Look Ma, No Hands!

“Look Ma, no hands” is my way of saying, “I finally get it.”  A bit abstract perhaps, but so is healing from trauma.  Let me explain.

As I have been working to heal from the trauma inflicted on me as a child, there has been considerable pain…(no kidding, right?).  At first I wondered why it was necessary to remember and feel all this pain any way.  I mean why not leave it all forgotten and stored in memory?  I would have liked to do just that…but my body remembered.  This “remembrance” manifested itself as anxiety and somatic pains.  I can’t prove it empirically, but I think it was the cause of my autoimmune problems as well.  For these reasons, I decided that I had to feel these memories and grieve…my body demanded it. 

Lately I started to become frustrated with myself because these memories still hurt.  I thought that feeling this pain and processing it would work in much the same way as grieving a death of a loved one.  You never stop loving the person who is gone, but in time the pain becomes more tolerable.  Yet this trauma pain did not seem to be getting more tolerable.  (I think I am getting stronger and better able to deal with it, but the pain has not lessened in intensity, actually it has gotten worse.) 

Haven’t I grieved enough?  Why can’t I move on already?  I asked myself in frustration. 

Being an amateur scientist, I had to conclude that if the results were not what I was expecting, then perhaps my theory/hypothesis was wrong.  (That is harder to accept in real life than in the lab, as you probably know…)  So I accepted that this would not be similar to the grieving process.  However, I had no new theory or hypothesis to replace the discarded one.  That is until I talked to my therapist. 

My therapist understood exactly what I was trying to say.  Fortunately, I was not the first to ask this question, so he had an answer.  He said think about a time in the past that was painful (not related to the abuse).  I did.  Then he said, “Do you remember how painful that was?”  I was confused by this, and told him so, “Of course, I do.  BUT that is the point.  I remember how it felt but I don’t feel the pain any more.  With the trauma memories, I feel the pain like it just happened today.”  He explained that experiences (both good and bad) are usually felt, experienced and then the memory is stored.  Sometimes traumatic memories don’t get processed and stored properly.  Until the memories are felt and processed, they will continue to feel fresh and new.  That is why we do the work we do in therapy.

I think I paraphrased that badly; I hope it was clear enough.  Here’s the crazy thing…I had read about that before!  When he explained it, I had one of those ‘aha’ moments.  I had learned this principle academically, but hadn’t digested it emotionally. 

SIDEBAR:  If you want to know more…I read about this The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn R. Schiraldi  also there is a great article about how trauma effects memory here at the Sidran Institute: What are traumatic memories  I found this quote particularly interesting…

“There are several factors that influence whether a traumatic experience is remembered or dissociated. The nature and frequency of the traumatic events and the age of the victim seem to be the most important. Single-event traumas (assault, rape, witnessing a murder, etc.) are more likely to be remembered, but repetitive traumas (repeated domestic violence or incest, political torture, prolonged front-line combat, etc.) often result in memory disturbance. The extremely stressful experiences caused by natural or accidental disasters (earthquakes, plane crashes, violent weather, etc.) are more likely to be remembered than traumatic events deliberately caused by humans (i.e. incest, torture, war crimes). People who are adults when they experience traumatic events are less likely to dissociate conscious memories of the events than children who experience trauma. Research shows that the younger the child is at a time of the trauma, the less likely the event will be remembered.

“Case studies show that traumatic events in which there is pressure toward secrecy are more likely to induce forgetting as a dissociative defense. For example, a woman who is brutally attacked by a stranger but who receives sympathy, family support, and many opportunities to tell her story, may suffer from PTSD, but is unlikely to develop amnesia for the event. However, a young girl who endures repeated incest with her father and has been sworn to secrecy will more likely have memory impairment for the abuse.”

NOW I get it, and hopefully you do too.  Look Ma, No Hands!

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