The silence feels so loud, and the numbing sensation sets in. Nothing you’re experiencing seems possible, but the images playing before your eyes tell a different story.
Could this be really happening?
Will life ever be the same?
Is it happening again?
Why did this happen?
Is this karma?
Am I a good person?
Am I at fault for this?
How could this have been prevented?
Can I stop this from happening?
I should have [insert hypothetical], and maybe it wouldn’t have happened.
Questions swirl, yet go unanswered as the mental debates roar on. Well-meaning friends, relatives, or clergy attempt to use their frameworks and advice to soothe the feelings of rage, anxiety, frustration, sadness, loneliness, guilt, and emptiness that alternately find a way to pervade: your work, how you spend your day, the way you interact (or disengage) with your family, and how you can feel so inexplicably and palpably alone while surrounded by people. You may attempt to put it all behind you by dismissing it, to convince your friends and perhaps yourself that you’re doing just fine. You may even remind yourself to nod, smile, and laugh when appropriate, to avoid piquing the attention of your peers and receiving the inevitable concerned faces that ask questions of “How are you, really?”. Your social fascade might even work for a while, but when you close your eyes and the silence of the night leaves you alone with your thoughts and the images that arise, you are well aware that the event you experienced, perhaps years ago, is not over for you.
Welcome to psychological trauma. I don’t have to tell you that it sucks.
Coming to grips with trauma is messy work. It is deep and difficult work, full of cycles and levels of relapse and healing. I come to the psychotherapy profession after having fumbled in the darkness of my own trauma, searching for answers and healing. While your experience is likely completely different from mine, I feel I owe it to you to share a bit of what I have learned within my struggle in hopes it can add to your collective trauma journey.
Life isn’t the same after trauma, and coming to acceptance of what happened may not be linear. In fact, I’ve never ever, ever, ever seen anyone go through the stages of grief in the linear fashion (i.e.: progressing neatly from denial, then anger, then bargaining, then sadness, and finally, acceptance). Did I mention I’ve never seen it neatly progress, as in the aforementioned Kübler-Ross Model? Yes, never ever. What I have seen are days where brave faces are put on with the half-truths that the brave face is “for the kids’ sake,” followed by days of acceptance, then sadness, then numbing emptiness, then anger, then acceptance, then more sadness, etc. You get the gist. It’s messy, and rightly so. Human experiences and our relationships don’t always fit in one category of emotion, and neither do their voids, deaths, and losses. Add to this non-linear healing, the various individual and environmental factors that make up a person's situationally, and you've got the makings of a very unique journey. Know that, if you’re within the range of just about anyone I’ve ever met, your struggle in coping with trauma and accepting its life-altering quality will be more difficult on some days than others. Your difficult emotions and memories may be triggered for very few reasons or for no discernible reason. That’s normal. Living your rollercoaster and finding your own unique path to a new post-trauma normal is part of the journey.
I sometimes like to think of healing in terms of the meaning in the life lived after the experience. What do we do with our lives now that it’s clear that we can never go back to being our pre-trauma selves? How intensely do we live? I’m reminded of Eva Kor, one of the twins used as medical subjects in Dr. Mengele’s experiments during her captivity at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. She had been tortured, demeaned, and left to die. She had every right to be angry for her treatment and the annihilation of her family, and for years, she was. She had carried incredible anger for Dr. Mengele and pain for what he had done to her and her twin, but after much personal processing, she began the process of doing the impossible: forgiveness. For the purpose of her healing, she defined forgiveness as a choice to not carry the anger and hate any longer for her perpetrators, independently of of whether she advocated for them to be held accountable for their wrong actions. Eva eventually decided to use her forgiveness healing tool to forgive her Nazi captors, Dr. Mengele, her parents for being unable to protect her as a child, and eventually herself. She chose forgiveness as an act of power that only the victims can give. She found the experience so healing that she has since dedicated much of her life to her model of forgiveness, the creation of a museum and organization dedicated to the twins subjected to the Nazi experiments, and as an educator on the Holocaust. Although many survivors of the Holocaust have openly disagreed with Eva’s forgiveness of the Nazis, her journey illustrates that the healing and meaning-making in the face of trauma is intensely personal. Your healing might require you to do something others might assume is impossible or unthinkable. In the end, though, your trauma healing is for you and only for you. Allow yourself the space to consider what action would make your life satisfying and meaningful, despite the past. What untested assumptions have you made about your abilities or yourself as a person because of your trauma? How might you test those assumptions?