Imagine your life is like a river on a spring day. Your days are the water flowing with rainbow-refracting diamonds, cascading towards your inevitable death. The water changes according to the seasons: gushing darkly in a cold winter storm, then chortling playfully in the innocent summer sun. There’s nothing more perfect in its beauty.
The obstacles we encounter in our lives are like the rocks we see emerging from the depths as the water evaporates in the heat of the sun. They might be large obstacles like moving out of home for the first time, starting a new job or getting a divorce; or small ones like a visit to the dentist or losing your favourite coat on a train.
The flow is interrupted when water surges into a rock and eddies back in on itself in a swirling spiral. This image represents a strong emotional reaction, like anger, fear or sadness following an unwelcome event. How much easier life would be if it were smooth sailing all the time!
However, these are growth-inducing experiences as they challenge us to develop fresh competencies. It’s scary to move out of home, but we learn independence: how to do housework, balance a budget, cook or negotiate a lease. As a result, our confidence and self esteem increases. Yay! I’m an adult! I can cope! Successfully surmounting challenges is exhilarating. Dependency (e.g., living at home with mum and dad) is more comfortable but it stifles growth of competence, which then promotes anxiety and self-doubt.
In the river of life, eddies form on the other side of the rock, with equal magnitude, but spiralling in the opposite direction to redress the balance. There’s beauty in this balance. Nature never ceases to be beautiful, no matter the weather, structure or form of its expression.
The river of life is more or less predictable, so we’re able to relate to each other and seek guidance from people ahead of us on the journey. But…
Then there’s trauma:
Trauma is an abnormal event happening to a normal person
Trauma is a storm, a chaotic force of nature. The river breaks its banks and the water flows out into the void, with no barrier to contain its fury. This is called a trauma vortex*; it’s dark, intense and operates outside all parameters of normal life.
The thing about trauma is its isolation. You have no idea to whom you can turn. What was previously known becomes unknown. Friends turn their backs on you and you are betrayed, humiliated and cast out. No one can handle you and no one cares anyway. You stop trusting anyone and you avoid meeting new people. It’s like being spun around in a top and spat out, dizzy and disorientated. You have no solid grip on the world and everything seems meaningless.
When you’re in a trauma vortex, people avoid you because you’re a reminder of what they don’t want to happen. They believe good things happen to good people and therefore, you must have done something to bring it upon yourself. They can’t relate to you and can’t help you; you’re on your own now.
Trauma confronts us to dig deep. Dimly at first, then with ever increasing fire, certain resources, strengths and wisdom we’d previously overlooked become apparent to us. This ball of fire is called the healing vortex and it’s as brilliantly alive as the trauma vortex is dark.
* Resources: A car, money, food, a job, a home, a computer, a phone, a therapist or anything that gives you safety and order.
* Strengths: Intelligence, creativity, physical strength, musical skill, empathy, etc..
* Wisdom: Creativity, imagination, intuition, a connection with nature or art, a burgeoning spirituality, etc..
If you’re so traumatised that you believe you have no healing vortex, think again. You can easily access yours by keeping a daily gratitude journal for at least a month wherein you list five things to be grateful for. Your number one item on the list should always be gratitude towards yourself for a new competency, skill or solution you’ve found that day, no matter how trivial.
One of my proudest moments was when I bought my first digital camera following a traumatic break up. My ex was a computer nazi who told me repeatedly I was technologically incompetent until I believed him. I read the manual front to back (I mean, who does that?) until I learned how to use all its functions. It may not sound like much to you, but saying, “YES! I can do it! I’m great!” was a major turning point in my healing.
Titration is a chemical term whereby you carefully and slowly mix one solution with another solution in such a way as to create a third substance while avoiding the explosive reaction of mixing both too fast.
You can titrate the soothing balm of the healing vortex each time you re-experience your trauma in the form of flashbacks, nightmares or avoidance. You go back and forth between the healing vortex and the trauma vortex, with each pendulum swing lowering the intensity of your distress.
To be effective, start with an aspect of the trauma where the distress is within a manageable range. I use a 10-point scale, where 0 represents no distress and 10 is maximum distress; a 4/10 level is ideal. Past 7/10 and you’re into overwhelming fear; the language centres of your brain shut down and you shift into a sensory/visual mode and out of the meaning-making mode you need to digest your experience. Hence the term: “wordless terror.”
Let’s say your trauma involves an aggressive assault at your job. Start working with a low but manageable level of distress. For example, getting into your car before you drive to work gives you a 4/10 level. Titrate in your healing vortex until you feel a calm and centred 0/10. The healing vortex could be focusing on a favourite piece of music, patting your dog in the back seat or imagining an exotic holiday.
Then you’re ready to tackle the next distressing aspect – like arriving in the company car park. Repeat the exercise again until calm. In this way, you chip away at your trauma in bite-sized pieces until you get to the eye of the trauma vortex – by which time the level of distress will have dropped to below 6/10.
Complete integration takes time and practice but once accomplished, you receive the gift of trauma in full. The expansion of your sense of self is now so large that everything about your old life, plus your trauma and recovery is included within your world view. Your river of life is now three times as wide as it once was, like Brazil’s Amazon River as it lazily meanders out to sea.
Your newfound confidence and maturity now encompasses a greater compassion for yourself and others, peace of mind, the discovery of new spiritual horizons and a clearer sense of life purpose. These changes accompany improvements in your relationships, success in your work and financial stability.
*Thank you to Peter Levine for his brilliant insights in his book: Waking The Tiger.