‘If I could just get over it, I would,’ I say, and I’m trying not to sound irritated or hurt but I’m not quite sure what emotion my face is displaying and my throat is tight and my fists are clenched and really I’d rather not be here, and neither am I convinced that I’m a good enough actor to hide all of this.

Jennifer has been lecturing me for a good five minutes on how I really don’t need to be affected by what happened to me when I was a child and that if I continue to react with flashbacks, nightmares and chronic pain, it’s my choice to do so and I really can’t expect any sympathy.

She’s doing it with a smile on her face and her voice is light and tinkly like a goldfinch, but I’m more than a little taken aback. Because, as I’ve just explained to her, if I could get over it, I would.

There’s a strange kind of logic in the mind of people like Jennifer. On the whole, they are well-meaning. They want to see us ‘well’. They are bothered by our symptoms, and at least they acknowledge them, which is more than most people do. The problem is that they don’t understand the back brain, domain of trauma, with its automatic, survival-based reactions, and so they assume, simplistically, that we can solve it all with our decision-making front brain.

‘It’s like dieting,’ she had said in another conversation. ‘If you really want to lose weight, you will. You just have to make that decision.’

I wanted to argue that studies show that it’s not a simple formula of calories in versus calories out, but Jennifer is having none of it. In her mind, if I want to lose weight, I just need to want to, and do it. If I want to be rid of trauma, I just need to want to, and do it. And I need to stop making excuses.

In Jennifer’s mind, the fact that I’ve tried, many times, for many years, just shows that I haven’t tried hard enough. The only conclusion I can, therefore, come to is that I am lazy and defective. (No wonder she’s irritated with me). And being (apparently) lazy and defective, my shame increases and so do my symptoms. It’s a vicious circle.

Following Jennifer’s numerous ‘pep talks’, I would lie in bed on a morning and decide that today was the day when I would ‘get over it’. Come on, I would say to myself, firmly, albeit lacking conviction. Let’s just stop it. Let’s get up and get on. I don’t need to feel like this. I’m just making it up anyway. I need to stop attention-seeking and just get over myself. I’ve had enough of being like this. I just want to get back to normal. So today I will.

Sometimes I would be able to pretend to myself that my heart wasn’t really racing at 120 beats per minute and that the diarrhoea was just a reaction to what I’d eaten last night. I’d force myself into productivity and get on for a good couple of hours, because I was ‘putting the past behind me’ and ‘moving on with my life.’ No point dwelling on the past, I would say to myself as another flashback swept in from the side.

Naturally, I couldn’t sustain this unreality for very long. The pain, the vomiting, the loss of consciousness, the switching … It was real, and my denial of it was making things worse, not better.

‘You just have to be firm with yourself,’ Jennifer explained when I described my symptoms. What she didn’t explain was what ‘being firm’ meant, or how it could possibly help. I’d been ‘firm’ with myself all my life. What actually was going to help was some self-compassion, not more self-abuse. But she didn’t know that because, like most people, she didn’t know the first thing about trauma.

She thought that trauma is about being upset about something. Stop being upset about it (be firm with yourself) and move on. It’s not entirely bad advice for minor life mishaps, like catching a bollard with the car door or someone forgetting your birthday. It’s woefully inadequate for trauma. Because it doesn’t take into account that ‘being upset’ is low on the list of impacts that trauma has. In fact, due to the very nature of trauma, we may feel no upset at all. We may not even remember the trauma in the first place, as amnesia protects us from its mutilated awfulness. How then do you ‘get over it’, if you can’t even remember it? How do you stop being upset about something when you don’t feel anything at all?

Trauma fundamentally changes the way our brains and bodies work. It is an adaptation to what our minds perceive – outside of conscious thought, awareness or choice – to be an imminent threat to our life or physical integrity. Trauma is a cascade of animalistic responses wired deep into our neurobiology with millions of years of evolutionary survival imperative at its core. We can no more stop ourselves reacting to trauma than we can stop our hair growing.

Trauma manifests in our bodies and the primitive parts of our brain. Our ‘front brain’ – the thinking, intelligent, reflective, creative, choosing human brain that we tend to think of as our whole brain – is sidelined. Trauma resides instead primarily in our back brain – the ancient, survival-based, instinctive, automatic brain that operates largely outside of conscious awareness.

This is why we can’t just ‘get over’ trauma. We can’t just make a decision: the front-brain makes decisions. But trauma isn’t in the front brain. It’s like deciding to slow our digestion, or stop our heart beating, or release more insulin: we can’t, consciously, do it.

It’s the uncontrollability of the impacts of trauma that makes it so scary. It makes us feel helpless before it. If it’s out of our control, implanted deep in our unreachable back brain, outside of conscious awareness, outside of choice, does this then mean that we cannot recover from trauma?

Not at all.

But we don’t recover from trauma by just deciding to ‘get over it’. We have to rewire our brain and nervous system: this is the work of psychotherapy. Not to talk endlessly and woefully about what happened, again and again and again, feeling sorry for ourselves and casting ourselves as the helpless and immutable victim – which is what most people seem to imagine we are doing when are going for some kind of mental health ‘treatment’. But a slow, steady process of retraining our body and brain to come out of the amber or red zones, of autonomic hyper- or hypo-arousal, back to the felt sense of safety of green. It’s about bringing parts of our front brain back online after the dropped connections of trauma. It’s about reframing, and mentalising, and developing ‘earned secure attachment’. It’s about working at the edges of our window of tolerance to bring unprocessed traumatic memory back into awareness so that the hippocampus, our brain’s ‘librarian’, can tag it as over. It’s about developing accurate ‘neuroception’, the ability to feel safe again in our bodies, after the unremitting ‘battle-stations’ response of our neurobiology.

Treatment for trauma is lots of things, but it’s not something you do on a Monday morning because you choose to. It’s a meticulous process of deeply-wired brain change, not a decision.

We can’t just decide not to be traumatised, just as we can’t decide for our heart rate to slow. What we can do, however, is create the right conditions for it to happen – sitting down, not walking up a mountain; in therapy, rather than in denial; committing to processing our past, not trying to ignore it.

A few years on from my early encounter with Jennifer – right when I was in the thick of therapy, when things were really starting to change but at the same time it felt that I was buried alive under the pain and the mess of it all – I bumped into her at the supermarket.

She smiled kindly but superciliously.

‘How are you doing?’ she said, leaning in towards me, close enough for me to smell her perfume. ‘Are you feeling better nowadays – you know, getting over things?’

I never know what to say to that kind of question. The honest answer, that week, would have been, ‘No, I’m feeling much, much worse. But it’s a good thing, because I’m feeling. I’m not pushing it all away all the time. I’m not dissociating from it. I’m not separating out my feelings from conscious awareness. I’m not numbing them with prescription painkillers and too much wine. I’m not pretending that bad stuff didn’t happen. Instead I’m learning how to deal with it. I’m working it through. I’m reframing what happened to me and realising that it wasn’t my fault. I’m putting the blame back where it belongs, rather than believing the lie that I was abused because I was bad. I’m learning about trauma and what it does to your brain and how that’s not my fault either. I’m learning how to handle triggers and I’m getting to know the various dissociated parts of myself. It’s a hell of a ride, and right now things feel pretty dire. So, no, I’m not feeling better at all. But thanks for asking.’

But of course I didn’t.

Instead I just smiled and said, ‘Yes, thank you.’

‘Aw that’s good to hear,’ she said, with her eyes almost tight shut in a patronising smirk. I curled my toes into the ground in an effort to subdue the urge to punch her.

We chatted for a few minutes about everything I wasn’t interested in, until normal life overwhelmed me with its tedium, and we started to make our moves.

‘It’s so lovely to see you,’ Jennifer said, in a way that made me feel like a shabby painting. ‘I’m so glad to see you’re putting the past behind you and moving on with your life.’

The words were out before I knew it, but at least I had enough control to mask them with levity: ‘Oh, it’s not so much about putting the past behind you,’ I said, ‘as embracing the fact that you survived your past. It’s about accepting that the past is real, rather than denying that it happened. It’s about recognising that we’ve been affected by the past, and not being ashamed of that.’

She stared at me with her mouth slightly open and her eyeballs rammed to the edges of their sockets.

I’ve just broken the rules, I thought to myself as a slight fizzle of panic chased up my spine. I’m not supposed to talk back.

Old habits die hard.

‘Okay, well, take care, and hope to see you again soon,’ Jennifer said, and walked off quickly.

Here’s the problem, I thought to myself. I had the trauma to deal with, and then I had people’s expectations of how to deal with the trauma to deal with. And it occurred to me, as it often did, that it was mainly the non-traumatised who had these expectations. People who had been traumatised were usually too busy trying to find the answers for themselves.

My hands were quivering and I suddenly felt a great pit of hunger in my stomach. It’s okay, I said to myself, as I had been learning to. It’s okay. You just stood up for yourself.

My mouth turned upwards into a smile and a little ray of hope warmed me on the inside. You can’t just ‘get over’ trauma because you decide to, I thought to myself. But you can recover from it. There’s a difference.

And I walked on to find some mayonnaise.

 

A word of explanation

I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.

My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.

For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/

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14 Comments

  1. I’m at the stage when I’m able to say to that part of me that I wished didn’t exist, ‘You’re doing well’, after so many years of beating myself up. Instead I’m now able to encourage myself as I put into practice what I have been unable to do in the past. Thanks to my current counsellor. Thank you so much Carolyn for the work you do.

    Reply
  2. You know it would have been totally fine if you’d punched Jennifer 🙂 Great blog. Thank you

    Reply
  3. I had this very discussion with my father this week, he said “you’ve just got to put it in the bin and move on”. He does not support my recovery, begin to understand or take any responsibility. Thank you, I’ll show him this.

    Reply
  4. Thank you for this article. It touches on so many points that most people don’t share or talk about and what it’s like to live as a trauma survivor. So many people really don’t understand and it’s in that non understanding that survivors can be potentially victimized again and again by being told they SHOULD let it go and get over it which just adds more shame to the original shame of not being able to do anything about being abused in the first place! Like in the article…. if I could, I absolutely would’ve already!

    Reply
  5. On the daily assault of my suffering part of having to look after myself is proudly standing up to the actual concrete truth of my trauma suffering – being traumatised by people who don’t ‘get it’ and what my life has endured can be proper misery so developing a protective bond with myself and in a very healthy way talking to these people to tell them the actual horrific and very poignant truth. It’s not about who I am mentally (more how strong I am mentally) and the physically abused exterior isn’t about who I am but what has instead been done to David. Within the daily assault of the suffering is a quiet steely resilience and great fortitude and endurance that this trauma and torture won’t define who I am – a lot of years in therapy will give back to David and I know that the only beautiful wonderful part of what happened to me was in fact my will to survive it all and then re-define my life. When people now say “hope you feel a bit better” and even mentally torture me with their ignorance I put in a self-protective and self-compassionate stance of educating them for what living with trauma mentally and physically actually is.

    Reply
  6. Just wanted to say a big thank you for the wonderful PODS website!
    Such a wealth of information and experiences.
    I am a voluntary counsellor, with little if no experience of working with clients struggling with a dissociate disorder.
    I am beginning to get a firm understanding and feeling more empowered to work with clients .
    Thank you !

    Reply
  7. I DO HOPE YOU ARE ABLE TO READ THIS COMMENT, CAROLYN.
    Just like EVERYTHING you write Carolyn, this article is AMAZING. And the timing is perfect. I have just left my position of 15 years, in a consumer lead organization (all staff and board are MH consumers and/or family members) dedicated to providing support to both inpatient and community individuals. I have loved working there. My boss’s intentions have been very supportive, but he is not someone with a trauma background, and as such, really has no idea. Over the last number of years, his intent has been to ‘help me’ so that I can ‘change the way I think’ and thus change my behaviours particularly at work. In your words “Here’s the problem. I had the trauma to deal with, and then I had people’s expectations of how to deal with the trauma to deal with.” The result was that constant push to ‘change’ made all my symptoms worse and increased all the negative thoughts about myself, resulting in my becoming too sick to work. I plan on sending this to him with a small, KIND note letting him know. The good news is that it pushed me into therapy and after 50 yrs I have finally been diagnosed with DID and I have found a therapist who I trust working with me. HaHa, I could think of a LARGE List of people who should read this. THANKS again for ALL THAT YOU DO!!!!

    Reply
    • I do indeed read every comment! Thank you! CS xx

      Reply
  8. I really appreciate reading this article. I do think, though, that it’s the ones who are in denial about their own trauma who encourage us to ‘get over it’. My mum used to say that to me and she never did the work for her own recovery…

    Reply
  9. Thank you – helpful, and much appreciated

    Reply
  10. Nailed it. Thank you for expressing what I am not yet able to.

    Reply
  11. Oh wow. I wish I could show this to the friends and family and my GP who say that “put the past behind you” tome so so so much. They always seem so frustrated when they ask how I am and my answer isn’t what they hope to hear. It’s been too many years. It’s taking too long. And I’m now stuck in a hole truly believing that I am faking the DID and that nothing that bad every happened to me.
    I think you’re amazing and your blog is incredible.

    Reply

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More from Carolyn…

Dealing with Denial

‘But if I accept that this is real, that this stuff really happened to me, then I don’t think I’ll be able to cope.’

The therapist looks at me as I splutter out my confession. I have used denial all my life to cope with my abuse. Now, a couple of years into therapy, I sit perched on the edge of a precipice. Will I free-fall into life without dissociation?

Why stigma makes sense (even though it’s not right)

Stigma is the double-whammy of life after trauma. Not only do we suffer abuse in childhood, perhaps resulting in a post traumatic or dissociative disorder in adulthood, but then we are stigmatised, shunned and shamed for it too. How can that be right?

Recovery is my best revenge: overcoming trauma

Is recovery possible? That’s the question that everyone is asking, even when they’re not asking it. After a breakdown, perhaps after years in the mental health system, do we have to simply accept that we’re broken and that we’ll always be broken, or is it possible to live a life where we’re back in control again, where we’re living as we want to live, where life has purpose and meaning?

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