Recovery from traumatic life experiences

Over the years a recurrent challenge for many of my clients has been handling a sense of wasted life that they carry with their various inner injuries. The repetition of the question “Will I ever get over this?” emphasizes the difficulty of their recovery challenges. It contains a hope that they could return to some pristine pre-injured state (in themselves) or status (in the eyes of imagined knowing others) struggling with an expectation that they have been inescapably tarnished by their histories.

The good news is that–while it could be daunting–recovery is achievable. In this article I share with you the essence of my experience helping many of my clients presenting with serious, endemic anxiety or depression resulting from traumatic life experiences.

The telling signs are a quintet of experiences with collective traumatic impact (DIMRS):

  • Death-threatening – the victim feels in danger of death, though not necessarily physical death; spiritual or emotional death will do just fine for a self-evaluation of worthlessness; and
  • Inescapable –he / she has a feeling of hopelessness because caught in the grip of another on whom they are totally dependent for their survival, both physically and emotionally / spiritually; and
  • Multi-dimensional – damages occur in many dimensions of well-being: self-care, self-image, aspiration(s), emotional hyper-vigilance; and
  • Recurrent – the threat is present more or less all the time for years, sometimes up to the present adult time in which they appear in therapy – more or less all of their lives to date; decades in their minds and present living; and
  • Systemically distorting – the victim’s capacity to enter into and sustain relationships of many kinds is restricted by profound distrust leading to bad choice of partners of many kinds (intimate, peer, work, etc.), inappropriate levels of commitment to partners: too much or too little, sometimes oscillating between the two and to doubt about their own perceptions.

The path to recovery includes a set of inner (soul, self) and outer (in the world) oriented goals and processes, summarised as:

Inner oriented: Self-acceptance as the injured is central to recovery

  • Valuing the injured parts
  • Build self-acknowledgment
  • Understand family history

Outer oriented:

  • Gaining strength from adversity
  • Acknowledge trying
  • Seek acknowledgement from abusers
    • Create personal power by confronting

Let us now look at these goals and processes in more detail.

Inner oriented: Self-acceptance as injured is central to recovery

Valuing the injured part

Certain injuries carry an almost irrepressible shame/guilt – especially those of a sexual nature. As clients’ lives unfold in various attempts to create workable ones, they may gather up a trail of partial starts at this or that, or long term stuckness in not ever ‘good enough’ occupations, relationships and life-styles. How can such a life trajectory be seen to be valuable in more than a Pollyannaish way (well, you tried hard, dear) that seems to default to dismissal of the injury?

Certainly there are people who have risen above congenital injuries and war injuries which left their bodies deprived of parts and processes. And most of them “carry” their injuries in more or less visible ways. My clients “carry” theirs without others, and sometimes themselves, knowing it. Memory of early psycho-social injuries is notoriously unreliable. Sometimes the injury can only be perceived in the tracks of present relationships and life processes. These early memories are often blocked as well, and the over-developed capacity for blocking distorts the aspects of life where the injury was experienced decades before – again, most notably, blocks to feeling, expression, and imagination in relationships.

They carry their injuries to the soul, spirit, and self silently and unobtrusively, and the injuries are quickly pushed back in their containers by the deft hand of others’ instantaneous disregard whenever the injured let their injuries slip into the view of others. On a good day their slips might be offered a treatment by another – ‘what you should do is…’ type stuff. A different push back in the box – not often a call to ‘share’.

Build self-acknowledgement

I’ve tried recently to directly confront negative thought by amplifying the client’s success achieved in parallel systems (work, school, play). I do this by persistently, sometimes irritatingly, recognising all achievements a client lets pass unacknowledged. And I contradict all implicit disavowals of their own worth. The disavowals are easier to see as the surface disturbances arising from deeper self-denials. Once started on the pathway to self-acknowledgement, homework of various kinds can target and reinforce self-acknowledgment. A sign it is ‘taking’ as a normal self is an improved rate of unconflicted positive self-report in session – for example, the steady disappearance of apology as the first step of entering a session and growing into taking charge of session agenda setting.

Understand family history

Part of this sense of “wasted life” comes from the victim’s perception that he is the author of his own injuries. These cannot be his fault – childhood violations of numerous kinds are imposed by powerful others (usually close ones).  A different stage in treating injured parts is to pursue understanding how the family (or other systems) became damaging to its members over time. Knowing that one or both damaging parents were themselves damaged by damaging parents over successive generations gives a perspective which modifies the sense of injustice about one’s own trauma. To some extent it no longer has the intensely personal feel it always did. The mining of family history produces appreciation of one’s place in it, and usually of one’s place in a long history of trauma that is not merely familial. Rather often regional, social, cultural, national or global.

This generation’s family trauma is fired by the unexpressed / unacknowledged traumas of the previous ones. Look for the family members who carry undiscussables damages which they sustained for the benefit of future families – the warriors who survived wars for example; the workers who never recovered from depressions…!! Follow the pathways of alcohol and violence within and across generations. Expect to find traumatic peaks in tandem with social, economic and political troughs. Note that there was a 40 year trough between 1910 and 1950 covering two world wars and a global depression. That’s enough to affect two generations directly, the latter being the Boomers’ parents – the parents of our clients.

Outer oriented goals and processes

Acknowledge trying

Recovery from an injured self particularly strengthens virtuous habits: persistence, focus, assertiveness, etc. As a result a victim made something of herself in unpromising conditions. She tried and tried again as the ‘Quit Smoking’ ad now correctly encourages smokers!! AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) has done this for alcoholics for decades. As I’ve noted elsewhere, success cannot be the measure of a life’s quality since the internal and external conditions for high achievement, or any achievement, are not equally available to all. Trying can be expected, and that trying which occurs in the face of a powerful socio-politico-economic headwind is universally well thought of, honoured even.

We still do not think the injuries of abuse are injuries like a car accident, a road side bomb explosion, a bush fire and so on…all things which have very definite time and place boundaries. They can be seen to be finished and the damages are often visible. The socio-psychologically injured tend to take on themselves this debasing of their emotional currency and so may disable self-acknowledgement of their trying.

Another value to be acknowledged is the “functional” parts of themselves which are the basis for what appears to others to be a normal life. The injured often do not even acknowledge these objectively assessable parts. They wince when a compliment is extended for a clearly, undeniably, and externally validated good piece of work. They shift from ‘I’ to ‘you’ as subject of their discourse. They cannot put together words of self-approval like ‘I did X well’, or even ‘OK’.

The denial of their uninjured self, or its obscuring in the tailings of the injury, is a collateral damage of the original injury. Learning to accept their own achievements and intentions and valuing by others is competitively as challenging as overcoming their inappropriate guilt for their injury. Resistance to accept is one of the public signs of hidden injury.

Seek acknowledgment from abusers

Next, there’s getting acknowledgment of their injuries from those responsible – an experience which redeems life from the pit of self-blame. This can be obtained from others, but often defaults to oneself when the others are even more injured than oneself. The process of seeking, even demanding, acknowledgement of their responsibility from those who perpetrated the traumatic events is a critical step, even if often only a virtual one because the blameworthy are beyond reaching – dead, decrepit, demented….

…this step is critical because through it clients achieve confirmation of their historical experiences, relieving themselves of the paranoid process of retaining the injuries as secrets and creating reliable facts about those experiences. It may be that what is confirmed is their own memory and that has to be accepted without validation by the other(s) concerned. Either way, confirmed or not, self-acceptance as injured is central to recovery. This should lead to apology, completing the guilt erasure process, and may be supported by reparation for damages experienced and guarantees no further ones will occur. These four steps are the basics of a reconciliation cycle.

Create personal power by confronting

To work through this cycle requires developing of a further capacity – the capacity to act in the face of explicit and implicit challenge. In other words, clients have to increase their personal power to do any of the above. I work on this by making that objective explicit quite early in the work, saying ‘If you want to work through this thoroughly you will need to increase your personal power, and working through steps (like those above) will have that effect’. Many clients are surprised / shocked and then pleased with this idea.

A major step in confronting abusers is what I call ‘self-outing’. It may start with coming to therapy. Finding friends and others who can be trusted to accept the offer of the client’s pain is often an important prior step or early result of therapy. This finishes with confronting victimisers, especially the family system which keeps the family secrets. Some clients go further to join victim advocacy organisations.

This is courageous work since each offer of the injured self is a chancy move – even the best friends and colleagues cannot be guaranteed to be good receivers. They, too, may reject the client’s experience. Public advocacy is an invitation to re-experience abuse, since to advocate is to speak into a prevailing breeze of social disregard, if not condemnation, of the matters and people advocated.

Strength from adversity

As a collective matter, the bearing of active systemic disregards of ethnicity, race, gender, religion or class yield peculiar strengths in those who survive by quietly putting up with them. These strengths include insight into the real dynamics of the oppressive system(s). Ask the nuns about the church; ask the women about the men, ask the blacks about the whites.

As a personal matter, the abused/oppressed often find sustenance through success in parallel systems – e.g. the violated child whose gifts translate easily into school success.