Interesting news from the phrenology ward

Today in a psychotherapy session I was discussing my problems with relationships, and more specifically my lack of intimate relationships. The working theory is that my own emotional life is too intense to communicate to others and that I shut them out in ways I’m not consciously able to control, mostly nonverbal.

This is particularly true if I have an attraction to someone, because my feeling of attraction is tightly coupled with unacceptably strong fear, shame, and self-hatred so that I become exceptionally false and not “present”.

Okay, interesting theory. But what’s the mechanism here? One theory is that the problem lies in the 10th cranial nerve. This is the vagus nerve, which goes to both the gut and the lungs from the brain. The “polyvagal theory” holds that separate branches of the vagus nerve, when stimulated, produce strong and opposed feelings: either you feel very safe, or not at all safe.

This has implications for a number of problems, including some autistic spectrum disorders, PTSD, panic attacks, and social adjustment problems. If the two systems become, as my therapist puts it, “overcoupled”, then it can be impossible to make a serious connection with someone without being overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions. The result is a kind of neural shutdown, which makes people like me seem distant or standoffish when we’re feeling exactly the opposite.

Stephen Polger, the originator of the polyvagal theory, has had some promising results at the University of Illinois treating autism with sound. There are also some suggestions and tips for dealing with these problems in this interview with Polger, which is intended for a lay audience. The other information I’ve found about this so far has been much more technical.

In my own case, since I am not autistic, PTSD, or suffering from panic attacks, the goal is to get the neural function more normal through a combination of neurofeedback, EMDR, somatic therapy, and medication. It’s kind of a science project though, since some of these ideas are very new and raw and will undoubtedly be further refined later.

Naval Security, South of Da Nang

Talked to Trout at length last night. He showed me some of his photos from Vietnam, including him looking 40 at age 18, various sandbags and weapons, and the view of the landscape south of Da Nang that he looked at from his guard post.

Bob's FaceI also saw the “welcome back” letter from Reuters giving him his job in Manhattan again, in March 1969. That didn’t last.

Bob saw a lot of stuff that stays, even now. Mostly kids. “Those little black-haired kids, I still see them.” He told me about an orphanage he and his partner went by a lot, run by a convent. They’d bring food over for the kids every time, huge quantities of stuff from the base. The French nuns would whack them on the head for looking at the teenaged girls, and everyone was delighted at the stolen food they brought.

One time they came by and everyone was dead and dismembered. The VC had made a point, as their guerrilla manual told them to. There were a lot of points like that made, and a lot of dismembered kids. After 30 years and lately, some happy pills Bob can tell that particular story without crying now.

Bob is LoveLater on he and his buddy were sent into the jungle, heavily armed but not uniformed, to “fuck shit up” within certain map quadrants. They were dropped by helicopter near some people who needed to be blown up, or by boat near some people who needed to find out how well our new night sniper scope worked. A lot of “heavy shit went down”, as they said.

But it’s the kids he still sees. When he got back to New York he didn’t last too long at Reuters. He got a job working construction because he’s a big strong guy who doesn’t mind picking up joists all day. And he drank for 30 years, and other things. By the time he came out west in ’75, Bob was in full swing as a PTSD poster boy. A lot of other “heavy shit went down” in those years.

Bob has some advice for guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Paxil,” he says, “therapy. Happy pills and talking. Don’t drink, don’t smoke. It’s hard to really enjoy cocaine and heroin without a drink and a smoke. Mostly don’t drink. I spent thirty years drinking and denying, but the kids didn’t go away.”

Bob’s house up in the hills has roses and razor wire around it real tight.