Over the last 20+ years I have been privileged to gain the trust of people who have suffered horrific experiences in order to help them work on the impact of those experiences. I never cease to be amazed by how people, who have been so badly abused by others, can find a way to take the risk to trust someone again in order to move on.
Each person I have worked with has taught me something more about living with the impact of trauma and abuse, how it is possible to function almost normally on a day to day basis whilst keeping the damage and scars at bay. Some people have been able to develop incredibly successful lives in which the trauma hardly features, whilst others have gone on to traumatise others in the wake of their own struggle to survive. Most hover somewhere in between, going about their daily lives, avoiding and adapting to anything that may trigger the terrifying memories of what they suffered.
The irony is that people who have survived trauma and abuse do not experience themselves as amazing and brave. Most people see themselves as damaged goods, weak, defective and worthless. I have yet to meet anyone who really was any of those things.
One of the world’s leading experts in working with trauma sufferers (from whom I am so pleased to have received incredible training and guidance), Janina Fisher, recently published a new book “Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors: Overcoming internal self-alienation”. I had barely opened the book before I was struck by something she had to say about her own experience of working with her patients. Janina had found the words to express how I feel about the people I work with, and the reason I choose to specialise in working with some of the most difficult issues humans have to deal with.
“They helped me to understand the experience of living with the enduring threat of annihilation, of hating themselves when they could not risk hating those who harmed them. They helped me to see that the deepest pain of all is connected to the failure of those they loved to cherish them, and for that reason, provide them with safety and care. No arms reached out to break their fall, dry their tears, or comfort the ache of loneliness. There was no balm for their shame.”
Janina goes on to talk about how, in order to survive a traumatic experience, a person separates off the memory of the trauma from the part of them responsible for getting on with daily life. Their life is shattered into fragments in order to get by. However, when something happens to trigger the memories of the trauma they are instantly thrown back into relying on the parts of themselves that helped them to survive the trauma – fight, flee, freeze, flop or seek help.
This is why, when someone has survived something like a car accident, the sound of brakes squealing or the smell of burning metal can instantly send them back into the terror of that situation, their brain tells them they are under threat and they immediately respond as though they are reliving the trauma. Some people may curl up in a ball, others phase out like a blackout, others get angry and lash out and others may cry out in terror or pain. These responses are all normal in the context of the car accident, but when sitting on the sofa, walking to the shops, travelling on a train, these behaviours are out of context and seen as weird.
These reactions leave people feeling humiliated, frightened and believing they have no control over what happens to them. It can result in people using drugs or alcohol, gambling, exercise, food or sex as a way of soothing or numbing the pain. Some seek conflict with others as a way of giving vent to the fight part, others withdraw into themselves and see the world as an overwhelmingly scary place. Others work themselves into the ground, becoming distracted by achievements, whilst others go to great lengths to avoid being alone. This is often why people who have suffered traumatic experiences struggle to maintain healthy relationships, hold down jobs, enjoy a social life, or keep themselves physically healthy. It is not their fault, they are not to blame for having to find ways of coping with the impact of surviving something terrible.
That is why I never forget that by entering therapy, a person shows immense bravery. They are acknowledging that what they experience is not good, they have overcome their shame and fear in order to risk trusting someone with the things that make them feel most fragile and alone, and are daring to hope that there is more to them than living the shattered life.
#copingwithtrauma #therapy #recovery