Edward Duff: How truama changes the brain and behavior templates

Edward Duff talks about how trauma changes the brain. This is a response to an essay to be posted soon on Corinna’s personal site about “What Winning the Olympic Trials Taught me about Trauma-informed care.”

This post is an email conversation between Wellness Wordworks creative director Corinna West and Edward Duff  about how trauma changes the brain. It’s reprinted with small edits and permission. Edward Duff is a policy analyst in Missouri. This means a lobbyist. We’ll post soon about what lobbyists really do and some ways around this. Edward is a survivor of many psychiatric diagnoses, incarceration, brain injury, and hospital malpractice. He is now an ear acupuncture practitioner, a hard core reseracher, a carpenter and house restorer, a first time pet owner, and most importantly, a dot-connector. If you, too, are a dot-connector, we want you to join our team of 45 volunteers so far.

Edward: Now I’m going to ride the coffee I’m drinking and type some stuff free-form:

OK, trauma-informed care is the center of the new mental health movement, as far as I can determine. But I haven’t had a shred of it for myself from the conventional system. I’m getting it from survivors literally on the street, in cafes, in campouts, in conversations in vehicles. Narcotics Anonymous gets to it in indirect ways through its literature and through having a bunch of traumatized people in the same room day after day, learning to trust, learning to… everything, really.  That is about 80% of them. Re-learning life using honesty and 11 other spiritual principals derived from William James’ “Varieties of the Religious Experience”. William James was a genius.

How trauma changes the brain summed up in one sentence:

Trauma makes someone hear, “You suck and you oughtta go off and die somewhere”, when someone says, “There is a smudge on your forehead in your makeup,” or “You left your draft of that paperwork on my desk”.

Hell, they can be saying, “That was a really great piece of work”, and I’ll be hearing, “The left speaker wire had some static in it, I dropped that hook a half-beat too soon, the jerk over there was just about to trip over my power cord, and the black gal over there was pulling a knife because I played Brown Sugar by the Stones.” (I’m a dance DJ, remember?) I have literally been attacked by an African-American female while I was working because I played “Brown Sugar”, and she managed to rip out my cables, when I was playing a gig in the Galena, Kansas, City Hall right across the hall from the police station. I do get tunnel vision when I DJ and have about six things going at the same time.

Video from Reach and Dirty D, local Kansas City rappers, DJ’s and hip hop artists:

(Related to this post on how trauma changes the brain because Edward is talking about DJ’s above, seen?)

Saying you’ve never been through assault or war or domestic violence, when you have been a martial arts combatant for years in a pressure-cooker competition like the Olympics is an interesting observation. I’m going to risk a term: cognitive dissonance. You are a really great-looking person, but if you use a mirror, you might see some artifacts of combat in your physique, especially in the small details. You look like a fighter. An unusually cute fighter, but there it is… Your stance and gait are tuned to this experience. Your incredible quickness, over-awareness of peoples’ posturing, and constant distance-calculating is a demonstration of what a veteran friend of mine who is a psychologist calls, “combat mind” or “situational awareness”. You have it for sure.

Edward thinks my toughness comes from how trauma changes the brain, but poetry is intense plus I used to get sunburned a lot

Edward thinks my toughness comes from how trauma changes the brain, but maybe it's just that poetry is intense plus I used to get sunburned a lot

I am not sure that conventional diagnoses really apply to people with this sort of skill. Trauma is the over-arching diagnosis. Symptoms mock some other disorders, and some conventional psychiatric diagnoses might apply, in addition to the PTSD, in layers, like a layer cake. You can have both, or three, etc. There are no rules about how many layers there are. Or which layer is predominant at this instant. Or if any of them are valid at all.

Trauma creates templates and new patterns in the brain

But we have “templates” of trauma-derived experience, literally become physiological, physical, biological, in our own neural net’s adaptation to our prior experiences. We are re-wired. We don’t need to see activity 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 from others to think activity number 10 is going to happen. We see 1, 4, and maybe another 6, and we are ready for activity number 10. We don’t need to see them all. But the problem is that we’ve seen activity number 1 and 4 and we jump to the conclusion that the activity number 10 we anticipate is happening very, very soon. The problem is that 1, 4, and 6 don’t add up to number 10 that we anticipate. Number 10 isn’t coming in this equation. We just saw a couple of things, 1 and 4, and maybe 6 (but we weren’t waiting around for 6 to happen), and thought that we were under attack. Non-traumatized people don’t put things together in this way. This is how trauma changes the brain.

The conclusion that #10 is going to happen causes all kinds of chemical cascades to happen. Trauma changes the brain chemistry but it doesn’t mean a person has chemical imbalance. It’s a normal human reaction to stuff going very wrong in the past. It means something that might be fairly minor for most people into a flight or fight situation. For you, it might be thinking, “Well, my boss frowned at me so I am going to get fired.” Or, “My hallucinations are coming back, I might never be able to work again.”  You’ve learned intellectually that neither of those are true, but trauma changes the brain to cause the chemical cascade to happen anyway.

For me, I have combat mind. (From my former life as a recreational substances merchant/importer, from living with psychotic killers just returned from Vietnam after being too crazy to keep from being kicked out of the damn war, and from being bullied in youth by formidable opponents.) It involves martial-level, but well-founded, based upon prior experience, situational awareness. Trauma changes the brain which changes behavior. If I’m scared, of course, I’m going to scan my surroundings.

Edward Duff is from Joplin, MO. This is the car he flew in for 1/4 mile during the tornado.

Edward Duff is from Joplin, MO. This is the car he flew in for 1/4 mile during the tornado.

For instance, I look over everyone to see where they are packing their weapons, at their ankle holsters and mid-back, or belt-line, under-arms where those holsters ride. Who are the Narks? Who are the players? Who are the wolves? Who are the shape-shifters? Who are the “sheep”? Where are the knives? Am I in reach for a spinning back kick? What am I carrying for a block (nearly always something that would work)? Where are their knees? Their instep? Their throat and temple? What is the reach? Am I in position to take that stuff away from them before they can use it? I’m not even a martial-arts practitioner.

I just constantly, and unconsciously, plan alternative scenarios to escape, or to hurt people if I think they are going to hurt me. I’m not going to fight them. I am not a fighter. I’m just going to disable them in an extremely unfair way with unconventional means, distract people from seeing it, and leave. BTW, I’ve never, ever, had the feeling that I have to do any of that around you, or that it would matter, considering your electric, inter-dimensional, quantum speed. You wouldn’t be there… (Another BTW, I’m the shape-shifter, and I’m looking for the other ones.)

Brain injury intersects with how trauma changes the brain

I have the same psychiatrist in Kansas City, who treated (saw) William S. Burroughs. My pshrink is a medical doctor, and medicates. He tests. He hospitalizes. He has known me long enough over the last 30 years to see some of my stuff. He has a great big file. Burroughs was a famous author and consciousness boundaries explorer. Bill died recently. Doc McKnelley was giving Bill methadone. I shouldn’t know this, but I do. I interview everyone. My pshrink is 76 or older. I lose track. Hell, I lose track of my own age. Inside, I think I’m thirty or twenty or twelve. But I’ve not caught on to the age I am except for the rate of bone healing and lack of stamina.

I don’t really have a time thing going. Gets me into jams all the time. Comes from being a traumatic brain injury survivor. My ex-wife knows I don’t “do” time, and has accepted it. She helps me keep it straight by email sometimes, just asking me what I’m supposed to be doing next and when. The fact is that I always make the important stuff, if that is where I am supposed to be. I have no idea how that “where I am supposed to be” really works, but it does.

Ok, I’m about through drinking coffee and I’ll give you a break.

What kind of conclusion do you jump to because of how trauma changes the brain?  Send us a tweet at @PeerWordworks or make a comment below.



4 comments to Edward Duff: How truama changes the brain and behavior templates

  • Brooke Leonard

    sounds like someone who is recovering from the kind of trauma that you are describing may have to learn new problem-solving or thinking processes because of dysfunctional brain functioning. Each person’s level of distress (reaction) may be different for the same event. This is an important point, I think, when someone is working on recovery, whether it be RTSD, mental illness or substance abuse. Thank you for sharing this story.

    • You DO write rlaely well you know. And I’m sure some of your life experiences have been biblical in their intensity.Curious how in spite of it all we still want to help others in their suffering until the world tells us in plain terms that we’re better off keeping our distance.I read your blogs though I’ve never commented, as I just agree with you too much and I’m more of the protesting against injustice kind.I find you sensitive, intelligent and I suspect there are a whole lot of qualities to your nature that you yourself are perhaps not so aware of.Sometimes as awful as it is we have to keep in mind what happened to us so as not to confuse past trauma with present situations. The problem is the time lapse or lack of when the fear/panic reaction hits but although the relapses are there and depress the hell out of me afterwards, I have learned to protect my brain from irrational fears precisely by keeping in mind past trauma in certain present situations. It doesn’t always work, but perhaps it’s a place to start.

  • […] beyond trauma.  Also to move beyond trauma we need to examine the basic concept.  We published Edward Duff’s personal story and how he can move beyond trauma last week. One definition of trauma that resonates with me is: […]

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