TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of Childhood Trauma including sexual abuse and symptoms of PTSD
It's a vexed question. After all, if your symptoms include intrusions from the past that interfere with your life now, then it stands to reason that you need to go back in order to go forward. Throughout my life I think I spent most of my energy in avoiding any emotional or cognitive acknowledgement of the trauma I had suffered throughout my formative years. All my energy was spent in avoiding any acknowledgement of the fact that I had actually suffered any trauma at all.
And there it is - trauma - a word that I refused to hear from my CPN or any other professional in relation to 'my life'. After all, until I got away from home and started looking around and experiencing life outside my family, I had thought myself relatively well off as I had grown up. We were, materially. I was unaware that the pain and grief I was suffering growing up was not related more to me being 'highly strung' and 'a bit weird' as I was told over and over. The fault always lay in me. For the fact that a grown man thought it was ok to touch me up at the age of 11 because I was 'well developed', for my mother holding my nose and force feeding me at the age of 9 because I wasn't hungry, for the fact that I made my father lose his temper so much that he smashed my head against the wall so hard I felt sick, for the numerous times people decided it was okay to use me sexually. I felt it was my fault for suddenly growing into a 'woman' and therefore causing adult men (and some women) to lose control of themselves.
This is the heart of the shame felt by so many child victims. There has to have been something wrong with me for the people who did those things to me to get away with it. On top of this of course is the fact that there was more than one abuser. So, logic says, it had to have been me who was the common factor. Right? Wrong. However, that, for so many years has been my reasoning and therefore all my behaviours, including self harming behaviours centred on the belief that I was basically flawed, destined to continue the cycles of abuse for my whole life. My overwhelming emotional experience became self hatred and all the secondary emotions associated with it, shame, guilt, anxiety, fear of rejection. It is this set of beliefs which when overlaid with a predisposition to emotional dysfunction has led to the patterns of behaviour, feeling and thinking identified as BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder).
For years I was offered counselling and therapy based on the need for me to disclose in detail my life story. These therapies attempted to get me to connect with the grief process over my childhood which had been short circuited by my attempts to just 'get on with it'. The problem being I couldn't connect myself with any real suffering. I was disconnected not only from feeling any emotional pain, but also from any identification of myself as a victim of trauma. Some approaches tried to get me to go back and relive the experiences - who wants to do that? I've survived it, I know what it felt like, I just need to release the emotional response, to free myself enough to grieve and recognise that I have been traumatised and that my reactions and my grief are understandable. More than once counsellors told me that I didn't want to get better because I could not engage emotionally. They were right, after all if dissociating myself from my experiences had got me this far, what were they offering me other than a painful journey backwards?
I suppose for me, I didn't need to remember the events, some of them were etched on my consciousness and were very much intruding in the here and now, through nightmares, flashbacks and unresolved emotions. Above all, I grappled daily with an ongoing cycle of heightened anxiety and anticipation that seemed to stream in an unbroken flow from the moments of past trauma. Each new experience of abuse throughout my life laid another wave of destructive emotion over previous ones, reinforcing the destruction and distorted emotional experiences of childhood.
One of the most difficult DBT skills to grasp hold of is Radical Acceptance. It is, for me, the most powerful and effective in helping me deal with my past experiences. It taught me that there was no therapy or magic pill which could go back to those traumas and undo them. I had tried for over forty years to manage the emotions from that without having the ability to even acknowledge that I had suffered any trauma. It also helped me to recognise that even though the feelings of trauma were ever present, they actually didn't need to be, as the threat was in the past too. I guess the experience of cycles of abuse and re-victimisation maintain the sense that even though my experience of trauma is in the past, it is inevitable that something equally damaging is going to happen again to me, because that's my life and my lot in life.
Radical Acceptance for me, has meant accepting that I can't predict the future, even if the past tells me that because people have hurt me badly then they WILL hurt me badly again. It is accepting that the past doesn't have to predict my future, or even my present, which is the beginning of saying, 'I can enjoy this moment'. I can take time now to enjoy what I am experiencing, in this moment. Feelings of shame, terror and grief, if unconnected with what is happening in this moment, do not belong here.
Slowly, I have allowed myself to feel the grief and cry - without having to relive the moments of trauma. My mind has blocked some events. Personally, I don't feel a need to seek justice through formal channels, that is my choice. This means that I don't have to recall and recount events from my past over and over again. Slowly, I have learned to accept that what I have lived through has had a part in shaping the person I am today. I don't need to remain in the past, it is done with, I have taken positives from it, at last. The rest needs to relegated to the dustbin of history. I don't need to return again and again to the prison cell to remind me, I have been released. The past, for me, belongs in the past. I have accepted what has happened to me, I have accepted that it has made me stronger than imaginable. I have accepted that I can overcome the worst that I have lived through and I am accepting that I do deserve to enjoy the life I have today. Acceptance is not a moment, it is an ongoing process and I need to practice it every time thoughts and feelings float in from my history - accept them and move on, is what I need to do. An ongoing piece of work, but I am getting better at it.
I have found as I have worked through this process of acceptance, that the symptoms of flashbacks and flooding negative emotions to triggers around me, have faded from my day to day life. Finally, I was able to let my CPN call what had happened to me 'trauma' and in that I accepted that I had suffered events which made sense of some of my emotional and psychological 'quirks'. Ultimately, one of the most freeing things to be told over and over again, was that my behaviour and responses to life were 'understandable given what you have experienced'.
I know that for some, there is a need for ongoing support and therapy to manage more severe symptoms of PTSD based on childhood experiences. I only write from my own experience and say this way has been a way for me to lay the past to rest without having to go ALL the way back.