Life After Trauma
Today marks an unwelcome anniversary: the second year since my near-fatal motorcycle crash at the hands of a negligent driver.
I intended to write this last year on the first anniversary. It turns out I wasn’t ready. I knew at that point I’d be ok, but I still had a lot of processing to do. The trouble with trauma and is that it requires processing for the rest of your life. It isn’t finite. But I’ve come a long way with a lot of hard work and attention to addressing it.
Obviously I’m no doctor or therapist. I’m simply a person trying to navigate the cloudy waters of a life-changing experience. But now seems like the right time to circle back around and talk about some of my experiences.
There is a lot of overlap in the concepts of dealing with trauma. I can in no way speak for all of the other kinds of trauma out there: abuse, neglect, assault, combat, death, divorce, and more. The list of ways we can suffer trauma is extensive. Each one is different and needs to be handled as such.
Trauma is a conundrum. The medical community itself is still grappling with awareness of what constitutes trauma, how it alters us in the human experience, and the best practices in dealing with it. Which means for a lay person like myself to try to articulate the experience is daunting. But also necessary, I think.
What seems clear from my minor research is that trauma fundamentally changes the brain. Emotional and physical responses to trauma and the lasting memory of it are involuntary. Those who are outside of the trauma looking in at the victim must understand that these reactions are not chosen, they are not manufactured, nor are they a sign of weakness.
Here are a few things I’ve learned in the last two years. It’s by no means an exhaustive list but it’s a starting point of some things to keep in mind if you’re ever faced with the trauma of a crash (especially at someone else’s hands) or a similar dramatic injury.
In the Aftermath
- Seek professional help. Right away. Even if you think you’re doing ok. There will be surprises as you move forward. I didn’t seek help until about six months into my recovery. Having an impartial, trained professional to help me navigate the magnitude of what I was facing would have been a great benefit earlier on. In my case, I chose a therapist who specializes in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) which is based on mindfulness. It has been extraordinarily helpful in general, as well as helping me deal with everything related to the crash.
- Understand grief, anger, and sadness will come in powerful, unexpected waves. The path is not linear. You will get caught off guard by strong emotions and reactions. That’s normal. You’ll need to develop techniques to manage your responses when they come. A professional can help you develop those techniques. That’s why getting help early on is so important. Having a bad day isn’t a setback, it’s part of the process. From The Science of How Our Minds Work:
In trauma survivors … the parts of the brain that have evolved to monitor for danger remain over-activated and even the slightest sign of danger, real or misperceived, can trigger an acute stress response accompanied by intense unpleasant emotions and overwhelming sensations.
…grief is like surfing. Sometimes you feel steady and you’re able to ride the waves, and other times the surf comes crashing down on you, pushing you so far underwater that you’re sure you’ll drown.
- Tap into your support network. You’ll need help, emotionally as well as physically. For independent spirits accepting that help can be very difficult. The outpouring of support in the wake of my crash was overwhelming. I will be forever grateful to every single person who helped me in ways both large and small. When you’re used to living a large, adventurous life, the sudden and complete incapacity is crushing. But having people bring you food, take you to medical checkups, fetch your medications, shuttle your children to school, help you bathe, or simply just hang out with you when you can’t even leave your home is extraordinary. The bonus is having greater bonds with the people who help you. If you struggle with accepting help, keep this in mind from Rising Strong:
In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, asking for help can be shaming if we’re not raised to understand how seeking help is human and foundational to connection.
- Minimize compounded stress. Along with the injury itself comes the financial strain of medical bills and possibly the inability to work. If your situation also involves legal matters that escalates the stress even more. All of these feed on each other. Seek whatever external help you can to manage some of those things for you. It’s important to pull as much stress off of yourself as humanly possible so you can focus on the healing and recovery tasks that others simply cannot do for you.
- Build structure. Having a framework of consistency reduces the crippling uncertainty that comes with trauma. From Building Resilience After Trauma: Lesson from Chile:
A schedule and a tidy physical space provide safety for trauma victims to sort through their range of feelings, memories, and fears.
- Trust in what you know you love. Take steps to return to what you love even though it may not feel good at first. I know deep down what my core joys are: yoga, hiking, motorcycling, and travel. Even though participating in those activities was a struggle with pain and insecurity I knew I had to get back to them, that they were a connection to “me,” and would be a stabilizing force in my life. This offers something that feels like control when your world has spun so wildly off of its axis.
- Read and learn. Create understanding about what you’re going through. It demystifies the experience. Knowledge is always empowering. Having resources helps break the process into manageable and actionable items instead of wandering in a state of overwhelmed confusion. While not directly related to a trauma experience, one of the tools that allowed me to make a huge leap forward is Brene’ Brown’s book, Rising Strong.
- Find others. Trauma victims gain strength from each other and the shared understanding of what it means to be a trauma victim. Again, from Building Resilience After Trauma: Lesson from Chile:
We become resilient when we break through our isolation and involve ourselves in our communities.
- Don’t hesitate to change course. If the tools, professionals, and/or friendships you are using for support don’t appear to help, explore more options. If the people who are “helping” you are making you feel worse, keep them at a distance. It’s crucial to be surrounded by support. Every interaction, especially early on, can shape your recovery. This is not a time to be polite if someone is undermining your recovery, even unintentionally.
- Keep working. It will be tempting to think you’re at the end of the progress you can make, especially further down the line when you’re tired of working so hard at it for so long. You may think “This is as good as it gets. And it really sucks.” Unfortunately it’s a really long haul but there is still more progress you can make. You’ll have to fight for it. Get more help. Or different help. But keep going.
- Find an outlet. With some time, you’ll have processed enough of your experience to be a resource for others in a similar position. Helping others by sharing your experience creates empathy and combats the alienation that can come with trauma. You’ll need a certain amount of emotional distance from your trauma before that can happen. I knew I wasn’t ready a year ago but I know I am now. From Rising Strong:
Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.
…writing about emotional upheavals for just fifteen to twenty minutes a day on four consecutive days can decrease anxiety, rumination, and depressive symptoms and boost our immune systems.
- Change your expectations. This is a hard one with a long arc to achieve. Recovery doesn’t mean life becomes easier. Or that it goes back to what it was. Give yourself time to reframe your experience and know you won’t be the same person on the other side. I fought to get back to “me” for a long time before accepting I’m a different me now. The difficulty with trauma is that it marks a sudden change forced upon you, far outside the natural progression of changes we face throughout life. But it’s a change that needs to be absorbed. From Rising Strong:
But in those moments when disappointment is washing over us and we’re desperately trying to get our heads and hearts around what is or is not going to be, the death of our expectations can be painful beyond measure.
I’m fortunate to have weathered this without depression overtaking me. But it’s been a battle on par with my physical recovery. To reconcile the role of a traumatic event in your life story without letting it define you requires some mental gymnastics. It’s a path that I’ll have to manage for the rest of my life. Again, from Rising Strong:
The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness— even our wholeheartedness— actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls.
Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending…
I hope having these tips in advance is helpful if you ever find your world turned on its head like mine was on that Sunday afternoon.
This is a huge topic; one I originally tried to boil down to a single post. As it grew, I thought it more appropriate to split it. So next time we’ll talk about the other side of this… how to help when someone you love is the victim of trauma.