Many years ago I worked with a young client on an inpatient unit for about six weeks. When she first came in, for about the first hour, she was able to tell us a little bit about herself, her history, the people in her family, her friends and her favorite foods. She then fell silent for the rest of her time on the unit. I met with her every day and she maintained this amazing vigil of silence. I sometimes wove a narrative that she would either ignore or nod to. Sometimes I brought things for us to do together. But over the course of the six weeks she said nothing. On her last day, as sort of a goodbye present, I decided to bring in the favorite snack she said she liked on the first day I met her. I said goodbye and handed her the candy, and she looked at me and smiled, and said, “word.”
Yes. The only word she said to me was ‘word.’ Which was both poetic and perfect. I came to know some more about her and her history a year later when I crossed paths again, and she had every reason in the world for her silence. Her foray into speaking, even just a word, was big.
When people who haven’t been badly hurt think of therapy, they imagine it’s just one giant problem solving conversation. You just say what is wrong and someone tells you what to do, and then its done. Part of this is any TV portrayal of therapy which has to include dialogue, or the TV therapist, like Dr. Phil, who has to solve the problem in a network segment. What is completely misunderstood is that talking about pain, trauma, loss, terror—whatever has badly hurt you—is often an experience absent of language at first. You don't have words, you don't even have Scrabble letters. You spend the first part of healing simply searching for language. Searching for anything that matches what is going on inside your head and your body.
As I have mentioned before—when trauma occurs, blood flow to our language centers is hindered so that the experience is often not even encoded in language. The experience is often encoded to our amygdala, the fight and flight fear center of our brains. Great for survival, lousy for story telling. Our brains during trauma are focused on keeping you alive and prepared for the next bad thing. That is it.
Trauma stories, stories of pain and loss get told in so many ways, and often there are no words to start. Not even the word, ‘word.’ We all know this even from the tragedies and losses that can befall any of us. The fact that when someone dies it often feels like there is nothing you can say. And in those times your presence, more than anything else is the healing factor.
Acts of trauma can literally feel unspeakable. I have had clients say that they were afraid to say it out loud because they didn’t want to hurt me. For many it can seem like speaking about the trauma would be as harmful as repeating the trauma itself. As the first victim of apartheid at South Africa’s Truth Commission hearings stated, “This inside me….fights my tongue. It is…unshareable. It destroys…words.” The list of fears of finding the words to your story is often long—fear of betrayal, fear of retribution, fear of not being believed, fear of being seen in your worst moment, fear of having to believe your own story, fear that you won’t survive telling it, fear that you will be rejected for telling it. And I could go on and on.
Of all of the fears I have had myself and worked with in others the biggest one seems to be this: If you tell your story, you have to know it is true, and you have to know that you live in a world where those things happen. It can all feel too big. Which is why my brave client taught me so much. You can do it at your pace. You can decide who you can talk to and how much or how little you can say. You can even do it just one word at a time. It is okay to take time to find your words. Or, word.
© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016
The apartheid quote from Antjie Krog's book below. A heartbreakingly poetic description of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings written by a journalist who covered them.