While writing my book on recovering from auto accident trauma, I found myself revisiting how I came to follow my path into clinical work which has now spanned over 40 years. Many major life decisions begin with painful emotional events and traumas that break the human heart. A journey then begins to heal the shattered self.
In the preface to my book, I talk about my mother’s death last year and the painful dynamics that were set in place over ninety years ago when she nearly died in an accident with fire she experienced as a four-year-old child. She and her sisters had discovered an unexploded firecracker on the fourth of July. Her older sister supplied a match and somehow my mother’s dress caught on fire and she was badly burned. Her recovery took over a year as her mother nursed her to health, tending to her wounds in the family home in a small town in north-central Ohio. The town doctor would stop in from time to time to monitor my mother’s progress from an accident that nearly cost her life.
No one could have known that in this trauma, opportunities for me to learn many of the challenges and blessings trauma holds. I remember in the early 1980’s the relief I felt when I first encountered the newly created diagnostic category of post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, a way of understanding how external tragic events could shape psychological reactions, emotional patterns, and personality structure. Prior to the creation of PTSD, severe psychological problems were most frequently delegated to a diagnosis of psychosis which easily led to separation from society.
The archetype of the psychotherapist is often characterized as the wounded healer. I have been fortunate to have learned my craft from many giant and dedicated healers in psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and many other forms of therapies. In the words of Norman Mailer, we live by healing and the grace of God is glue. One of the genius teachers often commented that with every patient, a broken part of the therapist can be repaired. I believe this is very different from current streams of thought. However, the minds of the therapist and the patient interact on many levels, and I have come to believe the professor’s idea has some merit and truth.
As a very young child, I came to realize the fourth of July held demons for my mother that could also invade my life. As fate would have it, I was born very close to the birthday of our nation. I have memories of my mother’s rages and self-isolation on that traumatic day that repeated year after year. As a child, I interpreted my mother’s rages as anger at me for having a birthday. It was a hefty piece of misinterpretation to attempt to integrate that mostly left me feeling sad, helpless, and hopeless.
As a child of ten, I discovered the discipline of psychoanalysis in a magazine that somehow found its way to our remote country home. I was filled with hope that I could become a psychoanalyst and help my mother dispel her demons which I did not then understand. The trauma that visited my mother as a beautiful young girl eventually became integrated into her personality, after many years of mental torment without the benefit of trauma-informed psychotherapy, or expert understanding of how trauma can impact the endocrine system and mood disorders.
These few paragraphs do not begin to capture the rivers of pain and suffering created by a single match. But these are powerful learning experiences that will hopefully provide preventative lessons for others who are dealing with overwhelming traumatic life events. We must always remember that big trauma can become our kryptonite that can propel us through life in powerful and positive ways—if we learn to process it with the help of others.
James F. Zender, Ph.D. (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident. The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.