The following is a very intense and traumatic memory of an incident that occurred when I was 16 years old**
I was at my house with two of my friends one day after school. I had just gotten a new pair of Oakley sunglasses. One of the friends really liked them. He took them from me and I ran after him. We ran around the house and into the front yard. My two friends got in their car and drove down the driveway waving the sunglasses at me. This is where the events start to get foggy… I remember getting them back from him and then putting them in the mailbox as I had to leave for work. I remember them going into the mailbox and grabbing them. I remember them speeding off away from my house…. I remember pondering whether I should go to work or try and get them back again….i remember deciding on going after them…..And as I turned onto the road leading away from my house, about a quarter mile down the road, I came upon the car, flipped over. The driver was running towards me, his face was panicked…. He was screaming for help…. Everything was happening so fast… I didn’t understand… And that was when I saw my other friend underneath the car…. I remember running to the neighbors house…I remember ringing the doorbell, banging on the door… No one home…. I remember running back to the car… I remember we tried to lift it off of him…. I remember my body going limp and falling backward hitting the ground hard…. I remember the neighbor appearing over me and saying something but it sounded far away…. I remember her holding and trying to comfort me, but I was so far away…
“Trauma is not what happens to you. It’s what happens inside you.” — Dr Gabor Mate
Trauma is my lens to the world.
It is a lens I can feel before I can see. It’s an energy that we can carry and pass on to others, those we love and even strangers without intending.
I believe we all have or will encounter trauma in one form or another.
I believe we live in a culture of trauma and stress. This way of living is accepted and it is frowned upon if you cannot tolerate it. This is the norm, our default setting. I hear time and time again from doctors and through researching medical resources — stress is just a part of life. I don’t agree. This feels disempowering. Stressors are a part of life. Stress is when we feel we have to more things to do than we can manage. I believe we can simplify our life if we are willing to go off the script. The script of our culture or the story running in our head. We may be taking on too many things to ensure we are valuable. We may believe we need to do and give to ensure our belonging. To me, this is a symptom of feeling unsafe. This usually links back to an experience that brought pain, fear or loss of a connection.
I believe trauma is at the root of all of our negative emotions and behaviors. But what is at the root of our traumas?
“Trauma restricts the authentic self.” — Dr Gabor Mate
I believe trauma sits on top of our authentic self, shaping our beliefs, behaviors, thoughts, reactions and feelings which filters our reality through a lens that blocks much of who we truly are. If the goal of our life is to find and live our purpose, my belief is that there are a few things that stand in our way of getting there. What we are aiming for is to be, to embody our authentic selves. This is the person we are when we are not trying. This is the person we are attracted to in others when we see it, we are drawn to it unexplainably. And deep down, we want to be what we are attracted to energetically in some way.
Stopping us from reaching our authentic self is our wounds, our traumas (in addition to our conditioning). The negative experiences we’ve had that are burrowed into our memories and resurface every time we get triggered, or have an emotional resonance with the past that literally brings us back there. We return to that time and with that the fight/flight mode. When we are triggered, we are not our authentic self. And I believe, the more we are triggered, the farther we away from that self.
I have my own experiences with trauma and I appreciate that there are many ways to view and think about it. If I have any biases, I have a bone to pick with the medical system and the western view of the body and health. I have some contrarian views and I want to share them in a way that creates a conversation, a way to open minds and not a “How-To” about your own healing journey. I believe in self-actualized healing, which is not about labels and diagnoses, but rather understanding most humans are capable to take action in their own life. That we are more capable than doctors or therapists to know what is best for us, which is good because we are the only one with ourselves 24/7. And creating the support system with our loved ones that is empowering, without the drama triangle with rescuers, victims and persecutors.
With that said, I offer 4 lenses I have found on my journey that were impactful as I developed awareness and my self-actualization and empowerment.
The first lens is Judith Herman. A psychiatrist, researcher and major contributor to what we know today about trauma says, “the core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.” When healing, every connection in your life will need to be reformed. I actually see this as a great opportunity that is healthy as we should always be breaking and reforming our relationships with others as we learn ourselves, grow and change. We may unintentionally bump into boundaries or traumas in each other that we didn’t know were there, by doing this with an orientation that this is an important part of relationships and to not have fear, we can truly support one another.
The second lens is Dr. Gabor Mate. He has a great podcast with Tim Ferriss from several years ago, that initially went unnoticed on my radar. Dr Mate is a physician with an intense focus on childhood trauma, which he believes is at the root of most of the manifestations we see across society — namely depression, anxiety and addiction. He talks about our two basic needs as developing children beyond our human survival needs are 1) to be our authentic self and 2) to belong. He says we all have to heal our inner child because of the original trauma that occurs in childhood which is the break between choosing our “authentic self” or to deny it so we can belong. This can happen conversely as we can choose to be our authentic self and be outcast. This is a smaller percentage of people, I find and they will then struggle with a sense of belonging. Either way, there is trauma and our social and cultural environments have created this. I find this to be so true. I remember realizing very young that it was “not safe to be me.” Which means if I am my weird, authentic self, I will not be accepted by other boys and then other girls will follow. I will not belong. Our human instincts tell us if we don’t belong, we are not safe. We will not survive without a tribe.
The third lens I use to think about trauma is how it gets lodged into our body. Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps Score (an amazing book on trauma) which brings the somatic approach to trauma and has researched and worked with patients for many years on releasing trauma in the body. He says that people become living testimonials to things that no longer exist, we have a loyalty to the dead and the past. We feel the need to hold the person and the memory in our minds, hearts and bodies. This is how a trauma forms in this way. He talks about how there is the thinking brain (conscious) and the feeling brain (subconscious). He has seen that verbal psychotherapy (better known as talk therapy) is ineffective at accessing our feeling brain. The feeling brain is the first response to any stimulus, before our thinking brain can process all of the information coming at us. Before our thinking brain can process “hand is burning” our feeling brain has already pulled our hand away from the hot plate. This works well most of the time…until we experience a trauma. Bessel says that when we experience a serious trauma, our conscious brain blocks it out, we have no memory of it. My story at the beginning of this post was something I didn’t remember for years after the accident, and even today I don’t remember large parts of it. But inside our feeling brain, the traumatic experience is replaying over and over. Our inner ear is perked up and always listening for danger, our system becomes overactive. This causes what we refer to as PTSD, which I had for years following the accident and didn’t realize it. Over the years, I’ve shifted away from trying to heal my thinking brain. I can understand in my thoughts that I’m not in danger most of the day, but working on the feeling brain is the only way I’ve made progress in actually being free of the constant anxiety.
What this definition and what trauma has always meant to me is an internal feeling coming from an external force. An external force is a factor we cannot control. It makes us a victim in our own story. It makes us feel hopeless, powerless and drives a disconnection. What made my trauma worse and long-lasting was that I did not understand trauma. I was disempowered over my own health of my mind and body. I cannot change things I’m not aware of, awareness leads choice. Trauma is from a pattern, more than it is from an event (though the event can help create the pattern). The pattern is a creation of the self and can also be healed by the self.
The fourth lens I think about trauma is best described by Michael Pollan - who talks about how traumas as thought patterns created by an excessive rigidity in the brain. Ruminations around a destructive narrative. It can be obsessive thinking, feeling unsafe. It causes stress in the body, which entraps the mind into suffering. This was an experience and a pattern that was overwhelming to me, I thought I was trapped forever.
Having PTSD disconnected me from my body, it hurt to feel and every trigger would send me into pain and then the resistance of that pain, an attempt to escape. Over time, this became chronic stress that took a toll on my body and my heart. My experience of my life, every day, was dominated by this triggered state. I would go into feelings of fear, of shame, of guilt, of worry about every situation. Worried I would lose by precious social connections, love and acceptance. Trauma can rear its head in our world in severe cases like catastrophic events and prolonged abuse, it can also be micro-actions of disempowerment that we receive from our boss, our lover or even our children. There are so many ways to view trauma and I am constantly at work to understand my world and how I’m reacting to it. Right now, my lens of trauma feels expansive and multi-dimensional. I can see things coming earlier and I can better use these tools to understand what is happening, or what has happened.
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