Why is this taking so long? Why am I not healing?
“No wonder I’m broken,” she sobbed, as realization struck. It can take years for a person to heal from one sexual assault. My client had been serially raped for close to 10.
She struggles with her self-worth, struggles to get her business off the ground, struggles with relationships with men, struggles with the inescapable imprints left by people who were supposed to care for her—who instead used her, bullied her, and dehumanized her.
She had been called a piece of sh*t, finger jabbed into her chest to drive home the point. Her body had warped around this pain, sealing her off from feeling what she had no resources to deal with, at the time.
We had begun our session that day with a simple statement that she chose. “I am ready to claim my value.”
I asked her what she felt when she said that, and her reply had been exhaustion. I asked her to breathe, and to notice where she felt that in her body. She had tracked the feeling to her chest. Next came the memory of being poked there, feeling her body’s reaction, how she had coped with that.
She had shut down. She had done her best to stem the flow of feelings—hurt, confusion, fear, and anger. Feelings that had no outlet, had stuck in her tissue. She was still shutting them down. No wonder she was exhausted.
“The word ‘depressed’ is spoken phonetically as ‘deep rest.’ We can view depression not as a mental illness, but on a deeper level, as a profound, and very misunderstood, state of deep rest, entered into when we are completely exhausted by the weight of our own identity.” ~ Jeff Foster
How much effort does it take to drag around the walls we build around our unresolved pain? I would say that the effort required to keep going in a society that stifles creativity, belittles belonging, and sucks the souls from the more sensitive among us, is Herculean. Of course we’re f*cking exhausted, anxious, and depressed.
I don’t want to detract from the chemical imbalances that can contribute to those states, for which, in some cases, pharmacological intervention is beneficial. However, the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology tells us what many healers have known for years—our emotions deeply affect our physical health.
What happens when we experience trauma is a set of internal reactions that then begin to reshape our physical reality. First, our breath freezes. That takes us out of parasympathetic mode (where we rest, digest, and repair), and tosses us into fight-or-flight. Next, adrenaline surges through our system, as we determine what the best possible use of that energy is. Do we run, fight back, or freeze? If that adrenaline does not get discharged, it sticks in the tissue, sometimes for years.
Often when people start to connect with the trauma stored in their body, they will shake. We see animals do this, naturally, in the wild after they escape a predator. Shaking helps us to regulate the nervous system after trauma, to discharge excess energy, but we rarely do it. So that response gets stuck on a feedback loop, unable to resolve itself without compassionate intervention.
We may become hypervigilant, or our senses may dull. We may become thrill seekers, to keep the adrenaline going, or we may seek ways to numb. Both are ways that we keep ourselves in trance, and through which that trance controls our biochemical responses. It is this loop that keeps the trauma cycle active.
The answer to why it takes some of us so long to heal, and why we can’t just talk it out, is we have to come back for the parts of ourselves that were lost, abandoned, and left behind. We have to come back, through the body, and feel what we did not have skills and resources to tend to at the time those traumas happened.
Mantras don’t cut it. Talk therapy can help. Meditation can help. But what we really need is the steady drip of blessed presence into those wounds. We need for our own loving-kindness to become the balm that we seek in so many forms: substances, sex, work, TV, social media, shopping, perfectionism, approval.
How do we begin to meet what we have shut down? We need to stop. Breathe. Feel. We need to—compassionately, and courageously—challenge shame.
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” ~ Brené Brown
The staccato trauma beats is a predictable tune, “You’re not worthy.” It can sure seem that way, and we can be so clever at finding evidence to prove it. Trauma is loud, louder than kindness, and it wreaks havoc on our nervous system.
The main difference between shame and guilt is that guilt is about an activity, and activities and behaviors can be modified, and can be corrected. Shame is about our personhood. It is not: I have done something wrong; it is: there is something wrong with me.
Our shame is often the result of internalizing the shame of another. Before we are capable of psychologically filtering, we experience someone treating us in the manner that manifests their own pain and confusion, and we think it’s about us. We think we must deserve to be abused. We have no idea how twisted and toxic that person’s internal world is. So of course it’s us. How could it not be?
One of my main issues with the so-called Law of Attraction is that it perpetuates this trance. If we can just become good enough, positive enough, we will get to have the life of our dreams. We can manifest what we want, including changing the behaviors in others. Can’t you see?—this is the same infantile thinking that we adapted to survive in the first place. And it doesn’t work because we are not responsible for other people’s behavior. We are, however, responsible for our response to it.
We have all been hurt. Those wounds do not get to define us, but they are a part of our history, and to heal we must keep reclaiming ourselves and keep rewriting our stories.
Healing can never be reduced to a fail, or succeed model. It is an ongoing conversation between our internal and external worlds. It is our life itself. We have to keep showing up and know—we are enough.