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Honoring the Unspeakable

Ghosts of childhood trauma.

My training analyst, Dr. Henry Krystal, who had survived five Nazi death camps, would often tell me in my training sessions, “Sometimes a good forgettery is better than a good memory.” We may live with imprints of events from our distant pasts that cause bitter pain and suffering that with existing resources are too overwhelming to speak of. They must be spoken around. Around versus of.

But often like a cosmic black hole, these suppressed, partially buried unresolved traumas suck the life force into them, severely limiting potential and quality of life.

When working with patients in psychotherapy who have experienced such severe and overwhelming childhood trauma, the ground must be carefully prepared to escort out the emotions, images, and thoughts which have been suppressed for decades and continue to haunt the mind and soul. These ghosts may never decide to appear before the minds of others but maybe quieted by visions of compassion, safety, forgiveness, and even love.

In a recent “debate” between Dr. Jordan Peterson and the Russian psychoanalyst and philosopher Dr. Slavoj Zizek, for me, the most important thing discussed was when Zizek talked about the Grace of happiness. For him, happiness is something that happens to you, not something you can chase after and create for yourself. It is like the experience of falling in love. It can happen to you but no matter how hard you may try you cannot make it happen. It is either there or it is not.

Frequently we get in our own way of allowing this grace of happiness to visit us. For many reasons I suppose, we often feel undeserving and unworthy. This self-sacrifice can arise out of many sources including false attributions we give to traumatic childhood events and relationships. We often have great difficulty with self-love.

With the unspoken traumas, in addition to trauma-focused, supportive psychotherapy, many other forms of therapy can work well for some people. EMDR can be effective for some, but for others, the doors it opens can be too destabilizing. It is dose sensitive and for some the side-effects contraindicate it.

Movement therapies and dance can be very healing and are not utilized enough or given the credit they deserve. Therapeutic movement exercises can give permission to the non-verbal expression of a wide range of deep emotions. The same can be said for music and art therapies, and certainly for drama and recreational therapies as well.

There is more than one way to speak the unspeakable while allowing the ghosts of trauma their peace. One day, if all goes well, sometimes after many decades, the once unspeakable can be spoken without being washed away in a flood of overwhelming tears. When that happens, it has been said that healing is achieved. It requires a well-cared for the garden to prepare the ground and much patience for such flowers to bloom.

More from James F. Zender Ph.D.
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