I still struggle to admit the trauma and abuse that exists in my past. It is not something that I like to think about. It reminds me that I was helpless, hurt, and isolated.
But talking about my pain is important. It’s like taking out splinters that have been festering under my skin for years. I’ve written a bit about my trauma here: Complex PTSD: What It Is and Why I Have It.
Recovery from PTSD is about being able to live in the present without being constantly affected by the past. Living in the present moment is hard for me. I’m always dwelling on the past or looking ahead to the future.
I cannot think of a moment in my life that is not in some way affected by the past. The weight of my history is always there, like an iron curtain in the background of my life.
In rehab, we were required to attend a church service every Sunday (tending to our spirituality was an important part of our recovery). This requirement did not take into account the religious abuse in my past.
The first Sunday of my stay was extremely difficult for me. I had not set foot in a church in more than a decade. The closer we got to the church, the more distraught I became. My chest and shoulders were tight. My hands and feet itched. Without realizing it, I began to scratch my fingers and hands. Within a few minutes, my right hand started to hurt. The pain was a welcome relief from the anxiety I was feeling, so I kept scratching. Before the first hymns had been sung, I had scratched the skin off a large part of the back of my right hand.
The wound was open for more than a month.
Why would I become so agitated over simply sitting in a pew and listening to a sermon? Wasn’t I far enough removed from my childhood that I could let go of the past?
No. Trauma doesn’t work like that.
Trauma digs in. Like splinters – burrowing so deep into your psyche you forget they’re there until they start working their way back out or they become infected.
According to the website Trauma Recovery, recovering from trauma means the “restoration of safety and empowerment.” According to Rothschild (quoted on their site), “The first goal of trauma recovery should and must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis.”
I reacted to being forced back into church by harming myself for several reasons. First, and most obviously, I was back in an environment where I had no power and had previously known helplessness and fear – I was a woman in a church. Second, I was in rehab where I was quickly learning I had no power. Third, being back in a church environment brought back a flood of childhood memories that I had not experienced in a very long time, triggering a mudslide of emotions I was not prepared to manage.
For a long time, I shoved my trauma so far down inside, it only showed itself through my other disorders. It appeared in my drinking and drugging. It showed itself in my scars and burns and bruises. It showed itself in my eating disorder.
I took the first steps toward healing my trauma when I stopped drinking and drugging. Those were the first steps towards improving the quality of my life. I’m taking further steps by confronting my eating disorder. I take a step every day when I don’t injure myself. I take steps by becoming more self aware – going to therapy and DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) group. By learning why I behave the way I do, I can better manage the symptoms of my trauma.
Recovery from these disorders does not mean freedom from the trauma. Recovery is the ability to live in the present without being overwhelmed by the past. I don’t think I will ever be truly free from my trauma, and I am slowly coming to accept that. My past is part of who I am.
I’m okay with never being able to set foot in a church again. I’ve found my spirituality in nature. I don’t need man’s construct of religion to feel close to my Higher Power.
But there are other things I would like to eventually be able to do. I would like to be able to watch ice hockey without feeling irrationally angry. I would like to be able to send Christmas gifts to my nieces and nephews without feeling awkward. I would like to, someday, have at least a surface level relationship with my parents. The question is – how do I reach these goals?
There is some debate over whether or not it is helpful for a traumatized person to relive their traumatic memories. For me, it is helpful now to share what I have been through. But even as recently as a few months ago it was not helpful for me to remember my memories. Thinking about them made me want to drink and use and self harm.
Even now I’m not sure I’m ready to remember or share everything. But I have an idea of where I want to be. I have things that I want to be different than they are now. And I know what I need to do to change.
Healing trauma is highly individualized. What works for me might not necessarily work for you. But I believe sharing my story is helping me, so I hope reading it will help you.