In December, I turn 50. Along with the ravages that only gravity can inflict comes an acknowledgment: even at the half-century mark, I’m not finished doing the work to emotionally integrate the trauma that happened in my life when I was a kid.
I’m not completely surprised. After my essay was published in the New York Times in June (and I promise you, this is the first and last time I’m going to use that line), in addition to the hundreds of online comments, I received about as many reader emails (I’m waving at y’all who signed up to my list after that). What I heard, over and over again, was that those who had traumatic childhoods are still working on their stuff, still figuring it out, in their 60s, and 70s, and 80s.
For those of you in your 20s, 30s and 40s, please don’t let this bum you out, although it may. I was a bit overwhelmed initially by my realization. There’s a relief in knowing, though, because then you can do something about it. In so many ways, when we’re dealing with trauma, the knowing is half the battle.
For example, I went to therapy regularly from 1985 to 2002. It wasn’t until 10 years ago, however, when I was at couples therapy with the hubster, that I heard the word “trauma” applied to my childhood experience. “That must have been traumatic for you,” the therapist said, in response to an anecdote I provided. A jolt went through my body. No truer words had been spoken, and my body recognized that.
When I think back to what I talked about in those other 17 years with five or so therapists, it was mostly about how to keeping myself functioning, because sometimes, I wasn’t. I’m not sure I ever told the stories of *exactly* what happened when I was a kid. I talked about “crazy mom” and “she yelled a lot” and, later, “she’s mentally ill,” but I never got into the details. I’m not saying that details must be shared in therapy in order to access healing and integration, but when they aren’t shared, I’m wondering if it’s because there’s a “glossing over” that’s happening. A minimization.
I believe that a lot of trauma survivors unconsciously minimize what happened to them. It may be because of dissociation, or shame, or as a coping mechanism for pain. The end result, though, is that our bodies know what happened, and that it was some serious shit, even if our minds are all like, “yeah, so, then Mom stalked me for two years, but whatever, it didn’t stop me from doing anything I wanted to do.” Our bodies will respond in myriad ways. I’ve had back pain for three years that no well-trained and highly paid professional has been able to figure out. How’s your body doing?
While annoying, my back pain is actually the lesser of my concern. I’ve also still got fight-flight-freeze responses to even teeny-tiny things, and that kind of ongoing stress-hormone release is just not good, especially when it’s been repeating for 50 YEARS. (Frig, how did that happen?) The stress response wears down the immune system, and has the potential to cause big problems. Something tells me I’m not the only trauma survivor in this catamaran.
So happy birthday to me, I’m back in therapy, and I might soon be booking a little holiday to EMDR land, because I’ve heard firsthand from friends and peers that it’s an effective therapy for PTSD and complex PTSD. And survivors of horrible childhoods, if you’ve never heard of complex PTSD before, please click this Wiki link. Again, I was late to the party in learning about what it is and how it differs from PTSD, but holy smokes, it really fits the bill.
I’m also reading Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking book The Body Keeps the Score. I’d used a couple of chapters in it as part of my research for a piece I wrote on neurofeedback a couple of years ago, but this time I’m going cover to cover. I highly recommend this book. It’s like a best friend that totally gets you. I could almost hug it. Maybe I will tomorrow.
Have you had any a-ha moments about trauma, how to integrate it, and why for fill-in-the-blank years you’ve downplayed the trauma of your childhood experience as less than Cleaver-like but not fully Carrie-ish?