Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Vulnerability and Safety in Stage One of Recovery

One might think that the first stage of healing from trauma involves recounting tragic circumstances, but it is actually about creating a safe place with safe people who can help you heal. In the previous post, I described a situation that I had with a counselor who I don't believe understood trauma very well and didn't use an approach that was helpful for me.

But think about that for a moment. This counselor had a master's degree and many years of experience as a Licensed Professional Counselor, and they were highly recommended for me. I made the assumption that she would be a safe person. If she wasn't, who was – especially because I sought help after a string of events that left me off balance. I wasn't in any place to make such hard decisions. I had to reach out to trust someone.

Human Vulnerability

Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, I think now of what has been written about human nature and all of the things that we take for granted. Consider a person that came from a “good enough” family who is well adjusted – someone who hasn't suffered a great trauma. Even they are vulnerable to taking short cuts through all of the decisions we must make every day. Shortcuts involve risk, and there is also the “learning curve” – the time of testing which you need to learn about whether a person really is trustworthy.

Just based on the context of a situation or even a person's clothing, we assume that we have an unspoken contract with a policeman, therapist, doctor, nurse, or a religious adviser because of what their professions represent. But each time we take information for granted and make those shortcuts in logic and judgment because of appearances, we take a risk. We can't go through a complicated process of evaluating every person we meet, especially when we are vulnerable. Every person should be aware of the risk that we take when we trust those cues that we tend to take for granted.

Altered Level of “Normal”

If we have just exited a relationship that was in some way abusive or failed to be safe for us, we are at an even greater disadvantage. We become conditioned to a new level of “normal” for us that is really quite abnormal. We lose perspective. I watched loved ones work at a job where they were disliked and devalued, and it took a few years for them to readjust to what was truly healthy and normal because their expectations for how others treated them had dropped so low.

Add to that the extra burden of never really having a good example of “good enough” if you were raised in a high demand system or family. Thinking again of one of my feral cats, when I finally was able to get him to be comfortable inside my home, I set up a little protected place for him with everything that he needed so he would feel safe. The pneumonia he suffered from made it a bit easier (much like we can be when we are off balance from a major life event). Though I made a comfy bed for him, this poor kitten nestled down in the litter box I provided. My heart broke because he felt comfortable and safe in what was most familiar to him. It took three days before he would choose to sleep on the nest I created for him out of a blanket and pillow.

Pia Mellody's model of core elements of childhood

If we grew up in a family that didn't honor our childhood needs and limitations, our ability to identify safe people and safe places becomes skewed. I like the way this author parses out the needs of childhood which can set us up for difficulties in our adult relationships. We fail to bond with others when we aren't properly honored and loved. Our examples of boundaries with others may not even exist. We may be reduced to objects or people who are owned who exist for service to others without any identity of our own. We can be seen in a far too simplistic way as a person who is either all good or all bad with no shades of gray or color in between. For those who grew up in families like Quiverfull ones, we were likely not permitted to fully mature into adulthood.

I've been working hard on my own recovery for thirty years, and I still recognize different areas in my life that need to change to provide for my own safety. And that's okay, though it isn't always fun. I'd love to kick my feet up and coast, pretending that I've mastered what so many people with a “good enough” upbringing and life take for granted. But that idea is also a fantasy. I expect that I will continue to grow and find more holes in my development and my habits that make me vulnerable to those who are unsafe. But I've accepted that it's okay.

More on safe people and places in the next post.

For further reading until the next post: