"... AND I thought it addressed [legal aspects of] Coercion, that my previous life and work experiences in the 'Legal' field hadn't yet 'perked my curiosity' about...

Dearest Louise:
Your fearless courage to be on the front line and truly be the "voice" for the voiceless is admirable. Your brave vulnerability and compassionate wisdom are profoundly inspirational.

Thank you, Louise, for who you are. Your leadership with the #MeToo movement is breaking through historical traumas suffered in silence and buried through cultures of misogyny, blame, and shame.

Knowing the statistics of sexual abuse across the lifespan, in our nation and our world, when I reflect on what we do know (statistics, data reports, research) and the magnitude of what we don't know (unreported, underreported, suffering in silence and fear), I stand in awe of you, Louise, for your tenacity and moxie with love, heart, and empathy.

Sharing with you recently how your courage has given me the courage to share publicly of my first rape at 16, I truly hope you feel the permeating waves of Love surrounding you from all of us. Should you ever feel alone, Louise, please trust that your brave leadership has created a pathway of healing for the masses.

Mere words cannot begin to articulate my gratitude for you, Louise Godbold.

As Linda Yuncker shared in her comment, "You are a glorious Lighthouse!" You are a beacon of hope and a vessel of light for others to follow. You are shining Light unto the darkness and providing a path of healing for the suffering.

Linda Yuncker posted:

Louise, 

Thank you for having the courage to share your story. When I read about about the 8 year old Louise and the 21 year old survivor and the 28 year old you...my heart aches! You are so correct...this shouldn't have been happening in the first place!

 Your knowledge of ACEs and how these early childhood experiences affect us as well as your beautiful understanding of the nervous system and the brain...helps me and I am sure others make peace with how we reacted in similar types of situations. 

Your compassion and understanding are balm for our weary souls! 

Thank you also for all your work in helping to share with the planet parenting training.

As DR. Felitti often shares "The biggest public health advance that I can conceive of in present times would be to involve figuring out how to improve parenting skills across the nation."

You are a glorious lighthouse! ❤️

Thank you, Linda. From a woman who positively beams, I appreciate the compliment!

Louise, 

Thank you for having the courage to share your story. When I read about about the 8 year old Louise and the 21 year old survivor and the 28 year old you...my heart aches! You are so correct...this shouldn't have been happening in the first place!

 Your knowledge of ACEs and how these early childhood experiences affect us as well as your beautiful understanding of the nervous system and the brain...helps me and I am sure others make peace with how we reacted in similar types of situations. 

Your compassion and understanding are balm for our weary souls! 

Thank you also for all your work in helping to share with the planet parenting training.

As DR. Felitti often shares "The biggest public health advance that I can conceive of in present times would be to involve figuring out how to improve parenting skills across the nation."

You are a glorious lighthouse! ❤️

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