Some basics of dissociation.

Dissociation is often subtle. 

It’s often not the dramatic “switching” we imagine it to be, or we’ve seen dramatized in the media. 

Most often people who dissociate don’t announce it. 

Hell, often people who dissociate aren’t entirely aware they’re dissociating. 

Even when dissociation is somewhat extreme— such as it is in Dissociative Identity Disorder— “switching” between self-states isn’t experienced by a person as fun or exhilarating. 

It’s often a pain in the ass. It interferes with your day. 

It’s often confusing. People discover purchases they made— sometimes signifiant ones— that they don’t remember. 

When people dissociate, it’s not a floaty vacation from the “real world.” 

Some part of us still has to be present or “out front” to deal with the “real world”— and some part has to carry or otherwise deal with the painful memory or emotion that triggered the dissociation in the first place. 

Even when there are dissociative barriers between parts or aspects of experience, it’s not like anyone gets to just “skip over” or “zone out” pain. 

Some part of us ALWAYS has to deal with it. 

If that part of us is walled off from the other parts of us, that means that part is dealing with it alone. 

It’s an experience that often echoes the experience of having endured the abuse or abandonment in the first place— being alone, frightened, abandoned. 

It’s not fun. It’s not an adventure. It’s an adaptation to trauma. 

Nobody “chooses” dissociation because they think it’ll make them more interesting, or give them a pass to not deal with with something. 

Because the “something” that is dissociated is ALWAYS dealt with— just not consciously. 

When emotional pain or traumatic memories are walled off via dissociation, it means we can’t bring our adult understanding and skills to deal with it. 

It leaves the younger pars of us to try to handle it— alone. 

Don’t get me wrong: sometimes people have parts of themselves that charge RIGHT at a painful feeling or memory to try to “handle” it. Some people have “warrior” or “defender” parts of themselves that can very much hold their own on the emotional battlefield. 

But they shouldn’t HAVE to hold their own. 

Lots of people who dissociate describe feeling embarrassed or ashamed that they struggle to stay present when they’re triggered. 

There’s no shame in dissociation. You’re not choosing it. Very rarely does anyone say to themselves “I’m just gonna float away now,” or “I’m just gonna hand this over to a self aspect to handle.” 

Dissociation is an adaptation to trauma, usually enormously panful trauma that happened to us relatively early in our development. 

If you’re dealing with dissociation at ALL in your trauma recovery, it’s because it was, at one time, a relatively SUCCESSFUL adaptation. 

That’s why I’m not hot on shaming anyone for dissociating or demanding that parts “integrate.” 

I have ENORMOUS respect for ALL self-aspects and dissociative processes. I respect them and I’m grateful they were there for you. 

I want to work WITH them now— not against them. 

I want them to be able to trust you. 

I want you to be able to be there for them. 

I want the NEED to dissociate to diminish. 

I want YOU to be able to handle things WITHOUT checking out or instinctively handing them off. 

I want your dissociative processes and self-states to INFORM how YOU deal with stressors— instead of feeling obligated to take over and deal with them themselves. 

Healing doesn’t mean your parts go away. 

It means they get BETTER at what they do— and that you and all the parts of you have each others’ back. 

You are not a burden. Full stop.

Sometimes we just feel like we’re taking up…all the space. 

All the space, and all the oxygen. 

Survivors of neglect are particularly susceptible to this feeling. 

Growing up neglected is to grow up being sent repeated signals that you existence doesn’t matter; your needs don’t matter; your voice doesn’t matter. 

Survivors of neglect often come away from the experience feeling as if anyone allowing them to take up space in their world is doing them a favor— that they don’t have a right to exist, let alone consume resources. 

That’s a tough feeling to exist with, when we live in a world where we NEED to consume resources— in a world where we NECESSARILY take up space. 

It leads survivors of neglect to this place of contradiction: I don’t have the RIGHT to take up space or to consume resources; and yet I do, every moment I’m alive. 

Consequently, many survivors of neglect walk around feeling low-key guilty much of the time. 

Guilty for taking up space. 

Guilty for “demanding” attention. (Many survivors of neglect were specifically TOLD that they were “attention seekers”— as if there’s something unusual about children seeking attention.) 

Guilty for sucking up emotional oxygen, even in their closest relationships. 

The way we resolve that guilt is to realize your early experiences tricked you into believing you didn’t “deserve” time, space, resources, and attention— when, in fact you do, by virtue of being human. 

But that can be a tough sell to a survivor of neglect. 

Survivors of neglect are very often hesitant to believe they “deserve” even the basics that any human being deserves— after all, their early experiences led them to believe their very existence was a hassle. 

It’s a particular kind of anxiety to believe that your very presence in your closest relationships is somehow a burden to the other person— but that’s very often what survivors of neglect feel like. 

At the same time, many neglect survivors have a particular craving for intimacy and connection— for those things they didn’t get once upon a time from an indifferent family.

This often leads the kid we once were, and who we still carry around in our head and heart, confused. 

On the one hand, all they want is a hug. To be told they matter. To be told they’re not wrong or bad for taking up space. 

On the other hand, every experience that kid has ever had with someone who “should” have held them or made space for them, has resulted in that kid feeling like a burden. 

Here’s the thing: you’re not a burden just for being human. 

You’re not a burden for having needs. 

You’re not a burden for consuming resources. 

You’re not a burden for taking up space— emotional OR physical. 

The world very often tries to convince us we need to “earn’ the right to our existence— that if we’re not “productive” in ways defined by the world, that we really DON’T have a right to breathe or take up space. 

But you exist. You don’t have to “earn” the “right” to exist— you’re here. The right to exist is a right that cannot be taken away from you— definitely not by guilt or shame. 

If you’re in a close relationship with someone, you need to know that you ADD to that relationship just by your presence. The relationship wouldn’t exist otherwise. 

You need to know that that feeling that you’re a burden, you’re taking up too much space, you don’t have a right to breathe, need, or be— it’s fake news. 

It’s BS. Belief Systems— but also the OTHER kind of BS. 

Guilt and shame are powerful feelings that are difficult to cope with. But don’t let them bully you. 

You exist, you have the right to exist— and the world is better BECAUSE you exist. 

Yeah, you. 

I may not even know you, but I’m willing to place exactly that bet. 

Trauma recovery is about taking realistic responsibility for what we can– and rejecting fault that isn’t ours.

What “should” you feel bad about? 

I don’t know. And I don’t get a vote. 

Nobody does get a vote when it comes to what you, specifically, “should” feel bad about. 

The point of chipping away at shame in trauma recovery is NOT that we “should” never feel bad about anything. 

You get to decide what you “should” or “shouldn’t” feel bad or guilty about. You get to decide what you need to “make amends” for. 

In trauma recovery we DO discover, however, that we DON’T have to feel bad or guilty about things that were done TO us. 

We DON’T have to feel bad or guilty about OTHER people’s decisions. Not in a personal way. 

That might seem obvious— but it’s important we make that distinction, because one of the most common symptoms of complex trauma is feeling bad about almost EVERYTHING that’s EVER happened to us in our past. 

Trauma survivors’ default is very often to blame ourselves. 

Our default is very often to assume EVERYTHING was our fault, and everything IS our responsibility. 

Experiencing relational trauma in particular tends to leave our “fault” and “responsibility” wires crossed. 

As we develop our new philosophy of life in trauma recovery, we often have to grapple with what we ACTUALLY “should” feel fault and responsibility for. 

Sometimes people mistakenly assert that in trauma recovery, we encourage trauma survivors to reject responsibly for almost anything and everything. 

Not true. 

In trauma recovery, we are, in fact, taking responsibility for a LOT— most notably, our choices in THIS moment. 

But it IS accurate to say that in trauma recovery we are also REJECTING fault and responsibly for certain things— most notably, things that were done TO us and OTHER people’s decisions. 

I’m not going to tell you what you “should” feel bad about. That’s up to everybody’s individual sense of morality, ethics, and maybe spirituality. 

But I will tell you, with absolute conviction: meaningful recovery means giving up this fantasy that WE can or should be responsible for things that happened TO us, or OTHER people’s decisions. 

Not only were things that happened to us not our fault; not only were (and are!) other peoples’ decisions not our responsibility— but we can’t MAKE those things our fault or responsibility, even if we tried. 

It’s complicated, because we so often FEEL ashamed. 

That has nothing to do with reality. That has to do with conditioning. 

It has to do with the messages we were sent once upon a time— and, usually, that were reinforced over and over and over again, over the course of YEARS. 

Because we strongly FEEL ashamed doesn’t mean we have REASON to be ashamed. It doesn’t mean we “should” feel ashamed. 

And it DOESN’T mean we were at fault for our trauma. 

It DOESN’T mean we were responsible for avoiding it or stopping it. 

You are responsible for your decisions and your behavior. Right here, right now. 

There are things that impact and influence how “free” your decisions can be at ANY given time— but when we try to take responsibility for things that we can’t POSSIBLY control, often can’t even INFLUENCE…we set ourselves up for chronic shame. 

No more. 

Recovery is about taking realistic responsibly for what we can…and rejecting fault that isn’t ours. 

I know. Harder than it sounds. 

Which is why we just take it one day at a time. 

Our recovery needs to work for us EVEN IF the entire world “out there” goes to hell in a hand basket.

In every trauma or addiction recovery, there will be a ton of stuff we can’t control. 

In every LIFE, there is a ton of stuff we can’t control. 

I don’t believe in trauma or addiction recovery that depends on controlling stuff we can’t control. 

It’s true that it would be much EASIER to recover from trauma or addiction if we had control over certain things in our lives or environments…that we just don’t. 

It would be much EASIER to recover if we NEVER had to come into contact with people or situations that trigger us. 

It would be much EASIER to recover if we NEVER had to interact with family members that had been abusive or neglectful toward us. 

It would be much EASIER to recover if we didn’t have to work jobs to make a living. 

Many of the trauma and addiction recovery takes I read on the internet seem to assume that those of us in recovery have nothing else to do BUT recover. 

But that’s not the world we live in. 

We have jobs. Many of us have kids or pets. We can’t just check out of life to deal with our trauma or addiction issues, the check back in when we’re sufficiently safe or stable. 

I HATE when I see takes about how we need to take our recovery “seriously” by “getting help” when we need it…without acknowledging that the “help” on offer, even when it is affordable and/or accessible, often asks us to put everything else on hold in a way that just isn’t practical. 

Similarly, I see lots of recovery takes that encourage us to “take control” of certain things in our lives that we just can’t control in the real world. 

In the real world, we’re never going to be able to 100% control the people we have to interact with or are exposed to. 

In the real world, we’re never going to be able to control certain things about our stress level or our personal or professional responsibilities. 

In the real world, we will ABSOLUTELY come up against systemic obstacles and prejudices that can drastically limit how accessible or realistic certain recovery resources are to us. 

We can’t meditate or stress-manage those real world things away. 

So we need to design a recovery that is, as much as possible, realistically under OUR control— one that doesn’t hinge on us being able to access things that we just can’t reliably access. 

To me, what that means is that the main work of recovery happens in our head and in our heart. 

We have very limited control over certain aspects of our external environment— but we have a lot MORE control over our INTERNAL environment. 

That does not mean we have PERFECT control over what happens in our head and heart. 

Often times we are starting out with habits and beliefs that are energetically working AGAINST our recovery. 

Often times trauma survivors in particular struggle with intrusive thoughts and memories that can, at times, absolutely DOMINATE our internal environment. 

Often times addicts struggle with cravings that can positively OVERRUN anything we’re intentionally trying to think, feel, or focus on. 

What I’m trying to say is that NO aspect of recovery, internal or external, is easy. 

But if we are truly invested in our success in either trauma or addiction recovery, it matters whether we start with and focus on our internal or external world. 

I say life is too short to wish and hope that things reliably change for us externally. 

But in my experience focusing on the external world to bolster our recovery is a mistake. 

I can’t control what other people say or do. I can’t control the weather. 

i can’t perfectly “control” what I think, feel, or focus on either— but I have a LOT more INFLUENCE over what happens INSIDE my head and heart than I often have over what goes on out there in the world. 

So that’s where I choose to focus. 

My recovery— our recovery— has to work for us EVEN IF things to to hell in a hand basket “out there.”

Because— spoiler— things absolutely WILL, sometimes. 

Trying to force “connection” and “trust” can derail recovery.

In trauma and addiction recovery, you’re going to hear a LOT about how important connection and trust are. 

Chances are you’re going to have people telling you that trauma is a disorder of connection— and that healing from trauma is all about RECONNECTING.

If you’re in addiction recovery you’ll likely hear over and over again that the key to avoiding relapse is to connect with a group of people also in recovery— that isolation puts you in particular danger of relapse. 

It’s true that connection can play a powerful role in recovery— for some people, at some times. 

It’s also true that connection, in and of itself, isn’t an overarching solution to…well, anything. 

There are people who very strongly believe that the key to healing any emotional or behavioral pain is connecting through the therapy relationship— and it’s true that therapy that is based in a trusting, safe relationship can be powerful. 

Similarly, it’s true that connecting with other people in a group, either a therapy group, a support group, or a Twelve Step fellowship— can make the difference for some people in avoiding old people, places, and situations that might otherwise contribute to relapse. 

I’m not anti-connection. I’m a therapist, for crying out loud. I believe in the power of certain kinds of connection, and certain points in our recovery. 

But I’m also mindful that people who are recovering from complex trauma in particular tend to have really complicated histories when it comes to connection. 

I don’t think it’s fair— or therapeutically sound— to tell those people that they “have” to connect in order to make progress on their recovery, especially in the early stages. 

Some people don’t know how terrifying connection can be for a survivor of interpersonal violence. 

Some people don’t know what a tall order “trust” is for a survivor of childhood abuse. 

Some people don’t know what they’re asking when they ask a survivor of bullying or group violence to place their faith in a group of strangers. 

I just don’t think some people realize that when they tell a trauma survivor or recovering addict that they “have” to “trust” and “connect” in order to heal, that they’re essentially telling them that if they CAN’T trust or connect right now…they’re kind of screwed. 

That’s what the survivor or addict often hears, at any rate. 

There are LOTS of survivors who figure they would rather endure what they’re enduring than take the risk of trusting and connecting— especially to strangers. 

I think therapists in particular underestimate how difficult it can be for survivors in recovery to trust us, especially in the beginning. 

Therapists by definition come with power and privilege. Survivors of complex trauma have been hurt people in their lives who had relative power and privilege…and who were “supposed” to look out for and take care of them. 

I think we need to be super clear with people in trauma and addiction recovery that there are multiple ways to do this. 

Not every version of trauma or addiction recovery depends on you being social and heavily interactive. 

Trauma and addiction recovery can be tailored to fit how you work and where you are when it comes to your ability and willingness to connect and trust. 

It is my experience that, the further along people get in recovery, their willingness to connect and trust tends to increase— but they only GET to that place if we extend them understanding in those beginning stages, where they truly CAN’T connect and trust. 

Survivors need to know that we’re not going to try to make them connect and trust before they’re ready— and they need to know it’s okay to NOT be ready, especially given when they’ve been through. 

Recovery takes the time it takes. Connection takes the time it takes. Trust takes the time it takes. 

Insisting that survivors be open to “connection” and “trust” before they’re ready can turn people off of recovery altogether. And there are already ENOUGH things that discourage people from working their recovery as it is. 

But what if you DO matter?

Yeah. It’s hard to believe we matter, when we don’t, or didn’t, seem to matter to the people who should care about our existence. 

Lots of us use that experience— of whether we seemed matter to those people— as our baseline for determining whether we do, in fact, matter. 

Very often I’ll tell someone they matter— and they’ll disagree. 

How is it possible that I matter, when I didn’t matter to my parents? 

How is it possible that I matter, when I apparently didn’t matter enough for that relationship partner to fight for me? 

How is it possible that I matter, when I withdraw, and nobody seems to notice or care? 

When we’re convinced we don’t matter, we filter everything through that belief— and we’ll find TONS of “evidence” that we just don’t matter. 

Sometimes our brain will then pile on, and tell us we don’t matter because we don’t “contribute” anything of value to anyone. 

We get convinced that in order to have “value” as a human, we need to contribute value to other people in very specific, measurable ways…and if we don’t, we “must” be worthless. 

After years— decades, sometimes— of all of this, we wind up in a place where we are convinced we are worthless and we don’t matter. 

And if we’re convinced we’re worthless and that we don’t matter, we simply don’t see the point of trying to improve our lives or NOT go down self-destructive behavioral paths. 

Trauma and addiction recovery ask us to take a radically different approach to the question of whether and how we matter. 

It asks us to start out from the premise that we DO matter— whether or not we SEEMED to matter to those to whom we should supposedly matter the most. 

It asks us to start out from the premise that we DO have value— even if we’ve been in positions in our life where we didn’t SEEM to contribute much, if anything, to other peoples’ lives. 

Mind you: YOU don’t have to accept those premises, if you don’t want to. All I know is that I strongly do accept those premises. 

I think you matter, and I think you have value— whether or not anybody has seen it or expressed it. 

I think sh*t happens in life that prevents us from contributing to the world at times. It’s hard to contribute to the world when you’re busy just trying to survive. 

I think people DO have value— even if the people in their lives, such as their parents or caretakers, don’t see it or don’t express it. 

I don’t think our value or worth decreases if the people around us can’t or don’t see our value. 

I don’t think our value or worth decreases if we happen to be in a position at the moment where all we can do is keep our head above water. 

I don’t think our value or worth decreases even if we have painful things happen to us.

I don’t think our value or worth decreases if we go through periods where we make decisions we later come to regret. 

At the risk of sounding controversial, I think we’re all human, and sh*t happens. 

If we’re going to realistically recover from addiction or trauma, we have to start out by “acting as if” we DO matter. 

As if we DO deserve better. 

As if we DO deserve the benefit of the doubt. 

As if we DO deserve support and dignity. 

I know— that flies in the face of a LOT of our old conditioning. 

“I don’t matter” and “I am worthless” are beliefs that die hard— especially if we’ve been accumulating “evidence” for those beliefs for decades. 

But beliefs change. 

Beliefs change every day. 

Even strongly held beliefs. Even beliefs that have been held for a long time. 

It all starts with openness to the possibilities. 

Opening the door a teeny, tiny bit to “maybe I do matter.” 

“Maybe I do have worth.” 

“Maybe ‘they’ shouldn’t be the standard by which I judge myself.” 

Just crack that door. 

It all stars here. 

If recovery’s gonna work, it has to work when we’re at our lowest.

I feel that if trauma or addiction recovery’s gonna work, it can’t just work if we have access to resources. 

It can’t just work on days we feel like doing the sh*t. 

It can’t just work if we have the luxuries of time or safety. 

If recovery’s gonna work, if it’s gonna stick, it has to work and stick under the worst of circumstances. 

The truth is, having access to resources and safety makes recovery 1000% easier. Of course it does. Access to resources and safety makes EVERYTHING 1000% easier. 

But not everybody has access to resources and safety. 

Not everybody can pay for specialty therapy or inpatient work. 

Not everybody can take time off of work to do specialty therapy or inpatient work. 

Not everybody has the luxury of life or employment situations where they can always call a sponsor when they’re in danger of relapse or self-harm. 

There are a LOT of people who have to piece together their recovery plan as they go— WITHOUT access to the resources and privilege that would otherwise make recovery easier. 

Recovery is very much a DIY project. It has to be. 

I hope we can someday create a world where more people have realistic access to certain resources. 

But we can’t wait for that world to materialize. 

If trauma or addiction is ruining your life now, your recovery has to begin now. 

The people and pets we love, who count on us and need us— and they need us actively dealing with our trauma or addictions. 

There are lots of things that impact our ability to recover from trauma or addictions. 

Money. Health. Ability and disability. Age. Social and power dynamics. Events happening in the culture and the world. 

I wish I could tell you this was a perfect world where everybody has the same opportunities for trauma or addiction recovery— but of course it’s not. 

What I don’t want is anybody giving up because of that fact. 

You will meet PLENTY of people who are VERY invested in telling you ALL the reasons why you cannot recover from trauma or addiction. 

They are entitled to their viewpoint. 

But I don’t want you— you, there, reading this— to give up because you’re facing what looks like an insurmountable climb. 

I know. This shit is NOT easy, and there are DOZENS of factors that make it infinitely harder. 

But you are worth it. 

What happened to you is not your fault. 

You did not choose the environment you grew up in and you did not choose your genetic predispositions. 

You and I were dealt the cards we were dealt. We didn’t choose ‘em. Hell, we didn’t choose to sit down at the table. We came online holding the hand we were dealt with the game already underway.

But I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think there were realistic ways that you and I could take baby steps toward a better life— a life that is not dominated by trauma or addiction, and not determined by our past or our genes. 

Our recovery may not be perfect. In fact I guarantee it will not be perfect. 

We don’t have the resources we don’t have, and all we can do is what we can do. 

But god dammit— we can do that. 

One day at a time. 

About survivor’s guilt.

Lots of people reading this know what “survivor’s guilt” is all about: having feelings about having survived or made it out of a painful or dangerous situation…while others may not have made it out. 

We see survivor’s guilt talked about a lot in the context of military trauma— the emotional dilemma of soldiers who came back from conflict, but whose fellow soldiers did not. 

Survivor’s guilt can be awful. It can lead us to question our very worth. 

Many survivors have a voice in their head telling them, “it should have been me.” Many survivors are left questioning what value they contribute to the world, having survived what they went through out of “dumb luck.” 

There’s a particular kind of survivor’s guilt that is specific to victims of violence, especially sexual assault: the knowledge and/or worry that the person who perpetrated their assault is still out there. 

It is an enormously unfortunate reality that many perpetrators of assault, especially sexual assault, aren’t apprehended; or even if they are, they’re often not convicted. 

This results in a situation where a survivors is left trying to recover— but they are saddled with the reality that their perpetrator is out there. 

It’s often observed that it’s really hard to recover from trauma if someone isn’t in a fundamentally save environment now. Recovery can be almost impossible if a trauma is still happening. 

For survivors whose perpetrators got away, who might be still out there, the safety of “at least it’s over now” may not be wholly achievable. 

After all, we don’t know what we don’t know. And we often DON’T know where our perpetrator is, what they’re doing— or what their intentions are. 

A related fear among survivors is whether their perpetrator is out there victimizing other people, like they victimized us…and feeling utterly helpless to do anything about it. 

There isn’t any easy fix for this anxiety. 

I often write about the fact that telling a survivor “you’re safe now,” as so many trauma treatment resources recommend, may not always be the best thing— because the truth is, the world out there IS unpredictable and uncontrollable in many ways. 

I’m actually NOT a fan of deactivating all of our danger-sensing instincts and habits. 

It may be true that, right here, right now, you’re not vulnerable in the same way you were vulnerable back there, back then— but the reality is, all of us need a certain amount of vigilance in order to be realistically as safe as possible. 

Yes. We need to be as realistically conscious and careful as is practical, when we know there is a perpetrator out there who has hurt us before. That’s reality. 

By that same token— our lives can’t be held hostage to either the possibility that our perpetrator will hurt us again, or to the reality that our perpetrator might target someone else for victimization. 

I absolutely hate it, but that falls into the “things we cannot control” category. 

This whole thing is one of the reasons why so many victims of trauma and violence, as part of their recovery, get involved in anti-violence advocacy and peer support: because they are aware of some dark realities. 

All we can do is what we can do. 

We can speak up and speak out about the fact that bad things DO happen, and bad people ARE out there. 

We can design our lives in such a way that we’re living as safely as practical— while acknowledging that no adjustment we make to our lifestyle will EVER guarantee 100% safety. 

We can use our trauma recovery tools, skills, and philosophies to stay grounded, realistic, and stable as we rebuild our life. 

In the end, survivor’s guilt must be met with acceptance and compassion— radical acceptance and radical compassion. 

And yes, you deserve both. Because you’re here. You’re alive. You’re reading these words. 

Fight, flee, freeze, fawn, flop.

Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, you know, I think I’m going to jump into the stratosphere at every moderately loud sound. 

Nobody starts the day thinking, you know what, I think every single relationship in which I start to feel vulnerable, I’m going to scramble to get the hell out of there while simultaneously pushing them away with all my might. 

Nobody makes the conscious decision to fall all over themselves trying to appease, entertain, or otherwise gain the approval of someone they just met— or someone they know isn’t good for them. 

Trauma responses aren’t choices. 

Fight, fight, freeze, fawn, flop— all those describe nervous system responses that are triggered by…well, by a lot of things, potentially. 

It’s a misunderstanding about trauma that triggers are only related to the trauma. 

The truth is, trauma tends to sensitize our ENTIRE nervous system— so LOTS of things that might not seem to have ANYTHING to do with our trauma might become triggers. 

When we’re triggered, we run a pattern. 

It’s as automatic as pushing a button on a machine. The machine doesn’t “decide” whether to run the function that is connected to that button; it just runs it. 

Yet, lots of us feel guilty about and frustrated by our trauma responses. 

We’re aware that our trauma responses often get in the way of living— and, especially, relating. 

We’re taught by our culture that the key to changing a pattern of behavior is willpower. 

We’re taught that people of good character can essentially “make” themselves stop doing something if they try hard enough— and “good people” try “hard enough.” 

Trauma responses aren’t normal behaviors, though. 

Just like we didn’t ask the trauma to happen to us, we don’t ask trauma reactions to kick in. They just do. 

Feeling guilty about trauma reactions kicking in when a trigger is tripped is like feeling guilty we gasp when we’re surprised or shiver when we’re cold. 

The same is true fo seemingly more complex behavioral patterns that have their roots in trauma reactions. 

We don’t WANT to be suspicious of new relationships— or, on the other hand, to go diving in head first. 

We don’t WANT to procrastinate because we’re anxious about our ability to do the thing— or because we’re anxious about the consequences of not doing the thing perfectly. 

We don’t WANT to explode in anger at people or situations that we “should” be able to handle. 

When a behavioral pattern has its roots in a trauma response— fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flop— that means at least a certain amount of it is on autopilot. 

If we want to change those behaviors, we need to first give up the idea that we’re “choosing” them. 

That doesn’t mean we abdicate responsibility for them. Very much to the contrary. 

Getting real about behaviors that are rooted in trauma responses is the first, necessary step to taking REALISTIC responsibility for them. 

We can’t change a behavior if we don’t understand its purpose. 

We don’t do things just for the hell of them. 

If we really want to manage those behavior patterns that confuse and frustrate us, we first have relate to it just like we’d relate to the underlying trauma response: with compassion. 

We have to approach it from the perspective that it is a somehow adaptive response— at least as far as our nervous system is concerned— to something that happened to us once upon a time. 

Our nervous system isn’t trying to ruin our life. It’s trying to save it. 

I know. It’s hard to relate to a behavior that’s frustrating us with compassion. 

We get better at being patient with ourselves— with being on our own side, giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt— as recovery goes on. 

Stick with it. Day by day. 

I believe you.

When you’ve been abused at an early age, it’s pretty normal to be confused or hazy about what you remember. 

And it’s normal for kids’ stories to change based on who is doing the interviewing and how they’re doing it. 

Mine did. 

A few years had elapsed between the period of time when I was sexually abused, and when I told anybody about it. 

I feel like I remembered what had happened and for how long— but I’m aware that I was in elementary school. Time can be hard to gauge when you’re that young, and memory can do odd things around abuse memories. 

In any event, I know what I thought had happened— and I was asked to give an account of it to at least two professionals. 

One was a male counselor who I barely remember at all. I might have seen him twice. I remember kind of being unsure what I was supposed to talk about— and being very anxious. 

I know I didn’t tell him the full extent of what had happened— even though I did remember it. 

I couldn’t tell you exactly why I didn’t tell him everything. At least part of it had to do with the fact that I felt I had actively colluded with my abuser, and aspects of the abuse had felt physically pleasurable— so I think part of it was about not wanting to be in trouble. 

But the point is, anyone looking at my case would have one version of the story, based on the purposefully incomplete version I’d told him. 

At some point after, I was being interviewed by another adult, who I assume was a type of social worker who specialized in child sexual abuse. 

Before she interviewed me, she gave me a spiel: I specifically remember her saying that she had “heard everything under the sun,” so I shouldn’t be embarrassed about whatever I had to tell her. 

It was at that exact moment that I decided I was DEFINITELY not telling her the entire story. 

I mean, if she’d heard “everything under the sun,” surely she’d heard MUCH worse stories than what I remembered happening to me. 

In that moment I felt foolish for even being there. I felt like I was what my peers, and probably my parents, thought I was: a lonely, dramatic, imaginative kid who was probably just seeking attention. 

Not only did I not tell that lady what had actually happened, I specifically remember making up certain small details in what I DID tell her. 

Afterward I was ashamed. I wished I’d never told anyone anything. 

Anyone looking at my case would notice the discrepancy between what I told the counselor and the social worker. 

I had reasons for telling different versions of the story to them. Yes, they were elementary school kid reasons, but I was aware even then that what I’d told the two professionals was inconsistent. 

As I write this, I’m a 46 year old man remembering the experience of a kid who was probably, what, ten? 

Yeah. It’s a little hazy. 

Here’s my point: even if your memories of what happened are rough; even if it happened when you were very young; and even if your story changed over the years— it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. 

It doesn’t mean you should be disbelieved. 

It doesn’t mean you should don’t “count” as an abuse survivor. 

It’s real easy to get up in our heads about what we do and don’t remember. Our culture often tries, hard, to convince us what happened to us wasn’t a big deal, especially if we’ve gone on to achieve things in later life. 

What you experienced counts. 

Even if it’s hazy. 

Even if your story changed. 

Even if others have tried to get into your head about how “easy” it supposedly is to “remember” things that didn’t happen. 

Don’t let it get in your head. 

There are those of us out here who believe you. 

I believe you.