What is it about a good survival story that inspires me so much? I will always remember reading about Louis Zamparini’s story in Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. A World War II veteran who battled heroically, fought off sharks after going down in a plane over the Pacific, while almost starving from hunger. And then what he went through in the POW camps with “the Bird” torturing him. To hear from someone that has suffered so greatly, in such visual and tangible ways, be on the other side of it still standing and soldiering on, so to speak. And remain “unbroken.” It speaks to my soul. It inspires me to continue and to not back down from a challenge. “If that person could do something so obviously hard, maybe I could,” I tell myself. And, on top of that, he was an olympic athlete. The way he navigated through all of that trauma is incredibly inspiring!
But how can trauma affect us? If it doesn’t affect you personally it almost certainly affects someone you know and care about. In The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., he explains that traumatic memories can often be stored differently in the brain than other memories. Non-traumatic memories get processed and sent on to the long-term memory banks of the brain. But traumatic memories, if not processed, can become stuck and fragmented. For the good of our survival, our brain does not try to deal with these terrible emotions in the traumatic moment, allowing us to be clear-headed and to get through it. But the body remembers and something has to be done at some point to deal with any unprocessed trauma. I personally believe that these emotions have energy and can create or contribute to physical ailments, lingering injuries, and a variety of other problems in our bodies. Not to mention a lot of emotional suffering. I’ve experienced this. I had terrible bouts of heartburn for years and not until I processed trauma, through many sessions of EMDR, did my symptoms go away. Xanax, an anti-anxiety benzodiazepine, was the only thing that helped it go away before that. Anti-heartburn drugs did not work. Dr. van der Kolk talks about victims who experienced abuse (trauma) as a child. Many of them suppressed the memories. The younger they were when the abuse occurred the more fragmented the memories would be. Some of them had seizures. Lots of nightmares. Tons of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. And many other symptoms I haven’t mentioned. It’s not if but when the memories arise to be dealt with. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) comes from unprocessed trauma. Trauma can be devastating. Everybody experiences it and is affected by it on some level.
PTSD can be hard to get past. I know from experience. But we are built for it. It can be years and even decades after the trauma before a person heals from it. I had suppressed memories (of an abusive nature) from my young childhood arise almost 2 years ago. I even had seizures regularly throughout a 5-year period of my early childhood and my family and I never knew why. My memories were very fragmented but the emotions felt as though I was reliving the events each time they came up. These emotions had been coming up throughout my life and I had no idea where the hell they were coming from. This was almost 30 years later! I just thought something was wrong with me. Because it is not always obvious it can be very confusing and frustrating. Especially with its common, fragmented nature. That’s how PTSD works.
Until the trauma is processed it will remain. It can be years and even decades later that the trauma is finally dealt with. Many people try to avoid ever dealing with the emotions and thought patterns associated with their trauma. I spent a long time trying to avoid it. I used an addiction to mask it and self-medicate for years. Most people need professional guidance to work through it. For me, a specific type of therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – I’m so glad they call it EMDR!) was a key piece in my healing. Symptoms of trauma will remain as long as we avoid dealing with the emotions and thought patterns associated with it. This goes along with scientific principles.
Two scientific principles come to mind on this: the conservation of energy and homeostasis.
According to wikipedia, “Newton’s law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant, it is said to be conserved over time. This law means that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another.” If our memories, thoughts, and emotions have energy, and everything in our body is made of energy, then this law applies to how everything about us works, inside and out, including our mental health. God knew this when he made us. On top of that, years of evolution have contributed to our bodies being custom-designed to survive in this world. Homeostasis illustrates this perfectly.
We are built to handle trauma, to heal, survive and to thrive. Wikipedia says this about homeostasis. “Homeostasis is the state of steady internal conditions maintained by living things. This dynamic state of equilibrium is the condition of optimal functioning for the organism and includes many variables, such as body temperature and fluid balance, being kept within certain pre-set limits (homeostatic range). Other variables include the pH of extracellular fluid, the concentrations of sodium, potassium and calcium ions, as well as that of the blood sugar level, and these need to be regulated despite changes in the environment, diet, or level of activity. Each of these variables is controlled by one or more regulators or homeostatic mechanisms, which together maintain life.” To put it simply, what we eat, drink and breathe, we poo, pee, and breath it out. Our bodies are made of everything we consume, and not just food! This includes experiences, shows we watch, music we listen to, books we read, things we talk and think about, and things we focus on. This is so cool! And a bit scary. But I believe that just as our bodies are made to keep our temperature at 98.7 degrees F. amidst all types of weather, they are also made to find stability amongst all types of trauma. The body just stores it for you so you can deal with it when conditions are safe. But like my therapist, Jennifer Sorensen (the best!), said to me regularly, “the body desperately wants to heal. And it knows how, if you let it.”
My body has healed from trauma. EMDR with Jennifer helped get my unprocessed trauma “unstuck” and I could literally feel it leaving my body a lot of the time. The sessions and the immediate aftermath of the sessions sucked! Some of the hardest things I”ve done. The preparation and practice with mindfulness took a lot of time, effort, and energy. I saw her weekly for almost a year. But my severe anxiety and depression has reduced hugely. I’m finding true recovery from my addiction. Instead of waking up dreading my day ahead, wanting to check out of life, and having pretty regular suicidal thoughts, I now wake up ready to be present in my day and feel more excited about life than I ever have before. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with anxiety a lot, and depression at times too. But I have tools from therapy and life coaching to manage my struggles as they come. Processing trauma is like cleaning the debris out of a wound so that the body can do what it needs to do to heal the wound. If you leave the debris in, it doesn’t heal completely, it can get infected, and even start affecting other parts of your body. Because I have cleared out the wreckage from my past, and by God’s grace, my body and brain (which I think we forget is a physical part of our body sometimes) have been healing. And it feels incredible! I am so grateful.
This is where life coaching comes in. I am on the path to becoming a life coach. And it has taught me that we get to choose how we define ourselves. We get to choose what story we tell ourselves, whether it’s about our past, the present moment, or the future. We can’t change our circumstances but we can change our thoughts. And thoughts cause our feelings. If we are feeling frustrated, discouraged, or burnt out, it’s because of our thoughts. These feelings can make us struggle to take action or to create a certain result in our lives. It is much easier to take action and create desired results if we do it from a feeling of motivation, excitement, or love. To have these feelings we need to have thoughts of self-belief, self-compassion, commitment and compelling reasons to go after it. Doing this thought work has improved my relationship with my wife, Lindsay. She has done the work too. Our relationship is better and more honest and authentic than it has ever been. It has helped me become ready to start contributing financially to our family again. I am happier in life than I have ever been. I absolutely love opportunities to share ideas with people on their mental well-being. I am fascinated by the processes of the human brain and love finding practical solutions to managing it. I’m getting certified as a life coach this fall through the life coach that has been life-changing for me, Brooke Castillo. I am so excited to start coaching. We get to decide what story we tell about ourselves. Paraphrasing here, Brooke says to “tell it however you want. Just be aware of how you’re telling it, the affects it has on you, and be intentional about it.” We get to choose. Boom!
There is this idea of post traumatic growth and being a super survivor. This term comes from a book called Super Survivor, David B. Feldman, and Lee Daniel Kravitz. I haven’t read it but the idea was explained to me. Basically, what it means to be a super survivor is that going through trauma and suffering, which just sucks, we can survive or we can super survive. I think some people end up worse off from their suffering. But we can end up better off than we ever would have had the suffering not been introduced. This is being a super survivor. Not only can there be PTSD but there can also be post traumatic growth. I choose to be a super survivor. I truly look at my past suffering with gratitude now. I’m grateful for my addiction. I’m grateful for my struggles with mental illness. The position these things have put me in to learn, I would not trade. I believe that everything that has happened to me was meant to happen. It has taken a ton of work to get to the point of actually meaning these things when I say them. But I choose to grow from my suffering. Being a life coach is me choosing to help others grow who want help to grow. I’ll do this by using tools, information, and helping people understand their own brains better. There is a terrific method for this that I’m learning and using. I’m doing it through video conferencing.
Lindsay and I came up with this trauma spectrum. It begins with being a Victim. But at some point, to feel better, a person must see themselves as a Survivor. I told this to Linz and she said “why be a survivor when you can thrive!” So the next stage is Thriver where you feel even better. So I said “after that you become MacGyver.” Linz then said, “and finally…Chuck Norris.” We both laughed. I love it. I still slip in to the Victim part of the spectrum at times, but I think I’m spending most of my time in Thriver lately, with a MacGyver moment here and there, if I do say so myself. But Chuck Norris is the goal. Haha! Talk about a super survivor!
Louis Zamparini was very well-acquainted with trauma. I remember watching the Pasadena Rose Parade on TV and hearing one of the announcers pay tribute to Louis Zamparini. I think Louis died that very year. The announcer had known Zamparini personally for many years. He said that the movie, Unbroken, that was made about him was a wonderful tribute to Louis. But it was a shame that it did not include anything about his incredible life after the war. It was no cake-walk for him. He struggled with alcoholism for years amidst tumultuous memories and emotions (PTSD) he had to work through. But he chose post traumatic growth. He was able to come out on top, recover from his addiction, and devote much of his later years to serving and inspiring others. That’s where he became more than just a survivor. He was a Super Survivor. And we can be too.
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