Ten years ago I wrote my first column for The Inquirer. It was a response to a letter from a woman who wanted to know how to recover from the trauma of a devastating automobile accident.
Part of the reason this column is titled “On Healing” is that I receive thousands of calls and letters from people who have experienced great trauma and who want to understand how to heal. How do we cope when we experience unbearable pain? Pain that hurts so much we cannot imagine surviving it? Well, how we survive varies, but the fact is we do survive.
Trauma is agony we don’t want to live with. So our instinct is to fight against the pain. In the battle with the pain, we can lose our appetite, our sleep, our friends, and the meaning of our lives. All our minds can focus on is the pain and the loss.
Fighting against pain inevitably makes it worse. It’s the same thing we do when we have a dental cavity. Even though it hurts, somehow we cannot keep our tongue away from the hole in the tooth. We do it because the mind experiences traumatic pain as a death. A death in which something reached into our lives and stole something precious. What was stolen could be a loved one, our health, or our dream of the future. And when there has been this kind of death, our instinct is to try to replace what has been lost. That explains why our first reaction is often shock followed by anger. Initially, trauma demands all of our time, attention and energy.
And then what?
Trauma does more than steal a piece of our lives. It also steals our identity. Most people go through life assuming the future is somewhat predictable and with minor exceptions, tomorrow should be pretty much like today. So after the initial shock of trauma, we are left confused and betrayed. Trauma leaves us feeling quite alone, alienated, and without a sense of future.
Most wounds to the flesh, in a healthy environment, will heal themselves. The same is true with wounds to the mind or spirit. And, with few exceptions, the healing process is the same.
Here is how:
The initial shock of trauma is the mind’s way of protecting itself from even greater pain that will inevitably follow. If we are able to trust the intrinsic health of our minds, in time we will stop wrestling with the initial pain.
Then comes what some experience as overwhelming pain, when we realize that what we have lost will never return. Some experience this as hopelessness or outrage or despair. Almost anyone who has experienced trauma will tell you they felt alienated and alone. That’s why when we are traumatized, we need to tell our story – frequently to whoever will listen. This process is our mind’s way of trying to understand what happened and to search for care and nurture.
However, modern thinking about treating trauma is that we can tell our story too much. Telling the story repeatedly over years does not contribute to the mind’s being open to healing, and can actually make the pain worse. Compulsively retelling the story, even in therapy, is often more about the ego’s railing at the pain than it is about healing the mind.
Trauma also brings a sense of injustice. Many people spend a lifetime suffering the injustice that has befallen them. But the anger at injustice also comes from the ego. If we trust our mind’s ability to heal, we will begin to learn to live a life that frequently is unjust.
When the mind is open and the ego is quiet, we are able to feel compassion. First, for our own suffering. Not anger or despair or hopelessness; those are emotions that begin with “I.” Compassion is simply understanding the pain we experience and caring. Once we begin to feel compassion for ourselves – often for the first time in our lives – then we begin to feel compassion for anyone who lives with pain or injustice. It is this sense of compassion that enables healing to begin.
Research tells us that we cope with trauma better when we are able to make meaning out of it. It is the mind’s natural inclination toward compassion that helps us make meaning of our trauma – and our lives.
Healing from trauma does not imply that the pain will go away. Like wounds to the flesh, emotional trauma heals with scar tissue. And scar tissue is not as attractive as healthy tissue, but it is tougher. Scars on the body are also like emotional scars in that they help tell the story of who we are and where we have been.