Monday, June 1, 2015

An Update

Monday, June 1, 2015

In February, 2014 a local friend forwarded me an article written by Catherine Woodiwiss. At the time I shared my own reflections on where I stood in the journey of my healing process. My original comments appeared in normal font below the italicized content of Woodiwiss’s original article. Now I am sharing an update on how I am doing. It’s timely to do so considering the two year anniversary of my unexpected diagnosis is rapidly approaching. My current status appears as the last segment of content under each heading.

1. Trauma permanently changes us.

This is the big, scary truth about trauma: there is no such thing as “getting over it.” The five stages of grief model marks universal stages in learning to accept loss, but the reality is in fact much bigger: a major life disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no “back to the old me.” You are different now, full stop.

This is not a wholly negative thing. Healing from trauma can also mean finding new strength and joy. The goal of healing is not a papering-over of changes in an effort to preserve or present things as normal. It is to acknowledge and wear your new life — warts, wisdom, and all — with courage.

This first one is perhaps one of the most difficult ones to acknowledge. Trauma is often so difficult precisely because it can result in permanent change. Does this happen in 100% of all cases of trauma That is a good question. I honestly do not know. If there are some people who emerge from a period of trauma not fundamentally changed or at least somehow marginally impacted I suspect that they represent a very small fraction of the total population who will experience trauma in their lifetimes.

What has been so difficult for me in my own personal journey is the confusion I feel regarding when I can expect normal to feel, well, normal. When trauma happens very early in a person's development, and is then followed by still more trauma early on(as it did in my particular history), it seems the potential for serious and even permanent harm is quite large. As I have observed in the company of friends and alluded to in this blog it seems to me that adults can heal from trauma much more easily than children because they possess something children do not: they have life experience and maturity which can foster the important ability to maintain a healthy perspective. Trauma does not have to permanently scar us and our ability to live in a healthy way in an all too often unhealthy world. But the potential for such scarring is there, and seems to increase as the age at which you experience trauma decreases.

I also agree with Catherine's sentiment, however, that trauma can ironically help us to discover strength we might rarely call upon. This has been my experience. I have come to realize I am much stronger than I often gave myself credit for. I have indeed been finding new strength and joy as she notes is possible.

June 1, 2015

I appreciate this statement more than I have previously.

I have a well honed ability to detect what I call black and white thinking. I think the idea that trauma always and everywhere permanently changes us is a bit of an extreme assertion to make. I do believe we often change as a result of trauma. But does the change have to be permanent? No.

In regards to my own personal history I recognize much more clearly than I did in February, 2014 what the most significant aspects of my trauma history were and how they affected me.

For example, I lost much of my confidence in the possibility of a relatively safe world in that summer after my father was nearly murdered. The amoral behavior of individual people combined with the corrupt or negligent behavior of institutions caused an immense amount of harm to my ability to trust.

What I struggle with most now is not what the trauma did to me per se. Instead, I am still learning how to better develop the skills I failed to more thoroughly develop as an adolescent due to the fact that the trauma I had experienced so impacted my desire to actually participate in the world. My response was not unlike animals who hide in caves after their lives have been threatened.

I believe I would likely have had a much healthier adolescence if the trauma I endured had received sufficient treatment. So I am dealing with it now instead. It’s sometimes a bit weird to be dealing with issues typical of adolescence in my early forties.

2.  Presence is always better than distance.

There is a curious illusion that in times of crisis people “need space.” I don’t know where this assumption originated, but in my experience it is almost always false. Trauma is a disfiguring, lonely time even when surrounded in love; to suffer through trauma alone is unbearable. Do not assume others are reaching out, showing up, or covering all the bases.

It is a much lighter burden to say, “Thanks for your love, but please go away,” than to say, “I was hurting and no one cared for me.” If someone says they need space, respect that. Otherwise, err on the side of presence.

I cannot agree more with this one. From what I know of the literature within the mental health profession isolation, intended or otherwise, is a risk factor for the development of a variety of issues including depression, anxiety and delayed healing. We need the presence of others in part because they can assist us in finding that important gift called perspective which I alluded to above. But more importantly we need others because we are social creatures; human beings are not meant to live in isolation. I think it goes against the very grain of our DNA. Put another way: 'No man is an island'.

Very much related to the polarity of presence and distance is the issue of boundaries. Some trauma is very much a product of the violation of healthy boundaries. When children are abused, when a woman is raped, when an entire community is devastated by an occupying army, when a person stalks you...these are all examples of events in which the trauma results from a violation of boundaries.

Looking back and realizing how I had my own issues with boundaries earlier in my life I can say with great confidence that a person's conscious or unconscious violation of personal boundaries can be taken as one potential indicator that a person has been traumatized in the past.

June 1, 2015

The lack of people available to give me the attention I needed in the immediate aftermath of the worst aspects of my trauma severely compounded the harm I experienced.

I haven’t engaged in any regular communication with my paternal family of origin in nearly two years now. The early months of my decision to walk away were very painful. But as more time passed it became easier and easier to accept that the decision I made in the summer of 2013 was in fact the best one I could make. I recognize that extremely unreasonable expectations were made of me throughout my childhood. These expectations led me to become very angry, resentful and mistrusting.

Though I have come to accept the pathology [as evidenced by the negligence that characterized much of the behavior directed at me] of my paternal family of origin as something unlikely to ever really change I have also more fully appreciated the truth that it is not responsibility to try to change these people. What I believe to be their serious hypocrisy and dysfunction is not something I should spend my time focusing on. These people are adults and therefore are responsible for what they did and failed to do.

3.  Healing is seasonal, not linear.

It is true that healing happens with time. But in the recovery wilderness, emotional healing looks less like a line and more like a wobbly figure-8. It’s perfectly common to get stuck in one stage for months, only to jump to another end entirely … only to find yourself back in the same old mud again next year. Recovery lasts a long, long time. Expect seasons.

This observation is also profound. Healing is most certainly not linear. Living encased within the distorted Western, industrialized world paradigm that says 'progress' is not only good but essential, inevitable and endlessly sustainable is a serious delusion. Human development bears out the reality that much of what we observe in the world unfolds in a decidedly non-linear way.

I remarked earlier in the history of my blog how my recovery process was unfolding in direct apparent contradiction to the seasons outside my windows. As I continued to improve last summer, autumn and early winter I was simultaneously observing the world outside moving in the direction of hibernation and death. To be honest it felt quite jarring. Even in the seasons of weather there are steps forward and back. Spring will arrive only to be punctuated by cold winds that serve as a reminder of the season that recently held sway. Heat waves and cold waves can disorient us. Trauma is like can be profoundly disorienting.

But how long does recovery take before you feel normal? That is another good question. There are some days when I yearn so much for a clear answer to that question that I almost hurt in a different way. Considering I had an anxiety disorder that was not fully successfully treated and that this was with me for a vast majority of my life history it does seem rather incredible to expect I would be done with my recovery after a mere seven months...even if I include all the time I previously spent in therapy. I am still waiting to experience my first spring as a man without an anxiety order distorted my capacity for clear perception.

Here is one final connected point. I find myself sometimes drifting off into thoughts of what this coming spring will be like. I tell myself "This spring will be amazing!" And then I catch myself in this imaginative reverie and realize I have the power to direct the course of my life but that I am also a part of a larger system whose future course is well beyond my control. I have ideas about what the future will hold but I cannot guarantee anything to myself or others. And I believe knowing that to be true is a very healthy way of living in the world.

June 1, 2015

Healing is most certainly not linear. As I continue on my journey forward I can look back over the last two years and recognize the truth of this statement.

I feel much better than I did last summer. My grief and sadness are still with me. But they reside more in the background of my psyche rather than the forefront. Through my healthy habits and commitment to creating a healthy future for myself I feel the tender psychic wounding gradually relaxing away.

4.  Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.

This is a tough one. In times of crisis, we want our family, partner, or dearest friends to be everything for us. But surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team — those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side, and the reconstruction crew — those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world. In my experience, it is extremely rare for any individual to be both a firefighter and a builder. This is one reason why trauma is a lonely experience. Even if you share suffering with others, no one else will be able to fully walk the road with you the whole way.

A hard lesson of trauma is learning to forgive and love your partner, best friend, or family even when they fail at one of these roles. Conversely, one of the deepest joys is finding both kinds of companions beside you on the journey.

I can say so much about this one. Rebuilding a life impacted by trauma is no small project. In the best of circumstances post-trauma life can be demanding; it might feel like a never ending slog to get to some 'final' destination that looks like what you imagine healing to be. Under the worst of circumstances trauma can permanently debilitate us. I feel grateful my history of trauma never permanently disabled my body. Though I have had my share of aches and pain I have a very healthy body all things considered.

Reviewing this comment I also am reminded of the wisdom of not 'putting all your eggs in one basket'. If you expect a small number of individuals to be your entire world for you there is a fair chance you will be disappointed.  I have learned this lesson...and then forgotten it only to relearn it again. Just like it is wise to diversify an investment portfolio so is it also wise to diversify how you invest your time. No one person, not even a life partner, can be everything you want and need.

I also agree that trauma can be a very lonely experience. Based on my own personal history and the friendships and relationships I have enjoyed throughout the years I believe it is wise not to invest too much energy trying to find someone so nearly identical to you that you feel it's somehow a guarantee they will be able to relate to you in a deep way. When I have tried to imagine such people for myself I have stuttered a bit at the very thought.  Indeed, I don't imagine there are many people whose personal history (the particular life themes, issues, hurts, traumas, etc) could easily mirror my own.

Finally, as you go through the healing process, it can be very appealing to bond with others over common experiences of trauma. I felt a bit of a tug to do this when I was attending the partial program at Abbott Northwestern Hospital last November. But there is a risk that in seeking companionship based first and foremost on common wounding you might easily collapse your sense of self into your trauma. We are more than the sum of our traumas and hardships. We are much more! Despite whatever particular ways relationships may have been modeled to you as a child healthy relationships do not emphasize the negative, the hurts and a pessimistic outlook on life.

June 1, 2015

I long ago reached the phase of rebuilding. I suppose the ‘firefighting phase’ lasted until early 2014. The main question I confront now is “What exactly do I want to build?”

As noted above healing can be a lonely journey. And despite the fact that nobody really can walk the whole journey with you this should ideally not dissuade you from continuing to be open to the companionship of others.

5.  Grieving is social, and so is healing.

For as private a pain as trauma is, for all the healing that time and self-work will bring, we are wired for contact. Just as relationships can hurt us most deeply, it is only through relationship that we can be most fully healed.

It’s not easy to know what this looks like — can I trust casual acquaintances with my hurt? If my family is the source of trauma, can they also be the source of healing? How long until this friend walks away? Does communal prayer help or trivialize?

Seeking out shelter in one another requires tremendous courage, but it is a matter of life or paralysis. One way to start is to practice giving shelter to others.

This can be a challenging issue to confront. And I think it is only more so in cultures like America where we all too often seem to exist in a 'landscape of atomized selves'. To better understand what I mean by that term please search out a past blog post under that title.

I struggle with the question as to whether family can be the source of healing considering how so much of my PTSD developed in response to illness and dysfunction within my family. The challenge is to not permanently isolate when your heart is wounded. To never allow yourself to love again is to never live again. Life is full of risk. There are no guarantees the moment we emerge from our mothers.

Thus far I have found regular and rigorous physical exercise to be an excellent way to do my own grief work. I do not believe there is one right way to grieve. I do think it somewhat safe to say there are wrong ways to grieve though. Examples would include isolation, rumination over perceived mistakes and what-ifs as well as refusing to allow yourself to fully feel your pain.

June 1, 2015

Grieving can often be a very unique process. The nature of the trauma or loss we experience can provide a distinctive flavor to the quality of our response. Once I was in the thick of my grief work I realized a primary way I was dealing with it was focusing on what I could build and what kind of life I could create in the future.

6.  Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not.

“I’m so sorry you lost your son, we lost our dog last year … ” “At least it’s not as bad as … ” “You’ll be stronger when this is over.” “God works in all things for good!”

When a loved one is suffering, we want to comfort them. We offer assurances like the ones above when we don’t know what else to say. But from the inside, these often sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.

Trauma is terrible. What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us, and just let it be terrible for a while.

Another way to rephrase this is the following: 'Do not offer false hope.'

When someone is suffering terribly it is only natural and humane to reach out to offer solace and whatever comfort we can. Sometimes all we can do is be present for a person. And sometimes that is more than enough. Attempting to rescue someone from pain may feel noble and wise but rushing in to 'save' a person may do more harm than good. When trauma proves all the more devastating due to poor coping and life skills rushing in to rescue someone caught in such darkness may only delay the inevitable realization a person may need to have that it is essential to develop healthy life skills.

Rather than offer false hope I would propose an effective coping technique can be to refocus your attention on what still is working and wonderful in your life. Unless you are clinically dead there is something going well for you. It may be something as simple as being able to breathe. In the most horrifying moments of trauma we would benefit from employing conscious breathing techniques. This can allow the mind to settle down.

June 1, 2015

One tendency I still struggle with is a tendency to compare myself and the quality of my life to that of others my age as well as other ages. When taken to an extreme this inclination can take on a distinctly adolescent quality. I notice this about me a lot lately. I look around and compare my physical appeal, my professional circumstances and my resources to that of others. Sometimes my life feels a bit like a contest. How fast can I heal? What can I accomplish and by when? Being a Type A personality has its benefits and drawbacks. And being Type A about recovering from trauma has its own unique implications. On some days I find it very difficult to relax. I want to heal faster!

7.  Allow those suffering to tell their own stories.

Of course, someone who has suffered trauma may say, “This made me stronger,” or “I’m lucky it’s only (x) and not (z).” That is their prerogative. There is an enormous gulf between having someone else thrust his unsolicited or misapplied silver linings onto you, and discovering hope for one’s self. The story may ultimately sound very much like “God works in all things for good,” but there will be a galaxy of disfigurement and longing and disorientation in that confession. Give the person struggling through trauma the dignity of discovering and owning for himself where, and if, hope endures.

This piece strikes me as somewhat similar to #6. Rather than rush in like a paramedic might do sometimes 'merely' witnessing with a person going through difficulty may prove immensely helpful. Sometimes silent presence is ultimately a more satisfying balm than the most concerted actions to change disheartening circumstances (and supposedly thereby address the root issue).

June 1, 2015

Listening and giving space to those who have suffered is vital to that part of the healing process that takes place in more social or public settings. Being heard and valued is a basic human need. Our best intentions to be of support to others in search of healing can mean absolutely nothing if what we offer is not what they need. What people need and what people want are not necessarily the same. Sometimes they are very different.

8.  Love shows up in unexpected ways.

This is a mystifying pattern after trauma, particularly for those in broad community: some near-strangers reach out, some close friends fumble to express care. It’s natural for us to weight expressions of love differently: a Hallmark card, while unsatisfying if received from a dear friend, can be deeply touching coming from an old acquaintance.

Ultimately every gesture of love, regardless of the sender, becomes a step along the way to healing. If there are beatitudes for trauma, I’d say the first is, “Blessed are those who give love to anyone in times of hurt, regardless of how recently they’ve talked or awkwardly reconnected or visited cross-country or ignored each other on the metro.” It may not look like what you’d request or expect, but there will be days when surprise love will be the sweetest.

This is wonderful encouragement. And I can attest that love indeed does come to us at unexpected moments. Sometimes the smallest of generosities may come to us and yet for those going through a personal agony it may feel as if that person has moved a mountain for you. Never underestimate the power of a kind word or action. Remember the expression 'It's the thought that counts'?

It's also important to recognize that love can only come to us in the ways we are open to it. You cannot enter doors that are not already open. I believe the more open we are to healing the more likely we are to heal. And healing is as unique as the person experiencing it! So consider asking yourself this question: 'How do you recognize a loving person?' What does love do?

June 1, 2015

I continue to hope that more love will show up for me in unexpected ways. A dearth of consistent, immediate love compounded my early life trauma. There is only so much we can do to bring this into our lives. An openness to diverse possibilities may help facilitate healing and reconnection.

9.  Whatever doesn’t kill you …

In 2011, after a publically humiliating year, comedian Conan O’Brien gave students at Dartmouth College the following warning"Nietzsche famously said, 'Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.' … What he failed to stress is that it almost kills you.”

Odd things show up after a serious loss and creep into every corner of life: insatiable anxiety in places that used to bring you joy, detachment or frustration towards your closest companions, a deep distrust of love or presence or vulnerability.

There will be days when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself, when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over and over again.

This reminds me again that healing after trauma has no standard path. I have had days when everything outside of me gives the illusion that my life is perfectly fine. You can have a day when everything flows smoothly and you get everything you want and somehow you still feel low and blue. It is perfectly fine for such days to come and go. Remember that recovery is just that, recovery. And yet I do believe that a solid commitment to bettering your life will eventually be handsomely rewarded. It simply takes time and commitment. And you have to be willing to remain steadfast even when the results you desire do not seem to be coming. Think of the farmer who plants his seeds in spring. Does he expect a full crop in a week's time? Of course not. So it is with healing.

June 1, 2015

Healthy perception of the appropriateness of behavior can virtually vanish among those who are traumatized or deeply unhealthy. I think it true that there is likely a substantial correlation between undue risk taking or dangerous behaviors and some past experience of trauma that has gone untreated.

Woodiwiss’s words about the fight that has to be engaged again and again are very timely. When developing skills necessary to create the foundation for a healthy life it proves critical to be patient. Some of the most important skills are the ones we necessarily ideally do every single day. Some of these include eating healthy, brushing our teeth, exercising and the like.

10.  … Doesn’t kill you.

Living through trauma may teach you resilience. It may help sustain you and others in times of crisis down the road. It may prompt humility. It may make for deeper seasons of joy. It may even make you stronger. It also may not.

In the end, the hope of life after trauma is simply that you have life after trauma. The days, in their weird and varied richness, go on. So will you.

That which doesn't kill you not only may make you stronger but it may give you something I alluded to earlier in this writing: perspective. If you have struggled with multiple sectors of your life (career, home, relationships) for a protracted time do you really think you will be likely to notice or care about the small details in life? And by small details I mean those minor things that some people inflate to such a degree that you find it laughable how much energy they waste on drama. Think about these. The discarded bathroom towel not properly hung to dry. Being five minutes late to an appointment. A rain check on a social engagement you are forced to reschedule due to bad weather. Will these minor disappointments permanently hurt you? No. So don't give your immense power to them.

June 1, 2015

I still have that capacity for perspective I alluded to in my original comments. The disappointments of life such as rejected job applications and the minor insensitivities of people we encounter out in the world are relatively minor compared to the deep pathologies within some people and even whole communities that may undermine your quality of life over a long period of time.

In short trauma does not have to signify the end of a good and enjoyable life. You may come out of trauma permanently changed...but perhaps the changes will lead you to an even better life. Who can say? I believe a key to surviving trauma is to not armor yourself against pain indefinitely but to allow loss to speak to your heart. By embracing our darkness we can later more deeply appreciate that which is light in our lives.

Thank you to Catherine Woodiwiss for her excellent piece. I hope my additional thoughts will prove inspirational to those who follow me. Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners.

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