December 1, 2019

Unlearning Trauma.


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I’ve been anorexic, bulimic, and depressed.

I’ve been suicidal.

I’ve been manic.

I’ve always been a “counter” though. Always tried to turn chaos into order with compulsive counting.

Calories, time, money—any systematic organization of numerical value.

My mind gave me this coping skill long ago, when I was 12 years old and underwent my childhood trauma initiation.

Trauma, as I and others define it, is any time when the direct experience overwhelms an already sensitive and overwhelmed nervous system—without having the needed resources to calm the system and fully process the experience out. It’s comparable to drowning without a life vest or buoy to grab onto. The nervous system steps in to simply survive the experience, while turning off other sensory processes.

Fight. Flight. Or freeze.

The nervous system saves us, temporarily stalling other processes like shaking, crying, or bodily movement that could essentially “move” the experience out of our body.

In traumatic experiences, we (meaning the nervous system) do what is necessary to survive, even if that means temporary or longer-term suppression of emotional and sensory responses.

We get stuck. Frozen in time. Until one day, we acquire the resources to go back in time and heal this pain.

We all have traumas, big and small. Life is traumatic. Life traumatizes most who have lived it.

Switching from a private Christian school with a tight-knit friend group, to a public school in the middle of middle school, 7th grade year, was my trauma, my induction into sensory overload.

I froze. I fled. I panicked at what my outer world was showing me.

Pure chaos.

And inside, isolation.

I stopped eating. But, first I started counting. Calories. Cheez-It crackers. Minutes ran. Sit-ups. Push-ups. Walls squats.

I became a clock watcher. Time dictated my freedom at any given moment. How much more I had to exert before I could collapse into a dizzy, self-starved state on the treadmill.

Pain has a funny way of making you think that if you become the controller of when and how it arrives, somehow you’ve taken back your power.

I have felt overwhelmed most of my life. Always a little over-stimulated with life, the twists, the turns, the unknowns, the chaos, the disorder, the inevitable pain and loss.

So, I have remained a counter. Obsessive. Compulsive. It racks my brain each day, each impulse to check out my financial state, my proposed future bent on rigid unchanging ground.

It isn’t a way to live, truly. It is a Ziploc bag slowly zipping shut. It is a starched shirt two sizes too small. Always squeezing on my breath. My ribcage. My life force.

Life has always felt chaotic to my self-organizing brain. Why do we have to constantly strategize our life just to get our basic needs met?

Fear is conditioned. Faith is what we get robbed of, earlier and earlier these days. If I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self one thing (of many), it would be this:

“Life is chaotic. Life is messy. Life is unpredictable. Life is painful. And life is sweet. And joyful. Life isn’t always out to get you, and sometimes it may feel this way. Pain is a part of being human. To be human, is to feel pain and loss and death. We don’t always get to choose the manner it shows up, but we do get to choose to allow it. Like or dislike it.”

Oh yeah, and sweetie, “You are by no means under any obligation to know what each day will bring. This is and was never your job. Life is going to happen, one way or the other, and it does no good worrying yourself silly over what may come to pass or what may not.”

My child-self is still afraid inside my 28-year-old skin. She doesn’t always feel safe, or taken care of. She still hopes that counting will bring us both sanity and order. She still wishes life was cozy and warm. She doesn’t understand why life is the way it is. She doesn’t like how things are. She, in fact, rages and weeps at the unfairness of the world.

I wish I could tell her that bad things won’t happen. That life won’t hurt sometimes. That only good things happen to good hearts like hers. But, I would be a liar.

We all have learned to cope with life. With chaos. Sometimes, these coping strategies work short-term. But, never truly in the long-term. In order to switch from a short-term fix to long-term healing, we must now switch to more somatic- based processes, out of the mental mind masturbation.

Breathing. Yoga. Qi Gong. Grounding-based practices. Somatic, trauma informed (i.e. all therapy should be trauma informed), Craniosacral therapy, just to name a few.

We are always a healing system in progress. Learning new skills, new tools, getting more support, building resiliency.

What we make of trauma is up to us.

I don’t always choose resiliency and strength. Some days, I choose victimization. And, overwhelm still captures me in its grip.

I can’t go back in time, but I can choose to start each day with new awareness and deeper compassion for the self that underwent the trauma. Hold the self close and let her know pain doesn’t mean she did anything wrong, or that bad things are coming for her.

Pain is life. Life is pain. And chaos.

We can count on it. And we can count on ourselves to find the strength, the support, and the resiliency to go through the experience this time, knowing that we are resourced better than we’ve ever been, and these resources can only keep building.

Breathe, sweet one, learn to breathe, when you want to count. Breathe into your surroundings. Sense. Notice. And be kind.

Be gentle to the one unlearning trauma.

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