On Trauma

The Christmas before my daughter turned two, my mother gifted us an Elf On the Shelf. My daughter was NOT a fan of this little doll, with its big eyes that seemed to follow us everywhere. Her tears in protest of his place on our bookshelf quickly determined that his stay with us was over and he landed in a bin in our mudroom designated for donations (sorry mom!). The next morning, I heard shrieks of terror coming from the mudroom. My daughter had encountered the unwanted visitor in the donations bin. I scooped her up as she whimpered, “The monkey was peaking on me!" (She thought the elf was a monkey). To demonstrate to her that I would keep her safe from all evils I walked that elf/monkey straight to the trash, popped him in, and discarded some leftover eggs from breakfast right on top. I gathered up the trash and headed out to the garage to ensure the elf would be a threat to her no longer.

For the next week I witnessed in awe as she worked through this traumatic experience. Each day, as she was reminded of the event by catching a glimpse of the donation bin, or even the doorway to the mudroom, she would recount the horror she experienced from beginning to end. “The monkey was peaking, monkey said boo, me sad, mama put monkey in trash with eggs. Done.” This same story was recounted, from beginning to end, any time she was reminded of anything associated with the event. She even regularly checked in the trash to ensure that the elf was no longer there, and smiled to realize that he was, in fact, gone with the eggs.

My awe arose from having intimate knowledge of how trauma reactions are developed and maintained. You see, during this time I was also working as a trauma specialist for a Veteran’s hospital. I knew that, as we grow and develop language (and therefore rules about how the world works), we learn to avoid pain and seek pleasure. My daughter, free from these rules about avoiding pain, kept going back to the scene of the crime, talked openly about her experience, and as a consequence gained mastery over herself and the situation.

Today, decades of rigorous research tell us that the way that all species heal from trauma is through moving toward it. My daughter’s initial experiences of confusion, horror, fear, and the recurring need to check that she was safe by examining the trash can are all completely normal after ANY trauma. We humans are, in fact, not immune to the effects of a surprise and unwanted attack on our sense of reality and security in this world and it is the job of the mind to keep us safe. Like it or not we are vulnerable. And the world can feel pretty unsafe these days, throwing our mind into hyperdrive and hypervigilance.

And let’s be clear. When it comes to PTSD, which is a clinical diagnosis, you do not need a diagnosis to validate that you have experienced trauma or that the effects that you feel totally rock your sense of reality, self, and safety. Trauma is trauma. The important part is that we recognize it and address it. Unfortunately, we are conditioned in this world to walk through our experiences with blinders on, sometimes pretending that everything is ok, and when it is not… well, don’t talk about it because it will only cause both you and me pain.

I invite you to be bold in the face of trauma. Hiding trauma away and pretending that it did not happen will not serve you. As Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, entitled his pivotal book on the lifetime effects of trauma, “The Body Keeps the Score.” So if you are not processing trauma in some way - through some combination of therapy, writing, art, yoga, and energy healing (just a few potential avenues toward healing) - it is staying in your body, mind, and soul, manifesting as chronic dis-ease as your psyche maintains its vigilance, ready for fight or flight.

Pretending trauma did not happen will not serve the ones around you either. The world is already full of people, rigid and inflexible, living their lives reacting out of fear of pain because they have not acknowledged that pain and suffering are a natural consequence of being human and living a full life. You have the choice of how you want to show up in this world, and silently suffering through your trauma does not need to be part of it.

My daughter no longer talks about the monkey/elf incident. In fact, after 7 days (SEVEN days!) of sharing her thoughts and emotions about the event, she has not mentioned it since. She does not have the tangled web of past related/unprocessed insults, memories, and images to sort through as most traumas at our ages will, so it was a relatively straightforward process. But still… SEVEN DAYS to freedom.

You can be free from the grips of trauma, too. As a trauma specialist in my previous career, I witnessed again and again the power of turning toward the fear and the pain, instead of our (understandable) habitual reaction to turn away: to buy a gun for protection, to overwork, overeat, over-medicate, to avoid all places/people/situations that might bring us harm, to avoid other people’s suffering.

Turn toward it. What if it’s not as bad as it says it is? This big scary monster, when you actually look at it straight on, what if it is really old, its fur scraggly, missing a tooth, and its roar isn’t quite as powerful as you feared?

What if that elf isn’t in the trash anymore?

You won’t know until you look. And you will be amazed at the space that will open up for you to actually live the life you dream of when you stop trying to look away.

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Let’s get you closer to living your life authentic today. Let’s do it together.

Caitlin ClarkeComment