Trauma: Finding One’s Resilience
Ms. J came to see me after surviving a terrifying auto accident that occurred while she was asleep in the backseat. She and the driver have survived more or less unscathed, but the friend sitting next to the driver had died in the crash. She needed a space to process this near-death experience: the residual fear–which was filling her with intense, persistent dread–as well as a great urgency to reevaluate her life with a new awareness of how ephemeral and fragile it can be. It seemed that nothing that made up her busy life – work, relationships, friendships – seemed to stand up to this new scrutiny. She became depressed and pulled away from life. She could no longer stomach her grueling job, “Where I have to make my boss look good,” nor “the way my father has been treating my mother all my life. I cannot bear it anymore, I have to get away!”
With a new lease on life, she set about making changes. Within just a few weeks, she gave notice at work, telling her boss with an assertiveness she never suspected she possessed. When the boss implied that she was not happy with recent changes in job title, she responded by saying, “You and you alone are the reason for my leaving!” Observing her aging parents’ dysfunctional marriage and her attempts to fix it with the new eyes, she lost patience with her depressed mother and strongly encouraged her to leave her emotionally abusive father. “You can still have a happy life ahead of you, it’s not over yet!” She heard herself say to her mother who had just marked her 75th birthday.
As I listened to her, this new lease on life appeared compelling, exciting, and filled with new promises. Something was not right but neither she nor I could be clear about it till we started to address the trauma that she had just survived. Using Somatic Experiencing as well as other mindfulness and hypnotic tools, we could allow her first to settle, and to slow down the frenzied pace with which she was approaching her life. Somatic Experiencing, a body based approach developed by Peter Levine, is addressing the need to re-establish safety and a healing environment in the aftermath of trauma which remains otherwise lodged in the survivors nervous system.
Ms. J and I began the process of “resourcing,” a term often used in SE circles to describe how we allow the client to tap into their available skills, relationships and innate intelligence in order to mobilize themselves against impact of the trauma. Through this process, a much more complex picture of Ms. J’s experience has emerged. While she was able to soldier on, brace herself, and make herself do all that she felt compelled to do following the trauma, she did not feel any compassion or love for herself. She was administering to herself “the medicine” that she thought was necessary, like a doctor performing surgery on a stranger. She realized that she was profoundly lonely, a feeling that is often triggered by trauma, but for her it had been a life-long experience which she had always been pushing away from her awareness. She realized she was suddenly incredibly lonely. The trauma has confronted her with her inability to have a loving, compassionate connection with herself. She could take care of herself – she could even be quite successful, but all in the name of “managing her life,” “Doing the right thing,” etc. Any compassion and soft feeling towards herself felt like a huge indulgence. No one around her had that soft and compassionate touch that she felt in coming to therapy with me, and she was struggling to make sense of it. Paying close attention to he felt senses of her body, gradually allowing her to stay with her lived sensation of her breath, her feet on the floor, she was able to enjoy simply being alive – not doing anything other than being for a few seconds at a time. Allowing the experience of her aliveness just to be there, and to begin feeling the love and care for her life and the wish to nurture it allowed her to continue to examine and make changes, but now with an entirely new feeling of gratitude for having survived and being given her life back.
The experience of witnessing death at close quarters opened up a new and vital perspective on her lifelong struggle. Discovering the mystery and the wonder of her own existence, she was no longer propelled to force her life to change out of dread and self-hatred. Now she found herself worthwhile, loveable, and compassionate, affirming the preciousness of her newly discovered possibilities.
IMPORTANT: In order to preserve clients’ privacy, case material is based on composites with biographical information altered.