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  • Writer's pictureSusan Carr

This squirrel gets me.

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

It amazes me how a simple thing Bertrand does can reflect what I'm experiencing on a given day.

I was recently given some life-changing test results. After years of misunderstanding, I finally have answers.

The Oldest once said I am very private, which is generally true. Today, not so much.

First, a brief history.

As a child, I was the victim of many episodes of sexual trauma. I am grateful to be able to say that it was never brought on by a member of my family.

Without being too sciency, this is what happened to my brain, between the ages of 6-14:

  • To deal with being in a constant state of fear, I created a "firefighter" persona. This firefighter, who remained a 9-year-old girl, had one job - protect me from harm, at all costs. This led me to develop a very heightened flight-or-fight response, which when triggered, turned me into a very different person.

  • To deal with the need to constantly be aware of my surroundings, I became hypervigilant. This led me to develop social anxiety and be chameleon-like in my interactions with others.

  • To deal with the need to remain in control of my environment, I became a perfectionist. This led me to develop obsessive personality characteristics, and expect perfection from others.

All of these responses and reactions created in me an inability to face challenges healthily, so for literally all of my life, I have felt stupid when it comes to math and science. I have vivid memories of sitting in class, as far back as 5th grade, not being able to comprehend what the teacher was explaining. And when letters were introduced in math, and in science, it was tried to explain how heavy objects defy gravity, I just blanked.

This continued throughout my school years, and even when I was in college at 40 years old. (Consequently, Topics in Mathematics was the only B I received in all of my courses. Still bitter.)

Because of my traumatic experiences, I escaped into the world of words. As a child, I devoured books. I read ALL the time. I won awards for my reading. I was the youngest library assistant at my elementary school, and the only student library assistant at my middle school. Total bookworm nerd.

I escaped into the daily life of Ramona Quimby. I walked through the wardrobe with four friends. I listened to Margaret when she talked to God. I sat with Scout as she witnessed her father speak against injustice. I was introduced to the great works through the set of Moby Illustrated Classics.

I felt safe in books, in a world filled with the written word. Literature provided me with worlds and places where heroes won and the bad guy received his comeuppance. Something I was never able to experience with my abuse.

But math and science were different. I just couldn't grasp the abstracts or scientific theories; putting numbers and letters together and having them mean something; taking a formula and applying it conceptually; comprehending atoms or molecules. Nothing made sense.

And this is why:

"Traumatic events cause the brain to enter a heightened state of awareness, activating our limbic system and flooding the brain with the stress hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol is toxic to the brain and primarily damages the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain are directly related to memory and executive functioning respectively. As a result, there becomes an overall decreased ability to process new information, objectively analyze complex data, and engage in memory consolidation.”

Because my brain was always dealing with repeated traumatic events, whenever I was faced with something that scared me, my firefighter responded to that fear by shutting down my brain. She highjacked my ability to learn, process new information, and then retain it. Where she thought she was helping, she was hurting.

Math and science scared me because I couldn't understand what I was being taught. My inability to learn concepts of math and the workings of science was highjacked by my brain's own need for survival, and my firefighter's response to that need.

So, back to my tests. These tests, given by a psychometrist, were to measure my cognitive abilities and my tendencies toward depression and anxiety. My results were much better than I expected. I was greatly relieved as I listened to the doctor detail my results, and during this discussion, a life change occurred.

This brings me back to Bertrand.

You can't see him, but he's in there. Busily burying his nuts and seeds in the bed of Spiderwort plants, he stayed hidden for a good 3-4 minutes.

And then he leaped back to the tree.

And I saw myself. When that squirrel leaped onto that tree, I actually said, "Bertrand! You’ve just helped me make sense of it all!" I've spent a year finally dealing with my past trauma, and, for the first time in my life, really experiencing healing. I felt like his leap was a picture of me leaping from my fear. Leaping away from the fear that I cannot understand math and science. But my test results prove I am not stupid. That I CAN learn. By learning how to control my brain, through cognitive behavior therapy, and helping that scared, little girl realize she doesn't have to protect me from the hard things anymore, I am now on a quest. I want to learn. I want to start with the step above what I already know and get to the next step and the next step. The Husband has agreed to tutor me. I'm looking into tools to help me learn, possibly using the Teaching Textbook curriculum The Youngest used in middle school homeschooling, as a start. Eventually, maybe I can finally understand how letters and numbers work harmoniously together in math, and when science explains how a plane, which weighs tons, can remain floating in the air.

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