For those who experience trauma in the pre-verbal stage of childhood, life seems more challenging than for those who have not. As such a child, I carried the longings and hopes natural to all children, yet I was instinctively cautious and I lived with a sense that “something terrible is going to happen”.
Each of us has our own unique story about how this played out. The particulars of my story are not relevant, for every one has their own story. What is potentially of interest to others is what I have learned about the journey.
Trauma is cumulative - Early trauma magnifies later trauma
I experienced more than a one-time big “earthquake”. There were aftershocks from that early trauma, followed by other “earthquakes” from other causes, some with their own aftershocks. The trauma was cumulative – each earthquake made me more vulnerable to later ones, and thus more likely to experience things that for others might have been small earthquakes as large ones.
A looooong quest for help
I went to therapy for many years. I’ve spent more years in therapy as a client than as a therapist! I tried many kinds of therapies and healing techniques. Some were pretty mainstream, some far on the extreme. I was so tired of feeling bad that I was willing to try almost anything that promised hope of feeling better. The things I have learned and needed to unlearn could fill books!
Establishing realistic expectations helps With maturity I saw I was not helping myself by seeking a “happily ever after” fairytale kind of better. A fairytale life is rare for anyone even in the best of circumstances. With the amount of distress and pain I carried for so many years, it was impossible. Eventually I began asking about the happy picture-perfect moment I was seeking – what happens after the movie ends, a day, a year, a decade later, when the painful realities of all living beings muddy the picture? My goal shifted from an endless quest for a perfect picture to living as richly and meaningfully as I could with the realities I had. This did not happen overnight.
Getting beyond all the helpers But even with this rather modest goal, I still found it hard to find the path right for me. There are so many helpers and strategies for healing out there, all pretty confident they are the right path. It took me a long time to figure out how to choose a path, and over time this path continue changing.
Recognizing an approach that doesn’t work I had several sessions at one point with a body-oriented kind of healer. I think her heart and intentions were in the right place, but I see now that she did not have adequate theory or skills to work with someone like me. She led me in guided visualizations and meditation that took me back in a powerful way to frightening feelings and sensations.
The first few seconds of these techniques were always good, as I relaxed and got connected to an inner lightness. But after that I felt like I had been thrown into deep and “dangerous water in which I could not swim”. I came out of those sessions feeling exhausted and shaken to my core, with no resources to cope with what I had just experienced. I had an inner sense of contraction, a feeling that my connection to hope and life had been squeezed even smaller than before.
Worst of all, I came out of these sessions feeling that this big dark emptiness inside would never go away, no matter how many times I tried to “breathe in light, breathe out negativity.” So when I went home, on top of the pain I carried into those sessions, I carried new weight, a sense of inadequacy for not being successful in what I was guided to do, and hopelessness about anything ever getting better.
Recognizing effective therapy for me I had a very different experience many years later, when a trauma therapist with an excellent combination of analysis and psychodrama that was just right for me helped me to get in touch with what I might have felt when I was very young. It was hard, and far from fun, but for the first time in years I felt a HUGE sense of expansion. I was covering some of the same territory as with the first therapist, but this time the experience felt very different.
I encountered massive sadness as I did this work. For the first time I allowed myself to see and feel the full consequences of tragic events in my life. Yet somehow this sadness was life giving, unlike the seemingly unbearable sadness I had felt when I lost loved ones. I was able to process even things I felt I must have experienced as a preverbal child. And despite the sadness I experienced as I did this, I went home from these sessions feeling strong and connected as I never felt – with a sense of life-giving expansion within.
So what made it work? Many factors contributed. I was more mature, the therapist was an experienced trauma therapist with whom I felt safe. Something she did was to create room for my pain. I didn’t feel rushed. There was no effort to seek short cuts. For the first time, someone other than loved ones told me that something terribly unfair had happened to me in an age when I couldn’t make sense of it all. It sounds simple, but the impact was quite powerful: I was able to grasp that this really happened to me, not “that little girl”, but me, and that it was natural that I struggled as a result. This was a big step on the road to letting go of the hidden shame described above.
Expansion as a Signal My experiences as a client taught me to pay attention to an inner sense of contracting or expanding as a valuable signal. When a client has even a tiny physical sense of contraction when working with a person or technique, it suggests something is not right. Maybe this is not the right therapist, technique, or timing for what is being done.
Everywhere these days I read about yoga and mindfulness work as part of trauma therapy. As an advocate of somatic and body-oriented approaches, I worry about this. My pain was increased by someone with good intentions who didn’t have training equal to the tools they were wielding and left me feeling more despairing than ever.
“Spaciousness” in caregivers is a gift
In several settings in different parts of the world I have interacted with people in the aftermath of efforts to assist trauma survivors that ended up doing more harm than good. The cause is not bad intentions but good ones. One of the biggest warning signals for me is when caregivers operate with too much confidence in their healing powers, the power of their tools, or their ability to know what clients need.
For me, the big step out of a loop of many years of pain came in the presence of caregivers who helped me feel safe and supported. They did not sell me on unrealistic expectations, rather they helped me connect me to my resources and projected trust in the process and in me. This enabled a few inner cracks to open a little wider and some light to get in. By now I had learned enough to recognize the sense of expansion as I did this work as a reliable sign.
Over time, following expansion has become like an instinctual second nature that requires little thought or effort. This is not my special gift - it is available to all who choose to use it.
Like me, you may have stopped listening to your body and inner voice and over a period of years, lost awareness of them. In this case, what was meant to be natural needs effort to restore. That is no simple task. It starts with small steps, like being mindful of what we feel in this present moment. You can also try this mindful expansion/movement activity I wrote about in another post.