A Program Of Miracles believes that being raised in an abusive family has ramifications long after we have left the original family home. Some of us have experienced chronic mental, emotional and physical problems as a result of childhood trauma.
This trauma may include things that happened to us, and also, things we witnessed. Trauma does not leave us just because we left the home; it continues to live inside us, and it is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It manifests itself in three ways:
Through intrusive memories that reignite the traumatic event. This may occur during sleep when experiencing vivid nightmares that recreate the initial trauma.
We undergo a heightened reaction to events that trigger the trauma. Our anxiety levels are increased as these events create startling responses.
We, perhaps unknowingly, avoid exposure to situations and relationships that might trigger an unwelcome response.
Without even being aware of it, many of us live with chronic symptoms of PTSD, and as a result, we suffer both relationship and physical problems.
Examples of relationship problems are:
We may avoid people who are calm and centered because they may ask about our emotional well-being, and if we are still traumatized, we don’t want to have that part of us exposed
We become ‘relationship anorexic’ because we are too frightened to become intimate; we may do the opposite, and find people we can take care of or rescue in order to keep the focus on them and away from ourselves.
As far as the physical consequences of PTSD go, the body remembers and reacts as automatically as the emotions do. One piece of research from Harvard in 1991 describes exactly how the body’s biology keeps score of the initial trauma by becoming deeply embedded in body tissues and how it gets fired up when an old trigger is pulled. Some traumas from our childhoods still play an active role in our bodies by encouraging physical symptoms that get progressively worse if not treated.
Long-term physical problems typically manifest themselves as sleep problems, hyper-anxiety and stress, migraines, back and stomach pain, muscle ache and fatigue. PTSD can also be the root cause of depression, over eating, drug addiction, alcoholism and smoking, all of which lead to more complicated physical health problems.
Many of us are unconvinced, at first, about the effect of PTSD on our bodies. It’s much easier for us to see how we survived a dysfunctional childhood by creating mental strategies that still affect us today. However, to be asked to believe that our bodies store trauma is much more difficult to believe for one specific reason. Due to the nature of our mental strategies, we learned to quickly shut down our feelings by numbing our bodies. As a result we find it almost impossible to re-engage with our bodies, ignoring the language in which it talks to us, because we may be frightened of re-experiencing the terror and abandonment.
Our body’s language isn’t just pain; it can talk to us in other ways. One Miracle Worker explained that from a young age he used to rock himself to sleep by placing his hand over his ear and swinging himself from side to side. Another Miracle Worker shared that she felt she could feel a physical lump in her throat whenever she felt frightened. A third Miracle Worker said he had to check himself when he spoke to an older woman as his body would zone out his hearing and he would never remember what the woman had said.
Other appearances of PTSD are harder to detect. It’s much easier to acknowledge PTSD if we were the victim of continuous battering. As an adult, though, the fear that surfaces when we are around angry authoritative figures that makes us break out into a sweat, feel nauseous, or ‘numb out’ is clearly linked to a childhood that involved living with a parent’s violent rage.
However, living with other dysfunctional parenting like chronic neglect, disinterest, intermittent nurturing, favoring other siblings, discounting feelings, lack of respect or physical care are more difficult to recognize.
We know a Miracle Worker who had to move from house to house many times as a child. Each time was filled with drama and her parents were highly stressed because they were continually being evicted. As an adult, the thought of moving to another house made her feel acutely stressed to the point she felt she was going to die. It was the fourth house move in four years that drove her to both a physical and emotional breakdown. This was when her work in the program began.
As adults, we are compelled to re-enact the trauma we suffered as children. One study explains how we compulsively expose ourselves to situations that remind us of the original trauma. (http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/vanderkolk/) It may seem that we are trying to gain control over a past trauma as it is played out in current events.
However, it can be argued that we are, instead, re-traumatizing ourselves. What makes this so complex is that we have also blocked out the memory of the trauma through disassociation, so we are simply reacting to a vague reminiscence even though each situation releases traumatic feelings into the body. This explains why certain situations have a devastating effect on some people, yet the same situation can have no affect whatsoever on another person.
PREPARE A SUPPORT NETWORK
A word of caution: this work may produce powerful responses as we try to get back in touch with the feelings that we buried as children.
It is extremely important that the correct support network is in place for us to turn to and seek guidance. Many of us have sought experienced therapists or counselors who can help us through this work. What a therapist can do, that perhaps a supportive friend can’t, is to give us reflection and guidance as to what was trauma and what was unhelpful parenting.
Times have changed, and what was once acceptable is not any longer. It’s important for us to see our traumatic experiences with someone who can help us identify which parts of our childhood were way off base for appropriate parenting, and which ones were not trauma inducing. This is because we are blinded by our chronic need to find excitement and drama in every part of our lives.
However, continuing to create drama does not help us recover; on the flip side, calming our energy down, does.
We also connect with other members of this program. We can do this via the forum or through the anonymous support meetings Attending support meetings helps us feel less isolated and as if we are fully participating in our own recovery. Finding other members who we identify with helps us connect in a way that we’ve rarely experienced. This connection helps to bring ‘I’ to ‘we’.
It is rarely useful for us to turn to our original family for support. While going through this work, it may be more appropriate to take some time away from our families. By creating a space between us and the source of our trauma, we are helping ourselves to gain clarity and a much needed overview in order to get the trauma into some sort of perspective. We have found this to be a temporary 'pause' and one way to reconnect to ourselves with love and acceptance.
Other therapies that can support us though this work are acupuncture, deep tissue massage and body work. By helping the body to heal through other bodywork we are sometimes able to pinpoint areas of the body that hold the trauma. An array of physical complaints may be the result of hidden trauma. This can manifest as insomnia, fatigue, aching muscles, feelings of panic, nightmares or general hyper vigilance.
These symptoms occur because the nervous system is reacting to a heightened awareness that something ‘bad’ is going to happen and prepares itself for the fight or flight response. We may be so used to this heightened state that it is an automatic reaction over which we have no control. In medical terms this is known as disassociation. Disassociation is when we disconnect from our thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. We, unknowingly, continue to repeat the trauma.
The following exercise is the starting point for naming our PTSD. Please note that it is not a diagnosis for PTSD, but rather, it is a guide to understanding PTSD and is a way to help us determine if we may be suffering from it.
Mapping Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
The exercise of mapping our PTSD starts off with our memories being like an over stuffed laundry cupboard. Before we began this work we would walk past the cupboard and ignore it. We knew that if we opened the door, everything would tumble out. When this happened before, we would pick the memories up and stuff them back in the cupboard as tight as possible. All our memories are jammed in there, and because the door flies open with the lightest touch, we became vigilant in finding ways to keep that door shut!
Now we have a foundation of hope, help from this program, our support system and our Higher Power. It’s time to open the door and sort out the memories by taking out each one, having a good look at it and then folding it up and putting it back in the right place.
Let’s Get Started
Open the cupboard and let the clothes that have been squeezed in fall out and onto the ground. These are the memories that are at the foremost of our minds. Take your journal and write down the obvious traumatic experiences you can remember. These are the ‘stand out’ ones like being hit, locked up, verbally abused, sexually abused and threatened. These are the memories that we cannot deny were extremely abusive.
If these don’t apply to us we look further into the cupboard and take out some of the memories that are dormant, but still relevant. These might be things that weren’t caused by overt trauma, but have still resulted in PTSD. They could include living with parents who hated themselves and therefore hated us, were rage-aholics, picked on everything we did, displayed religious abuse and had unreasonable expectations.
At the very back of the cupboard lie the memories that we are not ready to deal with, but we know we can come back to our cupboard at any time.
We continue the exercise by filling in the worksheet:
Under ‘Memory’, write down what you remember about the event
Under ‘My emotions and their intensity on a scale of 1 – 10’, write down how you felt when this happened. It is common not to feel the emotions because we disassociate from the reality as a way of coping with an abusive environment. Buried memories and feeling will return, and when they do, we can come back to this exercise and continue our work.
Under ‘How my body remembers it’, note any symptoms of PTSD you have now. These may include backache – especially upper back, headaches, migraines, general muscle and joint aches, sexual arousal, clenched throat, flinching, twitching, etc. There may also be experiences of some forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition where a person has obsessive thoughts and compulsive activity. Notice also your posture as you undertake this exercise. Are you hunched over, breathing faster or tensing your shoulders?
Now look at ‘How this has developed into a current trigger’, and pinpoint some triggers you might be aware of. For example, we might flinch when someone raises their hands to scratch themselves because we experienced being hit; we might feel anxiety in the chest when we run out of food because we experienced hunger; we might freeze if someone hugs us because we experienced sexual abuse.