As a clinical social worker practicing in mental health, I sit with a lot of people as they work through trauma. Trauma is a broad category because it can cover events that go all the way back to your childhood, but could just as easily be something that happened yesterday. For the veteran, there are the vagaries of war. For a child, it could be the assault that happened from a trusted adult, or the long, slow devastation of neglect.
And no one really wants to talk about it.
Because even if you know rationally that the trauma was inflicted on you, there is a sneaky way in which you feel that you are somehow responsible for the trauma. So a large part of you feels deep shame for something that happened to you, that now feels as if it is a part of you.
It is an additional injury the way that trauma tries to define you, tries to become your whole story, not merely a part of your story.
So when I work with people on talking about their trauma, here is an analogy that is sometimes helpful:
Our memory is like a leaf rubbing.
Maybe some of you have had the chance to make one of these crafts as a child, a leaf rubbing. You find a leaf from a tree, maple trees are the first that come to my mind because of their size and thick veins radiating out from the stem. Then, you place a thin piece of paper over the leaf. Next, you take a crayon or a piece of charcoal and lightly rub over the paper and the leaf, leaving an imprint of the original leaf on the paper.
The image that you have now is like the original leaf, but different; it has changed. Were you to take another piece of paper and lay over this one also over the leaf, then the image would still be there, but less distinct, fainter.
When we remember something, it is like this. Our brains are not hard drives as if when a memory is “stored”, it is in some pristine, unchangeable state. Digital images do not change, no matter how many times we access them. Our memories however, do.
So what does this mean for traumatic memories?
Let me be very clear: traumatic memories are accurate.
When people come forward, especially when it is the first time they have talked about a trauma, then that memory is often very close to what actually happened.
Our brains, due to the survival system known as “fight or flight”, remembers events that were dangerous and difficult, setting us up to avoid (or be triggered) when something close to that event is in our present environment. That particular traumatic memory is retained along with other feelings and sensations that happened alongside it. It is there to warn us.
But this also means that the work of healing trauma means talking through the event, sometimes over and over. This allows for a softening and a shaping of the memory so that our reaction to the event does not carry the same emotional punch that it once did.
Memories are about feelings.
We have a different relationship to a leaf rubbing than we did to the original leaf. While the original trauma was awful, after layer upon layer of telling our story has occurred, there is a distance, maybe even a pairing of the memory with some different emotion now.
That original memory likely had a host of vivid and difficult sensations attached to it. We may have feared for our life. We may have felt violated emotionally, physically, and/or sexually. We may have vivid sensations such as the taste of blood in our mouth, the smell of smoke, the pressure of a touch that was not wanted.
So we tell these stories, even the details of these stories in a therapeutic space. Ideally this space is one where we feel safe, with someone who helps us feel safe. Then the emotion of that space is now connected to this memory and its retelling.
Because we don’t remember an event directly; we remember the last time we remembered it.
Now the next time you remember the trauma, it is not just the trauma itself, but now you remember telling it. There is a layer there. Standard treatment for trauma is about telling the story, in groups where you feel safety and support, or individually with a friend, trusted family member, or therapist.
Memories are also about meaning.
As we work through a particularly difficult memory, we also want to pay attention to the meaning that we brought out of the trauma. Did we learn something along the lines of “I’m helpless and will always be helpless”? Or was the meaning something like “Trust no one” or “Everyone is out to take whatever they can from you” or “I am only worth what I can do sexually”?
The work of therapy is also the work of meaning-making, of reinterpreting, of questioning some of those “lessons learned” to see whether they were true then and if they are still true now.
This is not to say that trauma always lies to us; often the lessons we learn in traumatic events helps us survive those events. The challenge is to make space for some revision of those “lessons learned”, to incorporate new information so that we learn to trust, to be open, that we have value and worth and goodness.
And in light of the current discussions about traumatic events that happened a long time ago, from my training and experience, I know that we should err on the side of the memory being true, that the memory of trauma, especially one seldom told, is accurate.
But the work of therapy is the work of telling the story so that this trauma (and the one who inflicted it) do not continue to hold power over us, so that the place where we currently feel broken, becomes a place of healing, and eventually beauty.