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Trauma

The Imprint of Trauma

Personal Perspective: How to cope with reminders of the past.

Key points

  • Trauma leaves an imprint on the mind and body.
  • It's important to have boundaries for yourself and your dissociative identity disorder (DID) system.
  • Remembering you are human and using coping strategies is key to managing the aftermath of trauma.
Adrian Fletcher
The Eye of The Storm
Source: Adrian Fletcher

For survivors of trauma, the reminders of past experiences can be overt or covert. For me personally, it has been 10 years since I first entered therapy to address symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (complex type), and after years of dedication and commitment to my healing process, I had fooled myself into thinking that the intensity of the aftermath had passed.

I was reminded of its intensity upon a visit “home.” I had returned literally and figuratively to a state of trauma to be a part of a best friend’s milestone moment. Despite what might be an exciting time for a friend, I was quickly reminded through my body that the impact of what I had experienced when I was trafficked as a little girl had returned.

I felt ill, physically, mentally, and emotionally. My body experienced abdominal and back pain, my heart was racing, I was sweaty and panicky, and I could not sleep. I was experiencing the fight-flight-freeze response, and my dissociative parts were overwhelmed—some of them mad, terrified, and full of shame. Prior to traveling, I did not have what they refer to as a “system agreement,” an agreement amongst all of my dissociative parts to return to celebrate my friend, and I certainly paid for it, emotionally and physically.

I went against everything I knew to keep my system grounded, healthy, and safe, including ignoring my husband’s concerns before I left to travel back East. The adult part of me wanted to do the “right thing” to show up for my friend, but I violated my dissociative identity disorder (DID) system to accomplish that, leaving my system of parts to experience what some might refer to as trauma re-enactment.

According to Levin (1997), author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, from a biological perspective, behaviors that are powerful and compelling as re-enactment fall into the category of “survival strategies.” Levin further states that the behaviors have been selected because, historically, they are advantageous, even if they are, in fact, dangerous.

While I was home, old coping mechanisms resurfaced, and those parts took over. I was hypervigilant and hyperalert, alcohol was used, and feelings of emptiness, aloneness, and misunderstanding overtook me, even though I had my support system on standby to support me. Upon reflection, I just wanted to be like “everyone else,” a non-dissociative person with no parts and no history of trauma. Who was I kidding? Yet, to be honest, that is in fact how I lived most of my life: in sheer denial.

My body rejected the entire experience. I was “sick,” vomiting, shaking, and felt like I was going to die. I thought it must have been the alcohol I drank in celebration, and after talking the experience through with my support system, we all reached the same conclusion—that it was far more than just that. It was trauma releasing itself from my body.

I called my therapist, and she walked me through taking care of a nonverbal infant part that needed my reparenting. I felt like I had failed. I felt like I had let myself down, the parts down, and my therapist down. She reminded me, though, that I voluntarily had placed myself right back in the “eye of the storm” by returning to a place where I had been trafficked as a little girl (a hotel on the shoreline where the celebration was) and that I did an amazing job managing the situation.

I could not hear her in that moment, though; I was in a shame spiral. Even though I am the first to remind others of the incredible humans they are when they, too, find themselves sliding backward, I was not able to reach self-compassion in that moment. I know, though, after years of experience, that the feeling of going backwards is not actually a setback; it is the beginning of being propelled forward. We had reached yet another layer of healing. I just could not see it while re-experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress during the thick of the storm.

I had come to realize that the real home I had created for myself in the Southwest was the safety I had been searching for my whole life and the place deserving to be called home. I realized I had placed too much emphasis on trying to pretend that I could manage with perfection. Those of us in recovery know progress is far more important than perfection. My body remembered everything about the horrific experiences of the past. Bessel Van Der Kolk states in The Body Keeps the Score (2014), “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.” He further states that this imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.

As my therapist reminded me to grant myself grace, I realized I could utilize this experience to reflect upon my humanness. I was in survival mode, and now I am speaking out about the reality of the aftermath for any one of us who finds ourselves in an analogous situation.

The effects of ongoing sexual abuse in my childhood have left an undeniable mark on my psyche and an imprint inside my body and on my mind that I cannot ignore or forget. “For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present” (Van Der Kolk, 2014). That is exactly what the parts and I have been working on, reclaiming and feeling safe within one body, and it has not been easy.

The reflections and insights from this experience will continue to come, and the healing will continue. For those of us who manage life with trauma or DID, our lives may look pretty on the outside, but the realities that we have had to navigate have been exhausting, painful, and sad. For me, it is not so much the identities/parts that I get upset with; it is the symptoms and reactions to having experienced incest, trafficking, and childhood abuse and neglect that weigh heavily on my heart at times.

I accept my humanness, and I have internalized the grace my therapist so lovingly encouraged me to try on. Moving forward, there will be conversations with the parts about what they need to feel safe so that, to the best of my ability, I do not have to reexperience the trauma again, at least not voluntarily.

Coping strategies for when past trauma re-emerges

I reflected upon exactly what I did to cope while I was amidst the situation, and these coping strategies may support those of you who find yourselves in the eye of a trauma storm.

  1. Call your support system. It is wise to have two or three people who know your situation and what you need.
  2. Reach out to a local crisis line or your therapist or health care provider, if they're available and it's within your therapeutic agreement.
  3. Remind yourself that you are human, and practice compassion and grace for yourself.
  4. Regulate your nervous system through activities that are a fit for you and your DID or nervous system. For me, it was reaching out to my support system (including a therapist), self-tapping, music, breathing, butterfly hug, and canceling plans after the storm strictly to engage in self-care.
  5. Be honest about where you might have crossed your own boundaries and take an inventory of what boundaries you need to put in place moving forward.
  6. After the situation has passed, assess what you can do differently the next time you are in a situation that feels unsafe.
  7. Practice saying “no,” and if you live with DID, check in with parts about what feels safe to them and what does not. My biggest takeaway from this whole experience is to honor my system.
  8. Remember that a setback or the re-experiencing of symptoms does not equal failure, even if it feels that way in the moment.
  9. Know that you are doing the best you can with where you are right now.
  10. Alcohol combined with trauma symptoms is a dangerous combination and will only exacerbate the situation and the symptoms. It’s also not healthy for your parts, even if there are ones that think it’s OK. Setting up solid boundaries with your DID system is crucial, and I know firsthand what a challenge that can be.

Recovery and coping with trauma will never be linear. There will be times when you find yourself back in the eye of storm. Just do your best to get back on track and remember that it is likely that you have already survived the worst of it. There’s a saying out there that says if you survived the trauma, you will survive the recovery process, and I wholeheartedly believe that to be true.

May the healing continue for you and the little girl in me who should have never experienced trafficking in the first place.

References

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: healing trauma: the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.

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