“Most survivors grew up too fast. Their vulnerable child-selves got lost in the need to protect and deaden themselves. Reclaiming the inner child is part of the healing process. Often the inner child holds information and feelings for the adult. Some of these feelings are painful; others are actually fun. The child holds the playfulness and innocence the adult has had to bury.” Laura Davis
All effective therapy ultimately requires that patients view themselves as responsible for their own behavior. But someone experiencing the residual effects of trauma feels like a puppet on a string being pulled by unnamed hands. The trauma creates its own structure that influences how future events are interpreted. I compare the phenomenon to tire tracks in a dirt road that enable the next vehicles to pass much faster down the same path. Backtracking to the past helps a person to tease out and separate one’s self from the specific event that took place. The distance then allows for accurate interpretation, first on the factual level of exactly what happened. The facts arrived at in therapy have often been buried, but now they might be added to the mix of the overall memory of the original situation, while previous facts can be edited out.
The person has distance and can pause to comprehend. The person has spent a lifetime controlled by traumatic memory, but the distance allows him to assume authority over the experience and life itself. Insights gained from the new sense of distance open the emotional and cognitive gateway to formation of better beliefs.
Ultimately, it is necessary for the patient to grieve damages. The liberating nature of grief transcends Sigmund Freud’s defensive mechanism, repetition compulsion, where one creates present experiences that are replicas of past experiences as a means of working through and resolving the unresolved past. Grief can be a more potent curative than that. When someone is grieving, he is no longer trying to recreate and resolve the past, but rather is mourning the losses with free will and awareness. After grief, it is possible to let it go.
One evening, having had a couple of drinks, I asked her why she put up with it. She said to me, “I’d rather be kicked than ignored.” Although I was guilty of my own transgressions for many years thereafter, I never forgot those words. It wasn’t until after a lot of years in recovery that I really got it. I realize now that she acted out in various ways just to get his attention. As far as she was concerned, that was better than putting up with the indifference.
Being ignored by people whose attention we need destroys self-worth, whether they are partners, parents, teachers, schoolmates, or even superiors at work. Some of us react with rage, some tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, and some of us “act in,” retreating into a shell where we try to ignore our own needs. Some of us try to “belong” by becoming essential to other twisted souls. Some of us, especially children, manage to become essentially invisible. Others of us will do almost anything to get attention, even if it means punishment.
1. Take the ACE questionnaire.
The single most important step you can take toward healing and transformation is to fill out the ACE questionnaire for yourself and share your results with your health-care practitioner. For many people, taking the 10-question survey “helps to normalize the conversation about adverse childhood experiences and their impact on our lives,” says Vincent Felitti, co-founder of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study. “When we make it okay to talk about what happened, it removes the power that secrecy so often has.”
You’re not asking your healthcare practitioner to act as your therapist, or to change your prescriptions; you’re simply acknowledging that there might be a link between your past and your present. Ideally, given the recent discoveries in the field of ACEs research, your doctor should acknowledge that this link is plausible, and add some of the following modalities to your healing protocol.
2. Begin writing to heal.
Think about writing down your story of childhood adversity, using a technique psychologists call “writing to heal.” James Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, developed this assignment, which demonstrates the effects of writing as a healing modality. He suggests: “Over the next four days, write down your deepest emotions and thoughts about the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now…Write continuously for twenty minutes a day.”
When Pennebaker had students complete this assignment, their grades went up. When adults wrote to heal, they made fewer doctors’ visits and demonstrated changes in their immune function. The exercise of writing about your secrets, even if you destroy what you’ve written afterward, has been shown to have positive health effects.
3. Practice mindfulness meditation.
A growing body of research indicates that individuals who’ve practiced mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) show an increase in gray matter in the same parts of the brain that are damaged by adverse childhood experiences and shifts in genes that regulate their physiological stress response. According to Trish Magyari, LCPC, a mindfulness-based psychotherapist and researcher who specializes in trauma and illness, adults suffering from PTSDdue to childhood sexual abuse who took part in a “trauma-sensitive” MBSR program, had less anxiety and depression, and demonstrated fewer PTSD symptoms, even two years after taking the course.
Many meditation centers offer MBSR classes and retreats, but you can practice anytime in your own home. Choose a time and place to focus on your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils; the rise and fall of your chest; the sensations in your hands or through the whole body; or sounds within or around you. If you get distracted, just come back to your anchor. Here are some tips from Tara Brach, psychologist and meditation teacher, to get you started on your mindfulness journey.
There are many medications you can take that dampen the sympathetic nervous system (which ramps up your stress response when you come into contact with a stressor), but there aren’t any medications that boost the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps to calm your body down after the stressor has passed). Your breath is the best natural calming treatment—and it has no side effects.