The lack of fear I felt was a pleasant surprise when I sat down with members of my biological family last week. It’s not every day that a 51 year old person meets aunts and uncles for the first time. And it’s certainly not every day that it actually goes well. So I am exceedingly grateful.
Because I wasn’t in a hypervigilant state, which has been all too common in my previous interactions with other family members, I can actually remember what happened on Saturday at lunch; all the warm hugs and smiles, the stories shared, and the good food enjoyed. Thank God. It’s a memory that will be placed in the filing cabinet in my brain as a positive one. It will be a foundation of something good that can be built upon.
Speaking of good memories, I learned in my trauma coaching class that our memories are stored in the seahorse shaped part of our brain called the hippocampus. According to the book Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong: And Other Things You Need to Know to Take Back Your Life by MaryCatherine McDonald, PhD our normal integrated memory files contain three primary things: … a coherent narrative of the event, emotional content from that event, and a set of tags or labels that indicate what the event means to us.
It has been very helpful for me to understand how my brain works to store normal and traumatic memories. Because trauma responses are a part of my life, understanding these responses enables me to practice self care and not get lost in shame when I feel activated by a negative memory. I’m learning that good memories are an essential part of our ability to survive and thrive. They enable us to live and function in our daily lives with more confidence in ourselves, others and hope for what is ahead.
Traumatic memories, unlike our normal integrated memories, are not stored in an orderly fashion in the filing cabinet in our brains. They are stored as fragments and are imprinted into our memory because they play a critical role in keeping us safe. These fragments of memories are disorganized throughout our hippocampus and resurface whenever there is a perceived threat. In my own experience, the tone of a person’s voice, an expression on someone’s face, or similar circumstances, phrases, sounds or smells can bring up these fragments and cause my brain and body to kick into survival mode. Because our hippocampus is a part of the limbic system of our brains and plays a critical role in our survival responses, when these fragments resurface we can react as if a perceived threat is a real one.
It doesn’t matter how many times we tell ourselves that we need to put the past behind us and just move forward, we cannot just turn off our brain’s survival response system. And we shouldn’t want to either! What our brains are asking us to do is pay attention. Because when we pay attention, we are able to gain an understanding of where the threat is coming from and what we need to do about it. Until we pay attention, we get stuck in a loop of repeating painful cycles.
Until I gained an understanding of what was happening inside my brain when I was triggered, I was at the mercy of my trauma responses. I did whatever I needed to do to cope. I was stuck in an endless loop in my efforts to find relief.
Repeating a traumatic experience or relationship dynamic is a coping technique. All our coping is aimed at regulation, and some of it over time becomes maladaptive and destructive. Whether the result is healthy and productive or unhealthy and destructive, the goal of any coping mechanism is always integration and regulation. Unbroken, Macdonald
Our brains really are hard wired to keep us safe. Sometimes to a fault.
…our memory files don’t simply have narrative and emotional content, they also have meaning. If we have foundational life experiences that are abusive, it can mean one of only three things to our brain: there is something wrong with us, the world is terrible and all people are abusive, or the abusers simply did not love us. All these possibilities are tragic and heartbreaking, but the third is perhaps the worst—especially if the abusers were our parents. Unbroken, Macdonald
I think the hardest thing about living with trauma are the messages that we tell ourselves about who we are and the purpose of our lives. Because our memories are attached to our sense of meaning, it is far too easy to conclude that we are worthless and without hope. When we believe these things about ourselves we act accordingly. It is a vicious cycle. Sometimes we stay in the cycle because the devil we know is better than the one we don’t.
Miraculously, it was hope that caused me to see that I was not bad and my life had a purpose. When the toxic pastor retired and a nontoxic pastor became my new boss, I started to see that I could do more than just survive. It was this desire to thrive that brought enough chaos into my destructive cycle and ultimately caused me to take action to stop the vicious cycle.
I don’t think we have any idea of the impact that we have on one another’s lives. Our kindness, compassion, and simply taking the time to listen to each other can literally change another person’s life. It was not the new pastor’s words that made a difference to me. I’d heard hundreds of “good” sermons that didn’t mean a damn thing, because the pastor who preached them behaved in ways that didn’t line up at all with his words. It was this new pastor’s decision to sit down across from me once a week and just ask me about my life. It was his willingness to listen and hold my pain in a safe space and trust me enough to share his own. He treated me like an equal. Not someone beneath him who needed to be told what to do. He became a good friend, and I will always be thankful for that, even though later he chose the system of abuse over me.
For the past decade I have been fighting like hell to survive and find hope in my day to day life. It’s been an uphill battle. But thank God for hope that keeps showing up in the faces of others who care.
I know I’ve said it before, but I had no idea what was going to happen when I filled a tube with saliva until my mouth was bone dry and stuck it in the mail. The new possibilities and hope that have opened up have blown my mind.
As much as I’d love to believe that my story will be one of those cheesy Hallmark movies that winds up with me sipping hot chocolate on a horse drawn carriage through the mountains in the snow, with jingle bells playing in the background(sorry, Cousin Eddie;), I know that nothing ever works out that perfectly. Hope is a scary thing especially when things haven’t worked out the way we thought that they would. Reminders of the things we fear most will bring up conflict that can send me reeling back into a Stephen King horror novel. These things will have to be worked through. But that’s what people who care about one another do, they listen and they work through. It is a process. And one that we are not powerless in. Every choice we make can change the course of our lives. Everytime we choose to be honest with ourselves and others we are making progress.
The loving care of others really can be the wind beneath our wings when we are able to trust it. Trust won’t come easy but with time it will come. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself all the time that you need. You matter. Your life has meaning and purpose. Don’t give up. There is always hope.
There are tools for hope, tools that remind you that even amidst all the wreckage, hope is still there—gritty and glinting, resilient and steadfast. This is not sunshine-and-rainbow hope. This is the kind of hope that drags itself back to its feet after being sucker punched, spits out a mouthful of blood, maybe a tooth, and keeps going despite its ringing ears and wobbly knees. This is the kind of hope that stands right next to you while you peer into the dark and roiling abyss, takes a deep breath, and says, “Okay. Now what?” Unbroken, Macdonald
For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11 NLT