Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When you don't heal. Trauma Tiger 3.

"Putting yourself back together again." KanrieAnn
"What the crap?" we may ask ourselves when our emotional struggles persist. We go to meetings and therapy, we mediate and practice yoga, we eat only raw, vegan muesli, and consume libraries of self-help texts. But still, we're edgy and anxious, we snap at our mates and friends, we weep loudly over small hurts, and our addictions itch. Despite trying every wise and even sketchy recovery technique, we still don't feel better.

We may even be told we can't expect to feel better. All we can have is management of constant pain. In despair, we think, "Is recovery worth this? My drug really was my only comfort." Then we cruise up to our favorite bar, drive-through or pharmacy, and just look. Yearning.

But healing and freedom, they exist. The trick is knowing where to find them. (They're not in those bags, bottles and cans.) Often, they lurk behind our unresolved trauma.

I know some of you may think, with your eyes all asquint, "Trauma? I've never been traumatized. Other people are beaten, raped, have survived war or car accidents. I'm just a normal addict," or, "I've just got your run-of-the-mill dysfunction." Well, maybe.

But traumatic events are not merely happenings like, for instance, an asteroid crashing into your back patio as Bruce Willis shoots off your pinky toes while fighting radioactive snake monsters from space. Trauma really isn't an "event" at all. It's a condition. A state of being, potentially caused by any deep hurt.

In Waking the Tiger (see this and this for background), trauma psychologist Peter Levine explains it:
"The official definition [of ] trauma is that it is caused by a stressful occurrence 'that is outside the range of usual human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone.' . . . This description is somewhat useful as a starting point, but it is also vague and misleading. Who can say what is 'outside the range of usual human experience', or 'markedly distressing to almost anyone'?" 
Some of us have been raped, shot, overdosed. We can look back to an event and say, "This is what happened. This is why I hurt." But others of us just don't know what's with us. We've never seen ourselves as "traumatized," but for a while we've felt off. Some mysterious cloud of hurt chases us. And we have tried hard to get over it. We worked our Steps, shared it in therapy, wrote letters we then burned or sent flying skyward on balloons. But still, the hurt stays. We still feel scared, angry, sad. Stuck.

These are signs of trauma. According to Levine, traumatized people can have widely various experiences that cause their injury. Surgeries, falls, the sudden loss of a parent, child or spouse, the disastrous injury of a dear friend. Anything that triggers your primal trauma response will do. The unifying thing is the symptoms:
"traumatized people. . .  are unable to overcome the anxiety of their experience. They remain overwhelmed by the event, defeated and terrified. . . . Unresolved trauma can keep us excessively cautious and inhibited, or lead us around in ever-tightening circles of dangerous reenactment, victimization, and unwise exposure to danger. We become the perpetual victims or therapy clients. Trauma can destroy the quality of our relationships and distort sexual experiences. . . . The effects of trauma can be pervasive and global or they can be subtle and elusive." 
And that's the big giveaway. Subtly or globally, we feel overwhelmed, unable to overcome. Traumatized.

Healing starts when you can accept that, if you are traumatized, your feelings are "physiological as well as psychological." Your pain, fear, sadness and anger, they aren't shortcomings. They're wounds, even if you don't know what caused them, like the inexplicable bruises and scrapes that appear on your shins somehow. And you heal them, partly, in the same way. Hear Levine:
"we all have the innate capacity to heal our traumas. . . . trauma represents animal instincts gone awry. When harnessed, these instincts can be used by the conscious mind to transform traumatic symptoms into a state of well-being."
You wouldn't pick at those seemingly spontaneous bruises and cuts, slapping them around as signs of your malignant self-pity. You'd bandage them, allowing your body to heal. Similarly the best way not to heal trauma is to try to disgorge it, blaming yourself for a "pity party" and refusing to "wallow." (If this old timer's experience is worth one nugget of truth, it's that that ain't going to work.)

What works is admitting your trauma, aiding it with as much TLC as you can muster, and helping your mind relearn health. You may need some new forms of professional assistance. But you wouldn't decline the ER in favor of an everyday band-aid if you sawed off a finger, so it's probably unwise to deprive a metaphorically bleeding brain, right?

And then, one day, if you feel better, and along the way you recalled something like, "Oh yeah, I guess that one time my grandfather did punch me in the face," or, "I guess Mom did drive away and never come back," you'll know you were never a weepy masochistic. Your hurt was never your fault. And instead of punishing it with more pain, you helped.