Tuesday, 5 August 2014

How on Earth do you 'Deal with the Past'?

This is a question that used to really vex me. For years, because of a lack of understanding about my underlying emotional sensitivity in many counsellors and practitioners dealing with me, I came across comments like 'you need to get over the past', 'you need to simply acknowledge what was done to you', 'you need to recognise the hurting child inside' - simples, huh? Except no one seemed to be able to recognise that there was something missing in my ability to even recognise my emotional responses to my abusive past.


One rape counsellor, who I think was compassionate and probably usually effective in her work, became frustrated with my lack of ability to acknowledge the trauma I experienced as a child. Firstly, I tended to either describe my remembered experiences without any outward evidence of any emotional attachment or response to the experiences being described. Secondly, because they were my experiences, I did not perceive them in the same way as my hearers, because it was me, I minimised the trauma.

It was around this time that my GP and a Graduate Mental Health worker who was offering me brief CBT for work stress, began to ask if I thought that there was more to my emotional issues than met the eye. So began my journey to discover what my diagnosis was and how that related to my childhood experiences.


I have referred before to the description by Marsha Linehan of people with a Borderline PD diagnosis as having 'emotional third degree burns'. I have always assumed this refers to the unbearable emotional distress experienced by those with BPD. I think to an extent this aspect of the picture is true, although it was when watching a documentary about a burns unit, that I learned more about 3rd degree physical burns, and thereby shed additional light on Linehan's statement. 1st or 2nd degree burns are extremely painful, however the damage done when someone suffers third degree burns is so extensive as to destroy all normal physical sensations, this means that there is a point at which the pain is so severe as to render the wound site numb to all sensation. When I applied this aspect of the original image to my own experience of the emotional impact of my past on my psyche, it made absolute sense.

I have previously described how I was not aware I was experiencing high levels of distress prior to the crisis which prompted me to seek help once and for all for my emotional 'issues'. I was incapable of feeling anything at all, either good or bad. There had been times when the pain of my life was excruciating, but I had passed through first and second degrees to the third degree, in order to survive. Many survivors of childhood abuse recognise this distancing from the experiences they have survived. Dissociating or depersonalising my own experiences helped me to survive the experience of abuse in the past. It causes problems in the here and now because I have been so successful in separating myself from my experiences, that I am unable to connect in any meaningful way with my experience of life as an adult. Either good or bad.

In a very real way for most of my life, emotionally and mentally, I remained trapped in a loop reel, whereby the most traumatic experiences of my life were on constant replay, regardless of how long ago they happened to me.

"In a sense Music, along with the sense of smell tends to be the most powerful of ‘time machines’, usually with a default to the past....Mindfulness training and DBT exercises were focused on bringing me to and keeping me in the moment. However, one of my true pleasures in life was in danger of inadvertently causing me to ‘time travel’ to the past. I didn’t want to lose out on one of my real pleasures in life, just because of my overwhelming emotional responses to it. Not every memory is painful and it’s important to acknowledge that, even before recovery, my life was actually made up of shadows AND light." (from Blog: Music My Own Special TARDIS )

With this never ending stream linking me to the past, even the most seemingly everyday problem or difficulty would connect to the torrent of emotional distress just below the surface, so that terms like 'overreaction', 'out of proportion' and 'drama queen' were applied to me. For those on an emotional 'even keel' it seems almost impossible to imagine the almost physical pain caused when I face disappointments, dilemmas, arguments and problems which are the stuff of everyday life. For the survivor of childhood abuse these experiences are reminders and directly connect to the emotional pain of the abuse perpetrated. Everything seems to rip the scabs from the wounds over and over, so that even the most benign of human relationships becomes a minefield of anticipated terrors to be avoided.

The wrong thing to tell me is 'to just get over it'. Recent exposure of the issues around victims of historical abuse has brought to light the reality that for survivors of abuse, you just don't or can't 'get over it'.

Having survived my abusive life, I continue to be in the process of leaving it behind. I always thought that once I had gained the skills I needed from DBT I would be in a position to finally, 'deal with the past'. I assumed this would mean some form of Trauma counselling. However, I have found that the very practise of mindfulness and the emphasis in DBT on Acceptance of life ('It is what it is'), in this moment seem to be enough for me to feel I have begun to leave my past behind.

This blog post reflects my own journey, it is not a blueprint for dealing with the impact of trauma - my symptoms of trauma are my own and my path through is my own. Hopefully, if you continue to deal with the stream of painful memories and feelings from the past, then this may offer you some hope that there is a way through.

1. I Finally Accepted That I didn't ask for or 'deserve' what happened to me. This means accepting that I am maybe worth better than happened to me - something that was an alien thought even six months ago.

Acceptance is an important group of skills in DBT treatment. The original version of DBT does not offer specific therapy for PTSD. (Recently, however, a specific DBT skills module for PTSD has been developed. I am not sure how widely this is currently available in the UK) The DBT skill of Radical Acceptance, allows me to accept what happened and to begin to leave my experience of trauma in the past. I have accepted that not only have I survived, but I have been strengthened by my survival. The abusers can only have power over me, if I allow myself to remain in the prison cell of the past. I carry the scars of the past and they may have shaped me, but I do not have to remain imprisoned by past experiences.

2. I have learned to trust my experience of the present as I have used mindfulness skills to focus on life as it is in this moment. I am no longer 'absent' - I've stopped 'time travelling' and am able to be 'present' - this means that I don't get bored as often as I used to. Also, it means I am able to give more effectively to those I am engaged with.

3. I have learned to name my feelings and to recognise when anxiety, fear, sadness, guilt etc from the past is distorting my perceptions of the present. I used to distrust pleasant feelings, like hope and happiness because they meant that the darker feelings and moments were more painful in contrast. Now I have learned to enjoy what I am able to enjoy for what it is. It has taken me a long time to say goodbye to the damaged child of yesterday and to reconnect with the adult I am today. That child remains a part of who I am, but her emotional paralysis no longer keeps me frozen in the past.

4. I have decided that the skills I have learned to manage my BPD are enough for me to accept the pain and grief about the past, without having to go back and relive it or do any sustained work on addressing what happened to me. Having denied and minimised it for so many years, the fact that I have been able to accept that I was a victim of abuse has been enough for me to be able to move forward.

It is important for me to emphasise that specific PTSD therapies are helpful for others as the symptoms of PTSD may continue become intrusive following other therapies for complex mental health conditions - each person knows their own needs better than anyone else.

'Dealing with the past' is not something that we can 'do' as a one-off-give me-the-silver-bullet solution. From the moment I first experienced the trauma I have been dealing with it. What I have learned is that at different points in my life I have developed strengths and skills that I have used to deal with the consequences of the past.

"When I finished my DBT therapy, my Therapist reminded me that I had begun the process of healing from the 3rd degree emotional burns, which are at the heart of the BPD experience of life. I have probably managed to develop a thin layer of emotional skin over deep, deep wounds..." (my blog 'Return to the Forbidding Planet:

I am pleased that I am no longer a hostage to a torrent of pain and distress streaming into my day to day life. Looking back I realise this is because of a process and time, along with the moment by moment determination to use my mindfulness skills to keep me focused on life in this moment. I have also permitted myself to enjoy the good things in life, gradually.