I was 5 years old when I had my first encounter with trauma. Too young to comprehend the magnitude of the situation, my first grade class participated in a “Good Touch/Bad Touch” workshop,centered around educating and recognizing signs of sexual abuse. I found relief in finding a safe place to lay down the burden I had been carrying. I went straight to the school counselor and told her, in vivid description, the intimate details of my unwarranted molestation. I remember the grueling interview process that resulted in a conference with my parents. I was carrying the cross of guilt and shame, and it was a burden far too heavy to carry alone. That’s the thing about sexual abuse, often times the victim internalizes the experience and the result can be detrimental to establishing a sense of self worth. Finally someone could validate my pain, or so I thought. This resulted in complete denial and avoidance from my parents. Looking back, perhaps it was too painful. I like to think they did the best they could with what they had. I would spend the next 20 years of my life wearing victimization like a warm blanket, hopelessly seeking relief and validation. More often than not, I sought out relief in my ravishing substance abuse. This would later prove to fail me, time and time again.
Trauma became a common theme in my life. Abuse, rejection, and chaos became comfortable. I found myself anxiously avoiding intimate relationships. Over the years, I never really felt a part of. In fact, isolation became my reprieve. There was a sense of safety that accompanied separation from the rest of the world. I began self medicating in hopes of creating utter oblivion. I was so lost, like a tourist in a foreign country with no map. I had zero coping skills. Eventually, my opiate addiction had me by the throat and the consequences consumed me. I left for treatment, at a dual diagnosis treatment center, and that decision changed my life. I was introduced to not only sobriety, but to healing as well.
I managed to walk through a year and a half sober, but I realized I was still absolutely miserable. I was avoiding any conversation that required me to look at the painful traumas of my past. The reality is, that drugs/alcohol were not my problem… they were my solution. The problem was my fundamental inability to cope with my trauma. Ridding myself of the only solution I had ever known, I was irritable, restless, and discontent. It was finally suggested that I take a look at the root of my misery and seek out therapy. The pain finally became greater than the fear of changing and I started working with a local trauma and addiction specialist.
It is important to be mindful of the importance of healing old wounds and working through co-occurring disorders in recovery. High stress can trigger an individual to return to substances to drown out the symptoms of PTSD. According to American Addiction Centers, “When someone feels stressed, levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) are lowered, and adrenaline is increased. GABA is a kind of natural tranquilizer produced by the brain that can also be stimulated by drugs that suppress the central nervous system, like opioids, marijuana, alcohol, and benzodiazepines.” There is no specific time frame for the symptoms of PTSD to occur. When an individual has used substances to self medicate, PTSD symptoms can crop up years later. It is vital for anyone struggling with a dual diagnosis, to remain vigilant in understanding and addressing the impending anxiety and fear that surrounds unhealed trauma.
Trauma is typically identified in one of these 3 categories:
Intense, single event trauma
This type of trauma is typically one major occurrence. The individual will, often times, have a hard time walking through the incident alone.
Ex. Rape, abduction, home invasion, fire, tornado, earthquake, hurricane, car wreck, tragic accident
Unlike the trauma mentioned before, this specific incident is not isolated. Typically the victim endures ongoing trauma for an extended period of time.
Ex. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, significant psychological neglect, witnessing ongoing abuse of any sorts, military combat
I personally experienced a combination of both. The stress of my trauma was all consuming and exceeded my capability to cope. Over a span of almost 20 years, I created a multitude of defense mechanisms. I soon learned that these psychological walls were contributing to my demise. I became a victim of my past, I felt as if I was still living in my childhood consumed with trauma and chaos.
Unresolved trauma can wreak havoc on even the most seemingly high-functioning individual. Symptoms of unresolved trauma include:
- Dissociation (depersonalization, derealization, dissociative identity disorder)
- Appetite Loss
- Low Self Esteem
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Loss of Purpose
- Chronic Rage
- Flashbacks/Nightmares/Night Terrors
- Seeking out situations that mirror old trauma
- Memory Loss
I had a session with my therapist and I met every ounce of criteria that mimicked an individual suffering from PTSD. Finally, I became aware and I had a foundation to cultivate my healing. She suggested we begin with unraveling the webs trauma had weaved into my emotional being. Freedom met me in this place, and I was no longer in shackled to the trauma of my past.
Walking through therapy for PTSD and any other form of trauma therapy can be a tall order. It is most important that the individual feels safe and receives compassionate support from the facilitator. Breaking away from isolation, finding acceptance, and separating trauma from their identity is crucial for the individual. Each experience is unique in nature. It is important for the individual to feel as if they are in complete control of cultivating their own recovery, as they become more willing to walk towards healing.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
TFCBT is a cognitive behavioral therapy specifically formatted to help individuals suffering from trauma. Psychoeducation is typically the starting point for this type of therapy. Psychoeducation serves to educate the victim on trauma and its effects. The therapist will also help the individual identify feeling associated with the trauma, triggers, relaxation techniques, and help the victim create safety.
Inner Child Healing Psychotherapy
Many emotional and relationship difficulties stem from our lack of conscious connection to our inner child. Healing the inner child demolishes the dissociation that many trauma victims revel in. During this form of therapy, the therapist will encourage the individual to connect with their, often times fearful and defiant, inner child in order to recreate safety. Inner child healing can help the individual replace old behaviors with new and healthy coping skills such as establishing trust, promoting validation, and allowing the individual to work through the grief that follows trauma.
This specific type of therapy is one I am actively involved in. My first encounter with trauma was at a very young age. I coped by detaching completely from my inner child and that little girl is responsible for my seemingly effortless responses to triggers. At the root of it all, I was the scared little 5 year old girl that never healed the wounds of her past. Without drugs and alcohol, my resources were severed. Aside from the common withdrawal symptoms, I found myself struggling to eat, sleep, process emotions, or engage in any sort of vulnerability. During one of our self demolition sessions, I remember my therapist asking me “How much pain do you want to be in today? Only you can lay it down and start to heal.” No one ever validated my trauma, until that day. In recovery, many people speak of spiritual experiences and this was my first encounter.
Today, I gravitate towards things that make me uncomfortable. I know that through discomfort comes adversity, but ultimately comes growth. I continue to seek ongoing therapy for my PTSD/depersonalization disorder and I am actively involved in my local AA community. I stay connected to the women I’ve met in sobriety. Some days are harder than others. As I begin to unravel the painful memories of my past I am walking through new anxieties and physiological responses to the memories I have “locked-down” for almost 20 years of my life. Sharing my experiences with other women struggling with co-occurring disorders gives me hope. I have finally found my purpose and this has been the driving force for me to continue the good fight. Grace met me face to face. The beauty of valiantly cleaning up the wreckage of our past is freedom from the bondage of self.