If I knew the decision was right, why was I struggling?
This August, we put our home up for sale. The plan: a relocation of 2,000 km to southern Ontario. The reason: to be closer to a trauma treatment centre that specializes in developmental trauma. My husband, Derek is a survivor and we’ve struggled for a number of years to find the specialized treatment he needs for complex trauma.
We are fortunate. Derek was able to obtain partial funding to attend therapy on a short-term basis this summer. And I had gotten a taste of the therapy offered at this centre while attending a trauma-informed conference there last April.
Weeks before Derek left, he and I had begun to quietly discuss a move. Our family was mentally and emotionally exhausted by five-plus years of little change in Derek’s symptoms, which included dissociation. I was worried about everyone’s mental and physical health. After months–I mean years–of trying to make it work, I knew we were at the end.
My sense that the therapy offered in Ontario would be beneficial was quickly confirmed by Derek’s growing stability. His voice sounded clearer, his memory was improving, and he spoke with an excitement I had not heard in years. But we knew that a few weeks of therapy was not going to be long enough to recover. Encouraged by his progress, I decided to contact a realtor in early August. I thought, “I’ll just have a conversation about listing our home in September.” One week later, our home was on the market, my daughters and I were flying to visit Derek, and the move was fast becoming a real possibility.
On the surface, everything was proceeding at a very fast, but smooth pace.
It was during those few days of preparing to sell that I became aware of this nasty, heavy feeling. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it blanketed my emotions and my thoughts in what seemed to be a completely irrational way.
Intrusive thoughts pestered me. Thoughts like “Is it really that bad?” and “Surely we can find a therapist here,” and “Maybe we should keep trying.”
But it wasn’t the thoughts that were troublesome. I knew they weren’t really true. It was the emotions: heavy and weighted, a murky mix of fear, dread, guilt, and anxiety. Yet, none of those words really fit the feeling.
What I didn’t recognize in the rush of getting the house ready, nor in the subsequent weeks leading up to this decision, was the cumulative impact on me of others’ responses towards our situation. For over five years, I had been the ‘spokesperson’. When needed and when necessary, I explained Derek’s condition. I explained that Derek was not responding to therapy. I explained why I thought he wasn’t responding to therapy–once I had some trauma-informed training under my belt. I explained what kind of therapy could be helpful for him. I explained and I explained some more. And I didn’t just do this with friends and our children. I met with clinicians, disability insurance managers, doctors, and pastors.
You see, Derek’s symptoms impacted every area of our life and every relationship, which meant a lot of explaining.
And now, I was going to have to announce our move. More explanations.
Many of the responses to our story over the years were kind. Many listened, encouraged, and affirmed. Many said what I needed to hear.
But some didn’t. And that was hard because some of the responses came from individuals who I thought I could trust. And some came from people we were depending on for support, advice, and money.
And it was the impact, really the trauma, I felt from those responses that weighed me down.
Trauma literally means “wound, injury, or shock.” In psychological terms, “traumatic events” have traditionally been considered those that harm the psychological integrity of an individual. International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation
So there I was cleaning, organizing, calming my children, and trying to keep a level head—all the while feeling smothered by this thing–but not knowing what this thing was.
One morning, I awoke with a terrible urgency to get out from under it.
Turning on my computer, a blog post in my Facebook feed caught my attention. Called Cigarettes, Shame and Self-Compassion, this quote grabbed me:
The toxicity of shame on the body is so much worse than any other toxin we can put in. Shame eats away at us, pulls us down, makes us want to hide; hide secrets and put our public self and appearance before our truth. Shame makes us sick, physically and emotionally. We can only keep it bottled up for so long before it turns caustic and eats away at us from the inside. – Jane Clapp
I almost jumped out my chair. That was it! That was the feeling!
I felt shame because it had not worked here. I felt shame because for whatever reason the therapists we’ve connected with haven’t been a good fit for Derek. I felt shame because we were done with living in our current location.
I felt ashamed to say goodbye.
Logically, it made no sense. If anyone had tried to make it work, it was me. But shame isn’t logical. Shame comes from the part of the brain where trauma is stored.
Thankfully, once unmasked, shame left the room. Naming it brought immediate relief. I breathed deeply and my shoulders relaxed. I smiled in delight at my discovery of this enemy. I could receive the truth that my closest friends and supporters kept speaking to me.
You are brave.
You are strong.
This is a good decision for your family.
This move is right.
Saying goodbye is courageous.
Afterword: The spouses, the partners, and the families are deeply impacted by an adult survivor’s trauma symptoms and by the responses of those around them. Families play a crucial role in recovery for survivors, but at the same time, are at risk for their own trauma. If you suspect that you, as a partner/spouse or your children, are showing symptoms of trauma, please connect with a trauma-informed mental health professional. And if you know a family of a survivor, please take time to learn about developmental trauma and support them with kindness and compassion.