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.
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.