Along my path to a healthier me, a me who isn’t stuck operating from the trauma responses I adopted as a child, I found this poem. It has been my goal post as I move through the stages of recovery.
I spent most my life unable to move beyond Chapter I. I was self-unaware. With no understanding the dynamics that had been in play when I was a child had heavy consequences, nearly everything I encountered was a challenge for my nervous system. Normal interactions and situations triggered my fight, flight, or fawn defenses. Without those defenses, I would have collapsed in on myself like a dying star. I had no real idea who I was underneath the overthinking, perfectionism, people pleasing, boundary ceding, bullying, and negativity. Worse yet, I didn’t see there was anything unhealthy about my MO at all. I was stuck for a long, long time.
Six days before my 46th birthday, I was sabotaged in public by a family member. Because my eleven year old son had been used as an unwitting pawn in the scheme to humiliate me, something in me snapped. It was my roller shade moment. After decades spent repressing abuse I endured as a child, the window shade I had pulled down to protect myself from repeated trauma flew up. I could not unsee what had been lurking behind it. I was bumped into Chapter II, forced to acknowledge my past and reckon with my trauma responses and their repercussions. I couldn’t stop using them to protect myself yet because I still needed them. So, I kept behaving mostly the same way I always had, only now I was aware how unhealthy my reactions to every little thing were. I didn’t know how to stop them, but I knew they were wrong. Every time I caught myself in an epic overreaction, the shame was overwhelming. I read a stack of self-help books and realized I needed to start regular therapy. Through therapy, I faced my past. It was painful and slow going. Every time I hurt my husband or my sons because I could not control my responses, I felt like the worthless person I was told as a child I was. I was a skipping record, stuck in a groove, doomed to repeat my patterns.
After some research, I decided to shift to a new therapist who offered EMDR therapy, which has helped thousands of people suffering from PTSD see their trauma in a different light. I’ve spent most of the past two years in this chapter. It has been an endless cycle of acting out my old habits, catching myself, acknowledging my behaviors and thoughts are not helpful, apologizing to myself and others for my missteps, and then forgiving myself and trying again from a more mindful place. Sometimes I would react in a more healthy manner immediately. Other times I had to sit with the negative pattern I had repeated for 5-10 minutes before understanding how I could do better and then ameliorating the situation for myself and those I had been unfair to. I saw my progress and was encouraged, but I also knew I could be in this chapter for decades until I was skilled enough spot the hole before falling into it.
Recently, and with some extra assistance, I’ve had some legitimate success walking around the trauma hole. I can bump myself out of my well-worn groove and react differently in the moment. I’ve made it to Chapter IV. I don’t live here full-time, but I am finally here. I catch negative thoughts mid-stream and I make a choice to walk around that hole. Holy shit. There is no way to explain what a monumental life shift this has been for me. While I still stumble into my old patterns a few times a day, I also stop them a few times a day. I’m owning my mistakes because I know I’m not expected to be perfect. I’m beating myself up less, looking in the mirror and seeing myself in a positive light more than a negative one. I’m stopping my inner bullshit before it gets loose. I’m holding myself accountable. Best of all, though, I’m holding others accountable too. I differentiate between a me problem and a you problem. And I am able to stand up for myself, walk away, and let someone else deal with their own inner bullshit. I no longer think I am broken or horrible or perpetually wrong. I am still working but I am more present. I am proud of myself.
A lot of people have lofty goals for their lives. They know what legacy they would like to leave behind. Me? I don’t concern myself with any of that. I just want to get to Chapter V and hopefully live there for a bit, with a reasonable level of control over my actions, some mindfulness, and a lot less reactivity. If I get to a place where my childhood trauma responses are a faint whisper or dull memory rather than a full-fledged fire alarm, I will have walked the path I believe I was meant to walk. My goal in this life is to recover, to do better for myself, my spouse, and my children, to break a cycle.
The light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter. I know someday I won’t have to negotiate my way around the hole at all because I will have already walked down another street.