Bipolar Disorder & Therapy: Exploring Childhood Trauma and Creating a Coherent Narrative

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.

  1. International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
  2. Office for Victims of Crime
  3. 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.

Posted by

I’m a budding Marriage and Family Therapist. I’m finishing my degree in counseling after blundering halfway through law school. I work with kids and teenagers, some of which are troubled, and most of which are lost. Each and every single one of them reminds me of a piece or part of my childhood. The job can be heart wrenching, but most of the time, it reminds of the beauty in this world. I’m a husband and a father. I’m married to a lovely woman. She’s a great lady; smart and kind. I have two young kids--crazy, adorable, and ridiculously hilarious boys. I also enjoy putting pen to paper once in awhile.

3 thoughts on “Bipolar Disorder & Therapy: Exploring Childhood Trauma and Creating a Coherent Narrative

  1. Thank you for the follow. I’ve been posting about mental health and other health related policies since 2013. I firmly believe a blogging relationship is more than just a follow you and you follow me. If you wish to engage in dialogue then I’m up for the game. Anything less, I’m not interested. There’s a lot of new bloggers logging on and I find some of them fascinating but some seem to be missing the critical point of blogging and that’s the exchange of ideas and conversation in the blogging community.
    I appreciate the follow but it means nothing if you don’t actually read my post and comment on what I’ve written. I’ll do the same for you. However, absent that, we won’t have a blogging experience. If that sounds cold, I’m sorry.
    I’ve been a mental health advocate for 25+ years as my husband was diagnosed at age 40 after we were married 18 months. He’s now 70 and we’re going through serious medical issues and I believe some of them are based on many of the drugs he took during those 20+ years. I only have time to engage with those who are serious about the blogging adventure. Sheri

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Sheri, I appreciate your post. I also believe in a blogging relationship. It furthers discussion, knowledge, and opens the mind. And coming from a therapy background–I work with teenagers and families as an MFT–I very much believe in relationships. Relationships are everything. However, I do want to point out that many on here with budding blogs don’t engage as quickly as others. And that’s especially true for the introvert, the shamed, and the stigmatized. Look, I subscribed because your topics were heavy, the writing was powerful, the presentation of articles was beautiful. But to my more important point, you’re a heavy hitter in this community. You have many followers and have obviously been doing this for awhile. And that means you wield a good amount of influence and your opinion can way heavy on people–it has weighed heavy on me. The article above got very little views, even from my friends. And that feels terrible. And with this message to add to it, I feel even worse. I feel bullied. And if you do work with mental illness, please do be mindful that many who post are in a very fragile place. New bloggers aren’t just writing to make themselves more popular. For me, telling the world that I’m bipolar, has been a struggle. You’re writing to a person who already feels like he doesn’t matter, and I have to say your comment just reinforced that. And I’ll leave both comments, mine and yours, as is. It’s just another marker in how hard it is to write about this, to feel like you belong, etc. And as a final comment, yes, you do come across cold. And I’m not going to pretend I know why–we all get that way. But to wake up to your comment… it’ll stick with me for the rest of the day. And no matter how proficient I am with CBT, it will gnaw at me. If you want to continue this discussion, I’m up for it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Franco, I appreciate your candor and your powerful ability to stand up and say, hey, look I have a voice here and I deserve to be heard. I’ll be the first to admit I want to see bloggers come out of the gate with both arms swinging. I too struggle with every blog I post. I wonder: do I tell to much, is it more than others want to hear, am I being to honest, will my blogs destroy relationships and on and on. I’ve learned a lot on this blogging journey and it’s so much more than the number of followers we have. Your blog statistics will tell you how many views you’ve had and that equates more or less to the number of readers you have on any given blog.
        One of the reasons I’m talking about my husband’s critical condition in my blogs now is that I’m firmly convinced years of bipolar medications literally ate his body up. I don’t want that to happen to others.
        Perhaps we’ll build a relationship thru blogging. I didn’t mean to sound cold but suddenly out of nowhere, or so it seemed, I received new followers and there’s no indication they even so much as like my blog . For all I know, the masses may simply be looking for me to follow them back automatically in order to build their numbers. I prefer engagement over being a number on someone’s counter.
        Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving and as stress free as possible. Sheri

        Liked by 1 person

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