What Your Brain Knows

Hello, hello, hello! I apologize for my absence.  I have been recovering from not a small surgery, and I don’t think I remember half of September nor the beginning of October at all.  I found a stack of bills last night that I have no recollection of receiving.  Mea culpa! I have been very limited in my physical activities as in no lifting anything larger than a loaf of bread.  This has rubbed me the wrong way to be sure.  I have had far too much time to think.  And the thoughts tend to bubble up…

Surgery and marital separation, at the same time, can be tricky particularly if one’s surgery was the result of injuries sustained within the relationship.  My attitude going into the surgery was one of “Let’s just wipe out all evidence that he ever hurt me.”  I had the hip surgery last year; a surgery required to repair an injury caused by him as well.  I felt pretty good about this year’s surgery.  It will be the last one.  I’ll be home free.  I am not in love with him anymore.  I feel no attachment to him.  I spent three years within the marriage mourning the loss of the marriage.  The actual physical separation was just a representation of what already existed.  It had dissolved.  For me anyway.  I had done my time and paid my dues.  I had been seriously injured twice.  By him.  The surgery? Piece of cake.

Not so.  There were post-operative complications.  It was my version of hell.  There were unforeseen familial complications for someone close to me while I was in the hospital.  My children were scared and stressed.  My house guest was stressed.  And, I was helpless.  And drugged.  But not properly drugged.  So many things went wrong.  I didn’t recover my full abilities for weeks due to hospital incompetence.

That sense of vulnerability and fear caused a trauma memory to emerge.  It happens.  For those of us who have been traumatized, we experience the re-emergence of old memories.  Sometimes it’s just a flash.  Sometimes it’s an entire experience, and it’s something that our brain took, put in containment, and stored away.  When it comes forward, it feels real and very familiar.  When I experience the restoration of a memory, my first response is always, “Oh yeah, I remember that!”  It’s as if I always remembered it.  A piece of the puzzle has been found.  “Hey, there’s that corner piece I’ve needed.”  After the memory resurfaces, I usually feel nothing.  There is little to no emotional content.  It’s like looking at someone else’s family photo: “Oh, that’s nice.  There’s Pam and John vacationing by the Black Sea.”  The picture, however, is only the beginning.

I dread the process of understanding the memory and why my brain chose that moment to release it.  There will be pain.  I will suffer.  It will take me to my limits, and I know this.  I used to fight this process and do everything possible to avoid it, but then I wouldn’t heal.  I also would not discover the purpose behind the memory.  Our brains are purposeful.  When our brains decide to release a memory that was deep sixed for years, the first thing to do is:

Ask why.  What is in this memory for me? What is this memory trying to tell me?

The memory that was suddenly staring me down was an event from my abduction.  A horrible experience.  No wonder my brain chose to keep it from me for so long.  I was nearly killed in the experience.  It was an experience of sheer terror.  I chose to sit in it.  To let it wash over and through me.  I chose to feel it rather than run from it.  It took me to my emotional and cognitive limits.  I asked myself what I was feeling.  What was I thinking? Words were hard, but, in the end, I heard myself say, “I feel so disposable.  I am so disposable.”

There it is.  Once I heard myself identify the core belief in that memory aside from profound fear, I started connecting the dots.  I grew up in a family of origin where I was expendable, and I am currently leaving a marriage where I truly did feel like I fell last on the list.  Like an option.  I was afraid.

“What if I really am disposable?”

I was reluctant to discuss this with my therapist.  I have not discussed any of my past experiences with him.  I’ve not had a need or even a desire to discuss any of it.  I’ve processed it as much as a person probably could, but I chose this therapist for a reason.  I chose him because he specializes in trauma.  It was time to take a risk and let him in on some of the old stuff.  So, I told him what I remembered.  I told him what I had processed on my own.  In all his skill, he saw what I could not:

“You survived something that no one should ever have to survive.  In that moment, when your life was being threatened, you did not beg for it.  You sat still and determined to play along.  You determined to find a way out.  You determined to get out alive.  And, then you did it.  To the people who had you, you were disposable, but, to you, you were not.  You fought for yourself.  Do you suppose that what your brain is trying to tell you now is that you have already survived the worst thing imaginable? You knew then that you were worth fighting for even when everyone around you was planning your death.  You know how to do this.  Even if no one knows what you’re worth, you do.  And, you’ll fight even unto death because you know your own value because you almost had to do that.”

He was right.  My brain did not bring forth a highly traumatic memory to torment me.  No, my brain was trying to tell me that I knew how to fight for myself.  I had already faced off with a formidable enemy.  I had already answered some big questions a long time ago.  I was not disposable.  Just because I was married to someone who hurt me doesn’t mean that I’m worth hurting or somehow expendable.

Why does this matter for you? For those of us who have struggled with trauma, we often run from the memories when they resurface.  Who wants to deal with that old shit again? Well, I am discovering that our brains seem to know better sometimes.  There is often a profound self-validation and communication that occurs within the self through these memories.  Nothing in our life experiences is quite as extreme as our perception of our own trauma, and that’s often why our brains bring those memories forward.  Our present fears feel huge.  Our looming anxieties can rule us.  The great and mighty “What if…” seems to stalk us, but our deep self knows better.  “Look,” it says, “look what you did here.  If you can fight for yourself there, if you can survive that, then surely you are resilient enough to make it through this.  Now feel it.  Feel how big you are.  You are bigger than the biggest trauma.”

I could not have done this kind of work five years ago.  I did not have the distress tolerance for it.  The feelings associated with the trauma would have overwhelmed me and set me back, but, as you build up your distress tolerance and inner resources, processing trauma can become something different.  Your inner self can begin to use your healing process not only as a means to heal you from your past but also to set a better trajectory for your future.

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