Family Moab

Family Moab
In Arches National Park

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Trauma Recovery Handbook

 About a year ago, I went through an experience in which I felt excluded, humiliated and betrayed. It took me months to be able to write about it in a coherent fashion - that first sentence is a product of introspection, many discussions with close friends, and recent work on trauma recovery. Guilt stabs at me for even using the word "trauma" about this experience when other people go through so much more painful and difficult circumstances, but I'm learning that comparing my life history to others' (and feeling like I should feel lucky and blessed all the time) does not work.

A good friend recently loaned me a book titled Trauma Recovery Handbook for Survivors: A Simple Guide to Understanding Complex Trauma, by Rachel Walker, LMFT. The page on Instinctive Defenses in adults blew out the lightbulb above my head. I knew about fight/flight/freeze responses but I didn't know about the variations of each, and it helped to know that other people experience the same range of emotions and reactions. For example, under Fight, emotions and behaviors include 'controlling, full of rage, judgmental.' Yes, yes, and yes. Under Flight, 'lost in fantasy, spacing out, urge to escape.' You mean other people do that, too?  And under Freeze, 'guarded, paralyzed.' Check.

So. my behavior is in the range of a normal instinctive defense for adults, but why was it happening? To the outside world, the triggering event was not such a big deal. I could recognize that fact logically but it made no difference to my body. As it turns out, the feeling of exclusion, humiliation, betrayal - and shame for feeling all of these for "no reason" - was triggering earlier memories of similar experiences.  The most recent event reached back and pushed multiple buttons in my brain, gaining momentum with each successive button. The result was an outsized instinctive, physical response to multiple incidents.

Discovering this took a year, and a conversation with my good friend helped me complete the picture. She helped me talk it back to the first experience I had of stinging betrayal, which happened at a sleepover when I was 12. I had left the room with three or four girls in sleeping bags behind me to go find the upstairs bathroom. When I came back down, quietly, I heard my best friend talking about me behind my back (or around the corner in this case.) Her words were not complimentary. The hurt and shock made it impossible to breathe. I never confronted her about it, just waited a few extra minutes to recover and inhale before re-entering the room and pretending that all was as before.

Obviously that pain exists somewhere in my brain, and that angry, confused and hurt 12-year-old girl lives within me. She got really angry about being re-injured and re-provoked, and was determined to defend me from the people and the situation that hurt me.  I've had to learn to talk to her and explain that we are not in danger, that the threat has passed, and that we are going to be OK. I even thanked her for looking out for me but let her know she can rest. 

I'm grateful for the insights provided by friends and by this wonderful little book while recognizing that therapy might be needed to go any deeper. I certainly don't prescribe my self-reflective methods to anyone else or pretend to know what any other individual experiences in their life, but I thank you for letting me write this out and for reading.

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