Thanks to Facebook, one of my friends recently had the joy of reconnecting with his friend Lucy*. In their twenties, Lucy and him had been the best of friends. But then they lost touch for some 30 years. His joy at reconnecting was soon overshadowed when Lucy shared that she was still struggling with the aftermath of childhood trauma. When they were friends, Lucy had never mentioned that. Now she could share it. But the weight of the past was still bearing on her shoulder, miring her life under the heaviest bag of sick and tired.
Life is hard. Sometimes even very hard. Lucy knows something about that. Horrific things can come crashing into us. Our physical, mental or sexual integrity can be violated. People we dearly love can be wrenched away from us in the most cruel, unthinkable and absurd circumstances. Sometimes the hurt lies within. As when we did’nt get enough of the unconditional love and support any child needs as much as air and food. Life is fragile. We can get hurt so easily. And we can suffer for decades following a trauma. Like an irate prison guard, the past can keep us locked into a narrow and deadening life, while the unconditional freedom of living what our heart most desires remains elusively behind bars.
I’ve already written about trauma. In today’s blog, I’d like to look at what we can do when it seems that nothing can ever be the same again. Trauma can be wrenching, whether from war, sexual assault, road crash, physical or mental abuse or even a romantic breakup. Sometimes it’s so great that it completely upends our view of life and how things are in the world. Our very understanding of crater, leaving behind only rubble and smoke. There is a before, and there is an after. When we face such experiences, it’s only natural to want that our life from before should be somehow returned to us. It’s normal to want to go back to this lost world. A better world, more innocent, and above all a world in which it hadn’t happened. Like Jonah’s whale, such a desire can swallow us whole. Our life can languish in the dark recesses of its giant stomach for years and years. Inside the whale, we can lose our way trying to avoid anything that could remind us of the trauma memory. Or we may get mired in legal in administrative proceedings. Or sink into years of therapy. Behind all of this, the wish to see our wound disappear, the hope that all can return to how it was before.
Yet, deep down we know. We know that nothing will ever be the same again. The good news is that there is a way out of the whale’s belly and back into the sunshine of life. The hardest part of it is also the most crucial: making space for the fact that nothing will ever be the same again. No amount of effort will ever make the impact crater disappear. There is a good chance that the wound will remain tender. Approaching that is not resigning yourself. It’s what will create the space in which to build anew a life rich in depth and meaning. This choice can’t be made in spite of the past, only with the past. With its pain, its hurts, its regrets, and its memories.
By receiving with kindness and compassion the misfortunes that befell us and their reverberating echoes, we can make our way back to the light of day. And we can make sure trauma doesn’t any more obscure our present choices. That way, Lucy could build a life that will stop being defined by past trauma. That way she’ll learn how to become the person she most wants to be rather one her past damaged. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help make space for past trauma so as to build in the here and now a richly meaningful life, in true homage to the wounds of the past. If you’d like to explore how ACT can help, get a copy of this great workbook Finding Life Beyond Trauma, by Victoria Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello.
* Name change to preserve confidentiality