I went no contact with my abusers many years ago, and in the years following, I spent much of the time putting the whole ordeal behind me. I escaped, and I went on to live a fairly successful and happy life. Or so I thought. A couple years ago, I hit the wall with several physical health problems, which forced me to take a step back and reevaluate everything. At first, I couldn’t figure out why my body had collapsed in exhaustion. I tried all I could to manage the physical symptoms, and when nothing worked, I moved on the to emotional. What I rediscovered was that I was experiencing complex trauma from the long term effects of childhood sexual, emotional, spiritual and psychological abuse. Oh, right. That.
Complex PTSD explained my anxiety, nightmares, migraines and digestive problems, all of which I previously thought weren’t connected. It explained my exaggerated startle response and high blood pressure. It explained why I felt too responsible, and why I felt like my achievements could never be enough. It explained why I couldn’t handle rageaholics, liars, or people in denial. It explained why I still held on to feelings of guilt and shame that didn’t belong to me.
I had been coping with all the symptoms of complex trauma for so many years, I thought it was just my lot in life to be that way. Like getting used to a chronic limp, I suffered in the day to day, dissociated and numb, thinking that my sense of overwhelm just simply was. Sure, some things seemed harder for me than other people, but I figured we all struggle with something, so that’s that. The thing is, there are a lot of people in the world with psychic limps who could stand up straight if only they chose to recognize and deal with what’s causing the pain.
With the help of a good therapist and EMDR, I started the big dig into my past traumas. What I unearthed along the way surprised and shocked me. The adage that it gets worse before it gets better is absolutely true. But then it started getting better. As neuro pathways were repaired, I gained greater insights, and a sense of more self-control over previously stressful situations. As I took back my power from the narcissists and other toxic people in my past, I made the necessary changes to remove myself from narcissists and other toxic people in my present. My boundaries became strong and clear. I became more aware of my sense of pain in the present moment, which meant I could do more to protect myself.
All of this work could only be done by surrounding myself with people who love and support me, and removing all of the people who don’t. For the ones allowed to stay in my circle, I have a major requirement. They have to deal with their own issues.
The single most helpful thing someone has done for me on my journey of recovery is to be willing to be honest with themselves about their own hangups. As a result of making the effects of my own trauma visible, I am transparent with my thoughts and feelings. For those who remain in my circle, they know when something bothers me and when something doesn’t. Obviously, this means as I grow, heal, and change my thoughts and actions, my immediate relationships also must grow and change. The bright light I am shining into my own dark corners reflects off the people around me, and their stuff gets illuminated, too. For those willing, the things that have become illuminated by proxy are dealt with, healed, and we’re all better off for it. When someone isn’t ready or willing to take a look at what they’ve been hiding in their own dark corners, they feel awkward and threatened by my light. I am learning that their fear is not my problem, but it also means that they can’t be in my circle.
My circle is currently very small, and that’s OK. For the ones allowed in and willing to heal alongside me, it has been a deeply transforming experience. My strong relationships are getting stronger, healthier, and even more fruitful than before. And the weak ones? Every day that goes by, they matter less.
If you want to support a loved one to process and heal from trauma, the best thing you can do is face your own. Even (and especially) if you find yourself thinking that your own stuff isn’t that bad, seek professional help, and stay open. No one gets a prize for having the “worst” trauma, so there’s no need to make it a competition. If you are supporting a loved one in therapy, do everyone a favor, and get your own flashlight to shine in your own dark corners. Then you won’t be surprised when whatever’s hiding there inevitably jumps out at you.