Hanging on to the Good and Bad to Heal from Trauma

War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
— Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Last year in an article in Vanity Fair on PTSD in the military, Sebastian Junger highlighted an important problem with recovering from the trauma of war: there are parts of war, or parts of ourselves we found in war, that we don’t necessarily want to give up. Yes, soldiers experience trauma, but they also experience camaraderie and courage. As one soldier described it, "There was horror, there was beauty, both co-existed." And they can experience closeness with their fellow soldiers that is hard to find anywhere else. With the trauma of war, your identity and your survival become intertwined. The trauma can have you experience the best of yourself and the worst of yourself. And healing from it can be tricky because it’s not so easy to untangle them from each other. Fear of losing the good can make you not want to let go of the bad.

Trauma can make experiences feel more real than any ‘normal’ life. It washes the experience in an intensity that can be harder to recover from than any violence that was experienced. And when that experience was shared with comrades as can be in war, or family violence or gang violence, it can be especially hard to let go of. Not because you want the war back, but because you miss the closeness. You miss mattering that much. You miss having someone’s back and you miss someone having yours.

I don’t think this dilemma of the good and bad of trauma being intertwined is limited to war veterans. In any long term or repeated experience of trauma, your life was rarely a single experience. Even with repeated trauma there were good moments and beautiful moments and funny moments. There were brave moments and strong moments. And all of it belonged to you. It is always a mix of experiences.

And it’s not only the trauma that has these mixed experiences. So does healing from it. The good with the bad cuts both ways. Sometimes in healing you have to hold the bad experiences to keep the good ones. You have to be able to hold the memories of war to hold on to the memory of yourself as a loyal friend. Holding both aspects of the memory allows you to be whole.

And sometimes you have to hold the difficult emotions, like grief, when the good parts of healing happen. Healing doesn’t happen in simple sound bites where the experience is just one thing or another. It barely happens in sentences or paragraphs, where there is one line of thought. Healing really happens in poetry—where the paradoxes are written in emotion and contradiction and metaphor. Where all things can exist. As Rilke says, “Take your well-disciplined strengths, stretch them between the two great opposing poles, because inside human beings is where God learns.”

As I have said before, repeated trauma is really three kinds of trauma, 1) what did happen, 2) the protections you created to survive the trauma, and 3) what didn’t happen.  And these two opposing poles that Rilke describes can be seen as what did happen and what didn’t happen. And it is my experience as both a therapist and a client—that when you finally get some of what didn’t happen—that grief can crash down on you. Not a painful keening grief, but a heavy weight that sits on your chest. It catches you off guard because for a moment you are happy, you are relaxed, you have settled into a brand new feeling. And then suddenly the grief crashes down.  

With the new good feeling, you have to take, for a while, the grief that held its place for a long time. And with the scary things you experienced, you also have to hold the good days you had. This is complicated work—this holding both, this holding all. I think we all hope for something more simple—and so do the people who love us and try to console us. We wish for a world where good and bad reside on opposite ends of the town, not in the same house, let alone the same body. We wish for the ability to live in a simple uncomplicated world. But with the experience of trauma comes of life of complexity. You didn’t choose it, but its yours. Both in the experience of trauma and the healing from it. Between those two opposing poles, where God learns, you will heal.

© 2016 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD