Note: The following essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where most of the pieces are already online. The CPTW site is new and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I am going to post the series here.
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.
Did you or someone you know grow up in a dysfunctional home? I doubt anyone in America can honestly answer “no.” Childrearing occurs in households managed by two highly stressed parents (and often just one) with minimal outside support. Addictions and overwork are common, limiting quality and quantity of nurturance. Abuse is widespread but under-recognized. The culture frowns on open discussion of weaknesses and mistakes, so family toxicity accumulates amidst shame and secrecy. Traumatic upbringings result.
Of course, homes vary. Many parents maintain perspective and do a “good enough” job, so children grow up feeling loved and empowered. Other guardians, especially those freighted with shame, rage, and despair erupting from their own painful pasts, may cope less well. Misery translates into mistreatment, and the next generation enters adulthood with psychological frailties. Sometimes the traumatized decompensate early in life. Other times inner conflicts remain partially suppressed, only to overwhelm after major setbacks like divorce or job loss.
Healing from trauma is possible. The Center for Post-Trauma Wellness (CPTW) guides both lay and professional audiences toward effective remedies for the impact of trauma, with emphasis on whole person support for recovery. Writings on the site support trauma recovery through diverse means: news reports, personal accounts, professional analyses, training opportunities, etc.
My contributions will present the perspective of an informed layperson. I happen to be a (retired) physician, but I trained as a subspecialty surgeon, not a psychiatrist. And although I studied neuroscience in graduate school, sophisticated tools were not yet available for investigating trauma’s biological traces.
The most relevant background I bring to this project is a traumatic upbringing followed by arduous recovery in adulthood. In resolving the problems bequeathed by my past, I learned a lot about childhood adversity, mental health, and meditative practices. The effort paid off: I now feel more flexible and contented than could have been imagined in younger years.
My entries will examine trauma effects, treatment options, and research results through the lens of personal experience. The pieces will not describe day-to-day struggles but instead focus on past and current vulnerabilities, their likely mechanisms, and strategies that help me manage them.
The challenges I faced growing up inform my writing, but when possible I’ll avoid describing them in detail. Trauma appears to produce similar outcomes regardless of its precise nature. Most adults raised under painful circumstances suffer from some combination of poor self-concept, emotional reactivity, social unease, feelings of emptiness, problems sustaining or shifting focus, and stress-induced bodily symptoms. Anxiety, depression, stormy relationships, addictions, erratic job performance, and/or poor health often result . This cluster of difficulties, shared to some degree by most who survive adversity, draws us together in healing. My individual story is important only to the extent it illuminates common themes.
Yet details matter. For instance, sexual molestation leads predictably to turmoil around physical intimacy, whereas parental loss instills fear of abandonment. Even within a single category, like sexual abuse, we recognize distinctions. Someone whose parent gradually eroticized their relationship may have felt both confused and aroused, and is likely to have trouble setting healthy boundaries. On the other hand, someone who was forcibly raped by a visiting relative will tend toward panic and dissociation when approached by intimate partners.
In writing entries, I will strive for balance. The narrative will be kept general enough to apply to most trauma survivors, but with sufficient personal detail to maintain clarity and emotional appeal. Consider this a work in progress, open to comments and suggestions.
Trauma is a common problem that undermines both individual and collective wellbeing. Let’s solve it together.
© 2013, Will Meecham, MD