The Infinity Mirror

The term “infinity mirror” refers to an optical illusion where two parallel or nearly parallel mirrors repeatedly create smaller and smaller reflections that seem to recede into infinity. I use this term for something altogether different.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Psychology refers to this as “repetition compulsion;” a phenomenon where people tend to recreate events or circumstances over and over again, especially those that may have been distressing. Interestingly, the word “compulsion” is defined as:

“an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes.”

So, what happens when this is not merely a maladaptive coping behavior?

It has been theorized that people do this because there is comfort in the familiar. Perhaps it is done to somehow change the outcome of the original circumstance we try to repeat. Perhaps we didn’t have a good relationship with a parent, so we seek out significant others who remind us of our parents and try to settle the score that way.

For those who have endured years of trauma and abuse, this propensity to in essence retraumatize is not easy to arrest and reverse. For those who have spent their formative years in a constant (or near constant) state of hyperarousal and hypervigilance, this compulsion is not just about coping (for example compulsively using alcohol or gambling, although that can be part of equation), but rather it rewires the functioning of the brain. This repetition is not born of maladaptiveness, it’s the baseline and normal level at which the person functions.

To put it another way, you may recall the quote made by Bane in the film The Dark Knight Rises:

Oh, you think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, moulded by it.

The Dark Knight Rises

The same is true for those who began developing Cptsd early in childhood. The chain of events for me was not normalcy then trauma then maladaptivity. There was only ever trauma. Survival mode was the only mode, and it is not some psychological theory. It creates a measurable, tangible effect on the development of the mind. In my experience, repetition compulsion pervaded every aspect of my life; be it friendships, intimate relationships, employers, the list goes on. I recently had a conversation with a friend where we spoke about a propensity to “step in bear traps.” When dealing with repetition compulsion, I not only stepped in the traps, I couldn’t function in a world where there wasn’t a 95% chance that I would step in one. A world without bear traps was beyond conception, and in some ways still is.

In my previous post “Beating Retreat” I had mentioned that abandonment is a key factor in Cptsd. I had (or so I thought) confronted my abandonment issues when I began my recovery from alcoholism nearly twelve years ago, not to mention the work I had done in therapy in my late teens – early twenties. As it turns out, I hadn’t addressed it, I had only transmuted it. As a child/adolescent, I dealt with fear of abandonment through isolation and intimacy avoidance. I spent much of my childhood alone in my room, and when in the company of my peers, I would assimilate as to avoid anyone ever really getting to know me. If I didn’t get close to anyone, I wouldn’t be abandoned. Simple, right? It would appear so, if it weren’t for the fact that preparing for impending abandonment is literally written into the coding of my brain. Instead my pendulum swung in the complete opposite direction. When the inevitability of abandonment arrives, I roll out the red carpet, give it the presidential suite, leave a little mint on the pillow after turning down the bed and make it a full breakfast in the morning. All of this to challenge it to a boxing match the following night. Why? Because if I can’t control it by avoiding it, I could try to battle it; and I do it like a gamer running back into the same boss fight in the hopes that the rare item drops (that rare item being acceptance in any of its forms).

Of course, it never does.

And fueled by nerd rage, I’d replay the battle over and over and over again, and though I never truly win, at least it proves that I can take the beating.

It didn’t matter how many tutorials told me it was futile. I could have a chorus of voices screaming at me that the item I was looking for would not be dropped by this boss, hell it wasn’t even an item in the game I was playing. Somehow, my faulty wired brain couldn’t conceive of that notion; and how many hours did I invest trying? Well, to date I have racked up 350,400 played hours. You do the math.

Yes, sometimes we have to be warriors, but even the bravest of warriors enjoy peace time. The battle is the exception, not the norm. My challenge is that while all around me there may be peace, my brain doesn’t allow me to experience that as “normalcy.” The absence of it is foreign and uncomfortable. I have to retrain myself on a biochemical level to understand and accept that a relative calm is the real baseline.

The silver lining here;

the infinity mirror shows that while the image repeats, it also becomes smaller. The goal is not to see myself at the first image, but much further inward, to notice that over the years that repeating image in many ways has shrunken and give myself some credit for that. All the work I have done until now has not been in vain.

Until next time……..

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