You don’t just recover after trauma. Although the traumatic event may have been a one-time event or last for years, the recovery is a journey, with stages—stepping stones, small victories—along the way. Understanding that this is a process can keep you from being too hard on yourself along the way. It’s so easy to want the process of healing to move fast, and very easy to fall into expecting yourself to achieve your goals faster than is really possible. Know this: The journey is anything but straight and smooth. There will be forward steps, backwards steps, and sideways steps. They are all necessary in the journey, on the way to your goal of healing. Even if you can’t see it now, in the early stages, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Waiting to Leave the Dark
There’s a video that’s part of the Norwegian slow TV movement, of a train running from Bergen to Oslo. The camera is mounted at the front of the train for the seven-hour trip, a view few of us in the back ever see. Sometimes the train enters what is a very long tunnel. The entire screen is dark, we just hear the sounds of the train, the conductor, people talking. Occasionally, a light appears ahead—is that the end of the tunnel? Yet it’s just a signal light, the train speeds past and the future ahead of us in the tunnel is once again the blackest black. Until, eventually, the light we see ahead really is the opening back out into the light. For a little while, when again the train goes into another tunnel.
Recovery is likely your goal after trauma; you want to return to your life before the attack, you want to be the person you were before you were abused, you want to have your brain back like it was before the moment that changed everything. You may feel broken, into millions of pieces, and desperately want to be whole again.
Scores of therapists and other experts in trauma recovery have adopted a variety of recovery phases. They are quite similar and overlap in many instances. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll look at four phases, grouped together since many of the categorizations fit into these four general types.
Silence—Circuit-breaking—Safety & Stabilization
Immediately after a traumatic event, or when the abuse stops, victims may shut down, like an overloaded electrical circuit in a house which turns itself off to protect the system. You may feel numb, empty, and that your brain is foggy. You may even feel disconnected—from your friends, your work, even your own body. Some victims (and I say victim because most will consider themselves a victim at this point) report feeling outside of their body, as if they’re floating above themselves, watching their actions. At this stage, some victims seek isolation, feeling shame or confusion about the event, and about how others view you in light of the traumatic event.
Victims may feel uncomfortable around other people, sometimes living in fear of a repeat of the event or of perceived dangers. You may feel physical aches and pains as a result of the unstable emotional status. Or, strangely enough, physical issues you suffered during abuse—like headaches, back pain, heart palpitations, etc.—clear up. The mind can do amazing things, including taking away the physical pain as part of protecting the brain. Some victims experience lifelong trauma-associated health problems, while others make a 100% physical recovery at some point. The traumatization could even feel worse now, as some victims struggle with reliving the experience, or desperately wanting to pretend it didn’t happen.
Victimhood—Return of Feelings—Remembering & Grieving
Walking through your life in a haze will not last forever. At some point you’ll begin to yearn for normalcy, whatever that is to you. You begin to recognize your feelings—about the event, about the perpetrator(s), about what happened to you. In direct contrast to the numbness you felt before, you could be angry and want to confront the trauma. You’re fighting an internal battle, and you may seek out opportunities (and trusted people) to tell your story to; you may even think that by telling it, the memories will fade, and the trauma will go away. This is when therapy, a counselor, support group, and caring family and friends can offer guidance to navigate what we could say is official recovery.
It’s important at this point to recognize you have emotional and physical scars which need treatment. That treatment doesn’t have to be seeing a doctor or a counselor, though those are options some people may need. There are a variety of methods to express your feelings and tackle the memories: journaling, drawing, blogging, telling individuals or groups of people. Feelings may come and go, so managing them can be a challenge. Be patient with yourself and know that you’re not alone; others who have come before you have experienced these strong emotions. Show yourself some care, pamper yourself with anything that makes you feel special, like spa treatments or yoga, binge watching your favorite show, a long weekend away.
This stage of recovery is a serious mind switch—from seeing yourself as a victim to seeing yourself as a survivor. One way to help encourage the survivor mindset is through constructive actions. In the moment, a traumatic event is a loss of control. Trauma victims commonly struggle with what happened to them, which they were powerless to change. By taking control of their actions in recovery, trauma survivors recognize that they can make choices for their own actions and can positively affect others. This is a pivotal time in healing, and volunteering or assisting others can make a big difference with regaining that sense of control and agency. By turning efforts outward to help others, survivors see how they can do something positive in the world. And it helps how others see survivors, too—they start to see you as a survivor, no longer a victim. Small efforts count, too, like cleaning up the park, picking up groceries for a sick neighbor, anything simple and short-term. Long-term volunteer efforts can come later. There’s no need to force yourself to take on more than you’re ready for.
NOTE: The combination of the return to feelings in phase 2 and return to activities in phase 3 often occur together.
Thriving & Transcendence—Reintegration
In this phase, survivors have transformed their experience – it’s part, but not all of their story. In fact, some may no longer want to tell their story. At this point, many describe themselves as healed and safe. They may start to make new social connections and heal those relationships that suffered during their recovery. People who reach this stage are stronger and may develop a sense of how precious life is and may make decisions based on the new values and learning from their experience.
Recovery from trauma is possible. You will never forget what happened, and you will move on.