Chapter 1: Shit Happens (excerpt)
All of us reading this book know what a few still try to deny: shit happens. And it happens to us.
It happens when a loved one dies a sudden and violent death, when a child is molested, when you’re sent off to war and learn to kill or watch others be maimed and killed. It happens when an accident changes the shape of your life, in one fell swoop smashing your dreams forever. It happens when vigilantes burn down your church or someone savagely beats you for being queer. When being the wrong color or wrong religion can make you scared for your life. When the levees break. When the plane goes down. Every time someone is raped.
Shit happens not just with evil strangers and natural disasters, but also within our own families. It happens when a parent gets drunk and beats a child. It happens when a caretaker or sibling crosses boundaries, messing with your mind, betraying your trust. It happens in all kinds of ways and under all kinds of cover. Even in the name of love.
I wish I could tell you something different, but you know this is true. You know it from your own experience. It’s not what any of us wanted. Oh, how we wish we lived in a safe, cozy world. It’s just that we don’t.
What Is Trauma?
These bad things that happen have the kind of wallop that they do because of their traumatic nature. It will help you understand these impacts if you learn more about trauma.
First you need to understand that trauma is by nature terrifying and completely overwhelming. Something is happening that you can’t control, and it feels big enough to destroy you. In fact, your awareness that you are endangered is an essential ingredient of trauma. It is the perception of a direct threat to your life, well-being, or sanity that marks trauma. Freud recognized this when he said that in trauma a person feels completely helpless and ineffective in the face of what is perceived to be overwhelming danger.
This is the basic understanding of most of those studying trauma today and of the mental health community. Author Maggie Scarf provided a useful distinction when she said there are “big-T traumas” and “little-t traumas.” Big-T traumas are what I just described. Little-t traumas may not be life threatening (certainly not from the outside) or as horrifying as the usual list of qualifying traumas (such as war, torture, sexual abuse, physical attack, life-threatening accidents, natural disasters), but they can be totally disruptive and destructive. They are the kinds of events that are disqualified when diagnosing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because they are more common and not as universally traumatizing, yet they are seriously traumatizing to some people. Examples include divorce, major betrayal, loss of job or business, and accidents that are not life threatening. Because such events may lead to symptoms and needs that are similar to those in the big-T traumas, this book will be relevant to many with this history.
Chapter 11: Ain’t Broke No More (excerpt)
It’s Never Too Late for a Little Happiness
When a person is lost in trauma, life is experienced in somber tones. We know all too well the suffering of life and feel that fun is somehow for others. The deeply branded imprint of the bad that has happened and the struggle with trauma symptoms and survival needs tend to leave little room for enjoyment.
As we heal, the situation changes. We may have a little time and energy to spare (shock!), and doing something just for pleasure enters the realm of possibility. Maybe you’ve always made time for pleasure. But if you haven’t, welcome to another aspect of the world. It’s okay to have fun. It’s okay to enjoy yourself. It’s okay to let go of others’ suffering as well as your own and for a little time be “selfish.” Actually it’s not selfish; it’s self-regenerating. It’s a very important human capacity that helps keep us alive. Enjoyment might be considered essential nourishment for our being. And when you heal, this nourishment is more available to you. It’s part of the prize for going through all that work.
It might help to understand more of the mechanism behind this. Often if we’re dealing with really big stuff (either consciously or unconsciously), our daily life doesn’t follow a workable rhythm but rather is constantly thrown off by pressing needs, dramas, unexpected twists and turns, and managing our symptoms. As we resolve the underlying issues and learn to self-regulate our biology, our life gradually falls into line. Maybe for the first time, we are willing to plan social and recreational activities in advance, no longer worried about unexpected emotional storms or urgent needs preempting them. To be able to look forward to and count on rewarding activities is important, a way of saying that our pleasure and happiness count.
As the past falls away, you have energy for investing in activities that never made the priority list. It may be keeping up with world events (when drowning in your own emergencies, those of the world may feel way too overwhelming), learning how to cook something other than the basics, taking up a sport or hobby, enjoying more time in nature, or taking on an exciting challenge; a million activities that were not previously part of our repertoire become available.
Make a list of things that you want to enjoy in your post-trauma life. Go ahead–let yourself think big. See if you can use this as a motivation and not beat yourself up. Maybe there are parts of this list that are already present and are important resources.
You may have heard the line “It’s never too late for a happy childhood.” This is especially appropriate for those who suffered trauma in early childhood. When that child frozen in fear is at last freed, he or she may have a lot of catching up to do. If you can, please support this. Every child deserves some happiness. And every adult, too.
When you are released from hell, you feel relief and gratitude. (If you don’t, you haven’t gotten out.) As you resolve trauma, you leave the world of nightmares that never end, of shattering pain and screams caught in your throat, and you come out of the darkness into a world that is shinier than you remembered, a world where something has been restored, a world where you “ain’t broke no more.” It’s time to celebrate.