You can study something. You can teach something. You can lead others. But, until it happens to you, you will never truly know the profound impact trauma can have on your life.
Have you ever heard someone who is really tired say, “I feel like I got hit by a MACK truck.” Well, I do know what that feels like. In 2015, the last thing I saw before everything went white was a white moving truck barreling toward me while I was driving.
I broke my neck, had a mild Traumatic Brian Injury, and developed PTSD. I spent almost two years recovering physically, cognitively, and emotionally. I was an Executive Director of a small non-profit that helps survivors of domestic violence and a professor at USC. I moved from Sacramento to LA to follow my calling to do the healing work with the women and children at the shelter.
Literally, in a matter of seconds my life changed. I could have been paralyzed or dead, but I survived. I thought I was pretty good at getting through tough things in life up until then. But, this literally stopped my life in a way where I did not think I would ever recover from.
What I learned, going through treatment and therapy after my accident is that I have complex trauma. Complex trauma is when multiple traumas occur and compile on one another.
Several years prior to the car accident, I dealt with a deep betrayal from the person I loved since I was 17 years old. My now ex-husband was unfaithful for a long period of time and I did not know it. I was devastated and literally thought I was going to die from a broken heart. Not only did I feel emotionally damaged, but my body suffered as well. His unsafe behavior caused damage to my female organs- as Alice Walker states- “I too have an injury of patriarchy.”
I thought I survived that trauma really well. I went to therapy, yoga, massage, mani/pedi, shopping, hanging out with friends, walking my dogs, redecorating my house, and I worked two jobs. I was a pro at self-care or so I thought. What I realize now is that I was distracting myself from dealing with the pain. From the outside, I looked like everything was fine and I was going to be ok. But really, there was no amount of self-care that would heal my pain.
The accident forced me to slow down and deal with the complex trauma and develop an even larger empathy for the people I help professionally. Don’t get me wrong I still have a profound dedication to self-care, but now I get to actually enjoy all of these things instead of being on the run from the pain.
I am in a loving, committed relationship now. It is built on a realistic sense of trust and love without ownership. I am thankful to be fully human and alive.
Most trauma survivors would not use the word ‘trauma’ to describe the bad thing that happened to them. When we think about PTSD we think of war vets and rape survivors. People who jump at loud noises, wake up with night sweats, and perpetually scan the room for an exit route. But when this is our only definition of trauma, millions of people are left out of the picture.
I was one of those people.
In 2010, my life was brimming with good things. I was married to my best friend, a man who I profoundly loved. We had a home perched on a mountaintop, with views of the San Francisco Bay. We spent our time traveling the world, eating good food, walking our dogs, and rooting for our beloved Giants. It was not a perfect life, because there’s no such thing. But it was a good life filled with love.
Sex could swing from wonderful to terrifying without warning, leaving my husband and me both in shock.
This issue surfaced almost immediately into our relationship. The first time we were intimate was also the first time I experienced a trauma flashback. One minute I was having fun, and the next I flinched and recoiled as if someone had just slapped me. It was frightening and confusing, but I played it off like a fluke and swallowed the terror down so I didn’t spoil the moment. I did that a lot in our ensuing life together.
I didn’t know at the time that I was having a trauma flashback.
But I knew something was wrong, that the panic I’d felt in that moment was connected to a bad thing that had happened to me when I was a girl. I thought this problem would go away with time, but it did not. Sometimes it was better, sometimes it was worse. But the possibility of getting flashbacks was always looming between us. I was scared of getting triggered. He was scared of panicking me. The fear ate away at us, even as we built a life together. We tip-toed around sex like it was a sleeping dragon that, at any moment, could wake up and devour us both.
I had tried going to therapy a couple of times, but in 2010 I got very serious about needing help. I desperately wanted to fix this problem. Fortunately, this time around, I found the right therapist and we began the work of healing.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this process would eventually transform my entire life.
When I started, my goal was simply to be able to connect my body with my husband’s, unencumbered by the pain of my past. What I discovered instead was this: That my early trauma had disconnected me from life in ways I hadn’t even begun to recognize. I wasn’t just cut off from a satisfying sex life.
I was cut off from my own body, from the parts of me that held my memories, from my grief over what had happened to me, and from family relationships where my trauma loomed. And so ultimately I was cut off from joy, from peace. In order to reconnect with these things, I needed to heal.
That healing journey did not unfold in the way I thought it would. It took years. It was HARD. There were stretches of time when I felt absolutely gutted. As I started talking about what happened to me as a child, my family relationships changed, first for the worse, but then – miraculously – for the better. I waded through shame and pain and a lot of darkness.
I began with therapy – LOTS of therapy – and eventually ventured into more experimental territory: yoga, body work, spiritual practice, meditation. I read thousands of pages of trauma literature to better understand what I needed to heal. I listened to podcasts, talked with girlfriends, and drove around in my car at midnight screaming bloody murder – literally shrieking and wailing as loud as I could – to work the feelings through, to release the pain out of my heart and body.
I was willing to try anything that might help. Some things worked. Other things didn’t. But finally, finally I found the light. I got my body back, I found new ways of being in close relationships, and in the process, I revived my spirit.
My husband was with me for much of that journey. He stood vigil over me and endured some of the darkest nights by my side. He made untold sacrifices financially and emotionally so that we could have the future we had so longed to have together.
But our story didn’t end the way either of us hoped it would. My marriage did not last. It’s perhaps the most painful casualty of my trauma, but it was nobody’s fault. We did our best under siege. Ultimately the trauma took its toll. I wish him the best and am forever grateful. He gave me the secure base I needed so I could begin the great work of my life.
On the other side of all that work, I have a new life.
Therapy was so profoundly healing for me that I decided to become a therapist myself. I now have two private practices and specialize in treating people who have survived their own traumas, big and small.
I believe mental health treatment is an essential – maybe even THE essential component of trauma recovery. However, on my own journey I needed much more than therapy and I had to go looking for that stuff on my own.
I’ve created traumAlchemy so that others can find in one place all the resources, tools, inspiration, education and community that I discovered.
Above all things, I want others to know there is hope.
On its surface, trauma can look like excruciating suffering. But it doesn’t have to be. When we strip it down, trauma is the raw material we use to transform our lives.
This is the alchemy. We turn pain into power. We use our power to set ourselves free.