I have enjoyed multiple events in my lifetime that psychologists and other mental health professionals would consider traumatizing to me. I say enjoyed with sarcasm so please note that. I didn’t really enjoy anything about any of these events but as I’ve leaned into the wake of reality left behind the waves of trauma a deeper joy really is emerging. It’s a joy fueled with compassion for my self and others that has allowed me to meet some really terriffic people and most of all develop a deeper sense of awe about the reality of what it means to be human.
Trauma is occurring all of the time and in varying degrees of severity. How we receive trauma into our bodies depends on so many variables that dealing with it is definitely not a one size fits all solution. No matter how we react to it, however, these events change us. It’s pure physiology.
No matter how self-assured we are, in a fraction of a second, our lives can be utterly devastated. As in the biblical story of Jonah, the unknowable forces of trauma and loss can swallow us whole, thrusting us deep into their cold dark belly. Engtrapped yet lost, we become hopelessly frozen by terror and helplessness.
Peter A Levine PhD, from his book In An Unspoken Voice
In general I have been a resilient but highly sensitive person. For as long as I can remember I have picked myself up and purposed to grow from whatever negative experiences came my way. And yes, I take most things very personally. When I perceive that something hurts, I can be easily overwhelmed. I have to understand each and every event that happens in some way before I can let it go. I either have to learn something from it or I have to be able to explain how I let that thing happen etc. I can’t rest until I find a way to make negative experiences okay. No matter how many Serenity Prayers I utter or how much I instruct myself that much of life is out of my direct control, this is still my default way to go. No matter what, letting go of hurt is REALLY hard for me. It is also really hard ON me, on my body. All this said, negative experiences are generally not traumatic ones. Traumatic events take eveyrthing to an entirely new level.
Trauma came into my life each and every time in this way:
- by surprise – out of nowhere – totally unexpected
My body responded each and every time in this way:
- engaged my central nervous system in the fight or flight response due to intense fear and total helplessness to avoid it
- immobilization in order to protect me from further harm
Research is showing us that if our bodies are allowed to let go of the stored energy from trauma we can begin to heal from it. I’ve been on an almost four year journey of figuring out how to do that specifically related to mulitple difficult events that came into my life associated with the move from Utah to Minnesota. It’s a rather complex story that I’ve been very open about in previous blog posts so I won’t go over the gorey details again here. I will share that the one event that rose above all others and nearly took my life was a minor surgery to deal with acid reflux that ended with my stomach flipping up into my chest wall, a surgeon who neglected to put in a drain after the surgery to repair it and a very large infection that permeated my chest wall and abdominal cavity that required a very difficult and high risk surgery to save my life.
The day it happened I was told at 10:30 am that I would have a thoracotomy surgery that afternoon to fix the problem. I woke up after the surgery in a state of complete immobilization where I could not move a muscle on my own. Thankfully hospitals don’t allow you to stay that physical state, but the harsh reality is that they are at present virtually unable to intervene in such a way as to unlock your brain from that state.
Though my body began to move eventually with nursing staff lifting me up etc. I didn’t have any grasp that my central nervous system had been so traumatized by the experience that it would keep me going through a continual cycle of threat, a sense that I could not escape, intense fear and helplessness followed by long bouts of physical immobilization in a chair or in my bed. There were mulitple days in which I had no idea why I should remain alive because so many things, even good things, would bring with them such intense feelings of fight or flight that I began to withdraw to avoid them. The withdrawal led to a long and intense season of clinical depression that took everything in me to work through and come out on the otherside of.
I am certain that ONLY with the help of a husband I loved who would not give up on me and two very skilled and compassionate therapists, was I able to begin to recognize what was happening, do the hard work I needed to do in therapy and then to learn the right kind of self-care for me at various stages of this journey. It has been a very hard road because so many times along the way, I had to honor the way my body was responding and deal with it the best I could no matter what others thought or how they would assess my decisions. I grew up a lot in this process! I’m still growing up from it all.
Life is hard. Things happen that we have to learn to overcome or we’ll never make it. Trauma, real trauma that leads to a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a different beast altogether and one that we as modern humans don’t really understand very well. This kind of trauma leaves a nasty gift within your brain in the form of a thought-voice that is intent on derailing your progress at every turn. Every single attempt you make to overcome it never silences the voice that warns you to be afraid, to withdraw and to disappear. Recovery seems to be mostly about learning to recognize the voice, learning how to assess it with those trained to hear it and then to experience the ability to move past it on your own.
Today is a pivotal day for me. I am moving forward and will now be an on call basis with my therapist. Today I thought about my plans for the future and heard the voice tell me to drop the plans and run. Today I recognized that this was the voice trauma left behind. I calmed myself, took some time to breathe slowly and behold, the voice was outed and I was able to move on.
It’s still hard for me to not feel shame at being so weak that I wasn’t able to just pick myself up by my proverbial boot straps and move on. Shame that it’s taken almost four years to get here and begin to really overcome this. It’s still hard that though I’m a hard working Midwest girl at heart and totally NOT ready for the forced retirement I’m now living in, I am worthy of life anyway.
This nightmare that kicked my ass under the bus will less and less determine the quality of my life lived in the present and I am going to face it moment by moment. Florida Scott Maxwell says that when we fully process the events of our lives we become ruthlessly real. As that is my goal…onward I go.