Step One: Knowledge Empowers
The first step to recovery, is to be empowered by knowledge.
When I was raped, there was so much I didn’t know. I thought rape was rare, I didn’t know that it could happen to anyone, I thought it would only happen to girls who were ‘asking for it’, with the way they dressed, or the way they flirted and led people on. I thought that when rape happened, it was reported on, because it was a serious crime, so it would be taken seriously. I thought that rapists went to jail. I definitely didn’t think that rape would happen to me (because, whilst I drank a lot, I didn’t hang with ‘those kind of people’ and I wasn’t ‘one of those kinds of girl’) and when I did report it, after being believed by the police (or, I think I was), I had a definite trust that justice would follow.
I had a steep learning curve in reality. (And perhaps, if I were looking for silver linings, which when it comes to this, I’m not, I also became a more compassionate person, less judgemental of others).
And there were many other things I didn’t know either, some of which I didn’t know until years later, which I wish I’d known at the time.
Like, how it’s perfectly natural and normal to freeze during trauma; it’s natural and normal to submit to the attack. That fear of death will cause the unconscious to take control and the conscious ability to choose switches off.
Like, how the primary purpose and job of our unconscious is to keep us safe, so it will keep memories from us. Like, to understand that it’s doing its best to protect us, and not remembering parts of the attack isn’t necessarily anything to do with the drinking I had been doing, but a lot to do with the trauma I was being subjected to. Having been someone who had often drunk to excess, and still does sometimes, the fact that this one occasion had blackouts was really frightening to me. It was a long time until I understood the role of the unconscious in protecting me, whilst counsellors and my psychiatrist did allude to it, it was only in my NLP training that I think I actually ‘got’ it.
When we understand that what is happening to our mind, and to our body, after trauma is the natural human response to trauma, we can start to let go of a lot of self-blame and shame that accompanies being traumatised.
Let’s start with the responses during trauma. The most important thing to recognise is that your conscious self is not running the show. You are on auto-pilot. Your unconscious, whose primary job is to keep you safe, is running the show. Which means that if you were unable to fight, or to run away, and instead you froze, or submitted, or even felt some attachment to your abuser, it was merely your human survival mechanism kicking in. And when we can understand that, we can let go of so much self-blame and shame. All that internal chatter about maybe we might’ve wanted it, maybe we were sending the wrong signals, maybe if we’d only fought back, or said no, or said something, maybe it wouldn’t have happened, can stop. There were no maybes in what we did that had anything to do with what happened. Our unconscious kept us alive, and that was its priority and only priority. [If you are interested in learning more about the five trauma responses,you can read more here.]
Having no control over our body, or our mind, is a very frightening place to be. The forcible removal of our bodily autonomy by the abuser is one thing to get our head around afterwards, but so is the knowledge that we ourselves might have experienced an altered reality due to the unconscious taking over. The very visceral split of body and mind that can happen in trauma can be terrifying. Being detached and seeing ourselves from a distance, being frozen and feeling paralysed, and the sometimes ongoing disassociation between body and mind creates a very real feeling of being literally broken, far beyond any physical violence that might also have occurred. When we can understand that this is what needs to be repaired, the connection between the parts of ourselves, then we can start to do that healing too.
After trauma both our body and our mind are still traumatised. The diagnosis for PTSD cannot be given until at least 6 months after the event, as to still be suffering from the symptoms 6 months afterwards is one of the key criteria for the diagnosis. There’s a widespread belief that PTSD is lifelong, but this is fundamentally untrue. With absolutely no psychological intervention, about one third of people who experience PTSD will no longer have symptoms ten years later. And the psychiatric professions are adding to the growing list of therapeutic modalities which will work for different individuals. But when we are stuck in the trauma, it doesn’t necessarily help to know it doesn’t have to be forever, it does help to know we aren’t actually losing our minds, we are having a human response to a traumatic event, and our mind is trying to heal itself.
After trauma, we are still traumatised. Which is why we can be triggered into flashbacks and panic attacks. Our animal brain amygdala is still on high alert, hyper vigilance, looking for danger, and when it senses that danger is near, it can take us back to the event, or cause us to freeze, or cause us to lose time, or cause us to run. I remember countless times where I found myself in the toilets when out, or far up the street, but didn’t remember getting there. I had been triggered into panic, and my body chose to run, and it switched off my memory for those few moments. Other times, I was paralysed, unable to speak, unable to move, frozen in place. Other times, suddenly I would be curled up in tears.
My clients, and those in the Community group, also share these experiences. When friends tell us that we behaved in a certain way, and we have no memory of it, it’s an ongoing trauma and we can lose faith in our sense of self. If we can’t control how we respond, how can we be safe? If we can’t remember what we did, how can we ever trust ourselves? At times like this, it’s really important to exercise that self-compassion muscle and recognise that we are doing the best we can with the resources we have available, and our unconscious brain is prioritising keeping us safe the best way it knows how.
And we all know that saying, what comes up must come down. When we are stuck in high-alert, streams of adrenalin coursing through our system, and that adrenalin runs out, we crash. And we crash down hard. And we crash down low. I had never understood that my need to collapse into bed, to stay in bed, to not move, was more than just my depression.
It wasn’t until five years afterwards that my psychiatrist explained to me about the window of tolerance. When ‘normal’ people are stressed, they feel that anxiety of lots to do; when they are tired and exhausted, they flop onto the sofa. For someone who is experiencing life through the lens of PTSD, there is no ‘normal’ level of stress – anything can be a danger. There is no such thing as a ‘stretch’ zone, only a ‘what might be safe zone’ and a ‘panic zone’. When we’re experiencing tiredness, we don’t flop onto the sofa, we crash out and disappear, for what can be days. Our window of ‘normalcy’ or ‘tolerance’ is very small. When we have the knowledge that this is normal, then again we can stop being so frustrated at ourselves, feeling weak, feeling useless, but instead know that this is just our body needing to heal. Like any physical wound, our brain also needs time to mend.
What I really wish I’d known much earlier is the impact that this hyper-hypo yoyo can have on the body. When it’s pointed out, it makes so much sense, and seems to obvious. Adrenalin is a very effective hormone for short burst activities – like in threat of danger, or when running a 100m race. But when we’re stuck in hyper-vigilance and that threat of danger seems ever-present the amount of cortisol that adrenalin produces is not healthy for us. Our adrenal glands can go into fatigue, meaning that we are at increased risk of chronic fatigue syndrome, we put pressure on our thyroid glands, and our ability to balance things like our metabolism are all at intense pressure. My weight gain was definitely contributed to by the amount of comfort foods I ingested, but my inability to lose that weight was definitely contributed to by the cortisol in my system. Too much cortisol in the system, and the body will not burn fat. Hormone imbalances cannot be fixed quickly.
When it comes down to it, though, I think the thing I wish I’d known much earlier was that I wasn’t alone. That what I was experiencing was not only normal to be experiencing, but that other people understood. I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to pretend everything was fine, that I was ok, to make the people around me comfortable. I wish I’d known that the people that mattered would accept me how I was and support me in my recovery. The energy it took to pretend that everything was fine, to numb down and not feel my feelings because they were too scary and would prove to everyone that everything wasn’t fine, was energy I could have been using for healing. If I could have directed that energy on myself, and had compassion for myself, instead of self-loathing for not-coping, then perhaps I might have been in a position to write this and support others much quicker.
The first step in the path to recovery, en route to living a ReConnected Life, is understanding that our responses to trauma are natural. Understanding that is the first step in developing our self-compassion and letting in the idea that we can let go of self-blame and shame. Knowledge empowers.