As a seasoned clinician and survivor of complex trauma, I’ve come to understand trauma as any situation in which an individual is not prepared to effectively fit into one’s schema a threat to one’s life and integrity.
In the case of complex (child abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, medical trauma, deployment in a war zone) as opposed to acute trauma that occurs from an isolated incident, the threat is repetitive and therefore disrupts healthy development and the attainment of essential milestones. As a result, the traumatic experiences that could not be integrated are split off and locked into the brain’s amygdala, where they are triggered and randomly re-experienced in the present.
While a clinical explanation provides an academic understanding of complex trauma, unless one is a survivor the vast debilitating impact of complex trauma is difficult to comprehend. Perception is altered and overwhelming states of terror, rage and grief are unrelenting. Toxic shame associated with being helpless and overpowered infiltrates the psyche. Omnipresent heightened stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol alert the body to danger when there isn’t danger present.
Moreover, there are pervasive losses associated with trauma, such as the loss of safety in the world, loss of self, loss of life skills, loss of faith, loss of trust, loss of agency, loss of dignity.
The absence of love, along with the bleak misfortune of continuous exposure to blatant and ambient violence disrupts intimate relationships. Having one’s tenuous sense of self usurped by another’s needs is a pervasive fear. The relational ambiguity of either being left or taken over by another’s needs cannot be tolerated due to a disorganized and ambivalent attachment template lacking in object constancy.
Accordingly, victims of traumatic abuse objectify oneself and others, setting in motion patterns of intense, unstable relationships in which familiar enactments of rescue, injustice, and betrayal reoccur. This relational pattern along with insufficient safe and appropriate boundaries increases the risk of repeated victimization. As a result, survivors invariably retreat into an isolated self-protective bubble, thus creating a gulf between themselves and those most close. Understandably, anger and frustration ensue in those rebuffed, reinforcing the survivor’s aloneness.
In order to function, feelings are compartmentalized and a generalized avoidance of usual activities and things symbolic or reminiscent of trauma occurs. Consequently, numbness and an inability to perceive pleasure take root. On the whole, the vacillation between dissociative states (avoidance/numbing) and flooding (intrusive symptoms) comprise daily existence for those afflicted by complex trauma.
Then of course there is comorbidity, meaning accompanying sundry conditions such as addictive disorders, personality disorders, mood disorders, dissociative disorders, and even psychosis. Likewise, somatic manifestations such as an exaggerated startle response, hyper-arousal, chronic irritability, depressed libido, a weakened immune system and sleep disorders due to nightmares, and flashbacks are inevitable.
Lastly, being that trauma assimilates the person and becomes the victim’s life, the wound to the spirit is the most challenging core injury to heal.
One is left feeling helpless, unsafe, powerless and forsaken, unable to dream about a positive sense of the future. The capacity to create meaning and experience sustaining faith and hope feels beyond the bounds of possibility. One’s worldview, the interpretive lens through which one uses to understand reality and one’s existence within, is sullied by the blight of inconceivable inhumanity.
Even when extensive comprehensive treatment allows for regulation of symptoms and actualizing dormant potentials, moving beyond nihilistic and fatalistic assumptions about the self and the world is a daunting task for complex trauma survivors.
Everything considered, when trauma is unprocessed all of who we are is not available for life and purpose is lost.
Before traumatic events and memories can be emotionally revisited so that fragmented exiled parts of the self can be responsibly reclaimed, the regulation of affect and establishing a balanced neurological foundation must occur. Hence, with a resilient therapeutic container in place therapist and survivor collaboratively modulate feelings and establish bodywork methods and techniques to facilitate grounding. This stage of recovery prepares for remembrance and mourning, in which telling one’s story over and over again offers clues for healing and assists with gaining mastery.
The therapist invited to enter the trauma victim’s world has the formidable task of serving as the witness. This entails joining the survivor in tolerating the profound despair and helplessness that accompanies creating a cohesive narrative of one’s traumatic history. This prolonged and grueling process fosters intrapsychic integration and cohesion.
Providing a trustworthy loving presence assists the survivor with courageously navigating heinous memories. This is a delicate undertaking. Often there is no commentary. Moving prematurely into details or intellectualization can disrupt the mood from one of communion to that of disengagement. Remaining attuned to the absence of energy and affect is a critical part of the work, as it indicates the survivor is reporting not processing. The goal is to drop the ‘content’ and go into the body and what the body is experiencing.
Equipped with a corrective relational experience characterized by warmth, patience and healthy boundaries, trauma can be integrated. Over time a heightened sense of self will occur that organically gives rise to questioning what is beyond meaninglessness and nihilistic despair. Here, regaining power so as to become whole becomes a pressing concern.
As Jungian analyst Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes conveyed, “Being able to say that one is a survivor is an accomplishment. For many, the power is in the name itself. And yet comes a time in the individuation process when the threat or trauma is significantly past. Then is the time to go to the next stage after survivorship to healing and thriving.”
Founder of analytical depth psychology Carl Jung referred to this quest as the impulse towards individuation. To fulfill this rite of passage, the survivor is to move beyond survival to express freed up potentials and pursue ambitions and goals that were previously dormant. This requires the survivor to connect beyond the wounded self and engage in life from a place of Divine creativity.
At this stage, much of the reparative work involves dismantling nihilistic assumptions about the self and the world. The challenge is to give life to a perspective, a philosophy that counters internalized cynicism, so as to reconstruct a reality that makes room for the existence of faith and hope.
For the complex trauma survivor who is steeped in a crisis of faith, moving from ‘flight or fight’ to ‘rest and repair’ and the conviction that life is working against me to life is working for me is fraught with struggle.
Given that complex trauma is a fear-based existence mired in relational assaults, the quest to transcend crippling suffering and move towards thriving can feel like an unfathomable feat. Consequently, as I can personally attest, the urge towards spiritual rescue can be strong.
Desperate to feel better, I initially succumbed to the seductive lure of the Spiritual Bypass, an egoistic trap in which sanctifying thought systems and metaphysical techniques assure deliverance from excruciating pain.
For many such as myself, the false promise of magical salvation temporarily assuages unbearable anguish. In due course, however, one discovers that feeding into illusory beliefs of transcending victimization, being above human fallibility and abolishing human imperfections deviates from humbly embracing the truth of one’s life and intrinsic nature. Rather than guiding believers towards acceptance, these positive anecdotes entice trauma survivors to aim for what is inaccessible.
Eventually, the survivor recognizes that when spiritual ideas fail to consider the complexity and depth of the human condition, critical thinking is lacking. It is understood that false narratives that don’t address the paradox of hope and despair are misleading.
With one’s feet touching terra firma the survivor reaches within for the courage to accept that there are no easy remedies for life’s ails. Human nature and life are imperfect and no one is above the human condition. This mindset of acceptance allows the survivor to evaluate the spiritual and philosophical teachings, pursuits and relationships that either encourages benevolence or enmity and assist or deny our human struggle.
With humble acknowledgment of our humanity, the survivor can endure holding space for fallibility and suffering without reflexively resorting to anecdotal platitudes. From this stance, the survivor is less likely to rely on repression, a psychological defense in which distressing memories, thoughts and feelings are pushed into the unconscious.
Similarly, the survivor will resist managing the anxiety of being human by splitting circumstances into overly simplistic dichotomous right or wrong, good or bad factions. It is understood that lapsing into these primitive defenses will only lead to illness and acting out of what is denied and disowned.
The survivor who fully surrenders to the difficult truth that life can be tragic and irreparably scarring is equipped to embody an authentic human life that is grounded in realism. Tenaciously rooted in realistic possibilities and perspectives that reframe the hardships of life, the survivor is equipped to explore all that which holds a sacred space for human suffering.
Guided by humanity, not declarations of spiritual perfectionism and grandiosity, the survivor no longer harbors illusions as to what offers ongoing healing and growth. This outlook is the bridge to reconnection.
Pastor Warren Wiersbe imparted, “Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.”
Literal and abstract attachments that reflect Wiersbe’s sentiment are key to affording the survivor who is embarking on thriving, connections that foster ongoing healing and growth. The unearthing of injurious attachment wounds that wreaked devastation, necessitates the fastidious use of discernment and discrimination in choosing corrective attachments that demonstrate truthful transparency and loving kindness.
While these alliances certainly span the scope of human relationships, they are also inclusive of creativity, spiritual belief systems, philosophy, mythology, ethics, service, and vocation. Safe and empowering engagement with alliances of one’s choosing is a definitive course of action in this stage of recovery.
The heart of the trauma therapist’s role at this stage of recovery is to stimulate the survivor’s awareness of their resiliency and strengths and to support and encourage mobilizing themselves as a means of regaining control. Identifying practices that remove the patient from a victim mentality and providing empowering recommendations are vital.
This can take the form of directing survivors to participate in supportive groups with others who have gone through similar trials. Another powerful endeavor at this stage entails writing a letter railing at God, as one can’t tell God off as a victim and gain perspective while managing affect. Additionally, the inclusion of wholistic rebalancing through the use of Bach flower remedies, homeopathic medicine, visualization, healthy diet, exercise, creative expression, recreational outlets, a spiritual community and a personal spiritual practice are but a few of the resources integral to thriving.
Since trauma recovery takes on a deeply complex transcendent meaning which informs one’s sense of pride and purpose, giving concrete expression to a life-affirming vision that expresses the sacredness of this journey and defines one’s specific purpose may be a critical ambition. For me personally, this took the form of creating a therapeutic theatre project for at-risk women. For many of my clients, creating art reflective of their plight is an act of redemptive love and self-acceptance that elevates and honors what they’ve been through.
Paradoxically, for many survivors, the potential for spiritual growth may become greater than ever before, even greater than those who have not faced the reality of psychological annihilation. In these instances, identifying personally relevant spiritual traditions and practices can stimulate a deeper alignment with oneself. This exploration encourages the survivor to access a sense of wonder and the inner resilience to make meaning out of despair.
Many of my long-term clients have brought their journeys full circle by starting their own family. Creating a future in which love that was denied can now be bestowed upon one’s children, is for many survivors the apex of reclamation. It is a rebuilding of a life that is a radical departure from what they were born into and what they left behind.
Along with the survivor shedding the victim identity so as to embody desires that are supported by concrete initiatives, is a clearing out of people and ways of life that contradict positive renewal. This poignant overhaul of relinquishing a lifestyle and identity steeped in traumatic enactment, so as to willingly receive one’s birthright, is what Dr. Judith Herman, referred to in her ground-breaking book Trauma & Recovery, as achieving commonality. This turning point signifies being a part of a world in which one belongs.
Herman explains, “the survivor who has achieved commonality with others can rest from her labors. Her recovery is accomplished; all that remains before her is her life.”
It is here that the survivor intent on thriving resurrects the capacity to instinctively respond to the suffering of others with the utmost humility. The urge to benefit humanity by living a principled compassionate life and being of service to others brings recovery full circle. The survivor’s inherent capacity for love and compassion is reclaimed and with that the profound certainty that the worst of life did not break her.