Self-transformation is the work every human being is meant to do
Q: Dear Mrs. Radcliffe,
Thank you for your amazing column. Week after week, you offer advice I find so helpful.
“Your Child’s Vulnerable Brain” hit me hard. You see, the child you describe is me.
I grew up in a home with brutal physical abuse, and emotional abuse too. Despite that, I managed to build a reasonably stable life for myself and my family.
But reading your description of disassociation, a constant sense of panic, and relationship difficulties was eerie. So much of it perfectly describes the internal challenges I face.
I found the column very validating — it showed me that the parts of myself I thought were crazy actually make sense, considering my upbringing. At the same time, I felt broken. It seems that I’m irreparably damaged. I have “an unhealthy nervous system and painful emotional and relationship processes guaranteed to make my entire life hard.” What now?
I realize the purpose of the column was to warn parents what can happen if a child is abused or neglected — not to address the adult survivors of such abuse and neglect. But I’d love to hear what someone in my position can do.
I’m currently in therapy, and my therapist is empathetic and skilled, but the process has been both agonizingly painful and frustratingly slow. What’s the prognosis for people with background like mine? Must our entire lives be hard, or is there a way to get past severe childhood trauma? What therapies or interventions would you recommend to reach a healthier place?
I’d appreciate any insights or advice you have.
A: Theory and skill sets within professional psychology change —often radically — from decade to decade. Some therapists follow the latest fads, some the research literature, and some whatever they were taught in graduate school. So although you’re in therapy, the treatment might be unnecessarily painful and slow because it’s based on earlier modes of trauma therapy.
Trauma was originally treated like any other life issue, without regard to its unique effects on the brain and body. Sufferers were likely to feel the comfort of being supported but were extremely unlikely to experience resolution of trauma symptoms.
When trauma (including PTSD and childhood abuse and neglect) was eventually recognized as its own category of mental health disorder, early treatment protocols stressed memory retrieval and reprocessing. The client was encouraged to talk about painful childhood experiences; it was assumed that identifying and releasing the memories would be curative. In fact, it was later discovered that this retelling was more likely to re-traumatize the client than cure her. Subsequent trauma therapies (including EMDR, somatic experiencing, and other mind/body interventions) were less “talk-based” and more experiential, allowing a person to relive and reorganize memories so they could be integrated into the personality with more understanding, perspective, and self-compassion. Those treated with this model of therapy are usually less symptomatic and less easily triggered. However, this work is slow, filled with the pain of reexperiencing, and in many cases, incomplete. Sufferers are greatly improved, yet often continue to struggle, as you describe in your own case.
Dr. Janina Fisher’s Trauma Informed Stabilization Therapy (TIST) is one example of the most current thinking in the trauma recovery field. This model of therapy isn’t necessarily quick, but it tends to elicit significantly less pain than other models. Rather than focusing on retrieving memories of abuse, TIST identifies and releases the persistent effects of childhood trauma, the enduring automatic reactions running through the adult nervous system.
Using a trauma-informed parts model, the therapy helps the “wounded child” to find a safe place within the grown-up survivor’s world. This ultimately transforms the survivor’s nervous system, improves functioning, and integrates the personality.
I recommend Dr. Fisher’s workbook “Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma,” which can be implemented on one’s own or with the help of one’s therapist, as well as her book, “Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors.” “Getting Through the Day” by Nancy Napier contains practical self-help strategies that are also consistent with this approach. Similarly, the self-help workbooks “Your Resonant Self” and “Your Resonant Self Workbook” by Sarah Peyton are valuable resources.
I understand you may not want to read further or put in more effort after working so hard for so long. It’s exhausting. But when you ask on behalf of trauma survivors: “Must our entire lives be hard?” my answer is no! Healing and thriving is possible for those who are willing to undertake appropriate therapy and ongoing personal work.
I urge you to continue on your path of growth, as the rewards are invaluable. We’re all learning — professionals and survivors alike. Moreover, self-transformation is the work every human being is meant to do.
Have a question for Mrs. Radcliffe? Send your queries about parenting or personal growth to firstname.lastname@example.org
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 747)
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