Trauma Is Patient And Doesn’t Forget

My experience of trauma, whether from my time in a “therapeutic community” or from other situations, is that it’s patient, has a long memory and there’s no way to outrun it. Oh sure, I tried to do just that in so many different ways throughout the years. You just can’t. Not really.

When I was excommunicated from Phoenix House, the only thing that kept me from self-destructing quickly thereafter was the fact that was I was pregnant and somehow felt that I was no longer making choices simply for myself. I did become incredibly depressed and had a hard time getting out of bed or functioning in other basic ways on many days throughout the pregnancy. I also began to compartmentalize in a familiar and automatic way and just refused to speak of any of it with anyone, including my mother, roommate, any “peers” who were still willing to risk their own skin to continue speaking to me (these were very few), my sponsor or others in my 12-Step recovery programs…I couldn’t even think about it specifically at all. I believe today that this was my psyche’s way of protecting me from extreme trauma as it had been called upon to do many times in my relatively short nineteen years. The way that it just *knew* what to do makes all the sense in the world to me now. It was so automatic and for the most part, seamless, that I didn’t even realize that’s what was happening. I mistook the fact that I was able to continue on in many ways as if the 18 months I spent in Phoenix House, the six months that I had been in the “live out” phase under their control and the heartbreak of the excommunication as a sign that it just wasn’t that big a deal was part of a regular “growing up” process.

I continued to attend 12-Step meetings that I had previously attended WITH my Phoenix House (PH) peers with them literally having to behave as if they didn’t see me, unable to acknowledge me without fear for their own punishment. I sought out meetings in other areas of town and became very private, secretive and in many ways almost paranoid about information about my life and goings-on, making new friends or maintaining friendships I had already made outside of my PH peers, whether in the 12 step rooms, co-workers or anywhere else.

My mother and I still had an incredibly strained relationship, at least partially because of the fact that I allowed PH to dictate that even above and beyond not being able to continue living with her once it was discovered she had picked up drinking alcohol at times just after I left PH, I also couldn’t have any contact with her because she drank alcohol. Of course, it’s bad enough when your recovery support system built with the people you’ve been taught to rely on above all is yanked out from underneath you, but to also be without family support (especially your mom) while you’re pregnant, alone and 19-years-old is devastating.

I compartmentalized and isolated as much as possible in order to survive. I see that so clearly now. I was suddenly a single mother with immense trauma just trying to get by. I worked, went back to school, did my best to manage it all, but because my unwillingness to trust anyone, to let anyone in, I no longer felt safe to share or eventually take part at all in recovery group activities, 12-Step or otherwise. Due to my history of betrayal that I mentioned in a previous blog post of learning at PH that you also can’t trust clinical professionals, I also refused to enter into therapy of any kind at any point during those years and although my general physician recognized major postpartum depression not long after the birth of my first child in summer 1995, I was barely compliant with medication regimens. The postpartum depression only exacerbated my past anxiety and trauma, and vice-versa. I eventually cut back on my attendance at 12-step meetings anywhere in the county where I lived for fear that they “knew” or had heard about me and the way that I was being discredited and my character assassinated (some real, some imagined) and eventually stopped going altogether. At this point, I had been abstinent from all drugs and alcohol for approximately five years.

Within another six months, I had convinced myself that I could probably use alcohol responsibly since I hadn’t really had much of a previous alcohol issue and had only spiraled on “hard drugs”. I also *really* needed the outlet in the absence of having anyone I trusted enough to maintain friendship, feeling/being very isolated and having all of this unrecognized trauma that had nowhere to go. I was 21 by then and could buy alcohol legally. I felt like I “deserved” to be able to check out with this perfectly legal outlet and no other option seemed viable to me at that time. I was able to drink moderately for the first couple of occasions, but soon after discovered that though I could go lengths of time without drinking then and over the next MANY years, I couldn’t stop once I started until I had some “good reason”, which usually was having made a fool of myself and/or others or ruined a perfectly good event including my own wedding night when I did drink.

I very much believe that the majority of the population can use alcohol responsibly and moderately. I’ve learned over my lifetime that I am not one of the people in that majority. I was for all intents and purposes, over the next 15 years, a binge drinker. It didn’t matter how often or much or little or seldom I drank, but what happened when I did. And that was regrettable chaos.

Oh, and speaking of my wedding night, I did meet a nice, non-alcoholic, non-addicted, non-abusive and non threatening man at work after I finished school and had a really good job and he loved me and my child almost instantly. He had no idea of my dark past except what I believed I had to tell him so that he wasn’t surprised if any of it came up, but there was no way to really explain Phoenix House or my experiences addiction to someone who someone who had no basis for understanding, so I told who I felt I *had* to say *something* to, but I would still minimize WHY and HOW I ended up in PH to begin with (since I blamed myself still) and say almost nothing about anything that took place there or the depths of what happened afterward. We married when my son was four years old and I was 23 years old. Within a couple of years from the time we got married, we had a child together. Less than two years later I had talked him into moving from California to North Carolina, which we did. There were many rational arguments for doing so, but what I couldn’t see at the time was that I was intending to *truly* leave any trace of my “old life” behind me. I couldn’t take any of the local reminders of my pre-Phoenix House days, my experiences within the program or the dark few years that followed excommunication, I didn’t want to run into old friends or previous staff members and since I had ceased making meaningful friendships many years prior, this was a pretty simple process.

I dove into being “SUPER MOM” in every way I could to prove I was worthy of the role and to ease my mind that I was protecting my children, that they would never feel hurt or sad or unhappy or any other negative feeling. Of course, this is impossible, but you couldn’t convince me that I didn’t have all of the power to make sure of this. As you may have experienced in some way shape or form, it’s exhausting to constantly try to do the impossible which, in my case, was outrun, outsmart and simply forget the trauma and pain of my childhood, teen and young adult years. I found that the harder I fought to keep my “before” and “after” lives separate, the more I needed to drink to escape when I wasn’t running myself into the ground just to stay busy and hyper-focused enough on my kids, career or philanthropic efforts.

My eldest child began to exhibit depression and anxiety symptoms in middle school and by the time I booked an appointment for us to go to therapy, together at first, I had held out as long as I could and didn’t realize at the time that this was because I had such aversion to seeking outside help and was terrified that my child would be abused, betrayed or otherwise damaged by the mental health system because of my own experiences. I rarely shared my full treatment/therapy background with his therapist or the therapists that I eventually sought out, convincing myself it was irrelevant to my adult issues or those of my children. It didn’t occur to me that having such emotional and mental compartmentalization would have, of course, reverberated throughout my life and my family in ways that weren’t always obvious.

By the time my eldest child was in high school, he was having some pretty severe episodes of anxiety, mania and depression, sometimes expressing suicidal thoughts, but without active ideation…until that changed. When he was 19, I remember him telling me that he was suicidal with ideation and a plan. Although I was TERRIFIED that helping him get inpatient help would mean that he would, of course, be abused in the ways that I was, my instinct to protect my child from himself and for him to be okay was greater. Even with extreme fear, guilt and worry on my part, we agreed that he would be admitted to a very short-term mental health facility in an attempt to save his life first and foremost, but also to get him stabilized. I can tell you that having to leave my adult son at the hospital and drive an hour home to rest and care for my younger son knowing that I had no control or power over his treatment while in their care was like that description you often hear of feeling like you’re wearing your heart outside your body. I visited daily during the five days he was a patient and observing and waiting for the very short visiting hours was excruciating, but was actually healthy for him, as he was stabilized on medications and therapy by the time he left the hospital. I couldn’t believe it was possible to *truly* have something positive come out of it.

I had attempted to outrun and outsmart my own past and its various traumas, but the thing about trauma is if we don’t know it’s there, can’t/won’t acknowledge it OR if we think it won’t bleed over into every part of our lives and all over the people we care about, it’s waiting. This was the first time I saw this so clearly, that I almost denied my own child who I would do literally anything else for based on my own unresolved trauma. This wouldn’t be the first…or last time…just the first time I could see it clearly. The first of many.


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