I have a friend whose young daughter narrowly escaped a tragedy this past summer. Around the time of the event, the mom could speak of it relatively matter-of-factly, with only the slightest tremble of the hands and tightening of voice belying the pain and fear beneath.
For the first few months, mom strayed strong. She distracted the child and went on about life. She held the trauma of the near-tragedy at arm’s length with only periodic glances that confirmed its existence. She was okay.
And then the child got sick. Nothing major, just a normal fall childhood illness, but it triggered the fear of losing her child in the mother.
She was facing what she couldn’t before.
The first time through, she didn’t know if her daughter would be okay. That was unfaceable at the time.
This time through, she knows that her child will be okay and so the pent-up emotions are released.
And now she can face them.
Often we begin to face things only when we feel safe.
Maslow talks about how basic physical and psychological needs must be met before self-actualization can occur. When faced with trauma, our basic needs of safety and security must be met before we can address , face-on, the emotions at the root of the pain. If you try to face it too soon, while your existence is still precarious, your mind will grip and refuse to let go. If you fail to face it, choosing to keep your gaze averted, it will become like a cancerous growth, slowing releasing its toxins.
Acknowledge that trauma is often too big to process all at once. Think of it like untying a knot, teasing away at it until it unravels completely. Be patient with yourself. It’s tempting to pretend to be healed because of the calendar. But the mind doesn’t understand time. Stay with it as long as it takes.
Recognize if you are turning away from the whole of the pain because it is too big to bear. Be gentle with yourself, Do not force it, yet do not ignore it either. Face it in time. Total lockdown is no way to live for long.
Look for ways to help increase your feelings of emotional safety or security. These must be met first. Look for tangibles that prove you are okay. Have a back-up plan. Find people that have your back.
Breathe. Pain has a way of shutting down the breath, as though the trauma whispers in with each inhale. Allow the breath to flow, releasing tension with each exhale.
Recognize that healing is a process, not a switch. It comes in waves, following the pain. Just because you do or not feel a certain way right now, does not mean you never will.
In the first couple months after my ex disappeared, I didn’t feel much. I was scared to open the dams, not sure if the impending emotions would be too powerful to bear. I was still in shock. trying to make sense of it all. And, I was trying to push it aside so that I could attend to the necessities of life.
But I knew I couldn’t do that forever.
I booked a short stay at a meditation and yoga retreat with the intention of opening the dam with the professionals there as flotation devices. I left all of the distractions (which I was so good at using) behind and steeled myself for the face-off: woman vs. trauma. Go.
It was pretty unimpressive. A few trickles of loss. Some tears. Some aching void.
But nothing on the scale I feared.
Because I wasn’t yet ready to face it. Again, trauma doesn’t speak calendar. It doesn’t respond well to scheduled appointments.
It likes to show up on its own time.
Even though I didn’t engage in an epic battle with my trauma at that time, the trip was valuable. I learned that I could let the pain in, that it wouldn’t flatten me. I learned that I could work away at it a little at a time. I learned that I couldn’t force healing on my terms. And I learned that my responsibility was to address the pain when it did arise (which was never at a convenient time).
It’s easy to see pain as a bad thing. But maybe it’s a sign of healing, an indication that you’re ready to address it.
10 thoughts on “Ready. Set. Face.”
I think about that daily, when things will really come to the breaking point. I am still in the house, see my kids daily, get along with my wife well and I still have a hard time sleeping, eating and not being completely sad each day. How much worse will it be when the legal wheels turn and I am out of this house away from the things I love. Those to me seem like dark days and almost impossible for me to picture really. Thank you for your blog and the encouragement it offers.
What if you can never find your safety? My traumatic marriage ended in divorce a little over a year ago, a month later my oldest child (to whom I am very close) left for college, a month after that on my birthday my mother died suddenly, and three months later, while I was still shaking literally with terror every night, my older sister died suddenly right before Christmas. It is all starting to rise now. And it is a tidal wave. I cannot handle it. There is no safe place. That’s one of the problems. I love what you wrote and I am trying to have compassion for myself. It feels impossible.
It is so hard when losses come one after another. This is definitely a case of the sum being greater than the parts. It starts to seem normal. Trauma becomes a part of your everyday.
First, recognize that right now, the goal is to survive. Take care of yourself and ask for help if that becomes too much. Be gentle and patient with yourself. Don’t try to force it but don’t overlook opportunities for healing either.
My heart goes out to you. Know that it can be better. Our greatest pains have the potential of being our greatest teachers. But there’s no getting around the fact that the lessons suck.
Thank you for your reply. I don’t see how I get myself out. But I so appreciate your acknowledging the challenge I am faced with. Your blog is an inspiration. Thank you 🙂
Thank you. This is me right now. Hid emotions for so long, I hit a wall.
Perfect. I don’t have the emotional scars a lot of people do, but I know they’re there. I realize them not by seeing them, but my seeing their reflections – my overreactions to other events. My extreme flinches, my instinctive evasions, my panicked lunges for sustenance. I don’t think of myself as a dog that’s been kicked too many times, but that’s how I react… right now, I’m able to view it somewhat emotionlessly. I hear Spock whispering in my ear: “Fascinating.” I want to embrace that pain, wiggle out of the scar tissue like a too-tight dress and leave it behind, but the problem is seeing it. I had no idea that scars so large could be invisible. Especially from the inside.
This explains so much for me. I’m preparing to move from the family home with my kids as the wheels of divorce grind slowly through the legal system. I couldn’t figure out why it took so long to be sad about moving. I appreciate the explanation and reminder to let my feelings unfold in their time. 🙂
I love how you laid this out Lisa! I find it true…finding a safe place to share and someone to guide you through layers can make all the difference in the world. …I was brought to the time I almost lost my son in a motorcycle accident. Although I’ve done a lot of work in a safe place, your article gave me another piece of the puzzle for healing my self…A student I will always be and never done learning, discovering and exploring. I’m grateful to have found you on this journey of life! xo