The very essence of a traumatic experience is one of feeling helpless; powerless to a force of nature in the shape of another person, a natural disaster, loss, illness, divorce.
In the wake of trauma, we can be stuck in the fight or flight reactivity and suffer from post-traumatic stress, which can look and feel like sleeplessness, nightmares, depression, anxiety and fear. The trauma can continue to traumatize us well after the actual event is over. How infuriating! I thought so anyway.
The path of healing
In January 2018, while four months pregnant, I had a near death experience in the Montecito Mudslide. A record-breaking storm destroyed my home in the middle of the night and left me trapped and separated from my husband and then four-year-old son, thinking they had been killed by the torrential river of mud, houses, cars and boulders that tore down the mountainside. The mudslide claimed the lives of 23 neighbors and destroyed over 450 structures. Rebuilding continues to this day. Well after my physical body had healed and I was “safe,” staying in lovely houses, clothed and fed by strangers and friends alike, I was riddled with horrible nightmares, as well as fear and anxiety. I was stricken with panic attacks… I had PTSD.
And yet. As I healed through a host of modalities ranging from traditional talk therapy, and EMDR, to shamanism and ketamine therapy, (all of which I detail in my book, Trusting the Dawn: How to Choose Freedom and Joy After Trauma), some incredible things started happening for me. I was experiencing a profoundly raw and vivid connection to the beauty all around me. The recognition and revelation of how fragile life is made me appreciate it on a profound visceral level. My connection with others was intensified, certain relationships became stronger and closer, and others fell away. I was humbled and moved by the generosity of family, friends and strangers who offered support from toys for my son, pregnancy clothes for me, meals, places to stay and healing therapies. There was an interconnectedness that was illuminated. This interconnectedness is there all the time and yet in the busyness of “normal” life we don’t feel it or see it as much. In times of disaster or trauma it can become apparent.
How to take your power back
We begin to take our power back after a traumatic event by using our voices. Acknowledging that what has happened to us was traumatic, as well as asking for help and connecting with others. I think there’s a universal feeling for many survivors of wanting to move on after a traumatic experience and yet for many of us, including me, we can be haunted by PTSD. I found that talking about my nightmares and fear with friends, led me to therapy and EMDR which helped me unwind the physical and emotional reactions to the trauma of the mudslide. With the help of a therapist, I identified how I had been powerful during the traumatic experience – I had used my voice. I had awoken my family and saved their lives as a result.
Another way I used my voice was in asking for help. It’s always been hard for me to ask for and receive help, and yet in that state of being pregnant, homeless, traumatized and having lost all of my worldly possessions, I had to. There is something empowering about asking for what you need. And allowing yourself to receive it graciously.
Integration is the goal
Often after a traumatic experience we need help to heal, to integrate, and to reclaim parts of ourselves. Sometimes the traumatic experience can become a splintered off event that becomes “bad” or “other” within our psyche. There can be a feeling of wanting to “get it out.” I can relate to this feeling and yet in my experience, and in the opinion of trauma expert Dr. Pat Ogden, integration of the traumatic experience is the goal.
In one of my ketamine therapy sessions I had the experience of witnessing the scene of my 7-year-old self being molested. Out of the darkness a gorilla appeared. I wondered if I should be afraid of this gorilla and then realized I wasn’t afraid of it. The gorilla then whisked the 7-year-old me away from the perpetrator to safety. In reviewing the experience with my psychiatrist, we identified that gorilla as my fierce warrior aspect. Acknowledging that fierce part of my being and recognizing how strong and capable I am, was empowering and helped me to integrate that experience in a meaningful way.
Stepping into the light
For me, the main way we take our power back is in reframing the trauma. Instead of why did this happen to me, ask the question, how did this happen for me? As Holocaust survivor and therapist Dr. Edith Eger explained to me and expounds upon in her books, The Choice and The Gift, we all will be victimized in our lives, that is part of being alive. She says,
This is life. This is victimization. It comes from the outside. In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happened to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization.
∼ Edith Eger, The choice, 7
We take our power back through healing and recognizing that because of what we have endured and survived we are in fact more complex, multidimensional, connected and powerful. Emerging from our darkest moments into the light teaches us that now is the only guarantee and to be empowered to seize the moment and live and love like we mean it.