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Living in the traumatic past

Trauma: artist unknown
We all know someone who "lives in the past." Maybe it's a high school friend who is constantly bringing up those "glory days," as Bruce Springsteen put it. Maybe it's an elderly relative whose memory of breakfast is weak, but can recall the most minute details of her First Communion.

The past, as good as it may be, is not a place to live. Being mentally healthy means, in part, that we visit the past, but we don't stay there.

Unless you've suffered trauma. Trauma - when it's not fully integrated and successfully treated - drags us back to the past, over and over. (We generally call this PTSD.)

Last year, I lost two jobs. I couldn't do all that was required well. I was constantly making mistakes, and being told the same thing over and over didn't help. I was, for the first time in my life, failing miserably at work. Why?

As a recovering perfectionist, I told myself all this was my fault. For some reason, I was not remembering details of the job. I was doing something wrong. I was wrong.

But now I'm learning the truth. The truth is that I've been traumatized. No, I was never abused or assaulted. But my kids have been. And as a mother, I identify so strongly with my children that whatever hurt them, hurt me. Yet, I never acknowledged this. I never even knew it.

Years of trauma have built up. I ignored all the warning signs and plunged forward, all the while being dragged into the past, psychologically and physiologically. So, when I tried to do jobs (one that I was capable of doing!) that required new skills, my brain objected. Strenuously. Seriously.

And I ignored it.

It got to the point at my last job that I was getting sick on Sundays, thinking about the week ahead. I would sit at my desk, trying to work as my heart raced and I got dizzy. As hard as I tried to learn, I failed.

Thankfully, my spiritual advisor bluntly told me: "You need help."

In his book, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk explores exactly what trauma does to the brain. He says that trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. Trauma, he says, changes our very capacity to think.

And I realized: I am not a failure. I am traumatized.

Now, the work begins. Thankfully, I have an extremely compassionate therapist, one who deals primarily with people who suffer from trauma. I am learning to integrated the past into the present in a healthy way. It's not easy, and I'm not really sure I'll be able to work again, but it is necessary.

Caregivers can be traumatized too. Moms and Dads especially, as they witness trauma inflicted on a child. I have to learn that the past is truly past - I don't have to live there anymore.

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