When the Wall Comes Down

I first went to the Berlin Wall as an exchange student in Germany in 1982. The Berlin Wall was an immense concrete wall that was covered with graffiti on the West side because the residents could get close to it. On the East side, it was no where near where someone could get close to—in front of it lay a no-man’s land strip of raked ground, razor wire and guard towers between even good sections of the city and the wall.

West or East, the wall made sure that there was no contact between lives on one side and lives on the other. This is what walls do.  They create a no-contact zone between sides of a country or sides of a self that can’t know about the other.

Trauma fragments and breaks things into pieces-- and the protections created to survive trauma keep that fragmentation in place. If I experienced something awful, or witnessed something awful, or perpetrated something awful and I was undone by it, I erect inner Berlin Walls between the self that lived through the trauma and the self that is trying to get by in the world. The wall allows me to keep on going, but I lose access to parts of myself. I lose access to prior learning, to my feelings, to flexibility. On my bad days, I am behind the wall living in my trauma and I can completely forget that the healthier side exists. And on my good days I do everything in my power to stay away from the dark side of the wall.

Healing from trauma is the gradual taking down of the wall. Of integration. of bringing the sides of yourself together again to become whole.

In 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down it was a scene of liberation and celebration. And when inner walls come down, there can be immense feelings of relief. But there can also be immense feelings of grief—for the years that the walls were up. Immense grief because you finally see and feel the experiences that you hid behind the wall.  And it can come as a bit of a shock—the wall helped you stay numb and away from feelings. When the wall comes down, feelings can flood in and knock you down. You think you should feel good, and instead you are wondering how to put the wall back up.

We think of the wall “falling” 25 years ago today, but the Berlin wall was dismantled slowly—it didn’t actually start coming down until 1990 and wasn’t fully dismantled until 1992, a nearly three year process. Healing from trauma, from whatever war erected your wall, means allowing each piece of the wall to come down, letting each side greet each other. Letting each side share some time together at a pace that allows you to digest your history and take it in—and heal the reasons that the walls were erected in the first place. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014