Time heals they say. Does it really? Specializing in treating trauma has helped me to see that sometimes time gives way to more awareness that may not feel like healing at all. In fact, this awareness may be scary especially if we are unprepared for it. We may react to events and circumstances with strong feelings. We may feel we cannot explain our responses to what would otherwise seem innocuous to others. Yet, there we are, feeling rattled or perhaps even out of sorts. It is a bewildering thing.
To add to this, what may have caused one person to be traumatized may not for another. This inevitably makes the traumatized individual feel like something is really wrong with them, when in fact, it is not that something is wrong with the person, but that their coping resources were limited at the time of an event such that it left their mental and physical system feeling overwhelmed.
I remember driving away from St. Michael’s hospital on a warm spring day in 1989, despondently looking out the window of the car while I searched for THE TREE that my dad was fond of. Only hours earlier I was hugging my dad before surgery, and now I was leaving the hospital with the reality that I would never see him again.
I remember having this fleeting thought that maybe my dad was better off. Surely he would go to heaven, he was a good man, and perhaps he’d even be able to sit on the park bench by his tree instead of staring at it out the hospital windows.
Just 60 minutes earlier I had demanded the doctor let me see my dad. He advised against it, but I was a determined fifteen-year-old who needed to have physical proof that I was not in a terrible nightmare. After some time, we were escorted to the surgery room where my warm and loving father lay cold and lifeless; it was so overwhelming. That moment was more then I could bear. I was so angry at myself because before we found out about my dad passing, I was there filing my nails like a regular bored teenager in a time when cell phones did not exist, and every magazine had been read.
In what I can only describe as a flash I literally cognitively left my body. I went cold, emotionless and almost frozen. The only moment I remember between leaving the hospital and the next day was looking out for that damn tree as we slowly drove away. My body had never experienced, nor was it prepared to deal with this kind of devastating emotional and physical pain. I literally felt my heart hurting from my grief. I just went numb.
I look at a tree and say
This was indeed traumatic for my family and me. I didn’t know this at the time. What I did know was that I was hurting and there was no way for me to find words to adequately describe my anguish. Has time healed this wound? It is 30 years since my dad died. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. There isn’t a day that I don’t wish for him to be here with us, to meet my beautiful husband and 4 kids. But does it hurt as much as it did way back then? Well, no. That said, seemingly small things will happen that can rattle me, yet thanks to a committed mindfulness meditation practice I now can see me in my reaction rather than becoming the reaction. That took years to develop, life experience, wisdom, excellent mentoring and a dedicated practice.
When we first start to work through traumatic events, a mindfulness practice can be agitating and actually not recommended. Tolerating sitting in silence can be a challenge for the average person, let alone someone who has a trauma history. When there is trauma in your past, your entire nervous system has learned to be hyper-vigilant to potential danger. It would be rare that your nervous system would relax. Doing something like mindfulness would feel counterintuitive to your body in this state. However, it is the direction that we want to move in. Mindfulness enables meta-cognition, which in short is the ability to observe oneself as though you are the individual in the interaction but also a bystander. Meta-cognition is an incredibly powerful process that is central to trauma recovery. I firmly believe that with meta-cognition we can heal. We develop a sense of curiosity and questioning around our quick reactions, instead of turning to them as though they are fact. We are able to humbly admit that we don’t know what we don’t know, that we are not our stories, that we can postulate a narrative, but it will only be built on assumption and historical thinking.
What to do, how do we heal from our suffering? There is not one way to do this. What we do know for sure is that trauma recovery includes body, mind, and spirit. It requires having a therapeutic individual holding space for you in order for your nervous system to relax. It takes seeing that the world can be safe overall even though unsafe or disturbing things have happened.
So in reflection, I can say that time decreases the intensity of the original shock and over time you get really good at holding yourself together while you tell the story. Whether we heal is dependent on our processing the events we have been through. It isn’t enough to just meditate, or to hide away, or to ignore it, or better still to tell and retell your story. It is about carefully allowing your nervous system to learn that it can stay regulated while it touches the edges of what was once utterly overwhelming. Working with a carefully attuned clinician that is trained to observe and influence the nuances of your nervous system is critical to this kind of work.
Today, when someone reacts with me, I remind myself that at some level we have all experienced times when our nervous system was utterly overwhelmed. It might not have been something catastrophic or chronically painful, but it was enough for us to feel unsafe and unsure. I look at that person reacting, and I ask myself, “if this behaviour were the result of unresolved trauma what might they need right now?” And, always, I am reminded that what we all need and want is to be seen, heard and deeply understood. We can do this for each other and help one another heal.