Sunday, February 28, 2016

Before Treatment: Unknowingly Trapped in Trauma

A previous post noted that problems like a sense of helplessness, shame, guilt, problems with trust, issues with boundaries, and bad dynamics send us into counseling to find help so that we can better manage our lives. In many respects, all people experience these kinds of feelings and struggles, but those who suffered trauma need more help. The nature of the pain we face seems far more complicated than a list of a few traits and patterns. How can things be so simple or at least so simply summarized?

The Lost Self

A century ago, some soldiers who returned from war with what was described as “shell shock” from the experience in battle. Decades of study since then have taught us about the long lasting problems of trauma and their physiologic basis which is intricately around the mind. But we still don't like to think that we might be a statistic or a hostage held trapped by a past experience. Our home or our church wasn't a war zone, was it? I can relate to some of what they said, but not really anything like that person on that talk show, am I?

We may try to put it out of our minds, because that's what we do best. We don't think about it, and some of us may block out so many things that we don't remember. We don't like to talk about our terrifying trauma, though it ends up coming through in the disjointed bits and pieces of our identity that don't work together. We avoid our pain, yet we live it and look for it – for it always finds us. Like a loose tooth, we poke at our trauma in a million different ways, even though it is painful.

Our ongoing and ever present sense of trauma becomes the prison guard that dictates how we live. Our minds try to protect us from bad experience through distraction and denial, but yet, we find ourselves drawn to all of those situations and places and people that most remind ourselves of our first, unresolved trauma. Like a moth to a flame, we will gravitate to those things and people which remind us of what we did wrong in the past, as if we can correct it some how.

We never see this compulsion to repeat the past. Our mind works to protect us from it. Our imprisoned mind live in casts those in our lives in the roles of those who played out our first experience of abuse. And we never realize that by avoiding the pain of looking at our trauma for what it really is, we actually superimpose it on everyone else. We will find it. We will recreate it. It is who we are.

The Prisoner's Profile

For those who wander through life in the zone of trauma, that upper left quadrant on our map maze, our lives become a paradox of numbing and of pain.

When we try to live in the present moment, we must set aside who we were in the past, but like an intruder, it will not let go of us. To live in optimism, we need some sense of control over what happened to us, and we need to be connected to the world around us in a meaningful way. Trauma takes away our control and drops meaningless, overwhelming pain into our being. Our physiology changes and interferes with our emotions, our ability to think, and our memory as they seemingly sever their connections with one another.

We feel nothing and everything. We seek to feel nothing by feeling everything. We are dead except when we are made alive by drama and trauma. But it is such a tiring way to live, like a wondering nomad who searches for a better life but doesn't know how to get there.

Our emotional self becomes preoccupied with survival, and that intense response causes us to become very inflexible. Survival speaks to immediate and intense concerns, so our ability to think becomes more constrained. Flexibility becomes a luxury that cannot be afforded because survival doesn't allow for it. The prison warden of our perception cannot afford to indulge such unsafe conditions. Vigilance rules us, and we cannot afford to let any remote threat develop, for our prison guard won't allow for it. But how do we get free?

How do we laugh at a joke when we are stretched apart by trauma and the fear that accompanies it? Our arms hold too much awareness of the intense emotion and memory of the past, so we cannot reach through the prison bars to grasp at hope and joy. How do we show someone patience when ours seems non-existent? And how can we function in a dynamic way when so much trauma requires us to be rigid so that we are ready for the next volley of trauma? Imagination births hope, but we are too tired for such things.

We only feel alive when we feel some aspect of our trauma. We are our trauma, and it becomes us. Guilt and shame and fear hold us in a spiral that pulls us down and holds us back from what might be. However, we don't know why. We are trauma. Trauma is who we are. We can only trust and count on ourselves, but even that left us wounded and terrified. How can we trust anyone else with any degree of confidence?

If we are lucky enough, life gives us a little place of safety and a moment where we can risk to feel conscious and aware. Somehow, we recognize for a moment that our behavior patterns, emotions, motivations, and beliefs don't offer us real and viable hope. If we can hold still long enough, we might see that our self-defeating and self-destructive ways will never take us to where we hope to be. If courage visits us in such moments, we may have the honesty to see that our patterns of life aren't conducive to a good, full, meaningful life.

We can realize that repeating the same, familiar patterns only keeps us stuck in a place where no one really wants to live. Yet the only place we feel alive is when we relive our traumatic past.

We can determine in our hearts and minds to move forward into a life beyond the pain of trauma. Many of us don't take the step forward to get out of the path of trauma until we have nothing to lose.
For further reading until the next post: