Trauma has been defined as an interruption of an affiliative or relationship bond. If left unsettled, past grief and psychological trauma can continue to impact our adult relationships and cause us pain in our entire lives. It's possible we may not even realize what is happening to us because usually relationships fail in parts rather than in total. Early childhood losses or traumas can create pain that is relived in adult intimate relationships. Intimacy can provide both an arena for re-enacting old pain and/or healing it.
In this fascinating work, noted psychodramatist Tian Dayton shows readers how relationships can be used as a vehicle for healing, personal growth and spiritual transformation. Through fascinating case studies and probing exercises, Dayton helps readers get in touch with the deepest parts of themselves and heal the wounds that plague them.
LOSS AND TRAUMA
The tragedy is not that a man dies,
the tragedy of life is what dies
inside a man while he lives.
The Wound That Can't Be Seen:
Healing the Wounded Heart
Any creature that bonds grieves when it experiences separationwhether it be an elephant kicked out of the herd, a duck that has lost its mate or a mother who sends her child off to college. As humans, we are biologically designed to form kinship bonds through which we learn the lessons of love, caring and intimacy. When those bonds are broken, a piece of us breaks or is traumatized by that loss. Then we go through life hungry for what is missing. When we avoid the experience of grief, we lock ourselves up in the loss; we carry around an unhealed wound.
Humans are physical beings, existing in time and space. Scientists tell us today that our emotional bodies are just as physical as our corporeal bodiesonly harder to see and measure. Healing is biologically driven: We cut ourselves, we clean and suture the wound. Then we rely on nature to complete our healing process. We cannot reknit our flesh, but nature can. So it is with emotional wounds. Wounds to the heart need to be cleaned in order to naturally heal. A wound to the psycho-spiritual body can be just as crippling to the whole person as a wound to the physical body.
Life is full of losses. Passing wholly through the stages of mourningwhether it be for a loved one, a job, a divorce, a child who has left home or a stage of lifenot only strengthens the ego and the inner self, but increases our trust in life's ability to repair and renew itself. It deepens our inner relationship with the self.
Grieving serves a number of important functions. It releases the pain surrounding an event or situation so that it will not be held within the emotional and physical self. Grieving allows the wound to heal. If we do not grieve, we build walls around the ungrieved wound in order to protect it, even though these very walls can keep healing experiences out as well.
I have asked myself a thousand times what is the difference between a person who can live a healthy balanced life and one who cannot seem to get life together in a productive manner. We all face problems. But some people move through them and some remain stuck. I have observed that clients who succeed in therapy exhibit or acquire certain qualities:
They are able to self-reflectthat is, they look at their own thinking, feeling and behavior and have enough emotional distance from their self-identification so that they see themselves realistically.
They take their own good advice and live by it rather than spending valuable time and energy digging trenches, then sitting in and defending them.
They identify what they are feeling and articulate it to themselves and others, which gives them the ability to face the pain of loss.
They identify their issues and live with a realistic rather than an idealized view of themselves, and when life hurts they are able to own their issues and work with them.
They cope with loss by calling it by its correct name, and move through the emotional turmoil of a grieving process.
They separate the past from the present, which allows them to live in today without sabotaging it with unresolved, unfinished business from the past.
They find meaning and purpose in their struggle, which is how spiritual transformation and growth take place.
They use life struggles not only to get through but to grow, thus deepening and strengthening their relationship with life and self and others.
I find it very exciting and hopeful to see this process at work. Over and over again I have seen lives that were in shambles turn around and become happy and productive. I have witnessed people who were caught in chronic despair awaken to their own pain, process it and get better. These are not overnight miracles. They are not the result of thinking the right thought, going to the cutting-edge seminar or seeing the perfect therapist. They are the result of surrendering to the grief process, having the courage and willingness to walk through it and the commitment to stay with it for as long as it takes. Healing is a series of quiet awakenings, born of the willingness to struggle to have a true and honest encounter with the self.
We have, in attempting to explain the complexities of the human mind and our relationship with self, created the field of psychology. But in our quest to contain and describe pathology, we have forgotten the philosophical roots of the field. The philosophers of ancient times took on no less of a goal than to better understand the whole of the human spirit, body, mind and soul. The ancient Greeks and yogis did not research representative control groups, but spent their lives in lifelong contemplation and observation, first of self and then of others. They looked at humans and attempted to order the functions of both mind and spirit. When psychology ignores the spirit, it goes its way without a conscience, without that very energy that first gave it life. Without a spiritual philosophy, life is reduced to only what we see. Scientific observation has expanded too much for life to be reduced to this narrow and superficial vision.
The field of psychology expanded very quickly after World War II in order to address the traumas of war, and perhaps this partially explains why its focus has remained so pathologically oriented. Perhaps this happened because psychology made its alliance with the Newtonian model of science, and broke off from philosophy and art. But the human spirit has always sought to express itself at the deepest level through art, writing, music and ritual. These are the voices of the soul, the vehicles through which inner turmoil and grief are worked through and brought from silence into song, through shadow into light. Throughout time we have expressed our humanness through the vehicles of body, mind, heart and soul. Possibly a society less inhibited in this personal expression would have less need for violence and less buried hurt flowing into the underground river of emotional isolation and psychological illness.
We can suffer loss in many ways. A person can be lost not only to death but to divorce, addiction, separation or alienation. The stages of mourning and bereavement following the death of a loved one are similar to what I observe people go through in the process of therapy, whether or not they have lost a loved one to death. Often the people I see in the field of addictions have lost a loved one to addiction, divorce or mental illness. In the case of children of divorce, the children lose the warmth and reliability of both parents in the home. They often feel left behind and deeply confused. "If Daddy can't get along with Mommy, then how can I? Should I move away too? What happened to our family?" Similarly, the children of alcoholics may still have the parent in the home, but they have lost access to their loved one. Their loved one is there, but emotionally the experience of those children is that their mother or father is lost to them, a prisoner of their addiction and unavailable to the children who need them. Often children of parents with psychiatric disorders such as clinical depression or psychosis feel that they can neither emotionally or psychologically find their parents, nor can they rely on them to help them with their own developmental needs on a consistent basis. Children who are physically, emotionally or sexually abused may feel the loss of innocence or childhood.
Clients that I serve seem to need to go through a process of active grieving of early childhood losses in order to be able to move into adult roles. If they do not go through this, and if they remain locked in the pain associated with early loss, they unconsciously have such a strong yearning for the original lost object (person or experience) that they spend much of their time hoping, wishing and trying to make their present-day adult situations into relationships and careers that will give them what they lostwhich is, of course, not possible. Consequently, they move through cycles of excitement and disappointment, disillusionment and abandonment of their endeavor that closely mirror their earlier experience and serve to retraumatize them. Their access to adult roles is blocked because they are stuck in the unfinished business associated with their child roles. These are wounds that can go unattended in our need to "get on with life." Oftentimes, these ungrieved wounds lead to emotional problems and depression later in life.
Where do the grief and sadness and fear go when we, as a society, no longer honor the depth of loss and support someone through it? We seem to see feelings of grief as a sign of weakness rather than strength. In fact, true grieving both requires a strong ego and builds a strong ego because it asks us to stand beside our own pain and allow ourselves to have it. It asks us to be strong and compassionate and wise enough to hold our own woundedness in our hearts without abandoning ourselves at this very crucial moment. There is nothing weak about this. It is a sign of love and contact with what is real and alive in this world, and it requires the wisdom to give ourselves the right to be human.
The aforementioned are dramatic types of losses, but as we live our lives, we experience various ranges of loss on many levels. The loss of youth, the loss of our physical strength and prowess as we get older, the loss of hair, the loss of beauty, the loss of career, the empty nest syndromethe list goes on. How we learn to cope with loss greatly influences how deeply we allow ourselves to experience life, and how successfully we are able to modify old roles and adopt new ones.
Giving Voice to the Wound
There are two concepts of catharsis: the Aristotelian one of purging inner pain, and the one that arises out of Eastern religion that holds that "a saint, in order to become a savior, [has] first to save himself" (Moreno, 1946). In other words, he has to become self-actualized. "Catharsis" in Greek means to cleanse. Working with and through pain is one of the ways that cleansing occurs within a person. Whether the pain is self-imposed, as in the case of the aesthetic, or visited upon us by a life circumstance out of our control, it can burn away the attachments and preoccupations of the ego-centered self. Orthodox psychotherapy, too, sees self-purification as the first task of the therapist or priest before and while helping others: "Physician, heal thyself" (Luke: 4:23). According to Andrite Vlachos, a Greek Orthodox theologian, "The truly physician-like nous (mind, intellect) is the one that first heals itself and then heals others of the diseases of which it has been cured" (Orthodox Psychotherapy, 1994). We might say that one aspect of grief is totally self-centered while another is universal, illuminating our deepest and most intense attachments in life. Then, in a spiritual awakening, we surrender control and the belief that anything is everlasting except the soul, the seed of life itself.
Filling an Empty Hole
Hurt people search the world for just the right relationship that will make everything all right forever, that will fill the empty hole, provide missed nurturing and give them the life, love and security that got derailed because of trauma. They become fixated on finding it and so begin a lifelong search, but they search for the wrong thing and they search in the wrong places. Their black-and-white thinking causes them to see the solution to their problem as being a solution, a person, a job and so on. Each new relationship becomes a hope for being saved, for turning their life around. When the person disappoints or the job is less than wished for, they return to a position of helplessness, seeing themselves once again as having been cheated. Rather than look within themselves to find out what they are doing (or not doing) to contribute to the emptiness they feel, they look outside. "I've made another bad decision," "I only choose unavailable, messed-up people," "My boss is impossible" and so on. Their very hurt and irrational shame render them unable to turn the microscope back upon themselves to ask the hard questions that would lead to a resolution rather than a repetition.
When people or animals are traumatized, they rely on primitive survival strategies. Fight, flight and freeze are survival mechanisms. They allow us to get through a situation alive, but they do nothing to help us resolve or integrate. They flood the brain and body with chemicals that put the system on red alert and are designed to help us cope with danger or acute stress. When they are burdened through overuse, they can affect a person's ability to assess normal situations. Later in life, victims of trauma assess each situation as if it were a threat or a danger, and the intensity that these trauma survivors carry within themselves distorts their reaction to normal life circumstances, inhibiting their ability to have normal relationships. They see danger where it doesn't exist, offense where none was intended. They attach themselves anxiously to people, driving them away because of their neediness. The fact that they have not learned to modulate their interactions with people means that they tend to overreact, shut down or withdraw (fight, freeze and flight). So once again they fall back onto their black-and-white thinking, which in this case manifests as "I made the wrong choice again," "Things will be fine when I find the right personthis was the wrong one" and so on. Because of this kind of all-or-nothing thinking, they are unable to stand back, assess a relationship and make appropriate adjustments to make it work. To fit themselves into the relationship and the relationship into themselves; to compromise, adjust and work it out. Instead, their life comes to mirror their trauma reactionintense involvement or withdrawal, nothing in between.
Often, trauma survivors don't understand what compromise feels like; they experience it as a loss of self because they haven't learned how to stay connected with another person or situation while maintaining a sense of selfto modulate their inner world and, by extension, their outer world. They repeat rather than resolve, react rather than listen, and withdraw or fuse rather than engage. Or they may go on automatic pilot, remaining physically in the relationship while on the inside they have broken their connection with it. They interact with their intellect, doing what they think is called for, but they shut off the part of themselves that interprets on a feeling level, and their interaction is based not on what they feel and sense but on what they think. They lose their ability to pick up and interpret the subtle cues that would help them read the relationship dynamics and adjust themselves, or else they overreact to signals, reading into them more than is there. The all-or-nothing relational pattern is a direct result of shutting down the nonsurvival systems such as emotions.
Compounding this, trauma survivors frequently use liquor and drugs to medicate the pain and isolation that they experience, reaching for a chemical solution to their problems. This is why, when addicts get sober, they are often in emotional pain. After their "medication" is removed, they are once again confronted with the unresolved pain that drove them to drink in the first place. If we resolve traumas, we cry the tears and feel the fear and abandonment that we could not afford to feel at the time of immediate danger. If we don't resolve those traumas, we shut down our inner world and function in the outer world just as we did then, with the same defenses we used at the time of the original hurt.
This pattern explains in part why trauma survivors so often re-create high-stress relationships: They are drawn to that level of external intensity, as it matches up with the intensity of their inner world. They are, in a sense, wired for intensity and have trouble living with nuance, which requires modulating their emotional responses and making subtle adjustments to adapt to the natural vicissitudes of a relationship. Trauma is an interruption of the attachment bond, and it alters our ability to attach in healthy, well-modulated ways, whether that relationship be with the self or another person. The ability to relate becomes impaired. The sad truth is that no person or situation can fully heal a survivor of cumulative trauma or piled-up hurts until such time as that person also engages in healing from within. The outside relationship can provide the person with a vehicle through which to heal, to relearn how to relate, but until the survivor is able to learn, meaningful change will probably not take place. Trauma survivors need relationships and groups in which to reawaken the self that went under for protection. They need to be vulnerable, to feel their feelings rather than shut them downbut until they are able to stop projecting their pain by blaming others for it, they will not be able to reflect upon themselves enough to heal, to take responsibility and ownership for what goes on inside of them, to get honest first with themselves and then with others. People who have accumulated negative effects from loss or trauma need to pass through active stages of grief and mourning in order to get on with their lives in healthy, rather than unhealthy, ways.
Divorce: The Hidden Wound
We are at a cultural crossroads that changes the way we apply our understanding of grief and trauma issues. Nowhere is this more evident than in the changing institution of marriage. In the life of a husband and wife, "till death us do part" was the norm until the 1950s. In this century alone we have added two-and-a-half decades to the average life span of each individual. In other words, "till death us do part" is 25 years longer than in previous centuries. This may be one of the reasons why we have seen the divorce rate skyrocket, approaching 50 percent of the married population. The prospect of spending two or three extra decades in one marriage has led to a reassessment of the commitment. While divorce itself has become commonplace, its pain and the sense of loss that it engenders are far-reaching and profound. Religious institutions have had rituals in place for centuries that deal very effectively with loss through death, but none that deal with the grief attendant upon loss through divorce, because divorce was not the same issue when life itself was shorter and families were a central economic and procreative institution.
Divorce is actually a more complicated loss than death when it comes to issues of mourning because it robs both spouses and children of their family continuity and dramatically reorganizes family relationships. When divorce is not openly mourned by spouses, children and all of the other extended family members that it affects, the grief goes underground. Where does it go? The answer to this is staring us right in the face, though it is often missed and mislabeled:
It gets played out in the crowded court system in the form of protracted legal battles that are vehicles for unresolved pain and anger.
It gets dramatized in painful and complicated custody battles that turn children into unsuspecting carriers of family grief.
It gets acted out by children through aberrant behavior and drops in performance at school.
It carries over into subsequent, often premature, relationships that become burdened with unresolved pain from previous relationships.
It leaks into the family system where it is mistaken for present pain. Natural dissention within the family is made more potent by unresolved past anger making normal family problems feel overwhelming.
It erupts on the streets and spills into the penal system through young people who have inadequate support systems to meet their developmental needs.
It leads to drug and alcohol addiction, the outcome of misguided attempts to numb the emotional pain that follows the trauma of loss.
Society still does not know what to do with divorce. And yet it is our collective inability to deal with the pain that allows it to spill over into virtually any or all areas of our individual lives and relationships.
We will work with these and other wounds caused by separation, loss and addiction as well as problems in dealing with other losses such as job loss, relocation and normal maturational life losses.
How I Got Here
Initially I was attracted to this subject, I thought, because I consistently saw clients with unresolved grief and trauma issues. After years of training on how to identify particular problems, interpret thoughts, feelings and behaviors, I eventually came to feel that each and every person I saw who carried unhealed wounds within, hungered to be nurtured and accepted. What these people really needed from me as a therapist, as much as clever interpretation or specific goals, was a place to come with their tears. The interpretation and goals were important, but they came later.
Next, grief and trauma theory provided a way outthrough a process called mourning. Most people traumatized by life losses or acute stress need to pass through an active process of mourning so they can heal.
Often it is just this process that is denied them, simply because so many acute stresses and losses come from living in dysfunctional families, and dysfunctional or highly stressed families tend to hide and deny their pain. Later in the process I began to understand what part of me was reaching toward this subject and what relevance it had to my life.
My relationship with my father was one that I would describe as deeply close, connected in a very profound way. In retrospect, I understand that our closeness was not always healthy, that I idealized my father in order to quiet my fears about the sides of him that scared me, and that our closeness isolated me from other members of my family. But at the time, I felt both blessed and indentured by his love and I never questioned beyond that. We were, he used to say, "cut from the same cloth." We understood each other's insides, we liked the same foods, we walked together, drank café-au-lait in the sun and discussed great subjects.
I never remember not being taken seriously by him when he was sober. The thoughts I expressed seemed always to be of interest. In his presence, I felt that the world was on my side. My father began to drink when I was a little girl. Liquor began to erode the father I knew by around my fourth-grade yearslowly at first, then more each week. By the time I was in the sixth grade, the father I had known was available only, say, 30 percent of the time. The other 70 percent, he was lost in a world that belonged more to alcohol than to me or the family or his community. Slowly, "the drink took the man." I watched my father die a little more each day, like seeing someone drown in a deep lake and not being able to bring the person out. It was as if our family dynamic was frozen in place at that point in time. The sheer pain of it all left us in stupefied silence, traumatized, eerily still, removed and out of sync with the world around us, like an untimely frost on October leaves. We were out of season. Life was losing its predictable order. Nothing workednot treatment, prayer, being good, being tough, being perfect, being outrageous. Nothing helped.
As the father we knew died, my family died too. Each day we were a little sadder, and each day we grew more and more adept at hiding that sadness. Because of our traumatized reactions, we could not share our sorrow and confusion, and relationships that had once been easy became tense. We took our pain out on each other because we didn't know how to process it as a family. Early on I withdrew into myself. Because what went on around me was confusing and the very people I had previously gone to for support were now less available, I numbed out emotionally, going through the motions of what used to be my life without much feeling attached. I didn't cry. Consequently, I got migraine headaches, stomach distress and heart pains, but none of them, I told myself, were all that bad.
One day at school, in my 11th-grade year, I felt a migraine coming on. I went to the school nurse to ask to be sent home. She asked me some questions about my life and I reluctantly explained my situation at home, to which she said, "You're going to hate me today, but some day you will thank me. You can't go home." Instead, she gave me water, aspirin, a bed and a blanket. I can still see that little room and feel the itchiness of the institutional blanket drawn across my legs. I remember staring at the ceiling. She told me that what was happening to my father and my family was truly sad, tragic even, and that it was normal to be sad about it. I hadn't heard that till that moment. I think many people had said it, but I hadn't heard it. I felt tears move down my cheeks, almost imperceptiblydisconnected little drops of water running along the sides of my face. Then I did something I hadn't done in a long timeI let myself cry. I lay there and cried all the tears I had bottled up for my lost life. What had happened to us? Where had we gone? I was embarrassed by the stifled little moans I heard coming from me, but the tears kept flowing. I could feel my stomach heave and rumble, but still they kept coming. The room seemed as if it were spinning through space. My head felt as though a truck were driving through it; I was disoriented and self-conscious but my body kept crying in spite of me. After I had cried for what seemed like hours, the nurse let me choose whether to go home or not. I chose to stay. I took a walk, had a cup of coffee, pulled myself together and walked back into my life. Somehow that crying, that acknowledgment of pain and loss, allowed me to reenter both my life and my self. I have never really left since.
What that school nurse taught me was that I had to grieve. I had to face my life to stay in it, and in order to do that I had to grieve what was no longer there. I began to write at that point in my life. When I felt sad, I used to go into the stationery store and mentally talk to the neatly stacked legal pads and blank paper lined up along the open shelves. They held my feelings for me; their very blankness drew thoughts and images from my mind and calmed my spirit. I now know that giving into the griefsitting in the woundallowed me to restore my life again. Once I could sit in my own life rather than deny it, I could assess it realistically. I got a job, I spent time with friends I genuinely enjoyed, I developed a couple outside interests, I started going to church and joined the choir. I was amazed at how much the world had to offer me if I let it, and that feeling has never really left me. The shell around my heart cracked and the world came in.
Today I understand that surrendering to a process of mourning, however awkward, allowed me to take in life again. That process has returned to me all that I lost and much more. My husband and I are celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary, and we have a son and daughter whom we adore and who love us. These relationships at times have felt almost magical in their capacity to bring beauty into my life. My husband and I work constantly on our marriage, getting the help we need to plow through old wounds that could drive us apart and using them instead as indicators of where our work lies. My siblings and mother and I have been able to share our hurt and reach for each other again in ways that feel safe and nurturing, to enjoy each other's company and accept each other's love and support. I am able today to appreciate what a wonderful family I came from and how much I was given by them. We were all just doing the best we could with what we had to work with at the time, and we have all come to realize that what we have is far more than what we lost. I feel so deeply grateful today for the family I came from and the family I married into.
This process works. It is time-honored, built into our biology. The natural healing system built into the human being is a way to release pain and stress. This, I am convinced, is what is underneath violence, epidemic depression and social alienation. It is unfelt, unprocessed pain that fuels pathology and acting out much of the time. Great religions have rituals tailored to meet just these human needs. In today's mobile society, with its longer life span and decreased extended family, we need to return to these rituals and revitalize our existing institutions. We need to develop new institutions to find ways of having support and community, and rites of passage in out lengthened stages of life. We need to expand our idea of grief and mourning, extending it from death and into life. Each life trauma or loss needs to be mourned and processed to whatever extent is appropriate in order to integrate it and move on.
When people with unresolved grief and pain from the past enter into intimate adult relationships, they bring their pain with them. The very intimacy, the feelings of dependency and need are part of any intimate relationship, triggers buried fears and hurts. Conflicts that would otherwise be resolved with a little work trigger unresolved conflicts from the past, and in a split second the past and present become an indistinguishable muddle of emotion. Soon the full force of the old pain gets acted out in the present, projected onto the screen of the relationshipnot the one that caused it but the one that triggered it.
¬1997 Tian Dayton. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Heartwounds by Tian Dayton, Ph.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
Tian Dayton, M.A., Ph.D., T.E.P. has a masters in educational psychology and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama. She is also a licensed Creative Arts Therapist and a certified Montessori teacher. Dr. Dayton is the director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute where she runs training groups in psychodrama, sociometry, and experiential group therapy. She created a model for treating trauma called Relationship Trauma Repair, which is currently in use at treatment centers across the United States. She was also on the faculty at NYU for eight years teaching psychodrama.
Dr. Dayton is a fellow of the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, winner of their Scholar's Award, editor in chief of the Journal of Psychodrama, Sociometry & Group Psychotherapy, and sits on the professional standards committee for ASGPP. She has been awarded the Mona Mansell Award and the Ackerman/Black Award for contributions to the field of addiction.
She has been a guest expert on NBC, CNN, MSNBC, The Montel Williams Show, The Ricki Lake Show, The John Walsh Show, and Geraldo. Dr. Dayton is the author of fifteen books including Emotional Sobriety, Trauma and Addiction, Heartwounds, The Living Stage, and Forgiving and Moving On. She has also written The Process, an award-winning docudrama that uses psychodrama to tell stories of addicts and ACOAs and Psychodrama and Trauma Resolution, a comprehensive psychodrama training tape illustrating the effect of unresolved trauma on the personality and its resolution through psychodrama and sociometry. For more information, please visit www.tiandayton.com.