Avoiding Pain Prevents Recovery from Complex Trauma / When trauma survivors retreat from necessary suffering

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle. ~ Sufi poet Rumi

Throughout the three decades I’ve been providing trauma treatment in the public and private sectors of New York City, I’ve noticed a common trend. There’s a point in the therapy process where folks plateau. Everyone is on board with thought-provoking insights and creating a cohesive chronological understanding of their harrowing memories. Then the deeper work is called for. Even though I repeatedly remind my clients you can’t heal emotional wounds intellectually, this is when many feel the urge to bolt from treatment.

The predominant reason for this is our instinctual impulse to avoid pain. Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud suggests that this inclination is rooted in the pleasure principle. He explained that the part of the personality referred to as the id, functions as the primitive human drive for immediate pleasurable gratification. The id operates from primary process thinking, meaning it is fantastical and devoid of consequential reasoning.

Like our infantile yearning for indulgent gratification, the need for self preservation and basic survival also compels us to avoid pain and deflect from fear.

Paradoxically, the immersion in chronic debilitating pain can make one immune. Due to a childhood steeped in chronic traumatic abuse, I became impervious and numb to sundry forms of wounding.

Dissociative numbness was a blessing and a curse. While it saved me from complete psychological annihilation that would have surely led to psychosis, it prevented me from metabolizing my buried rage and grief. In order to effectively process the traumas I carried I had to be willing to diminish my dissociative defenses. With the aid of a trusted therapist, I carefully navigated intrusive-repetitive emotional material through cathartic recall.

Suffice it to say, resurrecting, identifying and working through buried emotions was a grueling task. The contempt towards my wounded victimized self was profound. I thought the loneliness would destroy me. My resentment and rage over the unfairness of life, that my destiny was to embrace misery and suffering in order to be functional, made me bitter and disillusioned. After all, hadn’t life been hard enough already?

Concomitant to my despair over my fate was the excruciating pain of hating those responsible for harming me. Hatred is an unbearable weight to carry and no doubt I became unbearable to be around. Many people fell away.

In hindsight, it was worth the struggle, as I would never have attained peace of mind and the quality of life I have now if I didn’t embark on that psycho-spiritual rite of passage. Nevertheless, I sincerely doubted the attainment of these rewards while I was going through it. Staying the course took everything I had. Naturally, it wasn’t a linear process. I periodically deviated from the ‘path’ and acted out along the way. Eventually, I managed to reclaim myself and emerge on the proverbial other side.

For obvious reasons, we prefer pleasure and safety over pain and risk. Yet life teaches us that the maximizing of pleasure and the retreat to safety can impede healing and actually engender further injury. Indeed, the addictive reliance on drugs, alcohol, compulsive anonymous sex and persistent avoidance ameliorates suffering. Until one crashes physically and mentally, that is. Then it’s either back to square one, escaping in isolation with one’s chosen poison or one hits bottom and the reality of the fatality of progression kicks in. It’s here that one might recognize that quality of life, or simply surviving, depends on the courage to suffer.

Anyone who has devoted the time to mastering a musical instrument understands the painstaking perseverance involved. Hours of repetition and enduring the travails of developing calluses along with muscle coordination and semantic and sensory memory are critical to excelling as a musician. In like manner, delaying gratification for the purpose of psychological healing and transformation is a lofty ambition that demands tremendous vigilance and effort.

There can be no sustaining gain without the willingness to exhume and assimilate the emotional strife associated with traumatic memories.

Hence, the agonizing withdrawal from substances or behavioral process addictions such as trauma bonds, pornography, uncontrollable shopping, or workaholism is a necessary pre-requisite to stabilization. Establishing sobriety, life skills and self-care routines are fundamental steps towards ego strengthening and plumbing the psychological depths so as to actualize life-affirming change.

Easier said, than done.

Although critical to recovery, moving past a cerebral understanding to emotionally approach a history of victimization is complex and scary. Some degree of decompensation is inescapable. Those willing to undergo episodic periods of deterioration accept that this is a necessary burden in order for deep-seated intra-psychic shifts to occur. Naturally, enduring the repercussions of grieving a lifetime of tangible and abstract losses, needs to be safely monitored.

Effective pacing and leading necessitate accessing the resources established in the initial stage of treatment. Basic tools that facilitated safety and stabilization early on, are invaluable as deeper work is approached. The pace of processing and integrating traumatic material largely depends on the individual’s constitution and the willingness to utilize strategies and supports that assist with regulation and containment.

Psycho-education and resourcing, a term that connotes returning the activated autonomic nervous system to a state of calm, are examples of invaluable tools when navigating traumatic memories. The inclusion of psychotropic medication, somatic experiencing techniques, and 12-step supports to address co-existing addictive disorders may need to be incorporated in the treatment plan to offset debilitating symptoms and effectively consolidate what needs to be mourned.

With resourcing and stability ensured, through a process referred to as complicated bereavement, survivors of complex trauma are challenged to constructively reframe a history of systemic victimization so that eventually the past can be mourned and parsed out from the present. Complicated bereavement assists with coming to terms with what is reparable and what is not so that life-affirming possibilities and ambitions can unfold.

No matter how righteous or innocent one may be, the cruelty of life contains debilitating trials and tribulations. Hence, like all survivors of traumatic abuse, my spirit was acutely dimmed due to systemic victimization. I had to somehow come to terms with the basic truth that life simply tests us and often is not ‘fair’ or linear. The alternative was staying ensconced in nihilistic bitterness.

To consciously discern the larger meaning of my suffering and my recovery, I turned to my fledgling spirit’s commitment to truth and consciousness. Over time this helped me to expand my perspective.

I heeded the wisdom of the noble truths and eight fold path of Buddhism which suggest that with consciousness comes suffering. Buddhist tenets also assert that if we are not aware, we will unconsciously act out of habit and fear. However, if we attend to our intentions, we can notice if they spring from the body of fear or from our deliberate thoughtfulness and care. I also turned to the beauty of art, nature, travel, literature, and music. This helped me survive and transcend despair.

Ultimately, my need to comprehend the mental illness I and my family endured propelled me to examine the human condition. My journey through complex trauma and a fear based existence, informed who I am as a psychotherapist. Most importantly it brought me full circle to embracing who I am as a human being, and it rendered me the greatest gift by bringing me to a place of fully owning these inspiring words of Dr. Carl Jung,

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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