The word trauma has become a more and more present part of our everyday vernacular. What is this word, this concept? What does it mean? How is it defined? How does it impact people? Gabor Mate’s most recent documentary, The Gift of Trauma, explores the concept of trauma as underlying most substance use disorders. In the simplest of terms, something has occurred that felt “too much, too fast” and the person did not have enough time to process it, to digest it. The range of what can constitute a traumatic response or a traumatic adaptation in an individual varies widely. This can be impacted by the nature of the event, the amount of available support, and the frequency of the experience. In the most obvious of cases, there is a single identified event (i.e. serious car accident, sexual assault, death of a parent/child) which left someone feeling completely terrified and powerless, fearing for their life. These instances of trauma are much easier to identify from the outside. However, the more subtle and insidious traumatic experiences are ones that can go undetected for years but painfully erode one’s sense of self, powerfully shape one’s inner dialogue, and limit access to feeling important emotions. Sometimes these can originate from complex emotionally neglectful, hypercritical, and/or dismissive relationships, often involving a primary caregiver or a partner. In many ways, the adaptations humans often unconsciously use in subsequent relationships can create highly effective ways to emotionally bypass feelings of vulnerability. While these protective maneuvers were critical at one time for emotional survival, these forms of self-protection can deeply shape individuals and ultimately lead them to feeling more alone, unseen, disconnected, and unhappy.
I remember the first time the impact of untreated trauma really struck me while volunteering at a residential substance use disorder treatment center over 20 years ago. The staffing room was filled with mental health providers, and the owner of the program sat at the head of the semi-circle listening as the clients’ substance use history was laid out. At the end of each case the most salient question was always the same: What was their trauma? At the time, I recall doing a not-so-subtle internal comparison of my own life history. What could be “big enough” to potentially land me in a treatment center? My parents were divorced, and I had struggled with an eating disorder and underlying body image issues. No doubt I had also struggled in romantic relationships and in finding healthy partners where I felt secure and loved. However, on paper I had a completely privileged lifestyle; on paper all basic survival needs were comfortably met and then some.
There was absolutely no apparent or easily identifiable “reason” for a traumatic response within my sphere of my existence. Yet what was I to make of the not so quiet internal voice of self-loathing? The unrelenting and nagging need for perfection? My inability to admit I was struggling to others? These problems only intensified for me when I found no obvious “justification” for my perceived struggle. This is a conundrum that plagues so many of the people with whom I work: “I don’t have a story that explains why I ended up here. My childhood was great. I didn’t want for anything. I think my problem has to do with a sort of weakness, something defective in me. I think I was just born like this, my father always said I was too sensitive.”
This need to justify the pain before we allow ourselves to feel it seems to be a deeply embedded part of our culture. Do you have a right to feel a certain way? In my professional work and my personal life, I have reflected more and more about the fears that prevent us from naming, sharing, and disclosing our pain. It’s such an important aspect of the work we do in our treatment center and why we place such a strong focus on trauma work. Unfortunately, people do not come with owner’s manuals. So many of our operating rules for being and interacting come from implicit connections informed by unarticulated, well-worn pathways in our psyche. Yet so often there is a drive to move on from what is painful, focus on the next thing, set a new goal, and look to the future; If I can’t change it now, what is the point of talking about it? The answer to this commonly asked question rests on the idea that you cannot heal what you cannot feel. But why feel it at all? What’s the point? Without bringing these feelings to the surface they operate behind the scenes guiding your actions outside of your awareness. You cannot change a problematic pattern unless you understand how the system is designed that initially created it. For a more nuanced and expanded discussion you can listen to our primary therapists at The Manor, Windrose Recovery’s residential treatment center, elaborate on the various ways they broach the incredibly important and sensitive conversations with our clients.
It feels important to highlight one of the most inspiring aspects of doing trauma work. It involves the concept of post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a theory that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity have the opportunity to see positive growth afterward (Tedeschi & Calhoun). In some instances, this can lead to deeply transformative experiences. Last year, I started a podcast amid the pandemic called “Blind Spots.” This effort was no doubt inspired by my experience of working with both addiction and trauma and the extent to which both of these conditions can fall into our cultural blind spots. The challenges of doing this work were almost instantly magnified within the backdrop of the pandemic-inducing helplessness, uncertainty, and lack of safety all charged with the dividing political tension. With this platform it felt incumbent on me to not inauthentically present myself as some authority or expert but rather a clinician, partner, parent, and human that was in struggle myself. I was struck by how many therapists were likely feeling the same way with added pressure of becoming the repeated sounding board of these struggles. This platform allowed me to often discover, in real time, the parts of my experience so often obscured within my “blind spot.” By watching the unrest around me, it helped me develop a deeper appreciation for the ways trauma can bring forward an opportunity for deeper understanding of ourselves, those around us, and for the systems that surround us. The need for ongoing growth became undeniable.
The most obvious analogy involves driving a car. I remember visiting my mom one summer and she had bought tiny round mirrors to place over her side mirrors in order to better see the blind spots while driving. I remember thinking at the time, how many near misses or narrowly avoided car crashes were required to inspire this move to expand her visual field? In this way, what experiences rise to the level of catalysts for enhancing and deepening our lens of awareness? Rarely do these pivotal moments occur in isolation. They so often come from conversations with someone outside of your experience, life altering conversations that feel uncomfortable, vulnerability inducing, and exposing. These moments so often seed powerful opportunities for change, growth, and transformation.
Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1996
Dr. Chantelle Thomas is Windrose Recovery’s Executive Clinical Director and a Clinical Psychologist specializing in addiction treatment, trauma, and health psychology. With her experience in trauma work, Dr. Thomas guides the clinical team in the comprehensive assessment and treatment of each guest. Dr. Thomas is also a certified biofeedback practitioner, providing clients with an added dimension of insight and discovery helping them better regulate and understand the psychological impact of stress and chronic trauma. Dr. Thomas began her career as the Program Director for a dual-diagnosis addiction and trauma treatment center in Malibu, California. After receiving her PhD in Clinical Psychology, she completed her internship and post-doctoral fellowship in Health and Rehabilitation Psychology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Mental Health. While there, she gained specialized expertise in medical-surgical consultation, trauma-informed therapy and chronic pain treatment. Through the University of Wisconsin’s School of Family Medicine, Dr. Thomas then joined Access Community Health Center as a Behavioral Health Consultant to primary care physicians where she innovated the development of a substance use disorder consultation clinic embedded within primary care. Her background in research-supported treatment modalities directly informs her ability to ensure the most effective interventions are incorporated into Windrose Recovery’s holistic programs.
If you’re looking for more information about Windrose Recovery’s family of treatment programs or are concerned about how the last year has affected someone close to you in their reliance on drugs or alcohol, reach out today to speak with our admissions team.