I get invited to sit on or be a part of committees and advisory boards. I’m always honored and humbled because I’m often invited by someone who knows me and has watched me walk the walk of healing and recovery. At least one of them around the table, if not more, are in my circle of trust. The groups are composed of clinicians or administrators specializing in whatever the topic of the day is. A lot of very smart people looking to change the world in order to better help people. Sign me up! I can’t say that I don’t belong. I too am a clinician. Almost 13 years now. Some would venture to say very smart. I personally think the jury’s still out on that one. The reason I’m often invited to the meeting of the minds is because I am also a suicide loss survivor. Little over three years now. Even though my time as a loss survivor is much shorter than my time as a clinician, it changed everything. I know more now by living it than I did by learning it. My perspective is “unique” they say. You can definitely say that. I am on both sides of the coin and am cautiously grateful for whatever insight I can bring to “the other side.” At the same time, sitting amongst my at one time coworkers, I often feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I now see the world through the filter of trauma and loss. I now approach my clinical work differently for the very same reason. The things I hear professionals say about the people they are supposed to serve makes me glad I’m the square and not the hole. Mind you, none of these things are said as intentionally harmful, stigmatizing, or re-traumatizing statements. You simply don’t know what you don’t know. I don’t attend with the intent to get into heated debates about right and wrong, though it takes great restraint to do so. I go to share my perspective from my experience. If that changes the way a clinician, or even better, the system does things than I’ll put that as the icing on the cake. I also know that there’s a strong resistance against change. This is not, nor will ever be, new. As clinicians, we can become arrogant and start to think we know our clients better than they know themselves. We think the alphabet soup before and after our names, holds more meaning than the story that brings people in to see us. We become attached to doing things the way we’ve always done them because we have one or two papers hanging on the wall that show we know best. One thing I’ve learned more than anything else through it all is the fact that comfort is the enemy of change. Those that judge others for staying stuck are throwing stones in glass houses. Who’s actually stuck here? So for me, it’s hip to be square, and leave that hour of my life behind to go out and be the change.
The topic of the day. Trauma. Having trauma is the worst Groundhog Day ever. I don’t mean the Groundhog seeing his shadow, though for somebody who can’t wait for the warm sun to return after winter, that’s not pleasant either. If you’ve seen the movie with Bill Murray where a weatherman keeps living the same day over and over, then you know what I’m talking about. With trauma, it’s reliving what is possibly the worst day of your life with no pause button, no stop, and even when you unplug the TV from the wall, the movie plays on. Over. And over.
Trauma is not a choice. Period. Hence I used a period.
It is not an “excuse to stay stuck.” Not my words. You push pause, push stop, unplug the TV, or even take a sledgehammer to it. In the brain, the show must go on. You make a lot of other choices, sometimes very poor ones, to drown out the story you’ve lived at least a thousand times and probably a thousand more to come. At the end of the day, it is the same day.
We all make excuses for things that are hard. Exercise. Weight loss. Making the bed. I’d bet there’s not a person reading this that hasn’t made excuses surrounding those things. THOSE things!!! Things that are not even in the same playing field. Galaxy? I’m tempted to even say universe. So the next time you want to tell someone that trauma is an excuse for staying stuck, you better be on that treadmill in the midst of mile 30. Healing is hard. Just like mile 30. Or quite possibly mile 1 for some of the same people who think trauma’s an excuse. It’s the equivalent of a firefighter walking back into the fire even after he or she has saved everyone else because they have to save themselves. It’s painful. It’s also illogical. If I’m out of the fire, how does it make any sense to walk back in? I’m perfectly safe out here! But am I? On the journey towards healing trauma, you can throw grief in there too (traumatic grief…well now you have a party), you have to go back in. Clinically its called trauma reprocessing. As clinicians, we like to put shit sandwiches in pretty packages. In order to stop living the Groundhog Day from hell, you have to get it unstuck from the part of the brain it’s stuck in. Meaning, you got to go back in.!! Yet, just like a firefighter, you don’t go back in without your suit, your helmet, your hose, and most of all your oxygen mask. You have to be prepared. I don’t like the word ready because you’re never truly “ready” to go back to the last place on earth you want to go. You also have the support of your fire crew. You’re not fighting the fire alone. With trauma, you need the support from a “good” trauma therapist. Possibly a support group because peer support is an important piece of the puzzle. Not feeling alone in itself has healing properties. A Primary Care Physician, Psychiatrist or Nurse Practitioner who understands not only the mental affects, but the physical affects of trauma. One who is not going to prescribe pain medication for the inflammation or aches and pains trauma can cause in the body, but send you to a trauma-sensitive or trauma-focused yoga class instead. A chiropractor. A massage therapist. Both good options. The problem is affordable access. Finding one of these things is a challenge and if you do find them, insurance often doesn’t cover it. So you want me to walk back into the fire without my suit, or my oxygen mask? Thanks, but no thanks. If healing is my responsibility, then whose responsible for affordable access? Don’t force me into the fire, if nobody is holding managed care’s feet to that same inferno.
Just move forward. You have to bounce back. Two of the statements made from people who are in the warm cozy house down the block from the burning building you’re standing in the middle of completely unprotected from the excruciating heat. Bounce back. AKA…Resiliency. Like I said, shit sandwich. Now, as a clinician. I absolutely 100% believe in the importance of resiliency. I have said so for my entire counseling career. I have a manuscript for a book saved on a jump drive. It is an imperative protective factor. One that many of our younger generations are lacking because resiliency is a muscle that has to be built through practice. The only way to practice bouncing back, is to learn how to fall (fail) and…wait for it…bounce back. Rocket science right? Not really, yet we “fail” to do it. I say all that to say this, trauma is different. Man, if I had a dime for every time I said that, I’d publish that book. You can’t just be resilient or “bounce back” from trauma. From a failed chemistry test, an argument with your girlfriend, a break-up, or even all three, certainly. There will be tough emotions, but with the right skills (resiliency), you recover and move forward. Probably with some valuable life lessons. Did I mention trauma is different? With trauma, your brain is stuck. I repeat, it’s the worst Groundhog Day ever (starting to feel like Groundhog Day up in here). You certainly want to move forward, tell me who doesn’t, but your brain keeps pulling you back. Without your permission, without passing go, or collecting $200. A deflated ball can’t bounce. Just like the firefighter needs air to withstand the fire, the ball needs to be inflated. Expecting someone with trauma to be resilient is trying to bounce a deflated ball. It’s an impossible task. Good luck with that. Let me know how that goes. There’s a ginormous resiliency education trend going on in our schools. I’m going to hold my standing ovation. Why? It must be said, even if I’m the only square peg saying it, we are pushing resiliency to a large number of students who have trauma and it’s re-traumatizing!! For my child who is in Kindergarten, yes. Have at it. From now until she graduates high school. For those who are well on their way into their public education and have trauma, you’re trying to put a bandaid on a amputated leg. You have to save the ones in the burning building while teaching the ones on the outside how to be resilient when they end up in the fire. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. Resiliency is the foundation of the burning building. Once you have survived the fire and the building is burnt to the ground, you have a good foundation leftover to rebuild on, and you can!!! It’s called Post-Traumatic Growth. As you can tell, we are real good at these fancy words, but I often look in the mirror when I say those ones!! When you go back in, with full armor and access, you can come out carrying water for those still feeling the heat. Then, and ONLY then, can you use resiliency to re-build. A brand new building. A brand new house with a white picket fence and walk-in closet if you’d like.
You have to go back in. You have to burn that bitch to the ground while standing in the middle of it. Trauma is not a choice. Going back in is. It is not an easy choice, it is not an easy journey. Not something you can do on your own. Access is limited. Affordable is impossible. You belong to a system who puts the responsibility of healing on you without taking any responsibility for either of those. If you don’t go back in today, tomorrow, or next week. I get it. Been there, done that. I don’t blame you. I don’t shame you. What I will do, is sit with you and roast some marshmallows until you do. I will continue to encourage you to go back in. When the day comes that you do, I’ll try and make sure you have the things you need to come out on the other side with water for everyone else. Then I’ll paint your picket fence white because I embrace the fact that I’m a square peg that will no longer fit in a round hole.