Most people perceive ‘dissociation’ as depicted in M. Night Shyamalan’s movie ‘Spilt’. This “flipping” from one personality to another in a majority of trauma cases is usually not so dramatic – one persona totally unaware of the other personality states.
Switching between personality parts is common for those with a history of childhood abuse. Childhood trauma basically causes splits or fragments in the still-developing personality of a child. DID is a Dissociative Disorder (DD). However, not every Dissociative Disorder is a Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The Theory of Structural Dissociation
According to psychologists Onno van der Hart, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele, who put forth the Theory of Structural Dissociation, “the effect of trauma is structural dissociation of the personality.’
In response to trauma, the personality dissociates into at least two parts – Apparently Normal Part (ANP), the logical left hemisphere that attends to daily functioning, and Emotional Part (EP), the emotional right hemisphere which stores our unconscious memories of the trauma that we were unable to act upon.
Frozen or aborted responses to trauma lead to the suppression of traumatic memories. Emotions of shame, helplessness, and rage, which we were unable to express or act upon, get locked in our right brain. No matter what degree of trauma whether extreme or subtle if we don’t express and process the emotions get frozen.
Further, this alternating pattern of fragmented integration between our traumatized EP and logical ANP continues into our adult life. This stuckness of “looping” in our central nervous system causes us to behave less optimally as adults. We end up making wrong decisions while being highly stressed and anxious in our everyday life. Thereby creating problems in our work and personal lives.
An Explanation of Structural Dissociation
Corpus Callosum & Spilt Brain
In neurobiological terms, structural dissociation effectively cuts the communication system between our right and left brains. Unprocessed trauma disconnects our emotional right brain from our logical left brain. Growing up in an abusive environment is shameful, painful, and rage-filled. However, we just cannot show and express our true feelings. We suppress our EPs and push them deep within us and let our ANPs take over.
When my aunt accused me of trying to seduce her husband, the shame was exacerbated by my grandmother’s ominous presence, who was complicit in her silence. The shock of being accused was so traumatic that I fell down on the floor and blacked out. My persona fragmented. I felt ashamed, I was bad.
Moreover, a week later, this same grandmother forced me to go with this same uncle for a ride because I was feeling sad. This only added to my traumatization and the fucking up of my reality. The cognitive dissonance of the situation was emotionally distressing. I looked at this grandmother and she was smiling at this uncle who was cajoling me to come. At that moment I blanked out.
After that, I did not remember much of my life. I did not remember these events until I had a breakdown at age 29 when I regressed to being a 13-year-old. My EPs could no longer hide behind the facade of my carefully constructed ANP.
It was incredulous, simply crazy-making. It caused a major split in my perception. I had to pretend that all was fine while trying to make sense of what really happened. The only way to survive was to block out the memory from seeing the light of day.
In order to survive these traumatic experiences, I suppressed these painful memories and got on with the business of surviving. This caused splitting or structural dissociation – my right brain was unable to let my left brain know how I was feeling.
The corpus callosum – the information highway between the two hemispheres of my brain shriveled and atrophied. This effectively split my brain into parts or personas. The super-efficient person and the shameful girl-child who was afraid to grow up and be a woman. Having a woman’s body meant danger to me.
Scoliosis & Structural Dissociation
Scoliosis is really the structural dissociation of the mind-body. Because of the threat of being sexually abused further and being called a slut, the only way to survive was to not become a woman. The normal growth trajectory could not be stopped but could be twisted. My body contorted in order to protect myself from further abuse. Scoliosis hid my woman parts.
My ANP grew up but my EPs remained 13 years old. My emotional development was arrested. I became more than two personas. A different persona at school, another with my father, another one with my grandmother, and another with my extended family. But I was basically a little girl trying to play adult. The efficient, self-sufficient, and unaffected adultified child.
Unsurprisingly, it was all so bloody confusing. Trying to concentrate and focus while being pulled and pushed by my fragmented EPs.
Twisting my body and forcing it to remain small was the only way to protect myself. The innocent 13-year-old was already coping with the grief of a mother’s loss, an abusive father, an incestuous cousin, an aggressive brother, and a generally hostile environment.
One of the reasons why scoliosis is more common in girls than boys is because girls more than boys have to deal with unwanted sexual attention while growing up. Mostly, sexual predators lurk in the family.
“We live in a culture where women’s bodies are often treated as objects to be glared at, it is no wonder why so many young girls are hesitant to go through this right of passage. As nature is pushing a girl up and out, her mind might want to hold her back and down. Her spine has to go somewhere so it has to bend due to nature’s forces pushing against it.
Scoliosis & Split Brain
According to scientists, Developmental Split-Brain syndrome can lead to various symptoms including horizontal gaze palsy and scoliosis. However, research states that this syndrome could be genetic. Furthermore, it affects individuals soon after birth but this may not be obvious until an older age.
Notwithstanding, could not the Split Brain syndrome have developed due to childhood trauma? Where shame and self-loathing color one’s entire existence. We are too ashamed to let the abuse come into our conscious existence. To accept the fact that our family does not really love us. When we feel shame our eyes are downcast. One of the first signs of scoliosis is a tilted eye line.
That’s how I felt and I continued to feel for much of my adult life. Things changed once I received validation. The crucial support I got was from my son. Facebook support groups, ACEs Connection Community. Writing and expressing my emotional trauma on my blog has helped immensely.
My EPs felt accepted and did not have to hide from my ANP. They could integrate with my ANP and function as a whole.
Once my pain and abuse were acknowledged, I stopped feeling ashamed for things that I was not responsible for. I felt more confident. And, I no longer needed to pretend or cower in fear and shame.
It did take a long time to get over my self-loathing and feeling bad. But now I could look people in the eye which had a dramatic effect on my body.
My ANP & EP Are Talking
As days go by, my EPs are slowly feeling safe to communicate, argue, fight and express to my ANP. They are not in conflict. Being pulled in two different directions. My personality parts becoming integrated is reflected in my spine. It is no longer pulled down by negative emotions and is in sync with my logical brain.
As communication between the left and right brain flows, the corpus callosum kicks into action. Could this rejuvenation of the corpus callosum that caused the brain nerves to mis-wire my spinal column leads to my scoliosis healing?
Furthermore, I no longer have to think about how to behave. I am becoming one with my true being, the good and the bad feelings.
Also, one crucial element in healing scoliosis is letting go of my feeling of shame. The shame of sexual abuse, the shame of not being validated, the shame of not being loved.
Gradually, I am beginning to feel proud of who I am, proud that I survived, proud that I could overcome the forces of evil. No longer do I need scoliosis to protect me from a confusing and threatening environment.
Thus, trauma expert Judith Herman echoes what I am feeling nearly 3 years into my recovery:
“The reward for mourning is realized as the survivor sheds her evil, stigmatized identity and dares to hope for new relationships in which she no longer has anything to hide.”
Actually, healing my scoliosis meant being comfortable feeling and experiencing all the parts of myself. To stand for what I believe in and become my true authentic self.
Summary of the structural dissociation
Trauma-related Structural Dissociation of the Personality
The Haunted Self – Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization by Onno van der Hart, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, Kathy Steele