A savage and beautiful country. Yes. That is what it looks like and feels like once you begin to map and explore the terrain of yourself. Healing from trauma is a mighty steep and difficult climb. The weather can be treacherous. The way unclear. But the amazing views… And the experience of getting to know what it feels like to have your feet underneath you. To feel the sturdiness of your footfalls on even the most difficult terrain. To reclaim the landscape of yourself, for yourself.
And it is both: savage and beautiful. It is hard to hold them both. And often it is hard to see them both. Not unlike difficult mountain climbs, the work feels endless and the views are fleeting. It is why it is so important to watch the pace of healing. It is important to know when to take a break and go back down to a more comfortable altitude, or when to just take a break and look around wherever you are.
The problem with healing is that it’s hard to see the majestic nature of the climb when the challenges seem small. They aren’t small, but they can seem small. For example, one of the effects of repeated trauma is that you learn to shut off your emotions. You just shut them down. Well, you don’t so much as choose as your brain chooses for you. It is as if the smoke alarm keeps going off in your house. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! What do you do? You unhook the wire so that awful loud sound stops. AHHHHHH. And this is what your brain learns to do with repeated trauma. It can’t stand the overload of emotion that trauma creates—fear, anger, sadness, terror. So, it shuts it down. This allows your brain to function and think again—it gives you the illusion of calm.
The problem is that this solution becomes habit. It’s like having a sore ankle. At first, just the ankle is stiff, but in order to protect your ankle, your whole lower leg becomes stiff and pretty soon its your whole leg. Our body creates a wider and wider buffer zone around our sore spots. You get used to being shut down. To not having all your emotions. And you get used to feeling ‘in control’ of your emotions (which, admittedly, is easier when you can’t feel them.)
And then you mess up the plan. You start getting help for your trauma, you start therapy, you start sobriety, you start healing and you begin to have feelings again. You begin the climb up this mountain and the emotions rush in. And it feels savage.
When you are numb, the world feels organized. It’s not, but it feels that way. And when you start to get your feelings back it feels like there are gale force winds blowing through your entire life. When you are used to feeling in control, proud of your control—then any feeling at all can have you feeling off balance and out of control.
And there is some truth to the control thing: not that you are totally and completely losing it, but that your muscles for managing your emotions are actually flabby. They are out of shape. You haven’t used them because you have kept a rigid brace on your emotions for years and haven’t used your emotional muscles—haven’t flexed with them, and seen how they work. So when you start having feelings again you have to begin to build muscles again, and this can make you quite sore—it feels raw to go through this process.
But it’s not all savage. It’s not all terrible because the feelings, despite their messiness, feel real. You have glimpses, through the clouds of emotion, of yourself whole. You can sometimes feel more of yourself and feel more real than you have in years, or than you ever have. And you can sometimes wonder, which is worse, to feel all these feelings or to feel numb. What feels savage is that once you begin healing there are few days on the trail that feel comfortable. Either you feel all these messy feelings, but you feel real and whole—or you go numb, and feel in control, but exiled from this self you just glimpsed. And these are the poles you work from, ever gradually finding the middle ground. Helping your heart and brain to connect. Gradually bringing the emotions from the trauma and the story of the trauma and the new experience of healing all together in one place. That’s where you get the view.
And this is just the way it is in expeditions. It is just is. It is a long and arduous climb within a savage and beautiful country. But it is your country. And that’s something.
© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015