Recovering from Trauma: Finding the Words That Heal

The Scream by Gerald Scarfe for Recovering from Trauma blog post

 

Several weeks ago, I received an interesting chain letter. Instead of being asked to send money to the designated recipient, I was to send a poem and forward the chain letter on to 20 people. If everyone followed through, I would receive 400 poems in the mail in short order.

I usually trash these invites, but something about this one caught my fancy, and I complied. In return, I received a variety of texts, including a Bob Dylan song, a verse from children’s book author Shel Silverstein, a poem by someone’s mother-in-law as well as poems by the illustriously immortal. The range and scope of the responses heightened my awareness of how we often turn to others—poets, rock stars—to speak to our souls, forgetting that all of us have the capacity to bear witness to our experience and unearth words that reflect back our deepest understanding of ourselves.

Dante Drinking from the River of Light by William Blake for Recovering from Trauma blog postIn his latest book, Drinking from the River of Light: The Life of Expression poet, spiritual teacher, and cancer survivor Mark Nepo credits self-expression as the rope he climbed to emerge from his struggle with cancer and return fully to life:

“I’ve come to believe that the heart of awakening is the quietly courageous act of feeling and facing what is ours to face. And I’ve discovered along the way that writing—expressing—is one of the best ways to stay awake. It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ our expressions are but that they keep us in relationship to the larger Universe we are a part of.”

You may be thinking what this has to do with you if you are not a writer or poet. Please consider this excerpt from James Baldwin’s magnificent story “Sonny’s Blues.” The character speaking is Sonny, a heroin addict and jazz pianist.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside…that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”

That storm inside. Can’t talk about it. And sex won’t help. And nobody wants to listen. Sound familiar? By the end of the story, Sonny concludes that the remedy to his despair is that he has to listen to himself.

The poet Gregory Orr speaks passionately about his discovery of poetry and how it helped him survive his unbearable despair after he accidentally killed his brother. In a 2006 interview for NPR, Orr compellingly talks about how language helped him heal. “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. When I was 12 years old, I was responsible for the death of my younger brother in a hunting accident. I held the rifle that killed him. In a single moment, my world changed forever. I felt grief, terror, shame, and despair more deeply than I could ever have imagined. In the aftermath, no one in my shattered family could speak to me about my brother’s death, and their silence left me alone with all my agonizing emotions. And under those emotions, something even more terrible: a knowledge that all the easy meanings I had lived by until then had been suddenly and utterly abolished.”

Orr’s portrayal of his situation aligns with psychoanalyst and Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein’s description in The Trauma of Everyday Life of what happens during trauma: “the reassuring absolutisms (albeit mythical ones) of daily life—that children do not die, that worlds do not move, and that parents always survive—are replaced by other, more pernicious convictions: the ‘enduring, crushing meanings’ (of one’s aloneness, one’s badness, one’s taintedness, or the world’s meaninglessness).” Trauma, he writes, “forces one into an experience of the impersonal, random, and contingent nature of reality, but it forces one violently and against one’s will.” It also exposes us to our powerlessness, our helplessness. “The old absolutisms no longer reassure, and the newly revealed reality feels crushing.”

How do we cope when life as we know it breaks down and what we have counted on seem broken? How can we discover our strength and courage in facing challenging obstacles?

Here is the last stanza of the poem Gregory Orr wrote years after his brother’s accident in which he resolves his once unutterable grief and shame.

Gathering the Bones Together

By Gregory Orr

for Peter Orr

I was twelve when I killed him;
I felt my own bones wrench from my body.
Now I am twenty-seven and walk
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.

Language summons a whole world into being, says Orr. His poem contains a trauma, but also stands outside and apart from the trauma. The bridge he mentions is the bridge language makes between our inner and outer worlds. As humans, we are continually seeking self-understanding, ways to know ourselves and make sense of who we are. Unlike other species that have language, humans are the only species that have metacognition, the ability to reflect on our own minds. This self-reflective capacity—Why did I do X? How did that make me feel?— is essential to making meaning of our lives.

Photo from The Miracle Worker for Recovering from Trauma blog postLanguage’s magical power is to make sense of the senseless. At the age of nineteen months, Helen Keller became blind and deaf. In her autobiography, she describes the dramatic moment when her beloved teacher Annie Sullivan helps her, at six years old, connect a physical sensation with its word.

“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”

The writer Isak Dinesen famously said, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them.” But writing from the heart isn’t just about the transformation of difficult emotions; to write from the heart is to engage with life at its fullest, in all its terror and splendor. In writing from the heart, we break our self-silencing and flex our muscles of courage to uncover our deepest truths.

Writing stories, poems, or journal entries may actually be the second necessary action required in finding our voices and uncovering our inner resources, the essence of who we are. The first action is deep listening. Hear Mark Nepo on listening:

“In many ways, writing is listening and simply taking notes. . . . Being still and listening allows us to behold what is before us. The deepest form of bearing witness is to behold another in all their innocence. This is the key to love. To listen until the noise of the world subsides. To listen until the noise of the mind subsides. To listen until the noise of our wounds subsides. To listen until we only hear the life before us.”

Miriam Greenspan in her powerfully helpful book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, offers three skills and seven steps in alchemizing difficult emotions. Our culture, she claims, is emotion-phobic, and encourages an invincible heroic ideal while often shaming those who do not live up to societal expectations.

Greenspan offers ways to regain balance and exuberance in the face of even the darkest emotions. The author uses the acronym ABS for the three skills she believes basic to healing: A for Attending, B for Befriending, and S for Surrendering. “When we can mindfully attend to, tolerate, and surrender to the energy of the dark emotions as it flows,” Greenspan writes, “we open the heart’s doorway to the magic of emotional alchemy.” But, after describing these skills and steps in detail, she adds a caution. “The three basic skills and seven steps of the alchemy of the dark emotions are condensed distillations of a process that is ultimately mysterious. This process cannot easily be reduced to a set of skills, ideas, or biochemical events. The systemization of any emotional process gives it an aura of scientific credibility. But emotional alchemy is an art, not a science.”

What the authors mentioned have in common is a deep faith in our capacity to handle and thrive beyond even the most troubling aspects of our lives and a conviction we are inherently courageous and loving beings capable of transformation.

When we practice deep listening—and try to find the words for what we hear—we may be surprised at what we find.  What we haven’t noticed about ourselves, what lies hidden within, may come as wonderment at the ignored riches and creative forces offering their help.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Trauma: Who is Telling Your Story?

Multiple Personality by Kamil for Trauma blog post

Have you ever been at a family gathering and someone shares a memory and, as you hear it told, you say to yourself: That’s not the way it happened! The truth is that our memory is an unreliable narrator, a literary term that describes a person telling a story who is not telling it straight. In fiction, an unreliable narrator can be a clever deceiver, as in many crime novels, an innocent lacking self-awareness, or a charming raconteur simply happy to spin entertaining tales.

The unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s fabulously gruesome horror story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is mentally unstable and can’t be relied upon to give accurate information. Wuthering Heights has dual narrators, both of whom have biases about Heathcliff and company. Some unreliable narrators seem to have all their marbles, like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, but when he kidnaps the precocious Lolita, we conclude he is what he says, a psychopath. In reading a book, there’s real delight in figuring out who’s lying, who’s manipulating, who’s speaking the truth—but what happens when our own psyches present us with multiple narrators, each with a different set of perceptions and interpretations of reality?

"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Virgil Finlay for Trauma blog postHow we see and react to the world is prompted by different parts of the brain. Sometimes, we act on “a gut feeling,” sometimes, we critically think through pros and cons. Both aspects of consciousness, and the spectrum of subtle and complex hues in between, are necessary for decision-making, and thus, ultimately, necessary for survival. Recent research indicates that in people who have experienced trauma and for whom survival, past or present, is an issue, the split between conflicting prompts can manifest in a split sense of self. An abused child, for instance, may exhibit paradoxical behavior, simultaneously clinging to and withdrawing from her abuser.

In her newest book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation, Dr. Janina Fisher helpfully presents a neurobiological map of early trauma’s negative effects on the communication between the right and left brain hemispheres and shows how this can lead to a lack of integration between the functions of each. This functional “splitting” can make us feel as if we have two brains, one under the direction of a traumatized part that originated in a painful experience, the other part guiding us toward normal responses to the day-to-day world.

Dr. Fisher has observed that many of her trauma clients speak of being “hijacked” by responses triggered by memories or perceived threats in the present moment. She writes:

“Characteristically, while the going on with normal life part tries to carry on (function at a job, raising the children, organizing home life even taking up meaningful personal and professional goals), other parts serving the animal defense functions of fight, flight, freeze, submit, and “cling” or attach for survival continue to be activated by trauma-related stimuli, resulting in hypervigilance and mistrust, overwhelming emotions, incapacitating depression or anxiety, self-destructive behavior, and fear or hopelessness about the future.”

Marci Gittleman, a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin who works with trauma in her clinical practice, asserts: “Trauma often raises parts of ourselves, pushes other parts down, and separates parts of ourselves from each other. Recovery from trauma helps to welcome all of the different parts of ourselves into consciousness—even if we like some parts better than others!”

The traumatized “part” might be considered an unreliable narrator, pumping us with stress hormones that distort our awareness of reality. Trauma corrupts the telling consciousness that has been damaged by tragedy.

In a mindful approach to healing inner fragmentation and compartmentalization, we might acknowledge our multiple parts and discern who is telling the story (some research indicates that we are all multi-conscious rather than uni-conscious); acknowledge the source (traumatized child, veteran, shooter survivor); and ask if the information being given is valid.

Looking at fiction can help us understand how who tells the story shapes the narrative, and therefore shapes how we feel about what has happened. As we read, we might ask ourselves, who owns this story? How is reality being filtered through this consciousness (narrator)? Using one of the foundational stories of Western culture as an example of how meaning and interpretation vary with differing points of view, let’s look at different versions of the story in Genesis of the first human couple.

The Expulsion from Eden by Schnorr von Carolsfeld for Trauma blog postAdam’s version of the expulsion from Eden might include a description of the satanic snake, despair and betrayal over a temptress mate, his remorse and anger at being duped. Imagine Eve’s version as a woman pissed at taking the blame.

The same sequence of events narrated by the snake might emphasize Adam and Eve’s naiveté and the snake’s desire to wise-them-up by offering up a bite of fruit. Now imagine the story from a third teller, the archangel Jophiel, who led the couple out of paradise. His tale might be packed with the difficulties of being God’s messenger, his questioning of divine authority, his sympathy for the banished pair. Each version of the story would be accurate according to the experience of the teller, their truths part of a larger truth.

So, too, all aspects of the self, including the shameful and wounded parts, are worthy of having a voice; each deserves respect. Injury and self-harm occur when emotional pain is shunted into the borderlands of consciousness. To speak and to be heard, to be witnessed and bear witness is to shed the mantle of victimhood and embrace agency, dignity, and self-empowerment. These abstract words take on life and meaning when dramatized through characters in a story.

As an experiment in relating mindfully to the storm of conflicting impulses within us— with the goal of externalizing troublesome inner voices—try this:

  1. Grab a pen and notebook, or sit at your computer. Close your eyes and breathe. Center yourself in your body. Open your eyes and begin.
  2. With curiosity and playful creation as your guides, choose a specific troubling event in your life (you needn’t choose the most painful or difficult episode) and tell the story from your own point of view.
  3. To objectify the narrative, consider using your name in place of “I.”
  4. Now tell the same story from another person’s perspective, someone engaged in the situation, or a bystander, or even from an observing inanimate object like a tree. Use as much sensory data as possible: what is seen, smelled, touched, heard?
  5. Compare the stories. What differences do you notice? What has been emphasized or left out in each? Can you name the prevailing emotion in each story? What feelings come up as you read them? What have you learned?
  6. Take 15 minutes to write your responses beneath the stories.

Walt Whitman portrait for Trauma blog postThe influential and ground-breaking American poet and essayist Walt Whitman wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Elsewhere, Whitman wrote,

Stop this day and night with me and you shall
possess the origin of
all poems . . .

You shall listen to all sides and filter them
from your self.

In healing from trauma, we might take our cues from this great poet by gathering our inner tribe, including the exiles, and validating their worth.

Psychologist Gittleman offers hope:

“I think of trauma like a perfect storm—it’s random, surprising, time stops, and life becomes different after the trauma from what it was before it happened. Trauma rocks the heart, body and soul—sometimes more, sometimes less, and different for you than for me. It can be hard to feel safe, and the impact reverberates into the present and future in ways that are both known and unknown—even if we decide we are not going to let it! Our best shot as survivors, however big or small the traumas, is to own our stories, and all of the different parts, over time, when we are motivated and ready, by ourselves and with others whom we have come to trust.”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

 



Trauma’s Lingering Effects and the Creative Self

Social alienation for Trauma blogpost

 

Trauma. The word is everywhere these days. And something has happened to it. Something like what happened to the word awesome, once used to describe a profound and reverential experience, one filled with terror, dread or awe. Awesome has become a colloquialism that pops up as both a descriptor, as in, “I just bought an awesome lipstick,” or simply as an exclamation—Awesome! Trauma has also taken a step down from its original connotation. This is not a blog about language, but it’s worth noting that trauma and awe denote significantly profound human experiences and are linked in meaning. The Greek origin of trauma means damage or wound. The Greek origin of awe is áchos, or “pain.”

I’ve written about personal trauma before (see “My Childhood Trauma: What I Learned, What You Need to Know”) and revisiting that experience led me to want to investigate the wider dimensions of trauma and how its impact can extend across generations (see “The Things We Carry: What Our Ancestors Didn’t Tell Us”). Studies on trauma have increased in recent years and researchers in a variety of disciplines are uncovering new evidence of the widespread presence of trauma in at-risk populations. Global events such as war, famine, migration, immigration, fire, flood, widespread disease and terrorism ambush some of us every day. An expanded view of trauma that respects the influence of cultural and historical circumstances on individual lives helps to clarify how vulnerable we are to these larger forces.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung, in his exploration the past’s influence on an individual wrote: “Just as psychological knowledge furthers our understanding of historical material, so, conversely, historical material can throw new light on individual psychological problems.” (The Collected Works, Vol. 5)

Odin or Wotan for trauma blogpostAs early as the beginning of the last century, Jung encouraged psychotherapists not only to study a patient’s personal biography but also to learn about the traditions and cultural influences, past and present, of the patient’s environment. Today we understand that trauma can be “inherited,” passed down through the generations, as if frozen in our psyches and/or bodies, repressed for centuries. Jung believed that repressed trauma or what he called “complexes” affect not only the individual but also the collective culture. He wrote: “…they exist (the archetypes) and function and are born anew with each generation.”

In his somewhat controversial essay, “Wotan,” written in 1936, Jung attempted to understand what was happening in Germany with the rise of Hitler, and the embrace by the populace of a militaristic, jingoistic, fascist leader. As Jung saw it, the god Wotan, or Odin, was an unconscious archetype that had been a latent potential in the German people and arose as a dominant force between the world wars. In Jung’s telling, Wotan-like energy, heroic and victorious, was embraced by the defeated Germans after the First World War – in slogans similar to “Make America Great Again.” Jung wrote: “He (Wotan) is the god of storm and frenzy, the unleasher of passions and the lust of battle; moreover he is a superlative magician and an artist in illusion who is versed in all secrets of an occult nature.”

Jung was discerning a culture possessed by a demon or god, the inherited and repressed inhabitant of the psyche. Repressed archetypes or psychic complexes are consciously forgotten but linger and influence our unconscious behavior. That is, while we may not be aware of certain tendencies within us, they nonetheless may direct our lives.

The Torture of Cuauhtémoc for trauma blogpostTrauma is often repressed. Patricia Michan, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Mexico City and founder of the C. G. Jung Mexican Center, has written and lectured on the inherited trauma she has discovered in some of her contemporary patients. In her essay, “Reiterative Disintegration” in Confronting Cultural Trauma: Jungian Approaches to Understanding and Healing, she writes,“…my focus here is the cultural trauma resulting from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire by the forces of Hernán Cortés in 1521, through which the indigenous people were abused, subjugated, and plundered. The Spanish conquest left imprinted a deep cultural trauma.” Quoting the Jungian Luigi Zoja, she concludes with him that “the lacerating wounds have remained ‘petrified for centuries.’”

John Hill, a training analyst in Zurich, in his essay “Dreams Don’t Let You Forget” in the aforementioned book, advises “that we consider the devastation that can happen with trauma,” and become aware of “the vigilance that prevents the survivor from experiencing the world as a safe place, and the difficulty the traumatized person has in connecting with his or her true self.”

In working with our own psyches, we might consider the cultural, historic, as well as the personal aspects that contribute to trauma. By stepping back and evaluating whether the core wound has its origins in childhood or reaches further into the past and comes down as a legacy, we can widen our understanding of the suffering and increase the potential for reconciliation. A significant avenue of hope in healing the wounded part is in engaging our creative selves in the process of restoration and reintegration. Having a voice, speaking the unspoken, refusing to carry on the silence of generations moves us out of the place of victimhood and hungry ghosts.

Interviewed about Things We Lost in the Fire, her short story collection which is filled with both gorgeous prose and horrific horror, the Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez has said: “I think my fiction is very Argentinian. And in Argentina there’s something about bodies that is distinct. I spent my childhood in the dictatorship, and what they did with the bodies was to disappear them. This absence of the body is where my ghost stories come from…As much as I wanted to run away from that horror story, it’s in my DNA.”

In our current chaotic and frighteningly turbulent world where new traumas appear to lurk around every corner, might it not be wise to embrace preventive medicine: before trauma can lodge and incubate in our psyches, why not speak the unspoken now? Before repression chases the pain into a hiding place, let’s name what exists—paint it, dance it, sing it, write it, make a poem. There are limits to what can be accomplished through such acts, but the origins of change are mysterious.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”