As I write this, I have an excruciating migraine. It’s the kind that would knock out most people, but I get them so frequently, I’ve learned to push through even when the pain is intense. However, earlier today, I was completely debilitated, curled up in a ball, in too much pain to even whimper. It started last night after along with panic attacks related to processing a freshly unearthed traumatic experience in EMDR therapy. I was wholly consumed, exhausted, yet afraid to go to sleep because of the inevitable nightmares I knew would follow. My panic was at the “I think I’m going to die” level, but I knew from too many similar experiences that the feeling would eventually pass.
As a survivor of complex trauma, too often, this is my reality. I am still learning to make space for it, especially after therapy. Going in for EMDR is like going in for chemo. It often takes several days for me to process afterwards. I am physically ill. My body tenses up so much I can hardly move. I may be panicked, or grieving, or both. My sense of identity and worth ping-pong all over the place as my rational brain tries, often unsuccessfully, to herd them back in. Unlocking stored trauma and facing it head on is like releasing a hungry tiger from a cage. Maybe the tiger will thank you, or maybe it will eat you. Probably both.
Trauma recovery is a paradox. It can be terrible and all-consuming, and yet, it is incredible, life-saving work. It requires extreme courage. It slowly, but effectively releases me from the cumulative effect of psychological abuse that can be traced back in my family line for generations. It has influenced me to make life choices that break the cycle. It has allowed me to raise children who are free from trauma. Unlike the trauma it releases, there is a meaning and a purpose to it. It is a holy suffering, in every sense of the term.
But knowing all this, of course, is irrelevant when you’re curled up in a ball. When the pain is so bad that you think you’re going to die, the only thing that matters is not dying. In these moments, my rational brain is desperately coaching me through, telling me it will pass, but the words evaporate like the drops of a squirt gun on a raging bonfire. And yet, my rational brain is right. Eventually, the fire burns down to manageable coals, and once again, I have survived.