Trauma is bound to touch us all at some time in our lives. Directly or indirectly, it passes no one by. Ever since mankind fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, adversity and sorrow have been touching lives, wrapped in the traumatic experiences we face. We may witness a horrible accident, watch our house go up in flames, see a parent walk out on the family, or hear of a close friend's sudden death. These are the life-situations that shake us to the core. This is where the secret of losing becomes hard to understand because these happenings in our lives change us forever. After going through them, we are never the same - for the good or the bad.
For anyone who has undergone a traumatic experience, the stress and fallout of post-trauma is real. Manifesting itself in physical and emotional strain, this becomes the "new normal" in the aftermath of what has taken place. While each person's threshold of emotional pain is different, the shared reality for all is that the images, the scarring, never completely go away and become forever a part of who we are. They are woven into the life-story.
Following my dad's illness in 2007 and again when my grandmother passed away from cancer in 2010, I expected the images and the pain that came with them to fade away and leave, thus bringing me the peace I needed. I didn't want to be tormented by these scenes of suffering, by these moments in my life that only stirred up unwanted emotion. I was angry, withdrawn, depressed, uncertain, fearful, and insecure. What I failed to understand at the time was that each of these feelings were completely natural for what I had gone through. Nobody knows how they will handle certain tragedies until they've gone through those themselves. It wasn't that these feelings were un-natural or that I was a bad person for feeling this way...I was simply experiencing a side of myself for the first time that I knew little about: the me who had to suffer. In the beginning, I expected the pain to go away and did not give myself permission to grieve and respond accordingly. As a result, I felt like it was wrong of me to hurt the way I did.
I kept telling myself, I shouldn't keep feeling this way. People expect me to move on! Why am I still like this?
I fought the emotions...wave after wave. But in so doing, I now see that I only prolonged the process that would lead to healing and positive growth in trauma's wake.
Trauma threatens to put us all behind the door. For every trauma-stricken person, there are two wars: the sheer shock of the incident itself, and then the anguish left in its path - the latter of which may prove to be more difficult. Just because the originating experience may have passed doesn't mean its horrible echoes have ceased, as well. Often, while we may appear to have survived the impact and seem alive to those around us, we are actually continuing to deal with the reality that something is dead inside of us.
One interesting observation that I have seen in my previous conversations with military commanders, chaplains, psychologists, and others who have helped people through traumatic experiences, is that those who seem to fare worse under the emotional strain of trauma often do not have a strong faith. They also seem to carry with them intense, emotional baggage. Witnessing how these individuals handled the painful situations dropped upon them showed these observers that unresolved past hurts, coupled with the lack of spiritual guidance, often make the fallout worse. I certainly found this to be true of myself.
Here is where the concept of the door comes into play: if the difficulty of your past has made it hard for you to heal, and you've gone behind the door instead, any adversity or suffering that you face will only drive you further into the darkness. It can also accentuate the negative emotions that you might already be dealing with. Feelings like failure, sadness, bitterness, and regret are then magnified. Like me, instead of journeying toward healing, you may simply carry on with life, trying to cope but feeling emptier the further along you go.
In reflecting back on this time in my life, one mistake that I regret is my failure to seek a community of healing. The years that followed showed me how terrible it is to walk alone. Going through my own valley has given me the ability to relate to other trauma-stricken people. As I have tried to meet others where they are, I have found that this has proven to be a blessing for me. The beautiful exchange of shared vulnerability has helped me to come to grips with my own pain. Even as I continue to strive to overcome the disconnectedness I once felt within me - the split between my heart and my mind regarding the things I went through - the effect has proved to be a lasting one. As a result, were I to go through the same trauma again, there is much that I would do differently. I would seek out and welcome a community of healing, something that I sorely lacked the first time. Beyond that, I would also not expect the pain to vanish but would rather realize that suffering is an unavoidable part of life.
Making it through the first war is good - most of us do - but the second war is, perhaps, more defining. These are the questions that must be asked if we are to emerge from our tragedies as better people: how do we live with the hurting side of ourselves? Can we really give ourselves permission to let go, no matter how much it hurts?
Ultimately...how do we fight the second war...and win?