Published on March 6th, 2020 | by Jen Bryant0
“Creating a Culture of Compassion:” An Interview with Ana Joanes, Director of Wrestling Ghosts
“I have so many friends that say how much they love hanging out with their kid…and I don’t feel that.”
Wrestling Ghosts is a complex, intimate documentary about the intersections of parenting, mental health, and multi-generational trauma. Shot over the course of two years, the film tells the story of a young mother, Kim, as she struggles to break free of old cycles in order to build a different future for her family.
JEN BRYANT: Wrestling Ghosts follows Kim, a mother of two young children, as she confronts the aftereffects of her own childhood trauma. What drew you to Kim, and to this story?
ANA JOANES: Wrestling Ghosts started as a documentary about parenting. I had young children, didn’t know what I was doing, and had discovered nonviolent communication (NVC) . NVC is a process of mindfulness that allows you to understand what you are feeling and needing and to build more joy and connection with your loved ones. The principles of NVC are very simple to understand, but the practice is really hard. My husband and I had been practicing for a while and we had a coach we met on Skype. I experienced so many ‘aha’ moments and so much growth. Parenting was just the entry point, the motivation to do the work. But soon, I realized that I needed to work on communication with my husband and parenting coaching became couples’ counseling. And as I kept practicing, I realized that the work was mostly internal, and I needed to also practice with my inner voices and explore and understand what was coming up for me when I was stuck in conflict etc. This process felt like a gift, and I created the documentary to share it with the world (it’s really hard to talk to parents about parenting without sounding preachy, so the way I share is through filmmaking).
I was also curious to see if other parents had similar experiences with this process (maybe I was the only one who struggled so with parenting!). We are so alone in our struggles, isolated by shame. If only we could hear others’ struggles, we would be able to break the shame and connect, feel more compassion, and access more resources to help each other.
I put flyers around town seeking a couple for a documentary about parenting. Three families came forward, including Kim’s, and we started shooting. Each family was paired with an online NVC parenting coach, and I followed each family for one year. The families all had different issues and concerns, but the process was very much like mine — a slow shift from trying to parent better to learning to parent ourselves.
Kim stood out from the beginning. She was charismatic, intelligent, and so articulate about her inner life, and with such a unique willingness to show up with complete honesty in front of the camera. After a year of shooting with all 3 families, I asked Kim and Matt if they would keep going and decided to focus the movie on them. We shot for over 4 years and as we kept peeling layers, we learned about childhood trauma and its impact on the nervous system. Learning about childhood trauma was like putting on glasses and seeing clearly — it’s like I could finally connect the dots and make sense of my life (the back surgeries, the depression and anxiety, the difficulty with relationships). I had more clarity and compassion. It’s incredible that the knowledge about the impact of trauma has been around for so long (over 20 years) but that most of us have never heard about it. It’s life-changing, and my hope is that Wrestling Ghosts can contribute to bringing about more awareness about it and about the ways we can heal and break the cycle.
JB: Early on in the documentary, Kim confesses that she struggles to feel motherly and that she doesn’t enjoy spending time with her kids. How do societal expectations around parents, and specifically mothers, contribute to the burden that Kim is already carrying?
AJ: There’s no way to win as a mother in our society. You get criticized (and feel guilty) no matter what you do: If you hang out with your friends a lot, you are too selfish, but if you don’t, then you are not modeling a healthy balanced life for your kids and are too self-sacrificial! Neighbors will call the police if you let your kids go to the park alone, but if you hover, then you’re called a helicopter parent! I mean, there’s really no way of winning and yes, of course, expectations on mothers are impossible to meet and add so much to our stress. But what adds even more is the lack of societal support for families in general. The US ranks LAST IN EVERY MEASURE (sorry for screaming!) when it comes to family policy. Parents in this country also often don’t have support from extended families. There are great and cheap programs, like nurse visits after a mom gives birth to teach proper infant care and emphasize the importance of cuddling and playing with young babies for proper attachment and brain development. Many mothers don’t know this and need to be taught! It would save so much money in the long term, but very few of these programs still exist. In Germany, women get a FULL year parental leave. In France, where the post-war policy was to support women joining the workforce, there’s universal day care from a very early age. Many European countries have laws that provide equal parental leave to men and women and a culture that promotes men using their leave. Without proper support for families, women and children suffer.
Societal and cultural context is important. Poverty, racism, and patriarchy can play a very important part in our ability to parent properly. But I chose not to focus on that in Wrestling Ghosts. Instead, I wanted to create a movie that would help us move towards a culture of compassion and understanding. We need to change our policies, and it’s more likely to happen if we realize that trauma affects most of us. We can then develop compassion for our own lives and extend that to others. What Kim shares is her deep yearning to connect with her children and her inability to do so. That’s trauma. She wants to but she can’t. Her ability to connect has been shaped deeply by her childhood, but it can be healed. There’s no map for healing, no blueprint, but we need to know that healing is possible and to witness how it works.
JB: Wrestling Ghosts explores the idea that adverse childhood experiences make parents less able to respond appropriately to their own kids, which creates a pattern that is handed down through generations. In the film, we see this play out in Kim’s mother’s story, Kim’s own childhood experiences, and her experiences as a mother. In your experience and from your observations, in what ways can childhood trauma be triggering for adult survivors when they become parents? And can parenting be a healing experience for trauma survivors?
AJ: As parents we ALL face our limits, childhood trauma or not. Nobody was parented perfectly; nobody is always feeling spacious and attentive. What’s super interesting as a parent is to start noticing what’s going on internally when we feel like we’re not dealing with a situation the way we wish we were. If we keep acting in ways we deeply regret, if we notice a gap between our best intentions and our actual behavior, that usually points to our childhood wounds and is an opportunity to heal. I sometimes feel overtaken by anger and scream at my kids. And over time, I’ve noticed that the story I tell myself when this happens is that “nobody cares about me” or “my needs are not being cared for.” I realize that it’s ridiculous to wish my young children would care for my needs, but being triggered is the opposite of being rational. A very old wound gets opened when I feel like I’m not being cared for, and then the anger lashes out.
One way to recognize that we’re being triggered is when we are flooded by emotions or memories, or when we find ourselves disconnecting, or any time we feel this gap between our actions and how we would like to chose to act. Trauma feels like a loss of control to me — it’s the opposite of feeling well-regulated, when I can use my skills, wisdom, and experience to choose a response. Trauma is the response happening before I chose it and the shame rushing in right after. And in that way, parenting, or any triggering relationship, can be healing, because it points to the places that we need to tend to. Often, we know what was done to us, but we don’t fully understand what we missed.
In my podcast (Healing Our Ghosts), I interview Cissy White, a survivor, author and activist. She has a 10 out of 10 on her ACES, and she had done plenty of therapy before becoming a mom and knew the way her childhood had been damaging. But then, when she had a child of her own, she realized what had been missing: safety, attention, love. As parents, we get to experience what love and safety looks like, and we can learn to re-parent ourselves too. I’ve been practicing lately this in my own life. When I hear myself talking harshly to myself, I stop and imagine what would I do if someone spoke that way to my child, then respond accordingly. I’ve also been trying to care for myself the way I do for my children in practical ways. I insist they get exercise, so I insist for myself too. I organize play dates for them as I value their social life, so I’ve been trying to follow that example as well. And I went and got myself some nice underwear, because I don’t let my kids run around with old uncomfortable underwear. So yes, parenting can be a great opportunity for healing if we choose to do so!
Trauma affects how our brain develops. It changes the pattern of electrical responses within our brain and influences how we respond to situations in our daily life, not just our children. Anxiety, depression, OCD — they are all the results of “stuck” patterns in our brain. These patterns are not only the result of trauma, they are also genetic. Some of us are more prone to these patterns than others, but studies have shown that the changes are significantly higher when we have experienced toxic stress in childhood. Toxic stress causes harm by hijacking what’s commonly called our flight and fight response. Under stress, our heart begins to race, our breathing gets rapid, and a flood of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream, triggering glucose and fats to give us energy to run for cover and store up in your body, just in case it’s that kind of emergency! In our natural response, there’s a second part of the cycle, when the danger is gone and we can relax. Our body returns to its normal state of homeostasis. You can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that you’re safe.
The problem arises when the threat never really leaves. When you’re in a state of constant vigilance due to neglect, poverty, violence, and abuse, it’s never okay to relax. What happens to those stress hormones and physical responses in our bodies? They never go away; instead, we live in a constant state of hyper-alertness, bodies constantly flooded with stress hormones that are now toxic to us.
MRI scans of the brains of people who have experienced toxic stress during childhood show concrete proof that an altered flow of stress hormones do in fact change the brain. The hippocampus is up to 7% smaller and atrophied. This is significant, because the hippocampus is associated with the functions of feeling and reaction. Together with the hypothalamus and the amygdala, the hippocampus helps control different bodily functions, such as the endocrine system, as well as our stress response. The damage to our brains leaves us both over- and under-reacting to outside stimulus. The result of your childhood experiences causes a kind of a neurological straitjacket that all the willpower and self-flagellation in the world simply can’t undo.
This straitjacket is what’s preventing Kim from reacting the way she’d like to with her kids. She’s shut down. Others might be overreactive and scream or hit, or simply be too consumed with their own suffering to have much space to notice their kid and give them the attention they need. We need willpower to recognize what we’re doing and address it, but willpower alone cannot fix it.
JB: What role can therapy and education about early childhood experiences play in breaking this cycle?
AJ: Understanding childhood trauma goes hand-in-hand with understanding healthy development. Many of us need to learn what connection looks like. Hold your baby as much as you want, soothe your baby, you can’t spoil an infant, make eye contact and talk to your baby, and so on. What does it look like to have a safe connection with a toddler? With a elementary-age child? With a teen? So many of us are locked in power struggles with our kids. We forget that the key to a successful long-term relationship with our children is trust. Understanding our lives, how we were hurt, and how our behaviors were shaped helps us feel compassion towards ourselves, which can help us heal and break the cycle. Education helps ensure that schools are trauma-informed and a safe space for the most vulnerable children. Education helps nurses and doctors understand what they’re seeing in the children and adults in their care and come up with treatment plans that can truly help individuals and families in the long-term. Education can also help us pass policies that offer more support to parents and ensure insurance reimburse for the kind of treatment and interventions that can truly make a difference.
JB: One of Kim’s biggest fears is that therapy won’t work. Any updates since the project ended?
AJ: What’s so powerful about hearing Kim’s fear that therapy won’t work is that we can SEE that it is working. We watch her at the beginning of the movie, unable to touch her child, to play or connect. We then witness her behavior changing over the course of the movie: a softness in her voice, a gentle gesture towards her kid, reading a book with the kids nestled in her lap, and even full on play by the end of the movie. Change is happening, but it’s hard to witness in oneself and of course, changes never happens fast enough. Kim is still working on herself; she’s still in therapy and exploring what approach is best for her. Although Kim continues to struggle in many ways, she has shared with me and with the audience during Q&As that she’s thankful for the journey She feels like her relationships with her family are better and deeper, that there’s more trust and connection, because of the work she’s done and that the journey itself has provided meaning and motivation to keep doing the work.
Part of healing is creating meaning out of our lives’ experiences. What that means is creating a story about ourselves — one that is deeply compassionate, and that allows us to feel a sense of purpose in our lives.