Goodbye Trauma: A Way To Understand Trauma And Its Gentle Release, Part 1
When you get better, the world gets better.
When you read this word, what do you feel viscerally in your body and emotionally? Does it bring up anxiety, sadness, feelings of not being good enough or other similar negative emotions or thoughts? Check inside yourself for an answer.
I have come to see everything through the lens of trauma. Instead of rose-colored glasses, I have trauma-colored glasses. If that thought sounds bleak and dark, let me show you how it feels hopeful to me.
You see, the more you understand about trauma, the more easily you will recognize and release your own traumas. Understanding how trauma can affect your life may help you see some of the traumas you did not even realize you have, which have been sitting in the background disturbing that life. Processing your traumas can help you make the best out of a bad situation, leaving you with the growth from the experience of the trauma and not the pain.
By identifying and understanding traumas, you take the first steps in starting to become all you can be without the blockage trauma causes to your body, mind, and spirit. And when you heal, you contribute health to the surrounding community. In other words: When you get better, the world gets better.
Here is a personal example of a trauma I didn’t even realize was a trauma, and what helped me to deal with it at the time.
The Night A Trauma Came Calling
When I was in my second year of college, I lived in an apartment on the edge of campus. The year was 1972. Even though it was a dangerous part of the city, I did feel relatively safe. That was until one night when I didn’t.
I had settled into bed and was asleep. Around 1:00 am I was awakened by two male voices arguing loudly outside my window. The argument wore on for a while, and I heard one say he didn’t want to have anything to do with the other. Then a car door slammed. I heard the one in the car swearing and threatening the first one, ordering him back into the car. Then I heard the car rev up and pick up speed. This was followed by a loud crash and screaming.
At this point my roommate came running into my room, and we looked out the window. We could see a large, old, metal car had crashed through an iron fence, and was sitting up on the lawn of a campus building with the fence partially wrapped around it. We could hear someone screaming in serious pain but couldn’t see anyone. We called the police and told them briefly what had happened, and suggested they also send an ambulance. Then we headed downstairs to see if there was anything we could do for the screamer.
When we reached the heavy metal car, we looked everywhere inside for the source of the screaming but couldn’t find anyone. When my roommate got down on the ground and looked, she spotted the young man who was in pain. He was probably in his twenties, pinned under the car in a very uncomfortable position. She reached for his hand and started to speak soothingly to him.
I took the keys out of the ignition and opened the trunk to see if I could find a jack to lift up the car. There was no jack. Neither the police nor ambulance had arrived yet, so I went back up to our apartment to call the police again, and reported what we had discovered. Eventually about fifteen cars assembled with at least two policemen per car. No one had a jack.
The police, realizing there were no jacks anywhere to be found, decided if they all got on one side of the car, they could lift it up, and someone could pull the man free. But they were so afraid they would drop the car back down on the man, someone took the injured man by his belt and yanked him out quickly. They got him out from under the car, but may have done more damage. No one seemed to know what to do then, so I got him a blanket from our apartment. About a half hour later the ambulance came and took him away.
We later heard through the grapevine that the injured man had been fighting with his friend about something, and when he tried to walk away the older friend had run him over. Both were intoxicated. The victim was so badly injured he was in the hospital for months. He did recover.
Once the ambulance came and took the accident victim to the hospital, my roommate and I went back to our apartment. We talked for a while, and my roommate went to her room and fell asleep. I, on the other hand, was a basket case. I kept hearing the young man’s screams. My whole body was shaking. I couldn’t remember when I had been this upset and out of control. My safe space had been invaded with violent chaos. I was terrified that more calamity was going to happen. Every little noise made me jump. I didn’t know how my roommate could just calmly fall asleep. She had been closer to the situation than I was.
Even though it was 4am by this time, I decided to call my mother and tell her what had happened. I seldom called my mom, but she picked up right away. I remember talking for a long time. And then she offered to come and get me. Fortunately, she was only 30 minutes away. She woke up my younger sister, and the two of them came and took me home. I was so grateful to get somewhere safe again. I settled into my old bed in the room I shared with my sister and went right off to sleep.
Over the weekend my family and I talked more about what had happened. How I was treated after this event made it easier to process it. This happened late on a Friday night and by Sunday night I was ready to go back to my apartment and start classes on Monday.
But even though I had settled down and felt safer in my apartment, I did not feel safe on the streets. Every time I heard a car coming up behind me, my whole body froze, and I wanted to run at the same time. I was sure in that moment that the car behind me was going to run me over. I now knew that was a possibility. I tried to stay off the main streets. Loud noises continued to make me jump. And the scene from ‘that night’ kept repeating in my head like it had just happened. I stopped sleeping well. I had nightmares. It took me months to convince myself it was over.
Obviously by the details of this story, you can see the memory is still fresh in my mind more than fifty years later. But when I think about this trauma, I no longer am emotionally attached to it, which means it is no longer traumatic for me.
PTSD Became An Official Diagnosis In 1980
What I did not know then was that I was suffering from trauma, or post-traumatic stress. Even though I was majoring in psychology and sociology, there was no mention of trauma in any of my classes. This was toward the end of the Vietnam War. At that time in history, young 18-year-old men would be drafted into the war and sent to an unknown foreign land. Many did not come home. Some came home physically damaged, but many more were coming home mentally damaged due to the horrific things they witnessed.
Although the stress of other wars had caused this mental damage, no one seemed to understand it. In WWII it was called shell shock and soldiers were held responsible for their behavior. When soldiers froze or ran away during a battle, both symptoms of trauma, they could be court marshaled. Now we call this post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This was not considered an official diagnosis until 1980, well after the Vietnam War. PTSD as we know it today was not recognized or treated when I was in college in the early 1970’s.
In reflecting upon my college car accident trauma, I made two observations. One was how I got so upset by this incident, yet my roommate took it in stride. The other was that my mother immediately understood how upset I was, and she and my sister had teamed up not only to believe me, but to give me support and comfort around what happened.
Some of the men coming home from Vietnam reacted much like my roommate did. They were living in the present moment and knew the war was over for them. They could move on. Many other soldiers brought the war home with them and continued to live it for years after they returned. Living in the past is another sign of being traumatized.
Having my mother and sister support and talk me through the trauma helped me get back to my present life at the time. I had some mild symptoms of trauma after that weekend, but those faded after a few months. It makes a huge difference how one is treated following a trauma. When soldiers came back from WWII, the country threw parades for them and called them heroes. They were part of a positive whole. But when men returned from Vietnam, they were spit on and called baby killers toward the end of the war. They were blamed for fighting in a war they were forced to fight. Many felt rejected by society.
In our present world trauma either goes unseen (that never happened), or is seen as so horrendous that no one, including the victim, wants to talk about it. So, it gets buried deep down inside the individual. Yet, it eventually comes to the surface needing to be dealt with, but not always at a convenient time. It is far better to pick the time you want to work on trauma. If you are knowledgeable about trauma, you will be able to identify it. That can feel very empowering, and knowledge is powerful.
In looking a little deeper at unseen versus seen trauma, unseen traumas are the many events that go unidentified by anyone, even the person involved. Consider how head trauma and its symptoms went undetected for a very long time. Because there is no outer sign of damage, like bleeding, a football player is told to keep playing after getting a concussion. The boxer is urged to get up and continue the fight. After many blows to the head, others might notice a change of personality or loss of cognitive functioning, but because the head injury wasn’t seen as the direct reason for these changes, the athlete might be treated for mental illness instead of a physical problem, or be put in jail for violent behavior. The head trauma goes undetected as the cause and the issue is misdiagnosed and mistreated.
This is how seemingly insignificant, unseen life traumas become separated from the symptoms that eventually follow. For instance, when a very sensitive child grows up in a quiet household, she may be traumatized by a screaming teacher in first grade and is not able to learn her numbers and letters that year. Others in the class who are accustomed to yelling won’t be affected. Later this little girl has trouble catching up with the rest of the class because she missed the basic building blocks. She may be treated as if she is incapable and starts to believe that is true. She might even be blamed for not living up to her potential and called lazy. It becomes one of many unseen traumas that will affect her whole life, invisible both to the little girl and everyone else, yet the repercussions from it, like those of the head injury, may change the course of her life.
Visible traumas do not fare much better. Most people would agree that being in combat or being raped are traumatic events. However, because they are so horrific, both society and the victims shy away from talking about them. The victims will do anything to avoid that pain, and they feel everyone else is made too uncomfortable to be able to listen to them. How can one heal if no one wants to go there.
If you have a disease and it goes untreated, it usually gets worse. It does not take care of itself. Head trauma symptoms get worse. That is true of emotional trauma symptoms as well. You may start to lose energy and strength. You no longer can do what you used to be able to do. You are told, “You just need to live with it. You are on your own. It is part of life. Get over it. Let it go.” And my favorite piece of advice, “Just stop thinking about it.”
Hello!! Does anyone see the elephant in the room?
Victims do what they can to avoid thinking about trauma by using coping mechanisms like alcohol or other drugs. When they are brave enough to mention it, the trauma talk makes other people so uncomfortable they pull away from the victim. The victim learns early on it is not safe to have their feelings about trauma or talk about it. They are alone. Their trauma is too awful for them to look at or for others to want to see. So, it festers and manifests as symptoms like depression, anxiety, shame and/or anger. Even if the victim can identify what is causing them to feel the way they do, they feel helpless to do anything about it. This buries trauma deeper inside and the symptoms increase.
There is another option available. You can identify your traumas and realize you can face both your hidden traumas and the painful, visible ones to let your healing begin. Once a trauma is cleared, you become more of who you are meant to be than you ever would have had the trauma never happened.
Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 1
Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 2
Read Goodbye Trauma: A Way to Understand Trauma and Its Gentle Release, Part 3
Diane Spindler, LMHC, LMFT, is the author of Goodbye Trauma — Gentle Reprocessing: A Technique to Relieve Trauma, newly released in March 2023. Over her 30 years of private psychotherapy practice in Central Massachusetts, Diane has developed and trained other clinicians how to use Gentle Reprocessing to help their trauma clients. She has presented her work in the United States, Canada, and France, and has also has taught regularly at Boston University, in private workshops, and in clinics. Visit gentlereprocessing.com