I was five years old when I had my first encounter with trauma – much too young to comprehend the magnitude of the situation. It wasn’t until my first-grade class participated in a “Good Touch/Bad Touch” workshop, centered around educating and recognizing signs of sexual abuse, that I realized what had happened. After the presentation, I went straight to the school counselor and told her, in vivid description, the intimate details of my “bad touch” – what I know now to be sexual molestation.
I remember every painstaking minute of the grueling interview process that happened in a subsequent conference with my parents. The guilt and shame I’d been carrying around was far too heavy to for my little shoulders to carry alone. Finally, someone would share my pain and tell me I hadn’t done anything wrong – or so I thought.
In the meeting, my parents completely denied that anything happened and hushed the whole situation. Looking back – I kind of get it – I guess. Perhaps it was just too painful for them, and they had no idea how to respond. It was easiest just to make the whole thing go away.
I like to think that they did the best they could at the time. The manner in which the incident was handled – or not handled rather – ensured that I would spend the next 20 years of my life wearing victimization like a warm blanket pulled around my shoulders. In the years that followed, I sought the validation the six-year-old me didn’t get everywhere. More often than not, I turned to substance abuse of one kind or another to ease the pain and numb my existence. But even this would fail me, time and time again.
Trauma Became My “Normal”
Trauma became a common theme in my life as abuse, rejection, and chaos became the norm. I began self-medicating to allow me to exist in a numb state of utter oblivion. Eventually, my opiate addiction got so bad, that my life didn’t work anymore. I couldn’t even wake up and kiss my son in the morning without first downing opiates. There were days that I’d cry because I didn’t want to partake in my destructive ritual, but I couldn’t stop. I was an emotional mess with and without them. I wasn’t ready to admit to myself yet that I was addicted. After all, I had a prescription, right.
Eventually, I came face to face with the legal consequences of my opioid addiction. I was given a choice between losing custody of my son and going to prison or voluntarily checking myself into a treatment facility. No brainer. Little did I know that the latter choice would change my life for the better.
Drugs and Alcohol Weren’t the Real Problems. Trauma Was.
I went to a dual diagnosis treatment center which specialized in helping people with mental illness and substance abuse. While there, I learned that true sobriety encompasses a person’s mind, body, and soul. The facility did a good job of helping me break my physical addiction but only scratched the surface on healing my mind and soul of trauma.
It is important to be cognizant of the importance of healing emotional wounds and working through co-occurring disorders in recovery. A co-occurring disorder is the presence of not only a substance abuse disorder but a mental health disorder as well. Often times, substance abuse disorder is the result of an untreated mental health disorder. When a person has used substances to self medicate and gets sober, it’s common for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms to surface from unresolved trauma.
I managed to move through a year and a half of life sober but was absolutely miserable. The reality was that drugs and alcohol weren’t the problems. They had been my solutions. The problem was that I’d never dealt with the trauma I experienced as a child. By getting sober, I took away the only ways that I’d ever coped. Without them, I was sober, but I was angry, restless, discontent, and unhappy.
Trauma Changes a Child’s Brain
Trauma and early negative experiences affect the development and even structure of the brain. Women who were sexually abused as children show significantly diminished brain volume on brain scans. The structure and function of the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory), for example, are different when compared to individuals who weren’t traumatized.”
Science has proven that when an individual experiences trauma, in early developmental stages, effects can be longer-lasting and more detrimental. PTSD is a direct result of a threat to self-caused by extreme horror, helplessness, or paralyzing fear. Without treatment, the individual is more likely to experience intense symptoms of PTSD over time.
I was no exception to these statistics. In fact, I fit the perfect model. I went to the people I trusted the most, with my trauma, and their denial caused a detrimental snowball effect. I was drowning in the symptoms of PTSD but I refused to seek treatment for so many years. Until one day, someone suggested that I take a look at what was the root cause of my misery. When my pain became greater than my fear of changing, I sought therapy and started working with a local trauma therapist.
The Two Categories of Trauma
Trauma can come in many forms. All trauma is typically identified in one of two categories below. I personally experienced both.
Single Event Trauma
This type of trauma is one occurrence that exceeds a person’s capacity to cope and causes a disruption in emotional functioning. These distressing events don’t have to be life-threatening. It can be any event that leaves the individual feeling powerless and traumatized. This can include a car wreck, natural disaster, home invasion, rape, or an accident or crime, for example.
Here the traumatic event is not an isolated incident. The victim may endure ongoing trauma for an extended period of time. This can include, for instance, sexual abuse, physical abuse, significant psychological neglect, witnessing ongoing abuse of some kind, or military combat.
Unresolved trauma can wreak havoc on even the most seemingly high-functioning individual. The stress of my childhood trauma exceeded the ability of my young brain to cope and was suppressed and unresolved for most of my life. Over the next 20 years, I created a multitude of defense mechanisms to function. I learned that these psychological walls, which originally protected me and helped me survive the initial trauma as a child, were largely responsible for and contributing to my unhappiness and mental conditions as an adult. I was a victim of my past. Emotionally, I was still living out the unresolved trauma and chaos of my childhood.
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
In therapy, I discovered that I met every criterion for an individual suffering from PTSD. This piece of information was important because it gave a name to my problems and, in a way, validated my childhood experiences as trauma. I now had a foundation from which to begin healing. My therapist suggested that we begin unraveling the webs trauma had integrally woven throughout my emotional being. Over time, as we proceeded through trauma therapy, I discovered a sense of freedom and was no longer a prisoner of my past.
Working through therapy for PTSD and any other form of trauma therapy can be a tall order. It’s not fun! It’s 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 to heal, but it can be very scary. Each person and extrication experience is unique. It is important for the individual to feel that they are in complete control of their own recovery, as they become more willing to walk towards healing.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
TF-CBT is a cognitive behavioral therapy specifically formatted to help individuals who have experienced trauma. Psychoeducation is typically the starting point for this type of therapy. In psychoeducation, the victim becomes knowledgeable about trauma and its effects. Through this process, an individual can begin to understand and unravel their experiences and behaviors. The therapist will also help the person identify trauma, triggers, learn relaxation techniques, and create feelings of safety.
Inner Child Healing Psychotherapy
Many emotional and relationship difficulties stem from a lack of connection to our emotional subconscious, sometimes called our inner child. Inner child psychotherapy concentrates on breaking down the dissociative walls that many trauma victims build as coping mechanisms. During this therapy, the practitioner will encourage the person to connect with their, often times fearful and defiant, inner child in order to recreate a feeling of safety. Inner child healing can help an individual replace old unhealthy behaviors with healthy coping skills.
You Have to Feel It to Heal It
I am actively involved in Inner Child Psychotherapy. Because my first encounter with trauma was at a very young age, I coped by completely detaching from my inner child at the time. That inner child is responsible for my automatic reactions to triggers as an adult. The reactions were wired into my subconscious brain. Emotionally, I was still operating as that scared little girl. Without drugs and alcohol, my coping mechanisms, I found myself struggling to function: eat, sleep, process emotions, or engage in any sort of relationship.
Healing from trauma is not fun – because you have to feel it to heal it – but is essential, good work. During one of my self-demolition sessions (as I came to call them because you have to tear yourself down to build yourself back up), 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 had ever validated my trauma until that day. In recovery, people often speak of spiritual experiences. Well, that day was my first spiritual encounter, but it would not be my last.
As I begin to unravel the painful memories of my past, I am walking through new anxieties and physiological responses as I open the memories I have “locked-down” for almost 20 years of my life.
Today, I live a healthier, happier life and gravitate towards things that make me uncomfortable. I have come to know that through discomfort comes adversity – and ultimately growth. I continue therapy for my PTSD/depersonalization disorder and am actively involved in my local AA community. On the path of sobriety, I have made strong connections with other women on similar journeys. Some days are harder than others. We give each other strength.
Sharing my experiences with others struggling with co-occurring disorders gives me hope and a sense of purpose. This purpose is the driving force for me to continue the good fight and spread my story. Grace met me face to face. The beauty of valiantly cleaning up the wreckage of our past is freedom from the bondage of self. It’s not fun, but healing from trauma is possible.
Tricia Moceo advocates long-term sobriety by providing resources to recovering addicts and shedding light on the disease of addiction. She has found purpose in sharing her experience through writing for other websites, spreading hope and encouragement. Tricia is a mother of two, actively involved in her local recovery community, and is passionate about helping other women find hope in seemingly hopeless situations.