It's never too late: Old dogs can heal

I have heard so many people say things like, “It’s too late for me to heal what happened” and “There’s no one who could help me” or “I’m too old to get help for this.” These statements are some of what has motivated to write about trauma and to create a better understanding about healing from trauma.

I believe it is harder to heal from trauma the older you are—but not because you are old. As I have described in an earlier blog, repeated trauma or long term trauma is not one trauma. It is really 3 forms of trauma. The first form of trauma is the trauma that you experienced—the ‘what did happen.’ The second form of trauma are the protections –the defenses—the way of being that you created to survive the trauma. These protections become a part of your personality, your way of being, your habits and routines. And the third form of trauma, the unseen impact of trauma, is what didn’t happen- it is all the things you didn’t or couldn’t do or learn because you were living in trauma. It is the experience of peace and calm, it is where your attention could have gone if it weren’t focused on survival.

It is harder to heal from trauma when you are older not because you are old, and an old dog can’t learn new tricks, or there aren’t good people to work with you and your trauma, it is harder because you have lived for so much longer with the protections and defenses. You have lived so much longer behind your wall—and it feels impossible to imagine any other way of being. It feels impossible to imagine being outside of the prison with the wind on your face—in a world where you don’t know the rules. Healing from trauma means letting go of these protections—living without them—for moments at first, and then gradually for hours, days, months. And it means risking new behavior, risking experiencing the ‘what didn’t happen.’

And I describe it as a risk on purpose. Living with your old protections, living as if the trauma could happen at any time again—that feels safe.  There was Japanese Lieutenant Hiroo Onada who held out fighting on a Philippine Island from 1944 until he was finally found and relieved of his duties in 1974. 1974. The war had been over for decades. But continuing to fight the war sometimes feels more sane. It makes the war more worthwhile. It provides hope for a different outcome. It can be so hard to let go of the war knowing that when you do, it is really over. It happened and you can’t change the outcome. Surrender really is surrendering the hope for an outcome that can’t happen.

Leaving the world of trauma, of your protections, where you are always ready to go back, is a big move. And anyone’s hesitation about healing, about wondering whether it’s worth it, or whether they can handle it, is a valid worry. It isn’t easy. It involves a lot of hard work, and it involves a lot of grief. Only in the quiet after the war can you begin to remember and feel what it felt like during the war. When you finally start living without your protections, when you finally start risking the new experiences—really, only then, can you fully feel what it felt like to live through the trauma at all. And many people catch glimpses of this grief and think it would be impossible, think that they wouldn’t survive it, they catch a glimpse and they say, “No way.”. But they forget the most important thing: they already have survived it. The grief is old. It is painful, but it will go.

There’s no magic in healing. You won’t become someone else. But you will get to experience yourself without the emotions of survival running your life. You will get to see your life not just in a past-perfect tense of what happened and what might have been, but also in the present, and the future- of what might be. No, it’s not easy to surrender your island of trauma, the safety that you know, to risk a different safety, a peaceful safety decades later. No it’s not easy, but you were strong enough to survive—which means you are more than strong enough to heal.

  © Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD 2014