TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with an account of sexual abuse and may be triggering to some people.
“Recovery is a process. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes everything you’ve got.” ~Unknown
We are often told in therapy that we need to dig deep and explore our feelings until we find the root of our problem, as though we’ll finally have peace and relief just because we’ve found the “Nugget of Trauma.”
The problem with long-term childhood trauma is that there was not just one Nugget, or one moment that we were left reeling from. For many of us abused as children, trauma encompassed our entire childhood and adolescent life.
When I was in my early twenties my memories became a deluge, flooding into my mind all at once. I started with talk therapy, and it seemed like the one recurring question being asked of me was, “What’s the issue or event that you are struggling with?”
So, thinking that they must know more than me about how to deal with the chaos in my mind, I would focus on one aspect of my childhood to try an work through it with them.
I had a lot to pick from: beatings, torture, rape, sodomy, abduction, neglect, and the big pulsing mass of guilt and shame.
I was ashamed that I could not protect my brothers and that, each time I was raped, it was because of something I had done that required punishment, like not wringing out a wash rag tightly enough. All of my abuse and the abuse of my brothers was, according to my father, my fault because I wasn’t good enough.
Sound familiar? For many of us, the manipulation of how we think about the abuse and ourselves is the most painful and long-lasting trauma, but going into detail about this in therapy is exhausting, mentally and physically, and can cause a spiral into deeper depression.
I didn’t know all this when I was in my twenties, and I barely understood the concept of talk therapy, which was: You talk about something that happened to you, and then the therapist tells you about the side effects of that experience to help you understand your feelings and behavior.
It took me a long time to learn that having a realization about a certain event and learning how it’s affecting me in the present doesn’t mean the problems associated with it go away. And, unfortunately, the clinical view that I was making progress with those realizations, or “breakthroughs,” was false.
For many of us, having a “breakthrough” doesn’t even mean that in two years we’ll remember it, and we may go through the same cycles of dealing with the abuse all over again. Like a big Wheel of Trauma.
It took me years to recognize I was cycling through the Wheel of Trauma:
- A deep dive into depression
- Leading to anger at being depressed and feeling “sick of living with this”
- Then the realization of how a specific past experience was affecting me
- Cue the tsunami of relief and giddy hopefulness and a false belief that I was getting better
- The relief soon wears off
- A deep dive back into depression where the realization is forgotten
I may never have recognized it if a friend hadn’t pointed it out to me. To find out I’d been going in circles was devastating.
After doing some independent research on the neurological damage caused by early childhood trauma, I have begun to wonder if my brain was cycling just so I could have those moments of relief as a way to feel something positive and hopeful. That might be wishful thinking, but this is one example of why it is so important to write things down and keep track of what is going on in your head, especially in dark times.
Trust me, I know so well how scary it can be to put things down on paper and suddenly find yourself looking at something that your brain put away a long time ago to protect you.
I’m not going to say it’s easy or fun. I’m not going to say that I haven’t been triggered by writing. I have been, but I also came through it, and the memories I was so afraid of, while painful, aren’t as scary now.
If you’re like me, your mind protected you when you were too young to process what was happening to you. But you aren’t that child anymore; you’re older, your mind is more mature, and you’re better equipped to deal with those experiences now.
Be gentle with yourself, but also have faith that you will come out the other side if you have to come face to face with a horrible memory, or what I have dubbed a Nugget of Trauma.
I’ve also learned that you can grab a Nugget of Trauma and pull it into the light, metaphorically. I don’t mean to take it out and analyze every detail. The goal isn’t to hurt yourself with old trauma; the goal is to learn how to move forward with it, and figure out some basic reactions you may have to that memory Nugget.
Do you recognize the feelings that memory, or Nugget, has entwined with it?
Do you behave in a certain way every day based on those feelings?
Do you avoid certain people or places because they trigger that feeling?
Do you feel this every day or just in certain situations or around certain people?
How does it affect how you react to other people?
How does it get triggered, and does it send you spiraling into depression?
How do you feel about yourself?
The goal isn’t to make it go away because it may never go away completely. But you can learn how to take care of yourself with this knowledge in hand and create new habits to counter the poison of the trauma.
If something happens and you begin to feel a certain way, you will more likely recognize that feeling as something that is not associated with the present, and you can make a plan to take care of yourself in that situation.
For example, I have come to recognize a sensation I sometimes feel when I’m with one or more people in an enclosed space, like a conference room or office. It is a physical, slimy, crawly feeling that I have to focus on and consciously control until I can make an excuse and leave.
I’ve learned to recognize it so I can take care of myself in those situations. I leave, usually to a bathroom, and allow time for it to go away so I can feel safe again. If I can’t leave, I will hold a notepad or something in front of my chest as a barrier.
Other things that may work for you are saying some soothing mantras, making a cup of tea, or taking a break and just writing it out. Smells can be a great way to break through a triggered response. Maybe keep some lotion or something else scented to help calm yourself and bring you back to the present. I love VapoRub for this.
Your knowledge of yourself is the key to taking care of yourself, lessening past’s hold on you, and breaking the cycles.
This means being completely honest with yourself and observing things you say and do without judging.
When you can really see yourself without all the rationalizations, defenses, and excuses you cover your psyche with, you can better recognize your triggers, behavior patterns, and reactions.
In my case, I am badly triggered by any cinama-graphic representation of rape. I will get up and walk out of the room, usually in a state of high agitation, and get really catty with anyone who tries to touch me or invade my personal space, which at that moment is about 1000 meters wide.
It’s not a surprising trigger, and it doesn’t require a lot of analysis to figure out why it’s upsetting to me, but that isn’t really the point. The point is to truly be with myself in those moments to keep myself from spiraling down to the depths or physically harming myself.
I’ve had to learn how to deal with my brain being doused in visual memories of rape and all the skin-crawling feelings that come with them. For me, this is where self-comfort and care has become vital.
It’s almost like I have to be two people at the same time; while a huge part of me is freaking out, I have to be able to step outside of that, see myself in pain, and comfort myself back to safety and calm. And considering that I perceive most other people as threats when I’m triggered, I really only have myself.
This was originally a hard lesson because I could listen to advice from friends or doctors or people on TV, but it was hard for me to take those ideas from “yeah, that sounds logical and smart” to actually living with those tools at my disposal and using them when I needed them.
The first step was learning how to get myself to a mental state where I could use them. When you’re in the dark in your own mind and you can’t see the reality in front of you there is no logic that can break through.
The damage isn’t logical, so it’s not an issue of logic or understanding; it’s a matter of taking care when your mind is in that painful moment and getting yourself back to the point where you have more control and are able to use those tools.
It takes a lot of practice, patience, and honesty to develop self-care routines based on self-love and understanding. That understanding can’t always come from other people telling you what’s going on or why you’re reacting in a certain way. It’s best when understanding comes from caring enough about yourself to get your hands dirty and learn what’s really going on in your head.
Admittedly, I have had long runs of not knowing what to make of the chaos in my mind, sometimes not even knowing what I was feeling, or what was real, or what was an attack from my past. In some moments of terror, not even knowing how old I was. It can be really bad at times, and I totally get that.
The best course of action is to write as much as you possibly can every day about everything that is going through your mind. This gives you some idea of what your brain is fighting with.
When you’re done writing, get some sleep or cry or go for a walk or talk to yourself on a voice recorder, or do something that will help calm your thoughts a bit. Later, you can look at what you’ve written and really see what you’re going through.
This can be harsh at times, so be prepared for what comes out of your head. One of my dark writing sessions showed a seething self-hatred that was quite frightening.
A lot of people take this journey with a therapist, and that can be a safe way to venture into the sometimes-ugly reality of our thoughts and being, like having someone with a life preserver waiting to pull us out of the muck if we get too deep and can’t get back out. I’ve had hit-or-miss experiences with therapists, but as mental health knowledge around early childhood trauma expands and improves, it is becoming a more viable option for some people.
If you haven’t tried it yet, do some research and make an appointment. It takes time to build trust with someone, so be patient and remember to be kind to yourself.
When I went to my last therapist I made a list of boundaries. I had been placed with a male against my noted preference, but I wanted to give it a shot, so I made a list letting him know things that would make sessions more difficult for me, like having him stand between me and the door. Little things to some people, but triggers for me.
Don’t be ashamed of letting people know how best to help you. And know what helps you might change over time.
After doing this for so many years I have learned that a method of self-care that worked for me in the past may not work for me today. Or a method that never sounded quite right for me before might now make sense. Allow yourself time and space to learn and grow and regress and progress.
First priority: be good to yourself.