The Trouble with Trauma, part 2
(Continued from The Trouble with Trauma, part 1)
In re-reading the first part of this article, I was struck by how much I left out about how much my sexual trauma had truly impacted me. Nowhere did I mention the crippling social anxiety, the irrational self-hatred, the long bouts of depression, the sense of feeling frozen within my isolation — how stuck I was in my own head, unable to access my emotions and so very disconnected from my own body. I could write a whole book about it! But that’s actually not what I want to get into here. No, right now I want to talk about something that every trauma survivor is familiar with — the pernicious intractability of trauma. How incredibly, maddeningly difficult it is to heal from trauma.
For background, I should say that I have a bit of a unique perch from which to observe my trauma and healing process. There are aspects of my experience that are very typical of a trauma survivor, and other aspects that are distinctly a-typical, and each informs the other in interesting ways. Specifically, in my years of searching for a way to “fix” whatever was going on with me, I eventually started exploring various forms of “energy healing” — despite my roots as an atheist, and ever mindful of the dangers of irrational belief systems (I could write a whole book on my process around that, too). But as a principled skeptic and a “results guy,” I will use anything that works, and much to my surprise, some forms of energy healing do indeed work. At least, that is my experience.
For those who aren’t familiar with energy healing, it comes in many forms, the most well-known of which might be tai chi. In tai chi, you learn slow, specific, intentional movements that have the effect of strengthening your body’s chi, or subtle life energy. Acupuncture is based on this theory of health and wellness. I studied tai chi and some of its variants for several years before learning about Reiki, in which you learn to “channel,” or direct, nourishing “ki”/chi energy for healing purposes. These all had a lovely effect on my physical body, but what I really needed was help with my emotional issues, so eventually my studies moved on to the more esoteric. I learned systems that gave me great insight into how consciousness works, how emotional energy is held in the physical tissue and subtle energy systems. I became something of an expert in how to deconstruct patterns of consciousness that cause suffering. My issues around self-hatred, rejection, low self-worth, anxiety, etc. all became less pronounced, eventually getting to the point where they didn’t hold much sway over me anymore. Over time, my identification with my body and sense of personal self got to be very thin. I experienced life as just arising, with little in the way of a story attached to it. Nowhere to go, no one to be.
I also got to a point where I didn’t feel the need for romantic relationships. I wasn’t avoiding them, but if I happened to be celibate for the rest of my life, that would have been okay with me. It felt very liberating, especially after decades of painful yearning for that perfect soulmate. And yet… And yet… I knew that this wasn’t true freedom. I might have been okay with isolation, but that didn’t mean that I was actually okay, or that I had somehow transcended all the painful issues that caused my isolation in the first place. And at the end of the day, I didn’t want to use my spirituality to bypass my unresolved issues. I wanted to resolve them.
So when—after 16 years of studying and applying these esoteric arts — it finally dawned on me that the source of my ongoing struggles was unseen childhood sexual trauma, I felt a bit like Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain scientist who gave a TED talk on her experience of having a stroke: Here I was, a self-styled “expert” in consciousness, and suddenly I had this bombshell revelation hit me like a grenade in my soul. How could I have missed it? After decades of developing awareness and clarity through meditation on my deepest suffering, I had somehow managed not to notice the enormous elephant of trauma-consciousness in the tiny space of my body. That’s how deeply it was buried.
Still, as soon as the trauma came to light I firmly believed that I was as well-positioned as possible to unravel this terrible injury to my psyche. I started with the lowest hanging fruit —I used the tools I had to clear trauma from my amygdala (the part of the brain that deals in fear and survival), and then the overall nervous system. Immediate relief! Then I moved on to clearing any trauma from the physical site of the assault; I immediately felt tension release from around my anus, and afterward I felt like I was inhabiting my body in a way I could never have even imagined before. Then I moved on to my body’s subtle energy system, clearing trauma from each emotional center called “chakras.” After I cleared trauma from my heart chakra, I had this amazing experience of feeling Heart energy pouring through my chest, and everywhere it touched, something came alive again inside me. Eventually, this Heart energy moved toward a “bubble of consciousness” above and to the right of my head, and when it touched that bubble, it popped, after which I felt all this autistic consciousness drain out, like the puss of a boil (I have never been officially diagnosed with ASD, but a number of my mental health professional friends have remarked that I displayed many of the tell-tale traits).
Eventually, though, I got through all the low-hanging fruit, and the trauma was still there. Specifically, I became aware of the PTSD symptoms coming to the surface, which made me feel jittery, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and constantly on edge. It took me 11 weeks of daily meditation and self-healing to clear the PTSD from my system. I remember the moment it finally released, it felt like someone physically shoved a long, incredibly thin needle through the center of my chest, and when it touched my spine I cried out in pain — and then it was gone, and never came back.
And yet, the trauma was still there. The specific symptoms of PTSD were gone, but I could still feel the trauma deep down in there… somewhere. Sometimes I could sense it, but most of the time I could only feel the many layers of strategic avoidance that I must have developed subconsciously starting immediately after the incident, or even during it. I continued to throw everything I had at it for hours every day, only to make modest progress (at best) that never seemed to end in resolution. It was a very humbling experience, and I developed a sense of awe for people who have been dealing with trauma their whole lives.
And that, my friends, is what I mean by “the trouble with trauma”—after a certain point, for a lot of survivors it isn’t even the trauma itself that is the problem. Trauma is never a good feeling, but eventually you can just feel it and process it as intense sensation. But only if you can feel it. Like an oyster with a grain of sand, humans unconsciously wrap our trauma in layers and layers of soothing numbness and avoidance consciousness, until the day we realize it’s still there, it’s still impacting us in ways we cannot abide, and we want to heal it, but by this point unraveling all that self-protection seems nearly impossible. We become trapped with our trauma, unable to bury it deep enough to not be affected by it, and unable to dig it up enough to truly heal it. It’s truly maddening.
When I started working on my trauma, one of my first thoughts was, “Well, looks like I have another project to work on!” I was a bit flippant about it because I expected to be able to resolve it in relatively short order. Now, 20 months into this process, I understand how naïve I was. Although I still fully expect to resolve my trauma before I die, I now understand why so many trauma survivors I’ve met seem so resigned to a life of unresolved trauma. Understanding it as I do now, I think it’s an entirely rational and self-loving choice to accept that it will always be there, and to deal with it by managing the symptoms as best as possible. Knowing the amount of time it takes to make even modest progress, time often spent in much discomfort, I can understand choosing instead just to live life and enjoy it as much as possible.
But for me, the successes I’ve had already are well worth the hundreds of hours I’ve put into it so far. I feel a much greater ease with my self and my sexuality than I ever imagined possible, my relating to women I’m attracted to has developed a sense of natural ease, and I can only imagine how much better it will get once I’ve fully rooted it out of my system. When (yes, when!) that day comes, I’ll write part 3 of this article. Until then, du courage everyone.