Posts tagged ‘trauma survivors’

The beach is littered with trauma survivors


Seashells are the perfect symbol for those with PTSD. The ocean of life has caught us up, battered and bashed us around, turned us upside down, tried to break and diminish and destroy us, and then ruthlessly deposited us back on the sandy shore and moved on.


This bashing comes in many forms: childhood abuse, manmade and natural disasters, wars, both foreign and domestic, and a million other ways that inhumanity, bad luck, misfortune, evil, terror, torture, and calamity come to the innocent, the partially innocent, and even the “not that guilty.”



I went to the ocean this last week with my cousin, friend, and soul sister, Becky. Becky was a wanted, adored, beloved child. She grew up in financial poverty but emotional prosperity. Then, when she was sixteen, her mother was injured in an accident so severe that to have survived it could have been only by the grace of God. And, yet, survival didn’t seem too graceful. Becky’s mom was a quadriplegic.



Becky learned things she had no business learning so that she, the only child left at home, could care for her mother. No one in the family ever truly or completely recovered from the trauma of Aunt Kitty’s accident, but no one took the brunt of it as much as Becky, who, at sixteen, on her birthday no less, had her childhood come to a screeching halt.



Trauma builds on trauma. From the first days and weeks of not knowing whether her mother would live or die, Becky’s life became a series of trauma reactions. She had to put herself, her desires, her needs, her wants on hold. She told me the story of trying to learn to drive. No one would teach her. No one had time or patience. I was so saddened by this. My mother and I had some of the best talks of our lives as we drove and drove around the countryside, until she was sure I could pass my driving test. If my mom had realized Becky needed the same time and commitment from her, I am sure she would have made it happen. But, Aunt Kitty’s trauma was so profound that Becky got lost in the debris.



Becky, like all good PTSD survivors, has picked herself up and made an incredible success of her life. She lives beautifully and generously, has worked her way up the ladder in a stressful, complicated career field and has helped and mentored many others along the way. She has not gotten to do what she dreamed of doing, but she has done with spirit and grace what has been placed before her.



So, we sat on the beach and walked in the surf, looking at and talking about the seashells and the ways in which so many of us have been similarly beaten up and discarded.

“Look at the beautiful purple streak in this shell.”

“This one shimmers so magically.”

“Feel how smooth this one is. This guy really took a beating.”

We bent and picked them up and marveled at what was left after the hurricanes and tsunamis. I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of poetry. In “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” Robert Browning offers the famous invitation: “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be.”  He also uses the marvelous image of God as the potter and each of us as the clay. But, the line from that poem that is so appropriate here is, “Leave the fire ashes. What survives is gold.”

pottersclay  gold

Posttraumatic stress survivors, like Becky, and so many of you reading this, are the gold. You are the beautiful seashells. Whether we use the image of being bashed by the ocean of life or burned in the fires of living, you are the survivors, and you are “different” because you have survived your traumas. Often we concentrate on the differences which set trauma survivors apart – need to control, hyper-vigilance, inability to trust, just to name a few.



Today, we are going to concentrate on the ways being a trauma survivor has strengthened, toughened, purified and refined you. I would offer these categories of positive difference that I believe I have observed in almost every survivor I have ever known: self-containment, clear priorities, loyalty, an ability to see beneath the surface, and lightheartedness. This is NOT a comprehensive list. This is just the list of the first five characteristics that came to me in under a minute when I thought about what so many of you have in common.



Self-containment is the truly positive aspect that many survivors develop in response to discovering that people are not to be trusted. Because people have proven to be so destructive and fickle, trauma survivors have learned to depend on themselves. This may be isolating and may have come about by default, but this self-containment is a protection against dependency. People who do not learn to rely on their own judgment and intuition often blow in the breeze and go along with whatever is in fashion. “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Self-contained people come equipped with their own compass. I always call it our own, personal North Star. We follow our internal wisdom.



Clear priorities are another positive aspect I have seen to be a result of surviving trauma. As a group, trauma survivors are amazingly humanitarian, honest and trustworthy. I think most survivors possess a determination to do things differently and to be different. I have worked with so many survivors of childhood abuse, for example, who are exemplary parents. Their priorities as a parent focus on the protection and positive affirmation they never received. I also cannot think of one survivor with whom I worked who did not have impeccable standards for how to treat co-workers, service workers and anyone who was in any way vulnerable. Priorities for honest, fair humanitarian interactions seem to be a legacy of the trauma of dishonesty, injustice and cruelty.



Loyalty is another of the hallmarks of trauma survivors. PTSD became my specialty as a therapist and other therapists used to tease me about how my clients never left me but stayed for years and years. I always attributed that to the depth of the trauma experienced and the difficulty survivors have in trusting. They had found a safe place with me and were staying because a safe place was so rare in this world. Now, as I am writing this, I think many of my clients were just so blindly loyal that they were standing beside me no matter what. Having been blindsided, betrayed, and wronged, when a trauma survivor finds someone or something trustworthy, they will not abandon ship.



Seeing beneath the surface of things may be the best characteristic trauma survivors possess. I first became aware of this ability when Bob Denton allowed me to run his Supervised Visitation Program at Akron’s Victim Assistance. One of the supervisors was a woman named Barb. I had just interviewed a sweet little old grandma who wanted to see her grandchildren. Her horrible daughter-in-law forbids it, so grandma goes to court, and the judge suggests supervised visitation. The visit was all set, grandma left my office, and Barb came rushing in, closing the door behind her. “That woman is evil,” Barb burst out. I was shocked. I had not particularly liked her, but I had fallen for the poor grandma routine. Barb became the supervisor for the visits and grandma never was allowed to see the children alone and soon gave up, which, by that point, we all agreed was better for the children.



What Barb taught me was that trauma survivors are given a gift of intuition. They learn to read between the lines and under the surface of things. Another client of mine hates this “gift.” I remember her telling me about having lunch in a restaurant and seeing a mother, dad and daughter at a near-by table. She took one look at the way the dad was interacting with the daughter and recognized him as an abusive perpetrator. She had to leave her uneaten lunch and get out of there. It is sometimes not easy to “see” and “know” as much as many survivors do.



Nonetheless, I have to include lightheartedness as a characteristic of the survivor persona. Having lived through the heaviness of a trauma, few people can find the humor in things like trauma survivors. Again, I am reminded of having been teased for years at Akron Family Institute: “Here comes Susan. We could hear you laughing as you came up the steps.” Now I am wondering if it was me who was lighthearted or just the lighthearted trauma survivors with whom I so often worked. We did laugh a lot in therapy. I always thought I was funny. Maybe it was not me at all. It does not matter. Whoever started it, we all continued it, and laughter truly is the best medicine.



Peace and blessings to each of you from Susan and Tony.


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Supporting Scripture:

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:10 (ESV)

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” Luke 15:4 (ESV)

“Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” John 5:8 (ESV)

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64:8 (ESV)


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September 5, 2015 at 8:14 AM Leave a comment

Do you feel this way?

Brazil2008Part2 301

You can’t trust people. People are out for their own interests. Everybody has ulterior motives. Don’t let your guard down. People will always disappoint you!

This is trauma talk. Most people who feel this way are trauma survivors. And most people who feel this way were traumatized as children.

Because we are children when we are growing up, we have no enlarged perspective for what our lives are like. We only know what we’re living. If we are eating once a day, that becomes our “normal.” If we hide in the closet every time one of our parents comes home drunk, that seems “normal” to us. We have nothing by which to compare our experiences to anything beyond ourselves. This lack of contrast and comparison is actually helpful. Because we cannot judge our lives to be better or worse than anyone else’s, we simply adapt to them.

How much we have to adapt, how much our bodies and minds and spirits have to adjust and compromise and realign, is the actual indicator of how adverse our childhood experiences are. Babies and children are created to eat about every three or four hours and to sleep for great long stretches of time. The food and the rest are the foundation from which we grow and develop. Children who can’t depend on having food and protected rest can’t develop “normally.” Whether what awakens you at night is the bombs of war, the screaming and shouting of mentally unstable parents, the flashing lights of sirens on unsafe streets, or the constant light show of a television which is used for anesthesia or babysitting, the result is the same. What is being created is a human who cannot rest and be still.


Can you see and feel the anxiety that would be produced in just those two examples of inadequate food and unsafe, unprotected sleep? These children are going to grow into cynical, suspicious, on-edge, possibly hostile adults. And they are most likely going to be anxious, neurotic and untrusting. They have learned that the world is unsafe and unpredictable. Because their sleep was never protected, they were never able to enter the world of dreams. Think of all the impoverished people in the world who appear lazy and unmotivated. They have no dreams, do they? They were never safe enough to be able to have nighttime dreams or daytime dreams.

Now I start with these two examples because many people who grew up in either of these situations would be unlikely to think of themselves as “trauma” survivors. But not being adequately nourished and kept safe is indeed the beginning of a life of trauma. Certainly these two things lead to the voices that proclaim, “People are not to be trusted.”

I have a client right now who has been telling me that her parents always sent her and her siblings to school dirty. She says they were bullied unmercifully and treated like lepers because their parents didn’t have the common sense to make sure they were clean when they went to school. Now in her forties, she is finally starting to believe in herself and is wondering if it is still necessary to stay with the abusive husband who tells her no one else could possibly love her. How many people do you think she trusts?

Today I worked with a young man with horrible social anxiety because he has a medical condition which is obvious. He was ostracized and criticized and shunned. He is bullied presently by co-workers who taunt him because he is slower to complete his work than they are. He is a single man in his forties and hates to go home at night. He has no best friend. What is even sadder is that he is not his own best friend.

Have you ever heard of Chinese water torture? Chinese water torture is a single drop of water that falls on you over and over and eventually drives you crazy. It is nothing awful in and of itself. It is a single drop of water. But when that single drop of water is repeatedly used to torment a person, over and over, twenty-four/seven, something fairly benign can morph into something toxic. Even arsenic in small doses we can tolerate. Even salt in large doses can kill us.

My point, which may be as obscure as many of my points no doubt often are, is that nothing horrendous particularly needs to happen to us to transform us into trauma survivors who distrust people. Something fairly simple, like inadequate food, unprotected sleep, dirt, shunning, and even water, if it is misused, can corrupt our hearts and spirits.


When we are programmed to be untrusting, guess what happens? We more often than not get what we expect. Suppose I go to a therapist and I am reluctant and suspicious and know before I even go to meet this person that he or she is probably not going to be trustworthy and not going to be one bit helpful. I meet him or her, and I start gathering evidence to support what I suspect to be true. Imagine that someone comes to meet me, just as an example. Let me tell you a quick personal story.

When I was two I had a virulent case of the measles with a temperature of over 104 or 105 for a number of days. When the fevers were finally under control, my parents noticed a terrible thing. My eyes were crossed. To this day, despite surgery when I was five – boy, was that traumatic!! – and glasses, when I’m tired my eyes cross. I have been self-conscious all my life about this. I have a lot of stories to explain how reasonable it is that I’m self-conscious. But here’s what I want to share: because I’m self-conscious about the POSSIBILITY of my eyes crossing, I’m sure I often avoid eye contact. Now, we all know direct and sustained eye contact means we can be trusted.

So, here comes a new client suspiciously watching for something which would render this counselor an untrustworthy person. And it’s late in the day, and my eyes are tired, and I’m afraid they’re going to cross, and so I avoid eye contact. BINGO. “I knew this counselor was not to be trusted. She won’t even make eye contact.”

I hope you can extrapolate this example. When we have learned not to trust, we go through life looking for evidence of how correct this is. And we can find it.

The person who came to see me who had learned to trust would have heard the sincerity in my voice, would have felt the authenticity in my handshake, would have looked around my office and seen the warmth and welcome. We see what we’re looking for. We get what we expect.

I have been burned many times because I have expected more of people than they have produced. But, you know what?? I KNOW that I gave everybody the benefit of the doubt, and that their failure to meet my positive and optimistic expectations had nothing to do with my expecting them to fail. They had done that all by themselves. That allows me to feel empathy for them instead of disgust. It helps me to sleep at night knowing that I didn’t project any negative expectations which turned into self-fulfilling prophesies.

The balance between always assuming the best and always preparing for the worst is, of course, a great place to be. People will not always live up to our hopes and expectations. Neither will people always disappoint us. People will be people. We, as people, are capable of despicable disappointment and the most gracious grace.

Blessings, Susan

In nature there always beauty! Watch for it!

In nature there always beauty! Watch for it!

Thanks to our most gracious photographer, Mary Ellen Jelen

March 28, 2015 at 10:40 PM 3 comments

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