Healing Childhood Trauma

angry child-b&w“The further back the story, the deeper the pain.” That was a principle behind narrative therapy, the retelling of your own story in the process of healing; I heard this in a speech several years ago by John Savage, author of “Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry”. It is not often that someone’s exact words will continue to stand out so many years later. Whatever the therapy: narrative, cognitive behavioral, reality therapy, EMDR…that principle applies. “The further back the story, the deeper the pain.”
If an early childhood experience continues to bother you, do not discount it. Your body, and your psyche, are giving you a message. There are ways to make your peace with traumatic experiences, to go on with your life, to integrate the past in a way that benefits your future self.
There are a number of factors at work in the processing of trauma, one of which is the ability to make sense out of what happened. In children so young that they do not yet have good language skills, this becomes far more difficult. They have memories in pictures sometimes, and there are body memories. The lack of a narrative makes it more difficult to process what has occurred. Some people are helped by listening closely to the stories those around them; for others that is not a feasible option.
Fortunately, far more attention is being paid to healing childhood trauma than in times past, thanks in part to research showing that these traumas can even affect epigenetics, the process that determines which of your genes will be expressed and which ones will be turned off. It can impact others in your circle who sense your pain, and it can impact future generations.
It is never too late to start down your path of healing. Suppose you are 95 years old and have only a few months to live, wouldn’t it be great to spend those few months enduring less emotional pain?
When people decide to move forward I often hear “This stops now” or “It ends with me.” And it can. With the right help and direction, lives can be reclaimed and thoroughly enjoyed. It happens every day.

“I Wish That Was My Biggest Problem”/Perspective

Carefree and Worry Free

Carefree and Worry Free

Here is how my mother used to annoy me to no end: I would start to complain about something and she would say “I wish that was my biggest problem.” Of course at the time I hated it. But now I see she was trying to help me put things in perspective.
A few years ago, when a friend of mine was seriously ill, we started making lists of what we wished was our biggest problem. And we had some fun with it. Here are a few of my personal favorites, in no particular order.
– If I stand under that tree, will a coconut fall on my head?
– Would I rather buy the Lexus or the BMW?
– Chocolate ice cream or vanilla?
– Would I rather go to the opera, or the ballet? Or maybe a comedy club.
– The speed limit is too low.
– Which book to read first.
– Should I go hiking in the woods on the weekend, or during the week?
– Which outfit should I wear to yoga class?
– My spouse/significant other is so supportive, I need to be careful not to gloat.
– How best to spend a month’s vacation.
– I have such wonderful friends, how do I make time for all of them?
– What to request for my birthday, since I already have what I want.
– Researching the best gifted classes for my child.
– Finding the best restaurant for a night of fine dining with friends.
– That candy is too pretty to eat.
Okay, you get the idea. We all need a bit of levity in our lives. And some perspective. Not that there aren’t problems that are overwhelming; there are plenty. But it’s nice to put the smaller ones in perspective. And as for the bigger problems—that is for a different blog.

Religion or Its Lack

question mark  Religion is at the center of many people’s lives. So is its lack. It is my job to respect either one.
A potential client once quizzed me about my religious beliefs, and I responded simply that my beliefs are irrelevant here. If you choose to share yours with me, I will respect them. But I have no interest in converting you or aligning my professional guidance with whatever religious views I might entertain.
This includes atheism. If you walk in my office an atheist, you will certainly walk out the same way. Again, my interest in changing your views, even the tiniest whit, is nonexistent.
Though there are a number of Christian counselors who are sought out by those who prefer a Biblical approach, and though I respect that, I do not feel it is my role to influence a client’s faith.
That said, I have some basic views on religion. Mostly on its purpose(s). I see those purposes as twofold:
1) Comfort: Does your belief system bring you comfort? It should, or it is not doing its job. Different people find comfort in different beliefs. Which is fine.
2) Moral compass: Does your belief system give you a sense of right versus wrong, especially in complicated situations? Can you turn to that system for guidance? No, this does not mean the answers are simple; they are often complex and messy. But is this belief system helpful in sorting things out?
3) Community: If you are facing a difficult situation—serious illness or death of a loved one, financial reversal, betrayal… Do you have a good support system among those who worship (or refuse to worship, this is equally valid) with you? Recently a friend of mine was in the late stages of a terminal illness and needed to have his sleeping quarters moved downstairs. Six angels from their religious community took care of that the next day. That is evidence of an excellent support system, a great community to be a part of.
Notice that I do not mention what faith this group espouses: You will find similar experiences among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, Humanists…the list is endless; the spirit of helpfulness and community is what matters.
My hope is that you will (or already do) choose your beliefs wisely. We all have a tough road to travel at times, and our belief system will inform how we deal with that. There are so many honorable ways to go about life, and each of us has the right to feel comfortable choosing our own.

Community

community of kids

community of kids

A sense of community can protect us, buffer us against hardships. This is not just geographical community; it can be family, friends—anyone you value. Sometimes it is a group we belong to, via accident or choice.
During World War II, the strong sense of community in Denmark saved most Jewish people from being deported to concentration camps. Why? Because their neighbors felt these people were Danish first, and they spread the word as quickly as possible when they heard the Nazis were preparing to do a roundup.
Today in Denmark, a sense of community is being utilized to prevent bullying in schools. I wish I could recall the article I read and give credit, but here is what I do recall: Every Friday, the children in each classroom gather with their teacher and pick a topic that concerns one or more of them. They then discuss ways to deal with this issue. And students are assigned to take their turn providing a pastry (home cooked or purchased) that the entire classroom can munch on while they chat. This strikes me as absolute genius. The students all feel a stake in resolving the problem. No one is excluded, and every person’s opinion matters.
I cannot recall if this involves children of all ages or only certain grades, but I was so impressed. Maybe we in this country would do well to devote less class time to standardized testing and more time to community building activities such as this. It not only builds community; it also helps these students develop problem-solving skills that will help them later in life.
One frequent target of bullying attacks, in-person or online, is often the “new kid.” It is entirely too easy to isolate this person as “not one of us” and avoid feeling compunction for our actions. Yet many people do the opposite, going out of their way to meet and get to know that new person, to help them integrate into the already-existing community. Maybe that would be a good example for more of us to follow.
Maybe we should start by getting to know our neighbors. Some of us may do better starting with online communities. Or simply being responsive to others who reach out to us.
That connection is essential, and how each person goes about it isn’t the most important thing. Going about it is.

A Nation in Need of Comfort

1028641_rainbow_in_the_backyardThere have been so many tragedies this past month or so, that it feels we are a nation in mourning. And in shock. Police officers being murdered on two different occasions, the tragic attack in Nice, France that left so many dead… When I drive down the street and see American flags, some are at half-staff and some at full height. It has occurred to me that with so many tragedies, it is difficult to keep up with knowing at what height the flag should be displayed. It is up to the President of the United States to determine when and for how long flags are lowered, and keeping abreast of those proclamations—well, it requires a lot of attention.
If you are a law enforcement officer anywhere in this country, or if you know or love an officer, I am very sorry for your loss. Though law enforcement is not my specialty, it is clear that the loss of any officer in such a brutal way, is a loss to the entire law enforcement community. No one should have to fear being ambushed on or off the job.
We are a nation in shock. In mourning. In anger. In confusion. In trauma. A lot of us may not know what to think. But none of it is good.
And a lot of us feel powerless. What is one person to do against the possibility of a next assailant? I am sure a lot of people are puzzling over this. And I do have an answer. No, it does not involve prevention, though I would love to have an answer for that. And anything that could prevent a disaster would be publicized far more widely than this blog ever will.
We are in serious need of comfort. Let us, please, go out of our way to be kind to one another. It won’t fix things, but it can make them more bearable. And you never know, maybe the person on the receiving end of your smile or kind words is in more dire need of your kindness than you will ever know. Maybe they will feel inclined to follow your example, to be a little kinder themselves. Maybe we can start with a smile, a comforting word, a sincere compliment, holding a door open, letting someone ahead of us in traffic…
This just feels to me like something that can’t hurt, and just may help some people find some joy in the midst of all this sorrow. So let’s get started.

Abuse – It’s Not Just Intimate Partners and Family

upset-pixabayMaybe, as opposed to abuse, it would best be referred to as “not-so-benign neglect.”
We know about intentional bullying, and I have written about abuse from intimate partners. There is a Power and Control wheel that is widely available, and several lists of signs of a potential abuser. It is of course more difficult to leave an abusive relationship with someone whose life has become entwined with your own.
Often, however, the abusive situation is institutional and totally impersonal. No one is specifically out to hurt you; they just don’t care. Take, for example, gargantuan companies that are known for low hourly wages combined with “flexible hours” and a refusal to provide employees with full time positions.
As a self employed business owner, I have more control over my schedule. But I recently experienced major frustration over the neighborhood in which my office was located. There has been a huge project involving digging up a lot of the streets around the Square, as anyone living nearby is well aware. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the storm sewers to be separated from the sanitary sewers, and this entails digging about 10 feet down. So it’s no quick and easy project.
Here is where the institutional abuse comes in: The needs of people who work on the Square are often disregarded. Employees and small business owners are doing their level best to keep customers happy. But far too much is out of their control.
Parking space has been an issue. It changes constantly as traffic is re-routed around the latest construction. This could be reduced to a minor annoyance, but that has not happened. Signage has ranged from woefully inadequate to nonexistent. So everyone figures it out by guess and by golly, and keeps making the best of it. It is very hard on morale, and I feel it is neglectful at best, to keep expecting the downtown workforce—along with anyone intending to conduct business there—to spend huge amounts of time figuring out things that could be explained with good signage. They lose business every time someone decides to go elsewhere because it is just too much to navigate.
I got a reprieve that I was not looking for. My landlords wanted the space back, and I was put on notice. I wound up in Granville, and despite the effort and expense of moving, I do like it there.
It is also unfortunate, though, because I previously loved my old digs. Downtown Newark will be beautiful again in a few years, once it is finished. It may look better than it did before the whole project started.
Even though no one had it in for me personally, I feel a bit like someone who was kicked out of an abusive relationship. I am relieved, but also puzzled that I didn’t leave sooner, of my own accord.

Divorce Counseling

gavelBack before the earth cooled, I had a marriage that was bringing me more distress than happiness. I knew there was no point in counseling, because I knew my then-spouse would not take part. Then he did attend one session; it did not go well. At this point, I decided I was on my own to figure things out.
I knew wrong. At that time, my sister wisely suggested that I could go alone and get counseling about whether to stay in the marriage. There were still a few hiccups. But by the time the divorce was in process, I wound up seeing a counselor who so impressed me that I still keep him on my referral list, 30-plus years later!
Anyone going through the breakup of a marriage should have two counselors: your counselor at law, otherwise known as your attorney, and a mental health counselor. Most of us know we can’t handle the legal intricacies (unless it is an exceptionally simple matter, and even then I am a believer that an attorney should prepare the paperwork). But when it comes to our own mental health, it is far too easy to say “I’ve got this.”
The reality is, this is a very stressful time. Even if you have mutually agreed on the split, there is a lot of pain involved, not to mention soul-searching, anger, sadness…take your pick, it’s a tangle of emotions. And it is easy to wear out your support people while letting off steam while dealing with those feelings.
I am not questioning anyone’s sanity, though utilizing a counselor may make holding onto that sanity a bit easier. I am suggesting that at such a stressful time, it is good to have a backup system, someone who will listen to you without feeling burdened.
When you are going through a divorce, you may find you suddenly have a few new “friends” hanging around who are actually vultures, feeding on your misery. A professional can help you keep these people at bay.
This process can also smooth the path for your dealings with your legal counselor, your attorney. Things go so much better if you can be calm and rational when you are preparing your legal case. The less time and money devoted to ranting instead of preparing your case, the better.
One common result of stress and/or trauma is: We act stupid. Exceedingly, uncomprehendingly stupid. Not always, but we are prone to that. Have you ever heard about people who go on very public rants, such as using Facebook, to badmouth their soon-to-be exes? This really doesn’t help anyone’s legal case. However, there is a place you can say any mean thing about that person you want, without exposing other loved ones to all that vitriol. (There is an obvious exception here: We are required to report if you express an intent to cause anyone harm, including yourself. So please, utilize your time to ensure that you don’t have a desire to cause injury.)
There is no shame in seeking help. No one thinks twice about hiring an attorney, and I am an avid believer in taking an equal interest in your own emotional survival while you navigate this process.

Hoarding and its Effects

clutter

clutter

I am in the middle of reading a most excellent novel, “The House We Grew Up In” by Lisa Jewell, which focuses on the family dynamics of a mythical hoarder. As far as I have gotten in the story (which isn’t very), the author clearly has a grasp on the psychology and patterns of hoarding. It’s sad, really, that oftentimes hoarders are so intent on keeping an overabundance of possessions that they drive away—or retreat from—the actual people in their lives. Their primary relationships because those with their possessions.
In this particular novel, Mom—who is exceptionally creative—is the hoarder, and when her children are younger she insists on their preserving all the wrappers from their chocolate Easter eggs, firmly believing that those squares of foil will help her to remember and rejoice in the memory of those Easters spent as a family. Her house is very cluttered during those years, but following a tragedy the hoarding escalates dramatically.
This is reflective of real life; there is always a trauma, or at least some basic anxiety behind hoarding.
Since the advent of TV shows featuring hoarders, much attention has been paid to this syndrome. Some of us fear we have become hoarders, when actually we have saved a few sentimental items. Others among us actually do hoard to a dangerous extent, then point to the examples in these shows to prove to ourselves that we’re not “that bad” and don’t have a real problem after all.
Like anything else, it’s best to nip it in the bud. If you know and love a hoarder, don’t delude yourself that you can clear their home out and everything will be hunky-dory; there is often a great deal of anxiety attached to a hoarder not having enough things in his or her space.
I grew up with a hoarder, and thought it was extreme. Then I learned about the levels and found that what I lived with was only a Level 1 out of 5. Level 1 hoarders never allow the exits to be blocked: If you can access the nearest exit in case of fire, you are not considered that bad a hoarder. Level 5 is so extreme it often leaves houses looking ready to topple from all that stuff.
To be diagnosed as a hoarder, it has to interfere with your day-to-day functioning. So…if you have enough money to just rent a bunch of storage spaces, or to have a gazillion-room house with certain rooms devoted to keeping the junk, then you do not meet the threshold for a DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) diagnosis. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
Like any other issue, hoarding affects the entire household and often affects friendships outside of the family unit. Sometimes people are so intent on keeping their “treasures” that spouses or significant others find themselves unable to stay.
Like any other issue, this deserves to be recognized and dealt with, and when the hoarder starts to heal, the benefits will accrue to their loved ones too. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Grounding, Self-Soothing, Calming Techniques

Reading is grounding

When people go through tough times, we often tend to re-live them without wanting to—to feel and behave as though the event is occurring in the present, whether it is happening now or occurred years ago. Trauma tends to hijack the brain. When you want to talk to someone about an event, to process it, it is helpful to be able to feel calm enough first.
This is often referred to as grounding, or self-soothing. Children often learn fairly early on what will help them. You have no doubt seen children tuning out an unpleasant event. Or you’ve been that child. Sometimes we forget that skills, or perhaps we never learned it in the first place.
When we are calmer, more centered, more grounded, we are far more able to attend to whatever needs done in the present. And we are better able to process disturbing events.
Successful grounding techniques vary from person to person. Essentially, it boils down to whatever helps you to feel calm in the present moment,. I have a few pointers:
First, breathe. Deeply. This is essential to any form of calming.
Next, remember that you can utilize any of your senses in this endeavor. Even taste. Some people are centered by popping a peppermint and sucking on it. Others respond better to smells: A favorite cologne, fresh flowers, an essential oil such as lavender. (Lilac is a favorite scent of mine; it reminds me of my grandmother.) Sound is a good sense to utilize: Some listen to music, others use guided imageries (some of which can be found on YouTube.). Some people become grounded by what they see: Maybe a favorite picture, or the snow outside your window, or a loved one’s face. Touch can be extremely calming: Hugs from loved ones, or maybe the feel of a familiar blanket. (Remember how many kids love their blankie?) Some people keep cotton balls in their pocket so they can palm them.
Then there are physical poses; yoga is a wonderful grounding technique. I especially like the Child’s Pose, where the forehead touches the floor. Just sitting in a chair, feet on the ground, paying close attention to your surroundings. Feet should be on the ground, energy envisioned as moving head to feet instead of the reverse.
Some people force themselves to concentrate, making lists, working puzzles, doing serious reading…
With a little experimentation and a little practice, you can learn to be more comfortable in your own skin even when life seems intent on preventing that.

Being Believed

emotions-Tino SmithAn acquaintance of mine (No, mot a client) sought counseling after suffering abuse that would rival stories more likely to be heard from oppressed women in third-world countries. The counselor’s response? “You read too much; those things don’t happen.” I’m amazed this person kept trying till they found someone to take them seriously.
In contrast, when I survived an abusive situation several years ago and attended a support group, I was immediately believed. That was incredibly therapeutic.
To be fair, there is the occasional person who lies about being abused, usually with some ulterior motive in mind such as gaining a legal advantage. These people make it more difficult for true victims, and should be ashamed of themselves. The overwhelming majority, however, are far more likely to understate the extent of their suffering, and are not at all prone to exaggeration.
This need to be heard, and believed, applies to a plethora of situations and/or experiences. For those who have never heard of Re-evaluation Co-counseling—yes, I am aware that that is the overwhelming majority of the population—it is a movement instituted by Harvey Jackins and is geared toward non-professionals. In a nutshell, 2 or more people share their stories with one another, process the attendant emotions, and ultimately reach resolution. The theory is that processing of the emotions, what Freud referred to as catharsis, is necessary and sufficient for coming to terms with an individual’s angst.
The part I find interesting is, a group member may not wish to share their actual story. They are sometimes told “Then make a story up; it will have the same emotional content.” (Sometimes I wonder if histrionics who invent lies for attention have this end in mind.)
Memory can be a funny thing. Often people will recall the gist of an event but details will get confused. Memories are frequently “chunked” with other memories. Essentially, when the details of a story turn out to be inaccurate, this does not mean a person is lying; they are giving you their own best and most honest recollection.
As a counselor, it is not my job to grill a client regarding the accuracy of their recollection. My job is to help them process the event and help them develop the best possible coping skills and help to make peace with their own unique traumatic history. This starts with listening to, and believing, their story.