WHY TRAUMA IS A TIME TRAVELER
PSYCHOLOGY + THE UNDOING
WHY TRAUMA IS A TIME TRAVELER
Let’s talk small appliances for a minute. I know that’s really why you’re here. If you own a newer model hair dryer, iron, perhaps even vacuum cleaner, chances are your appliance has a retractable cord. These have always fascinated me. As I never doubt the strong connection of the plug to the outlet while the appliance is in use, despite the fast and almost violent way the cord quickly jerks and retracts into its place of origin when unplugged. It’s loud, fast, and I’m never really ready for it.
This is how I felt over a decade ago when I left my work at a locked adolescent psychiatric unit. Like I had been securely and steadily plugged into something and leaving was like flying from the outlet in the most fast and furious way. I was jerked, thrown, and tossed into my innermost internal world. And retreated. For a long time. I went from being in control one day to suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with hallucinations the next. Yep. You heard that right. I suddenly found myself in the throes of acute PTSD accompanied with visual hallucinations. For the better part of a year. Super. I remember my first hallucination very clearly. I was laying in bed looking up at our ceiling fan. It looked like there were streamers - the paper kind - hanging over the blades of the fan. Except it wasn’t paper. I’ll spare you the details, but know it was truly terrifying and awful. I knew it wasn’t real, but wow did it seem like it. Luckily I had just worked at a locked psychiatric facility and was able to stay calm and reasonable. I was also in psychoanalysis- all therapists should be in their own therapy by the way. Feel free to ask yours if they are. They should say yes. It’s part of doing the job responsibly. To my complete shock, my analyst diagnosed me a few days later with ACUTE PTSD and my treatment moved from 2 days a week to 3 and from diving into the past and my unconscious to treating my PTSD and managing my anxiety. Trauma is hard. It’s relentless. And it knows how to time travel. It can call upon your past and show up in your future. You can see it in the shadows and be taken by surprise. All at the same time. It’s akin to grief like that. The fact that you can’t really control when it surfaces. It’s suddenly there. Hello.
Luckily, I started to feel better relatively quickly. I was able to continue to work, and to be honest most people in my life had no idea of what I was working through. It came as such a surprise to me, I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around the sudden nature of my symptoms. Not to mention, that the cause of my trauma was something that for all intensive purposes, I really enjoyed. I understood the emotional challenges involved with my work at the psychiatric hospital, but I was completely unaware the toll it was taking on me. I didn;t tell anyone around me what was going on, simply because I was having a hard time believing it myself. To treat my symptoms, took about a year, and I’m happy to say that while the trauma does return every now and then, even over a decade later, I remain very clear about what triggers it and I steer clear of these situations. Mostly it’s violent movies and psychological thrillers. Halloween was one of my longtime favorite movies. I haven’t been able to watch it in years. Just not happening. My trauma now is like a feeling I get. It’s physical, like a warmth or a slight nausea. If I’m watching something that feels like a stretch, I can feel in my bones the risk. Sometimes I can push that boundary. Other times I can’t. It took us years to get through Breaking Bad. There are still some episodes I’ve passed on entirely. I had to go slooooow.
I bring this up to let you know these important things. 1. Yes, trauma is a time traveler. A real fucking Marty McFly. Sometimes, as in my case it doesn’t show up until the threat has passed. Until our nervous system unplugs from the trigger. When I say I had zero inclination that my work at the unit would cause trauma, I really didn’t know. I loved the work. I was the last to know. If you find yourself feeling off, short tempered, exhausted, staring at ceiling fans. That’s trauma. We’ve been through collective trauma these past years. Only to be compounded by riding out the unrelenting grief and exhaustion of a global pandemic. Trauma seems like a pretty normal response to life right now.
I want to be clear that I wouldn’t change my experiences for anything. I loved working at that unit. It has informed all my work, my parenting, my relationships. It was both the best and the worst. It laid the groundwork for my vast knowledge of psychology and ability to see the whole picture. I ended up specializing in working with adolescents in acute crises because of that work. They are my jam and god damn I love them so. Despite my trauma and recovery, I feel pretty strongly that having knowledge of acute psychology is essential to clinical training. It’s been essential to my consulting and as a mental health advocate. I say this with all certainty. But believe it or not, acute training is not required. Many therapists don't have face to face experience with acute populations. Ugh. This benefits no one. If you know how to fight the big fires, you can handle the small one in a dumpster. No problem. It’s important to be able to respond to both. Knowing how to approach the big smoke. The big flames. Keeps you in check when things are a little less chaotic. The result is being able to provide a response instead of a reaction. It’s skill building and one I hope psych professionals will seek out as part of their training.
If you are experiencing what you believe to be trauma, seek treatment from a professional to be sure. Trauma is exhausting, scary, and unpredictable, but treatable. And there are many modalities and options available in terms of treatment. Dont; let your own surprise or uncertainty stop you from getting help. To be honest, I think it would have been really hard for me to ask for help if I had not already been in therapy at the time. I was so surprised by my symptoms, I am not sure how I would have started to even talk about them. But starting somewhere is really important. Your thoughts about how you are feeling do not need to be neat, or fully figured out. A simple, I don’t feel like myself, is a perfect place to start. It is important to find out what will work best for you. My choice of treatment, psychoanalysis is not typically thought to be super effective in treating acute trauma, but it was a good match for me.
Trauma is a time traveler, but treatment can be your Delorean.
Thank you for being here.
Listen to this episode of JOY IS NOW here.