I talk about recovery so much, you’d think I would be recovered by now. But even though many of the things that happened to me were long ago, it doesn’t mean that I can simply “get over” them. Trauma doesn’t have a time limit, and there’s no magic timeline of when you will get better. I was sexually assaulted last year, but yet many of the things that happened years, even decades ago, still hurt me worse than what happened that night. The mind is a wondrous and strange thing and each of us takes our own time to come into our own.
Many people who have not undergone trauma think that healing from a catastrophic or deeply painful event think it’s a simple progression from “awful thing” to “processing grief, frustration, and fear” to “being perfectly better.” They view it as like this:
To them, it’s pretty straightforward: something horrible happens, and you take some time, get some professional help, and then go back to your everyday life. You’re “back to normal.” This is why they often get frustrated when traumatized people continue to show symptoms long after they expect them to be “normal” again. They don’t realize that the healing process is a lot more like this:
Healing and recovery are a big ol’ rubber band mess. They’re not even assured. Some people never recover from trauma. Some people never begin to recover from trauma! And it’s a labyrinth of ups, downs, false starts, steps back, confusion, and mixed emotions. Somewhere in there, at the edge of all this mess, you create a new “normal” for yourself, because there is a huge morass of development and change between who you were before the trauma and who you are afterward. You can never go back to the person that existed behind all of that healing.
That person, no matter how great they were, has been completely transformed into who you are now. You have stepped into a new chapter of life and welcomed a new being into existence.
Buddhist thought shows us that this makes perfect sense. The Buddha teaches that there is no true existence except the right now: each of us are being born, living, and dying in this exact moment. Who you were yesterday is not who you are today, even if, because of the tricks of the mind, there seems to be a seamless narrative of “me”ness. This gives great hope, because it means that you have infinite opportunities to make yourself into who you want to be. Your trauma, though it informs your current reality, is not you. You are the you of right now, and the you of right now is the one making the decision to change.
From my perfectly scientific graphics, we can see that the standard, expected way to approach recovery isn’t a very good one: it presumes that there is a logical one-way progression through recovery. That you will march, step by step, through a perfectly organized process, and that it will be easy to see that progression from “traumatized” to “healed.” In reality, recovery is a messy, loud, weird journey happening as you live your life. Recovery often happens when you least expect it, or in the most dramatic ways, or even in quiet little “aha!” moments: in a coffee shop, at the beach, snuggling with a loved one. Recovery doesn’t exist just in the confines of a therapist’s office, and it certainly doesn’t follow a prescribed pattern. It follows you, in your footsteps, as you remake yourself breath by breath, moment by moment. You live your recovery, because you live your life.
In fact, sometimes you don’t even realize the extent of your recovery until much later. You’ve just slid into healing, and it takes a bit of reflection to realize you’ve pushed yourself further than you ever have before, or you’ve taken a big step that represents years of hard work, or even that you’ve just become happier and more confident because you’re taking better care of yourself. That’s because recovery doesn’t announce itself. It’s not always blatant, or organized, or pushed into your face. It’s part of life.
I’ll give an example from my own life, one that shows how I began to take back my body from the sexual assault I endured as a child. Like many victims of sexual assault, I was sexually precocious, and began to date and be sexually active at an early age. However, I never let any of my partners sleep overnight. The one time that I slept overnight at someone’s house that I was interested in, when she got ready to sleep in the same bed with me, I panicked, physically shoved her off the bed, and she ended up sleeping on the floor.
I never went to sleepovers after I was seven years old (the time of the assault), and I can’t remember a time, other than the one I mentioned, where I slept over at someone’s house. The only other time that I had a non-family member sleep in the same room with me was when a friend, a gay man, slept over the night before a concert. I had no worries about him because he was obviously not attracted in me. None of my partners had ever slept overnight in the same bed with me, no longer how long we had been dating, how close we were, or how much I cared about them.
However, with my last partner, after the first few times having him over, he was there late, and I asked him to stay the night. I didn’t even think about it. He stayed, and in the morning we woke up tightly clasping hands. It became a regular occurrence to sleep over at his house or mine. I never felt any fear, or even considered being afraid. I enjoyed waking up next to another person and wondered why I had never done this with anyone else.
It wasn’t that I was ever worried that my prior partners, specifically, would hurt me or assault me in my sleep. And it’s not that my last partner – though he is a wonderful person, and an extraordinarily gentle and empathetic soul – was somehow better than all my prior partners about my assault. None of my romantic partners have ever made light of my sexual abuse or ever violated my consent. It’s just that I, emotionally, wasn’t ready to take that step until I began dating my last partner. I couldn’t handle that kind of vulnerability. It frightened me to be prone and unconscious next to someone who, theoretically, could do anything they wanted to me without my knowledge, no matter how much I trusted them.
I never even realized that I had reached this milestone until much later, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks, that this was something I had conquered. Sometimes you aren’t able to see the patterns in your behavior until they change, or until you get a little distance from the change and actually realize that you never did something before, and now you can.
I’m perhaps lucky in that I have undergone both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). These are two different approaches to treating trauma and mental illnesses, each with their merits. CBT teaches the patient to consider and understand why they do different behaviors, and thus to change them by reasoning through their thought processes and fears. It’s particularly good for issues like anxiety, OCD, and PTSD, where the patient may avoid certain things, or perform certain behaviors, because of past negative experiences or ingrained thought patterns.
Alternatively, DBT teaches patients coping skills that can help them mitigate dangerous behaviors and patterns. While many DBT therapists will also discuss past experiences and provide some psychotherapy surrounding past trauma, much of it is focused on mindfulness, and how the patient can use an understanding of trauma to enhance their life in the present. DBT is good for PTSD too, but it’s geared more toward Borderline Personality Disorder, other personality disorders, and bipolar disorder.
Having both of these approaches in my ‘toolbox’ means that I can analyze where my behaviors, biases, or fears are coming from (though it may take me a while), and then select the appropriate coping method to face them. Sometimes breaking a fear or negative thought pattern down and searching for its root can help to dissolve it, as I can see that it’s not really warranted and is just a byproduct of an unhappy past. Then I can consider ways to change it into a healthier behavior and go forward with a more positive mindset.
And it sounds silly, but mentality really is an important part of recovery. Being dismal, believing you will never get anywhere, that all is lost, is going to impede you. If you believe you will get better – even a little bit better – and that you can get through it, will help you get better. There are literally studies proving that those with an optimistic mindset are more likely to recover from physical injury. The same goes for psychological trauma. Thinking you’ll get better helps you get better. The Buddha teaches this as well, when he says that the greatest thing one can do is master their own thoughts.
In working toward recovery and finding Buddhism, the most important thing for me is to learn that the compassion I practice toward others is limitless – meaning it encompasses myself as well. I can only offer others love from the deepest depths of my heart if my heart holds love for myself as well.
In meeting your eyes, I see my eyes reflected
and know that we both are reflections of the Universe