I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it. For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.
That works for a while–the distancing. It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful. It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”. But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:
Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us. That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.
But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work. I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it. Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online. I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people. I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race. I could barely reach out to my friends. I was just trying to stay afloat. We are talking about surviving here. Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I lost friends in the process. There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did. It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving. Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge. You will be “remodeled”. You aren’t the same, but you are still you. So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?
- If you commit to a process of therapy, you will heal faster. I was in therapy for two years. It contributed to the healing process for me post-divorce in ways I couldn’t have accomplished on my own. I am a die-hard believer in therapy although you need the right therapist. A bad therapist will create more obstacles, but you will leave his/her office with interesting stories.
- There will be moments when you will feel discouraged about your life, and that’s normal. When you are living in an abusive environment, almost all your energy is spent trying to adapt to it. You are focusing entirely on your abuser or negative circumstances in order to anticipate what s/he will do next or what will happen. If you have children, you will also be trying to protect them. Your health and emotions matter little. If you sustained physical injury as well, you may try to brush it off as quickly as possible while pretending it never happened. That was my M.O. When the perpetrator of abuse is no longer present and the circumstances change, the first thing you feel is a wonderful sense of relief and joy. I was elated. My therapist warned me that the years of trauma that I had packed away in my body and psyche would come forward as soon as I felt safe. I said, “Nah…no way.” I was so wrong. I spent over a year processing that pain, and it was extraordinary. Basically, I was ugly crying in my bedroom every night wishing I would just die. Eventually, that stopped, but it won’t stop until you finish the process. So, commit to it with all you’ve got. Then, move forward feeling much lighter.
- You might be afraid to meet new people, or you might feel the opposite–stoked to get out there and meet everyone. Initially, I felt so raw that I struggled to socialize. I was also blamed by more than a few people for being abused with very typical victim-blaming statements (ex. “I can’t believe a person as smart as you would let something like that happen.”). I simply didn’t feel like trying to make new connections. I also didn’t want new people meeting me in the context of such a transition. I felt defective somehow, and I think that feeling is normal considering how often people imply it however wrong they are. This does fade as you heal, but it is okay to stay in the relative safety of your safe space until you’re ready to get out there again as long as it doesn’t become a prolonged exercise in avoidance. Then, you’ll have new things to discuss in your therapist’s Hot Seat.
- There comes a point when you come alive again. At some point in your healing process, you reignite. I do not know if any singular factor acts as a catalyst, but I do know that an energy returns that wasn’t there prior. For me, it was when I went back to school. That was an external manifestation of a shift in my beliefs. I reached a point where I believed that I could start over. I wanted to build a life that mattered, and I wanted my daughters to see what a woman was capable of–what it looked like to get up again. I found my worth again and believed that what I wanted mattered. I started to acquire hope. This is a very good sign. Go with it and see where it takes you.
- You will love and be loved again. This was something that only resided in the realm of fantasy for me–even when I was married. I felt so overlooked and worthless during the last years of my marriage. Everything revolved around what my ex-husband would and would not do. I deleted so many parts of my emotional and intellectual repertoire to stay that I hardly knew who I was anymore when the marriage ended. I couldn’t answer basic questions like, “What is your favorite kind of music?” or “If you could go on a vacation, then where would it be?” We could only listen to his preferred music, and we never talked about vacations. I never had an iota of privacy, and he mocked almost everything that I liked. So, I lost myself. Meeting someone new was a glorious surprise, and I’m still surprised by it daily. I did not think that it was possible for me. I know that it is common to say, “If it is possible for me, then it’s possible for you.” It is true though. It is possible for you.
- Let yourself be happier than you believe you deserve. This is still very hard for me, but I try. I, therefore, anticipate that it may feel difficult for you at times. There have been moments in the past three years when I have felt a limitless sort of happiness. When I feel it, I want to dampen it because fear is on its heels. I have never experienced sustained goodness in my life. Ever. This is often the case for people from abusive or dysfunctional families and/or circumstances. When you begin to believe that your environment is safe or you begin to trust those around you, circumstances and people often turn against you. You can’t relax. You can’t trust. You can’t believe. You can’t rest. You must always be on edge, read the people in your midst so that you know how to react, and be ready to fight or flee. Happiness or joy can never become something you truly want. Surviving is the goal. This is the reality of a trauma survivor, but it need not be your reality for the rest of your life. So, I suggest allowing yourself to feel happiness and/or joy when it comes and then allow it to stay within you longer than you are comfortable with it. The anxious thoughts will no doubt partner with your happiness–“What if _______ happens?”, “What if _________ dies?”, “What if _________ turns out to be just like _________ and hurts me?” There are myriad distorted anxieties that the brain throws at you when you begin to relax into happiness. That’s okay. Allow yourself to feel happier than you believe you deserve to be in little bits. Eventually, you can sustain it for longer periods of time, and that state of being will normalize itself.
- Getting triggered isn’t as bad as it used to be. I experienced a triggering event yesterday, and it came out of nowhere as triggering events often do. Initially, I didn’t even know why I was upset. I thought I was overly sensitive and felt foolish. When I finally came to the reason, I felt oddly grateful and somewhat annoyed. I realized that I still had emotional work to do around some of the emotional abuse in my former marriage, and, admittedly, I’m tired of the subject. But, the recovery was relatively fast, and I could see it more objectively than I once did. I didn’t get sucked in and stay triggered for hours upon hours. This is progress! Triggering events are still painful, but they are now more representative of data points. I can use them to gain traction now rather than sink to the bottom of the emotional Laurentian Abyss. It does get better and easier, and you come to see yourself not as a victim of something but simply as yourself. That change in self-definition is a huge turning point.
- You will eventually become more interested in your future than your past. This can be a hard thing to grasp, but it’s akin to a paradigm shift. When you endure a lot of therapy, you are naturally past/present oriented because you spend all your time sleuthing for past problems and traumas that affected you in the present. This is useful to a point. Eventually, we must begin to see our lives as present/future oriented, and that can be extremely difficult for people who have endured trauma largely due to the little talked about symptom of PTSD called a foreshortened future. What is a sense of a foreshortened future? Essentially, it means that you cannot plan for yourself because you cannot imagine your own future. You simply can’t see it. Some therapists define it as a person believing that their life will be cut short and define the symptom as an avoidance symptom in PTSD. I think that they’re wrong. I rely on neuroscience for this one. The brain relies on our past experiences and narratives to construct future narratives and make plans for us. An extreme example of this is an amnesiac patient. Patients with amnesia cannot make plans for their future. Why? They have no memories of past experiences so their brains cannot tap into past experiences to project possible narrative outcomes when planning for the future. So, people with traumatic experiences and PTSD have narrative experiences characterized by traumatic experiences. If all a person has done in their lives is adapt to trauma, then all of their time and energy is spent focusing on and adapting to someone else (a perpetrator) or to traumatic circumstances (poverty, war, highly dysfunctional or abusive circumstances). Never have they learned to plan. They have only learned to adapt on the fly usually around someone else’s behaviors or circumstances. Planning is a skill. Learning to “dream” about a future where good things can and do happen to and for you is also a skill particularly if you have never once experienced that. It must be learned in a safe place where one can be taught how, and where once can learn to practice it. The future doesn’t exist yet. We help to create it, but this idea is elusive at best when you perceive the past to have ruined your present. You must embrace the idea that your future is yours even if you can’t feel it or see it yet. It is yours as surely as your past is behind you. This one takes time, but it is possible to learn this skill.
- You will recover your resiliency. This is a big deal. We are all resilient creatures. Humans can survive almost anything, but we can also reach breaking points. The point here is that you can come back from that. There are days when it will feel like you won’t or can’t. Don’t believe everything you think or feel. That is folly. Getting up again after setbacks, no matter how bad, is what resiliency is all about. Developing grit and shifting your self-definition from one of a victim to a person who can and will get up again is where the rubber meets the road. Changing how you view yourself in relation to the people who hurt you matters the most right here. For me, my personal statement has been: “I will not let people of that quality take the best out of me. I will get up again.” Remembering this has given me the fuel I have needed to keep going when I have felt truly overwhelmed. At some point, you will turn around and look back taking in how far you’ve traveled. You will see that you did indeed get up again and walk miles. No one said that the healing process was easy or felt good. I will tell you that it hurts profoundly, but it does not hurt forever. There comes a point when you something shifts. You will begin to feel more peaceful than you feel anxious. You will discover joy and feel that more often than you feel fear. Fear and anxiety can become habitual states of being. They are familiar, and we know how to feel like that. Joy and peace? Not so much. Those must be cultivated and invested in. And…fought for. The culture we live in does not value joy, peace, civility, and kindness. If you want that in your life, you have to cultivate it, fight for it, and stand guard over it.
At this point on the road, this is where I’m at. I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now. We can get up and move. As always, I wish you all great peace and…