By Sarah Williams
Trauma is a part of life. Yet, from early ages, most of us don’t learn how to respond to trauma, how to manage it or how to heal from it.
We often downplay the gravity of a lot of life’s experiences, believing only the “big and loud ones,” like watching a loved one die, can be considered traumatic. We try to “suck it up” or to quiet our feelings about the “smaller” experiences that negatively affect us.
It was not until I was a 24 -year-old woman sitting in a therapy session for the first time that I learned the importance and value of acknowledging and choosing a healthy response to trauma. For the 14 years prior to that day, I didn’t know how else to cope besides burying my emotions and berating myself for feeling them.
When I was younger, I felt frustrated that my emotions of hurt, anger and self-hate even existed. I didn’t understand what the root causes of these feelings were. Since I felt helpless against them, I also felt guilty for feeling positive emotions, too, because I didn’t believe I deserved to feel them.
What’s ironic, in retrospect, is that I went to that first therapy session per my ex-husband’s demeaning shove. We were having a variety of marriage problems and his solution to the dysfunction was polygamy. But because I wouldn’t agree to it, he sent me to therapy to fix my issues and learn how to be a more “agreeable wife.”
Up until the moment I sat in the therapist’s office that day, I never once realized the danger of silencing my emotions. I never considered the possibility that ignoring my feelings limited my potential. I never knew there was a connection between how we handle trauma and the ability to achieve our life goals, or even maintain our self-confidence.
Eating disorders, depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide controlled my life during my teen years. If my therapist, or anyone else for that matter, had told me then that my behavior was an unhealthy response to unresolved emotional and mental trauma, I would have laughed. I mean, nothing “bad” enough to be considered traumatichad ever happened to me.
While I didn’t laugh when she made this observation during that first therapy session, I was thoroughly confused. I countered her reflections with the lie I’d always believed: That my life was a mistake, and because I was a mistake, I was destined to live a dark reality devoid of passion, self-love and hope.
I was a mistake because the conservative Christian faith I was raised in required girls be “girly,” but I was a tomboy. My mom would ask me why I wasn’t more like my girly sisters or if I was trying to be like a boy. She would tell me she wished she could be proud of me.
I believed hurting myself was the punishment I deserved for being unlovable and without value. I thought restricting food, purging food and over-exercising were necessary because I’d never earn approval and acceptance if I got fat.
Then later in life, I believed I had to learn to be okay with polygamy because my conservative Christian faith dictated a wife’s duty was to obey her husband without question. And that my personal wants, desires and interests did not matter at all — I needed only to learn how to be someone my husband could love.
Despite my reluctance, we spent the rest of that first session discussing my upbringing, teen years and young adulthood. Though I hated reviewing those chapters of my life, my therapist’s prodding revealed how interconnected my past was with my present. She told me how imperative it was for me to unpack and evaluate the lies I was holding on to so tightly.
During the next five years — through the chaos of separation, living out of my car, divorce, dropping out of college twice, learning to love life and myself and dating again — those therapy sessions helped me face each moment of trauma with a little more determination and self-assurance.
When life seemed overwhelming and I wanted to shut down, my therapist reminded me that emotions are meant to be felt. The fact that they exist is neither good nor bad, and it’s what you do with them that matters.
If someone had told me after that first therapy visit that I’d one day be able to hold my head high against whatever experiences came my way —that I would be able to navigate the mental and emotional ups and downs of life without lashing out self-destructively— I’d have laughed.
Today, 12 and a half years later, I do laugh. Often, passionately, genuinely. My life has become filled with purpose, confidence and joy since learning to feel trauma, name trauma and respond to trauma in healthy ways.
Sarah is a daughter, sister, aunt and wife. She lives in sunny Arizona. While finishing her eating disorder recovery memoir, she offers encouragement and support to those seeking positive change through her eating disorder/mental health blog Life Is in The Nitty Grit and her partnership with ANAD as an Eating Disorder Recovery Mentor.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
In a crisis? Call or text 988.
Find Your Local NAMI