In the entry below, I’m going to explore childhood trauma. But since this one might be a little longer than others (and you might stop reading), I wanted to make sure that some of you who might struggle with trauma had a few resources on hand.
- International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
- Office for Victims of Crime
- David Baldwin’s Trauma Pages
Therapy sucks. I mean, in a lot of ways it’s supposed to. But it definitely sucks. Yeah, as a therapist and someone with mental illness, it probably behooves me to go. But lord, it really does suck. I have to commend my clients for their persistence when it comes to getting through and understanding the past, living in the present, and keeping an eye on the future. Why? Because therapy is terrifying (and it blows). I do, however, believe in the profession and the impact it can leave on those that are willing to brave it. It does take a good amount of bravery. Once in a while I have the balls for it, but I’ve dropped out more than once; just give me my drugs, and I’ll talk to you later.
Trauma. Not a lot of people like to rehash traumatic events. And this is especially true for complex trauma. For some, leaving it in the past can work. Some therapists might push for an autobiographical exploration—and I subscribe to this sentiment, albeit with a circumspect approach—but sometimes, people just want to fix the here and now, get back to work, and get on with their life. Personally, though, it isn’t in me to leave unanswered questions and foggy memories down in the basement of my mind. What’s most important to me is my story, that it make sense, and that it is a cohesive whole. I want the wisdom that comes from excavating the past, thickening my narrative, and having an answer to some of the “whys” of my life.
And for those of us who do have bipolar disorder, trauma is not likely a foreign concept. In one study, the authors reported a 51% prevalence rate of severe childhood trauma in a sample of adults. When you account for both childhood and adult trauma, that number jumps to about 90%. That’s kind of an enormous number. At least a third of these folks will develop comorbid PTSD. Beyond that, childhood trauma is connected with an increase in overall symptom severity, higher and earlier incidence of hospitalization, self-harming behaviors, and suicidality. Point is, it might be a good idea to address it if you have it.
So, getting back to whether or not trauma is best to leave in the past, my personal belief (and some will disagree) is that it’s important to make the past a part of the present in such a way as to benefit your life. That past lives with you whether or not you want to look at it. It’s an inseparable part of who you are and it influences the choices that you make. It even impacts how you perceive those choices. When you fail to explore it, traumatic memories end up existing as isolated memories bereft of reason or meaning or causality. They become little islands that can strand you. And all of that breeds a massive amount of anxiety and fear, because if you don’t understand the past, if you don’t acknowledge it, you’ll have a hard time figuring out whether or not you are safe, be it in the world or with a person.
Research has shown that a coherent life story, where traumatic memories are linked to or interwoven with a larger whole, post traumatic symptoms decrease. And the first step towards a reduction of symptoms is to dive right in to the ugliness (and beauty) of the past. According to something called “context reinstatement”, the more you talk about your personal history, the more detailed and visceral those memories become. And as memories expand and resurface, the greater a person’s ability to construct a coherent narrative. And larger, thicker narratives give a person more fodder to process. And the more a person has to process, the better he or she can see themselves as part of a safer world. They end up feeling connected, calmer in the glow of knowing why. Narratives can eat chaos alive (though, really, narratives are just a sort of ordered chaos).
Anyways, some of this came up because I’ve been struggling with whether or not my impulse to write with a biographical lean signaled a weakness or pathology within me. It’s not that I want to consider myself strong, but more about whether or not I’m stuck, going down the wrong path. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
However, I do have one really strong point that compels me to keep exploring all the cervices and dusty corners. Bipolar disorder has a significant genetic component; there’s a 10% to 25% chance that at least one of my children are going to inherit the disorder, and it’s even higher if we throw anxiety and other mood disorders into the mix. So why do I delve into the past? It’s partly because I don’t want my children to suffer from the same illness as I do. Thus, as a dad, it is my job to figure out what the hell happened and why, because I’m not going to look back and say shit, I fucked up and missed some shit. No way. I need to know what might put my kids at risk. I need to know the protective factors that’ll serve as a protective wall for them. Looking at the past serves two goals. First, it helps me. Second, it helps my kids.
So please, if you have the time, leave a comment below. I’d like to know your thoughts on whether or not we should look to the past or not.