Whew. I am going through a period in which I am feeling rather slammed — commuting several days a week 30 miles for a temp job, pet- and house-sitting, running errands after work, trying to do at least a couple of massages a week, and get in a little bit of fun and socializing. I’m squeezing time to get this post done! Oh, the life of a blogger….
I was talking with some friends over dinner last night, and the topic turned to trauma recovery. I want to write more about what that process involved for me.
I don’t believe that everyone else’s recovery process is like mine. Each person’s is different. Some might be shorter or longer, depending on the level of commitment to healing, the quality of help available, how much/how long ago/how suppressed, your self-discovery abilities, and your available time.
I did the majority of my processing over about two years, with the first nine months being most intense. The trauma happened when I was a child, occurred once, and was suppressed for many years. I had access to a psychotherapist for the first six months, and she was not a specialist in trauma recovery. I ended up doing a lot of work on my own using journaling and reflection and talking to people, and I did the most intense work during a three-month period when I was between jobs when I could put all my resources into it.
Of course, the healing process continues even now, but it’s on an as-needed basis.
Today recovery would be faster because the tools have gotten better and I know more now.
During that recovery period, trauma processing was my biggest commitment, besides working to put a roof over my head. Which was good, because trauma recovery requires self-absorption. I had neglected developing myself in this way for years, in hindsight, and I was motivated because I did not want to have PTSD. I was engaged in the recovery process, sometimes emotionally exhausted from putting the pieces back together. It was gratifying and satisfying inner work.
My social life was sporadic while processing. I benefitted greatly from the support of my friends and family, who were tolerant that I was actively involved in remembering and reframing my past. I am still deeply grateful for this. They put up with hearing me say “When Margaret was murdered…” a lot when the revelations were coming quickly and thickly, and only one person told me she was tired of hearing about it. Bless her heart.
I was not interested in dating and would not have considered it during this time. It never crossed my mind that a prospective partner would have been interested in me while I was integrating some emotionally gruesome memories, and if one had been, it would not have been a balanced, healthy relationship. I simply didn’t have the energy to put into a new relationship while I was actively recovering from trauma, and I needed more from others than I could give back.
After, yes. I was a lot juicier after!
During those two years, I accessed a lot of suppressed memories, brought them into consciousness, re-felt the emotions, and sorted these memories into some kind of coherent chronological order, which people traumatized as children often must do. I reframed my life.
I filled well over a dozen composition books with my journaling, including writing down the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had. Those dreams kept me on the path, told me I was moving in the right direction even though sometimes it was difficult. They promised me light at the end of the tunnel, and so it came to pass.
I learned how to tell my story and include not just the dissociated facts, but also my actual experience — what my tender young self saw, heard, and felt. Some of the “felt” part of my experience, and some of what I saw and heard, had been missing from my story before.
I read a lot about trauma recovery and PTSD. The most significant book was Waking the Tiger. I’ve written about this book several times. I understood for the first time that trauma affects the body and mind, the heart and spirit, that humans really are animals no matter how we try to elevate or distance ourselves above the other species, and recovery must include releasing energy blocks in the body as well as cognitive work, social/relational/emotional work, and spiritual work.
I’ve mentioned before that I spontaneously released the trauma from my body one day after reading most of the book.
During recovery, I gained perspective that I had not had before. My view of myself and my life became larger than it had ever been. I understood myself in a new way. I made more sense to me.
I remember sitting on my front porch, journaling and experiencing what I call “brain clicks”. The best way I can describe them is that I was remaking my map of the world, especially updating the parts that had stayed frozen from when I was 11. I literally felt something happen inside my head that was like reality clicking into place. Maybe it was me getting congruent.
I contacted people who’d known my family back then and listened to what they had to say. It was good to reconnect and get a bigger picture of how it affected them.
I planned and held a long-overdue celebration of my sister’s short life.
One of the most momentous days in my life was the day I learned the name of the murderer and that he (as of 2002) was living in Austin, not that far from where I’d lived for 10 years. We could have stood in line next to each other at the grocery store and never known our relationship.
I grew up that day. I developed compassion, not just for him, but for myself. Neither of us were any longer the people we were back then, me at 11, him at 15. I understood that he’s had to live with knowing his young self murdered a little girl for all these years and devastated her family. Not an easy burden to carry. I wish him peace.
All this makes it sound like I undertook a deliberate process. That would be wrong (except for the celebration). Traumatic memories began erupting, I went to therapy, got a diagnosis and a start on processing, and from then on, I just surrendered to the process. I couldn’t have stopped it if I had wanted to, and it was very compelling to have those great dreams, to recover lost memories (even if unpleasant) and know more of my story, to experience those brain clicks, and most of all, to become more and more present, once my past was in order.
When I committed to recovering from my childhood trauma, I made a commitment to my health, which is still in place.
It’s not that I’m the healthiest person around. I am fairly healthy, although I can still be triggered, especially when stressed and presented with an unexpected negative surprise. I am committed to move in the direction of health as best I can, making the happier, healthier choice when I know what that is. Happier does not always mean doing cartwheels, either. It can mean letting go, and it can mean allowing the big picture to unfold over immediate gratification.
I am not a great person but a human one. I feel stupid after I realize I’ve been triggered. Embarrassed. Foolish. You are not that person.
Sometimes I’m at a loss as to what to do, if anything. I just wait, listening and looking for a clear sign. Sometimes needing a lot of space does not mean total disconnection.
I send support to everyone who finds the courage to face themselves and rewrite their story in this way. It requires great valor. It’s truly a hero’s journey, and I recommend learning as much about the hero’s journey as you can, through books and film and reflection on your own journey. Joseph Campbell, Carol Pearson, and Stephen Gilligan provide enlightenment about this process.
You are the hero of your own life, and I honor your path and your courage.