Breaking Whole: How Surviving Trauma Makes Us Extraordinary

I often get asked how I manage to work with clients who have experienced deep, wounding traumas. “How do you hear these stories all day and not lose faith in humanity?” The question comes from colleagues and friends, who look at me with what seems like a combination of pity and admiration. Here’s the truth: my work with trauma survivors is a privilege I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. The best way I can think of explaining this is through metaphor. The visionary J.K. Rowling created a literary icon in Harry Potter, who outlived both of his parents and spent his childhood fighting dark forces. Each year, he traveled to Hogwarts, the school at which he learned to cultivate his own strength. While heading up to the Hogwarts castle during his fourth year, something unusual happened:

Here stood the hundred or so horseless stagecoaches that always took the students above first year up to the castle. Harry glanced quickly at them…then did a double-take. The coaches were no longer horseless. There were creatures standing between the carriage shafts. If he had had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses, though there was something reptilian about them, too.

‘I was saying, what are those horse things?’ Harry said, as he, Ron, and Luna made for the carriage in which Hermione and Ginny were already sitting.

‘What horse things?’

‘The horse things pulling the carriages!’ said Harry impatiently. They were, after all, about three feet from the nearest one; it was watching them with empty white eyes. Ron, however, gave Harry a perplexed look.

                                                                        (Rowling, 2003, p. 196-197)

The bat-winged horses were first visible to Harry Potter as he returned to Hogwarts after battling terrifying forces that were much more powerful than himself. He felt different, altered, and he wasn’t sure why.

This happens to us non-fiction characters too. We go through traumatic events that alter the essence of our beings forever. And once that happens, we learn to see the extraordinary. What changes us is not only death itself, but also the threat of annihilation. When we are defenseless against a fist that is stronger than ours, a gun held to our heads, the sensation of being ripped in two, those things remain carved into our beings. We, as a human race, often do not want to think about this sort of violence. It may be overwhelming to admit that humans are able to damage other humans in those ways. Those experiences are what psychologists call trauma.

If you’ve been there, you may recognize it as the time when everything around you suddenly looked different or went dark. You might have felt like you couldn’t feel your body or hear your thoughts. You may have thought you were breaking into pieces and that you would not survive. You might remember feeling numb, frozen, or unable to move. You might have a hard time remembering it at all. The memories, when they come, might be in flashes of sounds, smells, or images. This is called dissociation.

There is actual scientific evidence that trauma often causes dissociation, that is, the separation of parts of our consciousness such as thoughts, feelings, sounds, images, and physical sensations (van der Kolk, 2015). Imagine, for a moment that the human brain is a sparkling crystal sphere made up of thoughts, feelings and experiences. Then, when trauma occurs, it brings a hammer down onto the crystal, splitting off the shards of the human self. Memories might come apart from the rest of the brain; sights and sounds might get disconnected in shards of their own. The traumatized individual still has all the parts of himself or herself within, but those parts are fragmented, dissociated from one another. People describe it as “I felt like I was out of my body, watching myself from above.” “All I saw was the knife, and then it’s blank after that.” When the brain shatters into parts, it is able to protect the inner self during times of danger.

Harry Potter experienced brain-altering trauma when he faced the Dark Lord who had murdered his parents. During that battle, Harry used all of his inner resources to make sure that darkness was defeated. However, he was forced to watch helplessly as his friend died right before his eyes. After returning to Hogwarts, Harry was shocked at his ability to see the bat-winged horses that seemed invisible to those around him. One day, he stood in the forest, watching and listening as Professor Hagrid began a class about magical creatures.

A pair of blank, white, shining eyes were growing larger through the gloom and a moment later the dragonish face, neck, and then skeletal body of a great, black, winged horse emerged from the darkness…A great wave of relief broke over Harry. Here at last was proof that he had not imagined these creatures, that they were real: Hagrid knew about them too.

“Don’ worry, it won’ hurt yeh,” said Hagrid patiently. “Righ’, now, who can tell me why some o’ you can see them an’ some can’t?”

Hermione raised her hand. “Go on then,” said Hagrid, beaming at her.

“The only people who can see thestrals,” she said, “are people who have seen death.”

                                                            (Rowling, 2003, p. 444-445)

Harry saw the bat-winged horses, known as thestrals, because he had experienced death. He had seen someone die and he had fully accepted, understood, and internalized the experience. The loss had opened his eyes to things he had never seen before.

In my work with survivors of war, abuse, and terror, I have come to believe that when traumatic events shatter us into pieces, our very beings expand to hold all of those pieces. And in that space between the shattered parts of ourselves, that’s where superhuman strength grows. That’s where the extraordinary is planted. That immense pain, fear, and sadness can be the edge that makes us different and celestial and able to impact others in a whole new way.

Trauma is the most painful, terrifying, tragic part of our human reality. And traumatic horrors have produced some of the most giving and understanding angels who light up our world.  Trauma may allow us to see the bat-winged horses in our lives, those things that may be invisible to those without enhanced vision. We may develop finely tuned radars for detecting people with pure hearts. We may develop a sixth sense about which people don’t have good intentions. And we can use those perceptions to protect others, to ensure that we guide them away from darkness. We can find the rays of light in the people around us and help them shed their limitations so that their souls shine through. We may feel more, see more, love more, bleed more, be more than we were born to be, because trauma broke through the limits of our beings and created space for beautiful, unencumbered strength.

This is why it is my absolute honor to work with people who have survived the unthinkable. I get to bear witness as trauma survivors collect the pieces of pain and turn them into something greater than the sum of its parts.

If this resonates because you are one of the dear souls who can see the bat-winged horses, know that you might just be absolutely magical.

References

Rowling, J. K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Say Something, I’m Giving Up On You

Alexis hugs a pillow to her chest as she swallows hard. “Doc, I know you want me to tell him how I feel, but…It’s like there’s a block in my throat.” She seems to choke on her words when she senses conflict. She describes a fight she had with her boyfriend over dinner last night, and how it ended with her crying while he asked, “What did I do? Just tell me!” as he watched her withdraw into herself. Alexis knows that her voice hasn’t been the same since high school when a supposed friend violated her space and left scars deep within her psyche. Even though many years have passed, she still freezes when she feels threatened in her relationships, hiding behind a curtain of long brown hair and silence.

If you’ve ever loved someone who has been through the burning flames of physical or emotional abuse, there is a possibility that he or she has developed a complex posttraumatic stress disorder. In short, once an individual has been forced to endure the prolonged and repeated infliction of pain at the hands of someone they trust, they may have a hard time trusting anyone again. They may experience symptoms of complex trauma such as problems with emotion regulation, impulse control, focus, dissociation, and interpersonal relationships (van der Kolk, 2014). And the very nature of those symptoms means that it is often impossible for the sufferer to speak about what they are experiencing. Instead, they may shut down or react in defensive anger.

What they may actually be trying to communicate is:

1. When I feel threatened, it is hard for me to speak. The key word in that sentence is “feel.” You may not have actually lifted your hand or said something hurtful, and yet you may have triggered a fear that is mired in his or her past. Survivors of trauma often have overactive adrenal responses to threat, which means that when they register a threat to their emotional or physical safety, the blood rushes from their brains down to their extremities, readying their bodies to fight or flee. These involuntary protective mechanisms place a very real limitation on the biological functions necessary to communicate (Perry, 2009).

2. When I do speak up and tell you how I feel, know that this was a Herculean effort. Steven Porges (2011) identified as a dorsal vagal complex to severe threat, during which the brain shuts down non-essential functions like speech, and lowers metabolism throughout the body, leading to an internal collapse in a state known as “freeze.” This often appears as complete shut down: silence, lack of facial expression or interaction. Therefore, when your beloved survivor does try and speak in moments of conflict, be sure to listen, validate, and honor those words. As Alexis said to me during one tearful session, “just…just treat my words like little butterflies. If you crush them, they’ll die forever.”

3. I might have sudden extreme reactions that only make perfect sense if you understand how they happen. Imagine being plunged into a boiling hot bathtub; you would most likely scream, “Ouch!” Now imagine that the pain receptors in your body have been damaged, and you are in the tub, watching time pass by for a while before you notice third-degree burns on your body. Your scream may be sudden, and loud, and disproportionate to your seeming relaxation just moments before. This actually makes perfect sense if you factor in those damaged nerves.

MRI studies show that adult women who have been abused as children have hippocampal regions that are 18 percent smaller than those of a control group (Vythilingam et al., 2002). This means that the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions is compromised. The survivor may not know how to read her own internal signals that tell her she is starting to feel hurt or upset. This makes sense because she has learned to ignore her own gut instincts. Therefore, when she finally realizes, with a jolt, that she feels afraid or hurt, she may react impulsively in a manner that seems extreme for a given situation.

4. I might blame myself for things that I have not caused. There are times when I will deny my own needs to reduce or avoid conflict. Object relations theory is an organized way of understanding relationship dynamics (Klein, M. as cited by Kernberg, 1988). The theory posits that infants use projective identification to cope with neglect or abuse. If babies could string sentences together, it might sound like this, “Well my mother is ignoring my cries. It is too dangerous and painful for me, being so tiny and helpless, to believe she doesn’t care about me. So instead I’m going to decide that I’m a bad baby and she is a wonderful, loving mother.” The self-blame is a way for the infant to maintain the necessary illusion of a safe and loving caregiver.

Object relations theory begins in early childhood, but without intervention, those patterns of belief can last way into adulthood. In real time, this means that you may see your loved one blame himself for any conflict in your relationship, even when you are the one at fault. As the concerned wife of one trauma survivor described, “When I get home from work in a bad mood, and he feels the stress radiating off my body, he darts around the house cleaning everything in sight. I don’t get it.” Well, that’s because on a completely unconscious level he might blame himself for your mood.

5. Please do not diagnose or label me. You may think you know what your partner has been through as a child, or you may recognize that s/he has some of these symptoms. Remember that trauma can only be diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional that has performed a comprehensive clinical evaluation. It is possible for children and adults to survive unthinkable conditions without developing trauma diagnoses. It is also possible for people to develop trauma symptomology from incidents you may not think are “that bad.”

6. If you are not up to the task, gently let me go. It is not uncommon for trauma survivors to unconsciously replay the past by choosing partners who have their own relational challenges. This creates the potential for cycles of abuse to continue on and on, hurting both partners in the process. You might feel yourself beginning to fray at the seams and act in ways that do not make you feel proud. You may realize that you are increasingly sacrificing your priorities and needs and feeling resentful as a result. These are signs that it may be time to let go or take a break so that each of you may pursue individual paths to healing.

All those among us who try to open their hearts following abuse: they are true heroes. We can honor the bravery of complex trauma survivors by tuning into their needs and creating a space for connection and trust. Within that secure space, we may get to see incredible strength, the kind that can inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. And when we embrace those who have survived the worst sorts of mistreatment, we can ensure that hate will not win in the world around us.

References

Kernberg, O. F. (1988). Object relations theory in clinical practice. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14(4), 240-255.

Porges, S. W. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011).

van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Vythilingam, M., Heim, C., Newport, J., Miller, A. H., Anderson, E., Bronen, R., … Bremner, J. D. (2002). Childhood Trauma Associated With Smaller Hippocampal Volume in Women With Major Depression. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(12), 2072–2080.