Facing PTSD: the trauma labyrinth

As I have discussed on this blog before, I was assaulted in November of 2017, a situation that helped lead me to Buddhism in hopes of gaining peace and solace. As I’ve explored mindfulness and worked to process my experience, I’ve noticed some troubling misunderstandings about trauma recovery.

Pop culture, media, and even personal narratives often fail to truly articulate the realities of post-traumatic stress. Most portrayals of trauma in media follow this pattern:

  • Character experiences trauma.
  • This character is now wholly defined by their position as a survivor.
  • They immediately begin to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
  • Their symptoms generally revolve around flashbacks (mostly because flashbacks are easy to portray visually, unlike other symptoms).
  • Triggers for flashbacks and other symptoms are clear-cut, easily explainable, and do not change over time.
  • With the help of other characters, situations, and experiences, the character’s symptoms diminish, and often disappear completely in a relatively short period of time.

I will try to address all of these misconceptions in the coming posts, but first I’d like to discuss the belief that recovery is a linear, easily defined path.

The typical narrative arc – beginning, middle, and end – is so deeply ingrained within our culture that we struggle to understand cyclical experiences. Our very minds are conditioned to seek definable points in a narrative, and when we narrate our own lives, we also try to create the expected narrative format even if it doesn’t fit. In many ways, this is a positive trait: it helps us contextualize our experiences, relate to others, and organize our thoughts effectively. However, this focus on developing coherent narratives can be damaging when we experience situations that simply cannot be placed in terms of beginning, middle, and end.

Trauma recovery is the very opposite of a typical narrative arc. Instead, it is more like walking a labyrinth. Labyrinths are all about cycles and circular movement, winding inward to the center and then back out. Even as one progresses through a labyrinth, the nature of the path forces the walker to revisit the past with each turn. At times, it seems as if one isn’t really getting toward the end because they continue to walk in circles, but there is still forward movement.

This is very much like working through trauma. In dealing with my trauma, I have often felt like I am regressing, but in fact each time that symptoms or feelings reemerge, I am still moving forward, as my response each time is informed by my prior work. I may deal with the same problem multiple times, but the forward movement doesn’t stop. I’m simply seeing the same part of the labyrinth again in a different way.

I am very lucky in that I have had enough therapy that I am able to contextualize my feelings, connect them to the source, and find effective ways out of the pain. Many survivors who haven’t had extensive Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) may not be able to recognize why something is bothering them when a new symptom emerges, or to fully articulate why something hurts. This is because the movement through the trauma labyrinth creates a connection between past and present: one both encounters past experiences and moves forward to new ones at the same time, blending and blurring the line between the two.

I am not going to offer any suggestions of how to change this, because I honestly don’t know how to. All I can offer is encouragement that if you feel like you’re moving backwards, it’s simply because you’re walking the labyrinth: moving into the center of your experience and back out again, turn by turn.

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