Part VI of a Six-part Trauma Series. Trigger warning: This is a difficult topic. Some examples of trauma with depression will be eluded to without details in order to set a scene for clarity and relatability.
What was the first thing you thought about when you woke up this morning?
If you have survived a trauma, you may have a blissful few minutes of forgetting what all has happened or you may instantly realize how things are in the present and might force your mind to drift back to the past, where everything was better, before…
Before all the pain and trouble, life felt perfect – or so you tell yourself and believe. You remember all the fun and joy you had. You find your mind lingering in the past more and more and you cannot even imagine the future, not as things are anyway.
This is a common scenario in trauma recovery. There are many times in life we will experience dramatic and stressful changes, such as graduating college, entering marriage, having children, or moving. In these situations, we want what we are walking into. We know at least some of the steps and we believe at the outset that the final result will be great. Not so with trauma.
When tragedy hits and derails us, we no longer feel as if we are standing on solid ground. The terrain is unfamiliar, treacherous, and feels deceptive at times. We want to feel safe, secure, and happy and we do not know how to do that. In order to cope in such a situation, our brain does a sort of reset, much like turning Windows back to the last time it worked best. We search our minds for a time and place where we felt better, and we long for that time. We notice the landmarks; people we knew, places we visited, and activities we used to do, and we subtly try to bring them into the present moment.
Reeza had so many dreams and plans. She was going to finish college, marry her fiancé, and be her own boss by the age of thirty. At twenty-six, an unexpected assault by a coworker derailed all of that. Most days, she finds herself paralyzed, staring at the wall. Most of the self-talk in her head is shaming and condemning. Surely, she could have done something to avoid it all. The fiasco that followed as she tried to set things right just made everything worse. Now, she spends most of her waking moments replaying scenes from college over and over in her mind. It was so wonderful back then – not a care in the world. Reeza had so loved learning, exploring, and hanging out with her friends.
Dreading any more time feeling like she does, she spends hours on Facebook trying to find old friends. When she finds them and invites them out, she finds they tend to refuse, wrapped up in their own busy lives. Perhaps she will return to college, get an MBA. Everyone has an MBA these days, right? Maybe a trip somewhere? Her mind races farther and farther back, trying to find that perfect “reset” point. If I can just have some of that back, maybe I’ll find my way.
As with Reeza, attempting to return to a “happier past” in the present moment in order to avoid the future does not work. That “happier time,” if it truly was happier, was only so because you were who you were when you were there. You are different now. Life is different and the only way back to “happy” is…forward.
How? How does a person move forward if they do not know where they are going anymore? Reeza had an image in her mind of where she wanted to be, and she had a belief that she could achieve that. That belief was key. When circumstances change so that you do not recognize yourself or your life, you may feel like you are trying to put the puzzle pieces from one picture into another. In some ways, you are. You must be willing to switch pictures. If you can learn to do that, if you will take the grueling journey from the old to the new, it will be very much worth it. Only in your actual life will you find much more peace, fulfillment, and joy.
The question, “But, how?” persists… Here are some ideas.
Find Those Farther Down the Path Than You. If you were going to embark on a new path, you would be most successful if you found someone who has been down the road who can guide you. College students have academic counselors. People buying homes have realtors. Finding a person who has walked through a tragic, life-changing event can be very encouraging. Not only can they help you navigate your path, they can relate to the new depths of live in which you now live. People who have never experienced a trauma will struggle to relate. We need people in our lives who still believe life is pleasant and safe, but we also need people who “get it”. The name for that is a coterie. Trauma support groups are a wonderful place to start for this.
Start a Vision Board. The reason we do not struggle as much with the sought after, life-changing events listed above (graduation, marriage, moving, and so on), is because those who have gone before us left images and stories that help us imagine the great job, the happy family, or the house full of memories. Trauma, on the other hand, derails us, stealing the plans we had. We can no longer picture the end of the road “as things are now.” What has brought us through difficult times before was the picture in our mind, the belief that our dream is still out there. That kept us going until we mashed out all the bugs and found our way. We may have ended up light years from where we thought we would, but if we persisted, it may have been even better than we first imagined. The moral of the story is: Dream. Create a vision of the life you want. Draw it out (or collage it). Imagine what you would need to be one step away from your dream. Draw/Collage that. Then one more step, and one more step, and one more step, and – you guessed it, draw/collage that. Hang it on your wall and look at it every day. No one ever arrived at a destination without a plan.
Make Friends with Awkwardness & Uncertainty. Trauma is a thief. It steals our joy, our confidence, and may even take our health and well-being. What we used to do with ease may begin to feel as if we are trying to climb Mt. Everest backwards and blindfolded. We feel dumb, useless, and anxious. We know if we go out with friends or try a new (or even old) skill, we might stumble and “look funny”. People will feel uncomfortable and not know what to say. Saving others and ourselves from awkwardness is one major reason we bow out of our lives because we simply do not know when our fears and trauma reactions will happen. To recover, it is important to learn to tolerate the feeling of awkwardness and uncertainty. No one knows…remember that…no one knows when they might trip and fall. Try this technique: 10-10-10. Suppose you promise to go to Pilates with your friend, but after a particularly upsetting morning, you bail. In ten minutes, your friend might be disappointed. In ten hours, they may still struggle with it. However, in ten days, it is likely to be all but forgotten. Is it really worth losing precious time fretting over if, after only a few days, no one will even remember it anymore? Push through. Reputation is rarely borne from a single act. They will see you over time – if you show up!
Borrow from me, if nothing else, the belief that there is hope for you. Speaking as one who has walked the trauma recovery road, with support, teachability, perseverance, and hope, you will find your way back to the abundant life. Do not give up. Do not go it alone. No one wants to invite or repeat a trauma, but please know that healing is “backward redemptive.” Once you rebuild, you will have a deep knowing that all the steps you have taken in life have made you who you are – the wonderful, extraordinary, strong, and brave creature you are – it will all be worth it. There is a life worth living after trauma!
If you need more to build your hope, do not hesitate to call The Center and talk to our caring Admissions team members.
Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center • A Place of HOPE. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington. It creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.