The opposite of being traumatized is to communicate fully.
Traumatic events are almost impossible to put into words. We all need someone to whom we can express our feelings that words cannot describe. Our initial imprints of the events of September 11 are not stories but images and feelings. We obtain sublime emotional gratification in expressing our minds-eye to close friends, 12 Step meetings, or a therapist. One of the sublime benefits of attending a 12 Step meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous is the opportunity to express inner feelings of helplessness that we have never had the opportunity to express anywhere else. Public story and inner experience finally become integrated. The ability to communicate our inner feelings, our interiority, is the opposite of being traumatized.
During the pandemic isolation, writing about upsetting events in these blogs improves my physical and mental health more than attending 12 Step Zoom meetings. The mere expression of trauma is not sufficient. Health does appear to require translating experiences into precise language. It is easier for me to communicate by blogging than by Zooming.
Feeling listened to and understood changes our physiology. Being able to articulate a complex feeling and having our feelings recognized lights up our limbic brain. Activating our emotional brain creates a moment of enlightenment. In contrast, being met by silence and incomprehension kills the spirit. Or, as John Bowlby so helpfully worded it: “What cannot be spoken to the [m]other cannot be told to the self.” Being blessed with a mother who can fully communicate with you when you are young is the opposite of being traumatized.
If I hide from myself the fact that my negligent parents allowed a group of Mexican kids to hit me in the head with a rock when I was young, I am constantly vulnerable to triggers like a frightened chattering monkey in the jungle. My whole life I have been in a full-body response as my brain is constantly secreting the hormones that signal danger. Without language and context, my awareness is limited to: “I’m scared.” Determined to stay in control, I avoided anybody or anything that reminded me even vaguely of my trauma. I became a ghost in the big city. I alternated from being inhibited and uptight to being reactive and explosive–all without knowing why. My trauma radically changed me so much that I never felt like “myself.” Sometimes you will hear people in A.A. meetings share that they felt like they never received their copy of “The Owners Manual for Human Beings” when they were born.
We are better at talking about others than talking about ourselves.
It was excruciatingly difficult to put that feeling of no longer being myself into words. Language evolved primarily to share “things out there,” not to communicate our inner feelings, our interoception. Most of us, especially those of us in recovery, are better at describing someone else than we are at describing ourselves.
By keeping my secrets to myself and suppressing my feelings and information, I was fundamentally at war with myself. Hiding my feelings took an enormous amount of energy. It sapped my motivation to pursue worthwhile goals and it left me shut down. When I was a child I wanted to be an oceanographer. But then after I became a teenager, I spent the first half of my adult life trying to be a successful musician so lots of people would “like” me. And I had no native musical talent! My stress hormones kept flooding my body and so it exploded with shingles and a heart attack. I engaged in irrational and embarrassing behaviors that hurt myself and everyone around me. Only after I identified the source of my responses did I start to really understand myself.
By practicing mindfulness, I am able to stop myself before I act out in my infantile rage at being hit in the head and getting knocked unconscious by that rock when I was four years old. Expressing that childhood injury to my body, mind and soul was the the opposite of being traumatized. I had to learn to listen to the frozen anxiety in my body.
Body perception is the foundation of emotional awareness
We can get past the limitations of words by practicing mindfulness of the self-observing, body-based self system. Perceiving the body speaking to us through visceral sensations is the very foundation of emotional awareness. Listen to your body tonight, it’s gonna treat you right!
As functioning members of society, we are conditioned to be cool in our day-to-day interactions and subordinate our feelings to the task at hand. When we talk with someone with whom we don’t feel completely safe, our social editor jumps in on full alert and our guard is up. Social psychologist James Pennebaker says that a healthy respect for the importance of inhibition, of keeping things to yourself, is the glue of civilization. Conversely, he also said that people pay a price for trying to suppress being aware of the ten-foot tall monster in the room.
We are healed within the context of a welcoming community
It is an enormous challenge to find safe places to express the pain of trauma, which is why survivor groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics and other support groups can be so instrumental in recovering from addiction as well as trauma. Finding a responsive community in which to tell your truth makes recovery possible. It is as if we are all in the same life-boat together.
Some are sicker than others
However, as the most broken man ever to recover from alcoholism, I also needed to finally find a professional therapist who was trained in eye movement desensitizing and reprogramming (EMDR) and who could listen to my childhood trauma and help me clear it out of my neural pathways. Re-experiencing and reprograming my childhood trauma within the context of EMDR therapy was the opposite of being traumatized.
Bill Wilson, the co-founder of A.A. said that the whole 12 Step program could be summed up in three words: recovery, service and unity. Why do we practice unity in A.A? Because it is a moral imperative? No, alcoholics are not inherently moral people. Do we practice inclusiveness because it is the law? No, addicts are not inherently law-abiding citizens. Do we practice diversity because it is a current buzzword, because it is hip, trendy and all over the news and public protests? No, we practice unity because diversity makes us stronger. We need a constantly enlarging gene pool to evolve and heal. Practicing unity in 12 Step meetings makes us stronger and is the opposite of being traumatized.