It is almost impossible to articulate how challenging it is to recover from trauma. You try as hard as you can to explain, sometimes with more success than other times, but the truth is unless you have been through it or are going through it, there is no way to adequately express how you feel in a way that lets those who love you truly understand.
Speaking from my own experience but validated in part by reading about other people and talking to other sufferers, I find it nearly impossible to convey the sense of despair that I feel on occasion.
Despair because I am unable to explain how I feel and despair because the process of recovery is traumatic in its very nature. Trauma Therapy re-opens wounds, it breaks down walls built long ago to protect yourself and most of all, it exposes you in a way that you worked your whole “pre-therapy life” to avoid.
I am writing this in the hope that in so doing I can provide my extraordinary, patient, caring and loving wife with a suitable explanation as to why I am not able to maintain a happy disposition for long periods. I am also writing it so that I have a record of how I felt when I was neck deep in my therapy and struggling to make sense of everything. For the casual reader, I hope that this also gives you some guidance when trying to make sense of how your loved one feels. Not that everyone is the same of course, I recognise that. To explain I need to first show you a picture by MS Escher called the Ascending & Descending Stairs, or “The never-ending staircase”.
Over the years there have been many versions of this created, all a similar theme or nature, but for me this version remains the most vivid in my mind. It represents futility, darkness, cold, pain, sadness, exhaustion, frustration and above all, a sense that there is no hope.
It is a very disturbing painting.
Now take that picture and look at it and allow yourself to think of the person you love who is suffering from a mental health issue, in whatever form that may be.
IMPORTANT: Allow yourself to become that person for a few minutes – put yourself in their shoes.
Imagine if you can, waking up every day and feeling the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that and the day before that – in fact, feeling the same as you did WAY back when you experienced a break down in trust of a person YOU loved.
Because that is the very heart of it – that is the core element to all this – at some point, more than likely before you were old enough to even realise your mind was being moulded and shaped, somebody shattered your ability to trust and love. Somebody did something or did not do something and it shaped the way you think about every relationship with every single person. It shaped the way you see the world around you, how you perceive love, kindness, friendship, openness, gratitude, care – it shaped your views on school, university, career, life as a whole – it shaped how you interpret religion, politics, culture, music, work, play, family, children – it shaped your very existence, your purpose, your goals and aspirations. It changed your entire future and the truth is, you were not able to prevent it or see it happening – it was just your mind going into self-preservation mode.
But above everything else, it ensured that you would never, ever allow yourself to trust anyone again and to expect the worst from everyone. Your mind created a safety net, a way of protecting you from harm and pain – it tattooed a single default sentence in your conscious and subconscious…
“Expect people to hurt you, expect to be let down, expect to see pain, expect to be failed and then it won’t hurt you so badly”
Are you still imagining being that person you love?
Imagine waking up every single day with that as your default
Imagine trying to get through a day with that as your default
Imagine trying to be happy and grateful when that is your default
Imagine trying to find the good in things when this is your default
Imagine trying to maintain a relationship with that as your default
But the really bad bit about all this is that when you have that as your default, you don’t see the goodness in life, you see the badness. It is a little like when you decide to buy a new car and suddenly you notice that type of car everywhere as if suddenly everyone else has also bought the same car. But it’s a trick, it is your mind registering and acknowledging that car and setting itself up to look out for them and notice them more.
It’s just the way your brain works.
And so, as a result, when everyone else seems to not notice or experience the badness in the world, so it is that it seems to actively seek you out, as if you were a badness magnet. You seem to attract the abuse or the pain or the violence or the hurt and the more it happens, the more you refer back to your default setting and the more you convince yourself that there is only badness and that it is to be expected. You try and protect yourself by preparing yourself for the inevitable worst and that in turn builds the walls higher and higher until one day you simply don’t have the energy or will or even care to go on. You see nothing but futility. You become suicidal.
This is the Never-Ending Staircase.
How can you help your loved one?
- Be patient.
- Don’t do anything differently – if you love the person and they love you then the chances are you are doing the right things anyway and they love you precisely because of who you are.
- When things are difficult and you feel you cannot reach your loved one because their mood has changed and they seem quiet and sad, try and remember the Never Ending Staircase and remember how it felt putting yourself in their shoes for just a few minutes.
- Be kind, be gentle and be grateful that they have realised and acknowledged they are on the staircase and are trying to get off it. Show them that they are doing well and acknowledge that they are doing their best to recover.
But here is the most important thing you can do:
Remember that although them seeing a therapist is vital, it is also extremely hard and deeply challenging so above all, keep reinforcing a different, new default setting.
- Help them to re-write their mental tattoo.
“It is ok to trust, it is ok to love and be loved, you don’t need to be afraid of being open and exposed, you are not alone anymore.”
The above article was kindly written by a client of Algarve Psychotherapy. Algarve Psychotherapy offer a range of psychotherapeutic approaches to best help with clients’ specific needs.