Simple Formulas for Surviving Complex Trauma Over the Holidays

In these happier days, I am extremely thankful to have my wife and my dog with me. This Thanksgiving we have escaped the urban psychiatric backward upon which I work for a few days in Lake Tahoe. Still complex trauma must be managed. I am bound to have unpleasant holiday memories bubble up, no matter what I do.

I may remember the first year I got diagnosed with a personality disorder. I was twenty and just out of the hospital. It was the first year I honored cultural traditions on my own. I remember sitting all alone on Thanksgiving in the roach infested inner-city apartment in Camden New Jersey writing a villanelle praying for a phone call because there was no one to reach out to. Indeed, neither my parents, who were traveling, or the female I’d just asked out were going to call.

I may recall awakening depressed the very next black Friday morning to two six-hour seasonal shifts. I might remember the ceaseless Christmas music, the selfish stress of the customers, the vat of Barney Dolls sitting right in front of the cash register I was operating. I might remember the one customer threated to throw-up on me because I was so slow. Others were free to pick the Barney dolls up squeeze them. The “I Love You,” song would play from beginning to end. “I love you, you love me, we are a happy family . . .” All day long! Three or four different dolls singing at a time!

Or I may remember losing one of those jobs because I handed out three twenty-dollar bills to three random customers. One customer even brought one back to prove I had done it. Perplexed, I’d quit the job and blamed myself. I didn’t want to risk getting fired. I’d not noticed the signs that I was likely the victim of a holiday flim-flam scheme. Poor cashiers need to have Christmas too. Forty-dollars does make a difference. They were right to target me. My family did come from money.

Or my mind might flash to the Thanksgiving I was just out of the state hospital and homeless. I might remember how I took the day off looking for work to bike ride away from the city of Fresno CA until I caught a flat. I may remember returning to town in the dark and sinking so low as to ask a worker at the cheap motel I was staying at out on a date. No longer did I care if I got any calls. I believed my relatives were mafia and had used their private fortune to facilitate my three-month hospitalization. They did not have access to my whereabouts. Though I hadn’t run out of medication yet, for the subsequent year and a half I would feel followed and threatened daily! I would be alone at Christmas with my credit cards frozen. At least that Thanksgiving, the pretty motel worker was polite about her boundaries and the fact that I was a drifter. I still remember the bitter taste of the Oscar Meyer cold cuts in my lonely room.

Of course, there are hosts of other bad holiday memories that may come up: Christmas, the years I was working seven days a week and the unstable girlfriend was giving me the silent treatment; the “festive” phone call from a cousin in which I heard her in-laws insult me; the Easter holiday I worked alone at the delicatessen because everyone else conspired to take the day off.

Not only will parts of these holiday experiences flash in my mind, they will mix with current stressors. For example, this year we had a well-loved co-worker suddenly die of sepsis during a routine operation. I work on an urban outpatient psychiatric unit. Supporting the clients through this stunning news meant processing violent deaths in the city of East Oakland. Imagine intimate details about a dear sibling getting gunned down in the Felix Mitchell eighties. Then, others would bring up a twenty-two-year-old cousin or two who’d faced similar demise. Imagine living in a board and care home with nothing but these memories and stories to process over the holiday. Or being wrongly incarcerated in Juvenile Hall during that grief and dropping out of school as a result.

Indeed, in Tahoe I feel guilty for being able to escape these realities and the fact that I survived what I did. When it comes to celebrating Thanksgiving, my mind skips from bad memory to current vicarious trauma, to the people who have hurt me during work politics, and then back to bad memory again.

Simple Formulas for Dealing with Complex Trauma:

I have created some simple formulas that help me endure the weekends and holidays when my head gets flooded like this. I have always enjoyed nature and hiking through my pain. One summer I was facing a lot of pain and I took off hiking for forty-six days and successfully covered six hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail. I learned that surviving natures elements is a great distraction.

I have learned that when I am suffering, I need to get out into he woods on a hike. There, I let the troubling thoughts and experiences bubble up. When I process and honor them I can accept them and move forward. It beats internalizing the choir of negative thoughts I have heard about myself over the years. Moreover, my breathing from the exercise grounds me and seeds of resilience kick in.

Another thing that has helped me endure is to acknowledge that I have disassociated through some traumatic incidents leaving me constantly mistrusting and hypervigilant. As I have recaptured a few of these early memories it helps me remember that I am not entirely a genetic mishap who must be behaviorally controlled in a board and care home. For two years I fought against everyone else who insisted this was my reality. Now I know that this is not true about me or anyone else. Sure, I was the child who never smiled, but I wasn’t smiling for a reason.

Also, it helps me to trace my relationship with the community back through my development. Ever since my earliest memories, relations with people who don’t have complex trauma are at the heart of my suffering. What saves me is knowing that my brain is different and truly hated by the chronically normal folk. I’ve got two or three neurodevelopmental conditions to prove it! Therefore, all those years I was bullied and excluded from the circle, it was because elements of trauma showed in my interpersonal relationships. At the time, I never understood why the world was so cruel. Now, when I recognize why and accept it, I can accept the choices I make and appreciate the love that I have found. I can get the chronically normal negative thoughts out of my head. I have had cohorts call me evil for my social awkwardness! I don’t have to agree. I can just say, different!

And finally, it helps to have found love. My wife gives me the space to go through my trauma on our hikes. She has nurtured other family members with complex trauma. In fact, with a history of learning disabilities and OCD, she may smile, but she doesn’t feel much better a lot of the time. She resists the invitation to gang up on me with the rest of my family during family get-togethers. I am so grateful for such a loyal companera.

However, without the support of my wife, without my writing habit, without grounding myself in nature, the judgements and true gossip of the chronically normal folk come into my head like a plague and rule the day. Judged thoughts are so much harder to let float by like a cloud in the sky. I can really see myself being depressed and frozen in a board and care home without these areas of privilege and resilience.

When Politics Bubble Up . . .

I can see that others gossip about complex trauma and poor social skills. I know it happens because I sit in team meetings listening to colleagues discuss the behavior of our patients with complex trauma. They may experience behavior that bubbles up from those painful memories. Cohorts may not understand. They may judge the person based on their pain when they are not grounded. Then, they talk about behavior out of context.

It is easy, for example, for me to hear a person who frequently assassinates the characters of others, and then I see how everyone around me is full of negative perspectives about me and my work and connect-the-dots. When this happens, it makes sense to imagine that there is a real likeliness that my complex trauma is being exploited. Indeed, treatment teams, behavioral health administrators or other forms of secret societies exist and meet!

In families, secret emails get sent, venting gets whispered-down-the-lane, and suddenly the person with complex trauma is barraged by a world of people reacting to what they’ve heard. It is a lot like being treated on a hospital unit. Indeed, the process is replicated in mental health organizations and even in some peer organizations led by those who vie to direct and manage the unit.

Sometimes in team meeting staff members can learn something helpful about complex trauma in their lengthily venting sessions. Sometimes I take the opportunity to speak up and challenge chronically normal reactions. Sometimes other workers speak up too. There are ways to endure and help heal. But we all must pick and choose our battles, or we too will be targeted.

A Simpler Formula for the Surrounding Community:

I suppose this essay isn’t only about surviving another year for me. As a marriage and family therapist I like to think I can share my story to help the chronically-normal-folk understand how not to make things worse.

Let’s not forget that some chronically normal minds might want to be in relationship with us! They may connect with us in ways that don’t stab us and make things worse. Indeed, these chronically normal folk may be our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, co-workers, therapists, case workers, hospital workers. People who are forced to deal with the grief we endure at this time.

Just as I have laid out a simple formula for my survival. My suggestions to the chronically normal brains of the earth is not very complicated. It involves only two things that can be avoided that would make a sufferers’ life much easier.

First, when someone is going through it, don’t tell them they are just being selfish, inappropriate, or shameful. Instead be curious about the stories behind the behavior.

Second, don’t spread an out-of-context freeze-frame of the pain we share, and play whisper down the lane with the community that surrounds. Especially don’t use the struggles against the person to rise to power. Instead try to honor the trauma and suffering the person endured.

If you want a relationship with the person you can tolerate their suffering without personally attacking them. If you don’t, that’s okay, just don’t do the whisper-down-the-lane. There are other ways to be successful.

Initially, I was not brave enough to share the worst memories I have. They involve reflecting on the people who have succeeded by throwing me under the bus in this manner. They often hold high positions in the mental health or other type of social hierarchy. On the other hand, if I were to point them out I would be breaking my second rule.

Remembering the Intention of the Holiday:

In surviving the holidays, I have no need for revenge. I am grateful to be where I am at. The best revenge up here in Lake Tahoe is to celebrate what I do have and take care of myself so I can continue to reach and teach others who are likewise suffering. The point of the holiday is to remember to be thankful. Right before one of the world’s largest genocides, the perpetrators recognized and remembered to be thankful for the kindness of their victim. For god’s sake, let’s hold on to the intention.

Sometimes when I make a biannual escape to Tahoe, I do hate myself for being so lucky! On top of other things, I have survivor’s guilt. But many people I work with on the outpatient psychiatric unit find their own ways to celebrate the holidays despite their trauma. They have ways of being resilient and the least I can do is respect them. No one wants to be pitied. Instead, I can appreciate what they teach me, accept that we all have our ways of coping, and try to be stronger for it. I celebrate with them on the unit and do not feign from mentally bringing them with me on my vacation. And those who are lost and truly suffering as I have been, may they one day find their way to some form of recovery as well!