One of the biggest challenges for people working through developmental trauma is trying to figure out, what pain is healing, what pain is just more misery? How long will this take? Are the things I’m experiencing “normal”? Why do I feel better and then go back to feeling, sometimes, even worse than when I started?
So I sought to answer this question for myself after years of my own journey and years watching and supporting others on this journey, I tried to answer, in a direct, concrete way:
What is a reasonable path to expect when healing from developmental trauma?
1st, I’m seriously uncomfortable, I don’t seem to learn or evolve. I get more mature perspective and ideas, but my reactions and actions stay the same and I get the same outcomes. I can’t sleep. I feel scared and small very often. Relationships seem often impossibly painful or difficult. I know I should want to be more ambitious in life, but I really feel like crawling into a hole and hiding. I know I’m smarter than I seem, I know I’m more capable than I seem, but I’m exhausted halfway through the day, just fighting off anxiety, depression, anger and fear.
2nd Perspective and neurological groundwork. Through talk and study (with or without a therapist), I come to realize there is nothing sick, weak or different about how my mind and body operates, with the exception that I’ve had some intense experiences at important developmental stages. I build an understanding that I am not my nervous system, that it, like an animal, has been habituated to some uncomfortable (at times, even extreme) emotional and physical responses. I’m still in denial and am not sure those experiences are really abuse or traumatizing, but I realize that what was wired in, can be unwired. Regardless of whatever caused it, I think it’s possible to change it. This comes with a realization that is both a relief, but also a challenge – you can’t talk (or think) your way out of what you experienced your way into. That’s not how the brain works. The bulk of this phase is about understanding that even if I seem unable to feel hope, there are concrete, proven scientific exercises that will alter my nervous system in a way that relieves me. I can’t imagine how that feels, but I take a leap of faith that maybe this might work.
3rd I begin cautiously engaging in breathing, meditation, EMDR and somatic resourcing, bilateral stimulation. I start exercising, eating better, trying to sleep better. Two possibilities come of this.
- I feel a little bit better and this is really exciting. If a little work can bring a little relief, let’s go after this. All of a sudden, I’m all about connecting to my body, meditating, bringing up calming resources. I feel hopeful and I take this practice and run with it (caveat, this hope is going be dashed temporarily, it’s a predictable part of the process). I’m begging friends and family to try it, I’m ready to heal, I’m ready to heal the world.
- The instant I start meditating, breathing or noticing my body’s reaction, I am overwhelmed by the amount of anxiety, feelings of horror, doom, I struggle with suicidal thoughts. Not only has therapy not helped me, but I feel far worse. I desperately fight my way back to old coping skills, distract, ignore, work too much, tell myself, I’m just being a baby, life is hard for everyone.
- I give up (don’t give up! It doesn’t stay this way!)
- I ask my therapist, what in the hell, I feel way worse, is it supposed to happen like this?
4th I’ve had mixed results. Maybe I was somebody whose first response was total overwhelm and I had to talk myself down, come at it more gently and finally experience some mild relief and hope for the possibility of hope. I proceed really cautiously and realize this is going to take some time and for the most part, nobody can tell me exactly how long. Maybe I was the person for whom it worked, and I went after it, but in a while I got tired – why do I have to work this hard just to be ok? I barely have time to be a human being. I’m starting to get stressed out by being forced to do all this self-care in order to just get near a neutral level of functioning. I might feel doomed again, I might have suicidal thoughts. There must be something wrong with me if I have to work this hard just to be “normal”.
5th, Whether or not I was the person who started fast and had to slow down or the person who started with overwhelm before seeing some relief, I realize, either way, this is going to take some time. It definitely works, I’ve proven it several times, but I’ve also gotten tired and overwhelmed from the process. My dream of throwing down a couple thousand dollars on therapy for 3 months and being totally free of it are gone (this is possible for PTSD caused by car accidents, etc. for people who had largely functional parents and healthy developmental experiences. 3 months is not reasonable for most people).
6th, I’ve achieved some mastery of the skills. I begin to realize, that I no longer have to consciously slow my breathing in stressful situations. I notice that my body has internalized some of the skills and it feels like a normal adaptive response to stress, it feels like what other people look like when they claim to be stressed – it’s difficult, but manageable. It’s not that massive overwhelm, feelings of doom, heart slamming in my chest, floods of adrenalin, feeling dizzy, being forced to leave the situation and take hours, sometimes, days weeks or months to recover from a triggering experience, feeling floaty and dissociated, feeling weak, feeling disgusted with myself, feeling helpless.
7th, the mastery of the skills brings a new realization, partially incredibly hopeful and joyful, partially scary. I can continue to work, continue to heal. I can manage the pace, I can do some of the work myself and save on therapy. However, there are still moments when I trigger, and struggle with intense discomfort. It’s not enough to destroy my life, but it does slow me down compared to someone who never had the experiences I had. I begin to realize, I am totally normal and in some ways, I experience things that other people will never understand, even if I explain it to them. I ALSO realize that even with an adaptive, functional nervous system, life is still hard.
8th, I have internalized so many of the skills that the larger portion of it is an unconscious response, that I feel grateful and proud to have as part of my adaptation. I feel more like a part of the human race. I’m now beginning to pursue things out of a sense of curiosity, ambition, joy, rather than a race away from the fear of failing, of being discovered as a failure, homelessness or failed relationships. I mostly live in my body, I have healthy boundaries with others and I know how to slow things down and take care of myself.
9th, strangely, after all this work, after truly coming to trust the process, after earning an effortless skill for myself, earning freedom from depression, after seriously reducing anxiety, starting to sleep well – I notice that I’m feeling really anxious again and nothing really helps. I also have bouts of anger. Why!? Anxiety is almost always a cover for intense grief. There are two realizations here and neither one is “just in my head”. They are the truth.
- I finally can truly see what was done to me, that it wasn’t my fault, that whatever reasons those people did what they did, it was a horrific and cruel thing to do to a child or a young person. When I see how normal I am and realize all those horrible feelings I struggled with were forced on me by abusive, sick people, I feel horror again, I feel rage, however, it is a clean rage. I know who was sick and who was not, who was violent and who was not. My anger is not mixed with shame or self denial.
- I also feel levels of grief. If this “normalcy”, this ability to adapt, cope and work through stressful times was always available to me, I realize that I’ve spent years, trapped by the horror that was put on me. My childhood is gone, my teens are gone, my twenties are gone, my thirties are gone. Multiple relationships have come and gone, multiple opportunities, people who believed in me, interesting job offers, chances to travel, dreams and aspirations, all buried and thrown in the trash, because I spent years struggling under desperate, hopeless feelings that wouldn’t have ever happened if I hadn’t been abused or neglected. I no longer feel like going back and fighting the people who did this, I know that’s unhealthy, but I’m still paying for what they did. I feel depressed, I sometimes feel like giving up, even though I know that my practice has worked, works and will continue to work. I am grieving and true grief isn’t something to be healed by therapy. It is a real intense sadness experienced over the loss of something precious and beautiful – my time, my life without a massive overlay of suffering and struggle. I am grieving and I cannot escape it. I must slow down again, make space for myself and take time to realize the enormity of what I experienced, what I recovered from, what it cost me and what I want to make of my life now.
9th, With the help of friends, or a good therapist, I work through the grief, continue my practice and begin connecting to a life, a way of being based in curiosity, joy, pleasant anticipation. However, there is one more interesting step in this process. I know I have succeeded. Most of my adaptations are now effortless and instinctive, I don’t often think about the past and what was done to me unless it is to glean some new learning. However, as I turn my attention away from the inner world that was so confused and undone by the cruel behavior of adults during my childhood, I realize that my outer world, my apartment, my relationships, my job, my savings account, my experiences, my achievements are real tangible things and they haven’t changed just because I have a new way of being. The tangible, objective things in my life were built out of and reflect the past fear, the confusion, the paralysis I once lived with. My external reality is somewhat disorganized, chaotic, and sometimes toxic. Some of the people I know have shifted and become beautiful friends during the process. Some of them I look at and realize they are just a reiteration of the small, sick cruel people I grew up with. Sometimes now, I feel anxiety again, I feel fear and sometimes I feel overwhelm because, it isn’t just thoughts and feelings now. I can either make something of my life or not and I realize, most people don’t have the time, the understanding or emotional bandwidth to deal with or sympathize with what I went through, what I achieved to just be alive and standing here. I’m going to have to build something and I’m on the same playing field someone else is, no excuses, unless I feel like going back and feeling like a victim and asking society for mercy. I don’t feel like that, I don’t want that so I go to work, imagining, building, failing, falling, succeeding, sometimes having old triggers, dealing with them, refocusing on building, enjoying, marrying, divorcing, fighting for a better life, a better world, resting, caring, daring, loving. I now know myself to be a significant presence within the human condition and it’s better for me, in fact it’s lucky I’m strong enough to have struggled through what happened because now, instead of fighting to survive, I begin to seriously enjoy helping others, giving others support, hope and a chance to thrive.
At this point, your therapist should have a conversation with you about taking a long break, or a permanent break from therapy, from “fixing yourself”. If there is a goal to therapy, it is the above paragraph. However, there are people who love talking through things and there is nothing wrong with that. If you enjoy working with a therapist on a periodic basis, by all means, continue. However, be sure that your therapist has evolved their approach to you and acknowledges and understands what you have achieved.
This process can be different for different people, but without fail, if you struggled through recovering from developmental trauma, you have gone through all or most of these steps, sometimes several times.