First, a bad thing happens. Rape, murder, combat, abuse. You don’t have a lot of control over it. That’s the point. Something happens way, way out of your control. You barely make it. Now you’re left with the memories. That’s the trauma.
Second, the memories come up. You don’t have a lot of control over them, either. They come up when you come across something you associate with the trauma. A plastic bag on the highway that looks as if it may be an IED. A dark alley like where you witnessed the murder. A program on TV too similar to the incident. I knew someone who had a hard time every Saturday throughout her adulthood because, when she was a kid, her step-father would creep into her room Saturday nights. You find yourself caught up in the memory and start feeling as though it’s happening all over again. It’s like a trance you are in, a spell you are under.
You’ve learned to do things that’ll break the spell. You found a dramatic action will do it, the more outrageous, the better. It has to be extreme enough to compete and overpower that memory. You’ve got to drive fast, run hard, take a risk, get a good, stiff drink, or fuck the living daylights out of a stranger. You pick a fight, get some blow, or find a high, high place, hang your toes off, and flirt with death. Maybe, you don’t go quite that far. Maybe you just go over the incident, again and again. Maybe you feel everything you had been feeling. Maybe you reenlist and return to the war zone, find another abusive man, or return to the old one, one more time. Maybe you blame yourself for what was out of your control. Maybe you figure you deserved it.
Congratulations, you’ve just re-traumatized yourself.
It gets to be that the original trauma is nothing; it’s just the beginning. The bulk of the injury occurs over the years afterwards. If, for instance, you were raped while walking through your college campus, that, in itself, is an evil thing. But, if for years afterwards, every time it comes up in your mind, you feel terrible, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you can’t have sex with your husband because you feel the shame and the terror of that rape, then you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized every time you try to have sex. If you cannot be reminded of it without getting blind drunk, driving recklessly, shoplifting, yelling at your kids, or doing something regrettable, just to break the spell, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. If you watch Law and Order – SVU till you’re numb, go to the scene of the crime, confront the rapist, sleep with a hundred men just to get over it, but feel that terror all over again, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized. It gets to be that the original trauma is just a small part of the pain you feel.
If you go to a therapist to get treatment for PTSD and tell the story, only to fall again into that pit of terror, you are not only traumatized, but re-traumatized.
It seems as if you can never get past it. It seems that every effort to straighten out the mess only ensnares you more thoroughly. It seems as though people are right when they try to deny it ever happened and avoid anything associated with it.
However, you can get past it. PTSD is one of the most readily treatable conditions there are. Plenty of people get past it. ONE STEP AT A TIME.
The first step is not to tell your story. Don’t go into your therapist’s office and get into the whole thing all at once without first considering what will happen when you are done. Oh, you have to say a little bit about it, just so your therapist knows the issue is there, but don’t go into detail. Talk first about what happens when the issue comes up; how have you coped with it so far.
For example, many traumatized people will turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with their trauma. But, if you’re going to need a stiff drink or to shoot up after leaving your therapist’s office, then nothing will be gained. You will only have succeeded in re-traumatizing yourself by adding one more drink you don’t need, one more relapse to the series of problems associated with this trauma.
Therefore, the first step is to take a look at the ways you have been re-traumatized, not traumatized, and get control over that. Let’s be sure what your reaction will be to dealing with the trauma before we try to deal with it.
The second step is to tell your story, but maybe no second step will be necessary. It may never be essential that you go over the original injury. It’s not like you’re going to change what happened, anyway; and it’s not like you were responsible. What you want to change is how you respond to the triggers. That’s something you can change. In the case of the woman raped on her college campus, she probably wants to be able to watch Law and Order without freaking out. She wants to be able to have sex with her husband, be free of nightmares, and see her daughter off to college. She doesn’t want to have the need for all those crazy, dangerous, unhealthy behaviors that she used to turn to in order to break the spell. Really, all the important stuff is in step one. It’s essential to end the re-traumatization.
By the time you get to step two, you may want to tell your story, anyway; if only because now you can. You are no longer silenced. You can speak out, testify, warn others, and join with those who’ve had the same experience. You no longer have to be alone with the secret because there is no longer the risk of re-traumatization.
If you take step two and tell your story, then tell it in a place, at a time, and with a person who can contain it. You’ll want to be able to leave the room in better shape than when you walked in. You let some feelings out as you tell the story; you may not be able to contain them within you, but we want to keep them contained in the room.
When you are done telling the story, the story is told. You, at last, may have been able to fit the pieces together in a way you haven’t been able to fit them before. You couldn’t complete the story because you were getting re-traumatized. The hurt would start all over again, so you had to drop it. This left it unfinished and scattered in pieces all over. When you end the re-traumatization, it becomes a story and not just fragments, jagged pieces of memory that don’t seem to fit together.
Step three? Step three is up to you. Step three is living your life as you want to live it. Something awful still happened. You still have a memory, but it doesn’t matter as much. You no longer are getting re-traumatized, you no longer have to bear a secret, unless you chose to, and the story is complete. You’ve reached the end of trauma. Soon comes personal peace and maybe, if the offender is willing and able, reconciliation.