On Trauma and Brokenness (and how knowledge is power)

The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness… The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it, we must first agree to exile nothing. ~ Stephen Cope


When I first started learning about my own trauma, I was able to piece together from teachers, therapists, and other resources that the residue I suffered through in the form of triggers, flashbacks, mood swings, hypersensitivity, hyper.vigilance, substance use were all “normal” responses to trauma. How I understood that went like this: other survivors of trauma were similarly damaged, matchingly dysfunctional. The ways in which I felt nonfunctional were basically expected of traumatized people. I’m certain that the kind rejoinders were meant as reassurances: “it’s okay—you’re okay. Other traumatized people are just like you.”

But what I heard with my ears ready to hear criticism and judgment, was just that I could be easily classed with other trauma survivors, with our matching brokennesses and volatility and meanness. It also didn’t feel quite true, nor particularly meaningful. It definitely didn’t change the weight of the guilt and shame I harbored for all of my ill.timed outbursts, the morning-after-flashback-hangover days when I was uncontrollably cruel to co.workers and roommates, the devastating self loathing, the abjectness of it all…

I think the well-intentioned helping professionals intended that I would have a breakthrough moment when I learned of my own normalcy. But it was only when I started doing my own research and getting deep into the neurology of trauma I felt any sense of relief from the crushing weight of it. Then I started to understand the mechanisms at work in my own brain. I learned how the brain was designed to deal with stress and how the perception of danger begins a neurochemical cascade that trickles down into the physical body and spirit, which then governed how I felt in the world… Instead of casting the trauma responses that showed up in my daily life as ‘normal’, which didn’t mean particularly much to me, being kind of an edge-walker anyway, I began to understand my brokenness as a biologically appropriate human response to unspeakable horror.

The brain chemistry and neurology also help to define the ceiling of human capacity for horror. That is, my experience of shutting down or getting totally flooded wasn’t rooted in my own incapacity or weakness. Instead, I began to understand the way that our brains respond to unspeakable suffering. I began to see all the way that those jagged and disjunct parts and had protected me. The tendencies that felt so shameful to me: the disassociation, the anger, the mistrust, the volatility and lability, the agonizing upheaval of my identity, were the self.same tools that had kept me safe when I didn’t have any other agency.  My trauma stuff was also the stuff of my resistance and resilience.

That knowledge gave me first a new compassion for myself as a wounded creature, then a growing sense of self.love for the resilience and survival of my scrappy, sometimes.broken heart.

That knowledge granted me a compassion for myself—the gift of accepting myself, the first halting step in a [painful] journey toward truly loving myself. All this because I was able to really metabolize the truth that my mind and body and heart had done the very best they could with the tools they had. It was the difference between understanding my neuroses and wounds as the necessary fallout—the brokenness of trauma—and understanding the patterning of trauma as a set of valuable adaptations for survival. Now that I was an adult with agency, a sense of self, and some capacity for elasticity and change, I had the opportunity to shift the ones that were no

The next step is the one of poring over the shattered pieces and carefully reassembling them into my heart’s own image of strength, one where the light shines through the chinks in the mending. Watch the blog for more soon, and for upcoming classes in Santa Fe!