I remember doing monster checks under the bed and in the closet when my kids were little. I’d get out the “Monster Spray” (AKA room freshener disguised with a ‘Monster Away Spray’ label) and we’d do an All Clear check; I would guarantee the monsters were gone. In total belief that the monsters were gone, they would exhale a huge sigh of relief, pick a book to read, turn on their night light, and say their thankful prayers.
As I think back on those days, I recognize that the only reason that I could guarantee that the monsters were “gone” is because the monsters were never actually there in the first place. Nothing else has been that simple because I can’t use my Super-Mom Powers to make the real challenges, heart-aches, losses, disappointments and meanness of this world dissipate into a rush of lavender mist as I once magically Monster Away Sprayed their fears. Both of my kids, now ages 23 and 20 have experienced traumas (life-threatening events) of their own since their childhoods, and making the events themselves or the impact of these events dissipate away isn’t possible – even for a woman who used to be known as “Super Mom.”
As a Clinical Psychologist who specializes in recovery from trauma, there are several common questions that every person I’ve ever worked with asks. One of the main ones is, “Can you make it (memories, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, anger, anxiety, for example) go away?”
To which I reply, “No because in order to do so, I’d have to remove the event itself. And, I’d have to remove every external trigger (people, places, things, circumstances) and every internal trigger (thoughts, emotions, memories, nightmares, the fight, flight, or freeze response, for example) go away too. And that is not possible. However, I can teach you about the things that maintain and exacerbate the cycle that puts this domino effect in motion, as well as train you to respond in a way that causes you to - eventually – believe and feel like you have your foot on it instead of it having its foot on you all the time.”
“So, you can’t fix it or me?” They ask.
“No. I can’t fix it,” I reply, “because it’s not that simple. And, I don’t view you as broken in the first place …………………………….And, it’s not that simple.”
“So, I’ll always be like this? There’s no cure?” They ask. Some ask in an angry tone; others ask in a sad tone. And still, some ask in a whispering numbness that settled into the fibers of their flesh, bone, and heart long before they find themselves sitting before me.
“You experienced a life-threatening event,” I reply. “And the Survival Response within your mind and your body is in High Gear Mode, which is not a sickness or a disease that can be cured; it’s the Survival Response (Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response). You can learn how to slow it down, but it’s not possible to turn it totally off – and, we don’t want to do that – you might need it again one day,” I explain.
Some sit in disbelief that it won’t ever fully go away. Some feel a tad bit of relief when they find out that they don’t have an incurable disease. And many feel a mix of both and many more emotions in response to the news they receive. Many are down-right ticked off because they interpret my explanation of what they are going through as “having something wrong with them”, which is never what I’m saying. Now, they do have a Survival Response and it is working in High Gear (because of what they have been through), but they don’t “have” something that we have to figure out how to “get rid of it” because it’s never that simple.
The complexities of life are never simple, and the confounding variables of life and death intersecting in the center of a broken or shattered heart that subsequently feels like a volcano of heartburn the size of an elephant in one’s throat and chest is absolutely EVERYTHING BUT simple.
I do want them to know that they are not alone. And, while I do wish it could all be taken away, I realize that the only time I ever guaranteed such a thing was when I promised my kids that the monsters that they imagined were there were gone (and I could only promise such a thing because they were never really there in the first place).
So, in close, I, nor anyone else can make it go away, but there is a way out of the depths of the darkness one step, one thought, one moment at a time – and that I CAN guarantee. As I think back on countless days and years of recovery, I recognize that the only reason that I can guarantee that all light and hope is not “gone” is because it did and does exist… in the first place.
There is a way,