Revisiting the monsters in the cupboard
The counselling relationship
One of the important parts of recovering from a past trauma is the very important aspect of re-experiencing the trauma in a different way, in a safe way. Sometimes counselling can be a huge help in this process as it sort of acts as a place to go back there with a trusted person, the counsellor, and re-explore what has happened. Maybe this is a little like the child who runs into his parents bedroom, in the middle of the night, convinced he has seen a monster in the cupboard. The loving parents gently take him back to the cupboard, the place of the trauma, open the door, while they hold his hand and gently reassure him that it is not there now. The child, after this frightening moment of having to re-open the cupboard door, convinced that he will see the monster again, is comforted by his parents showing him that it’s not there now.
For individuals who have experienced past trauma, whether childhood or recent, the trauma was real, the event was very real and traumatic. However what often happens in the case of post traumatic stress is that moments of the trauma get re-lived again and again, as though they are really happening again right here, right now and these our commonly known as flashbacks. This is where the similarity of being shown the inside of the cupboard, by caring gentle parents, is similar to the more adult equivalent of counselling and that special trusted therapeutic relationship.
Comfort and safety
For many who seek help though this re-living the event is very challenging and often takes time, if possible at all within the timeframe therapy can offer. I often wonder how different parents deal with a little child who just can’t go back and look inside the cupboard again, they are just to upset and distraught. I have seen and heard many say the same. I just make sure he feels safe until the morning. Often that process is like a bit of trial and error, lights on, soft music, warm cozy blankets, cuddles, a teddy bear, they all help and often when the morning arrives it’s possible to look in the cupboard again, given that time. This so much reminds me of what counselling and the therapeutic relationship can offer in terms of supporting someone suffering from PTSD. It’s often to begin with a case of helping those suffering to find the things that sooth them, help them feel safe again, and this is not so easy when feeling the very frightening triggering feelings that come with PTSD. Finding this feeling of safety can not always be as simple as it normally is for others not experiencing trauma. A gentle exploration, reminder and affirmation of this, that this is something available to each person when they are so frightened, is a big and helpful step to feeling, importantly, just safe again.
The real difference and healing usually only happens when opening that cupboard door again and discovering it’s different now. The relief and the change that this discovery makes, for those suffering from PTSD, can be like shining a beam of sunlight on the rest of a previous stressful after going through this reliving. It’s not easy though and needs all the tools of safety and security to come with it, so that if the feelings of trauma become to much it’s possible to retreat back to a feeling place of safety. This can be like the slowly opening cupboard door and the fear of actually seeing the monster again, but with a nice strong parental hand to hold if needed, along with lots of teddies.
Obviously in counselling there are not literally any cupboard doors to open but there are some very helpful ways of exploring this. Some such tools might be storytelling, using a timeline or working with stones or sand. These tools can help someone look at the traumatic events at a safe distance but still connect to the feelings of the event, which are also important for recovery.
One such tool is working with stones as representatives of the people and situation that took place in the trauma. Here is an example of how stones can help, particularly if the trauma has been around an abusing traumatic event. A group of stones are placed on the table. Each person within trauma is represented by a chosen stone, this stone takes the place of the person. In the case of abuse there will need to be be at least both the victim and the perpetrator, picked from the stones. As the stones take their position, it can be profound how the previous trauma can come to life again, but this time held within a framework of stones. The stones are smaller and can be controlled. The survivor exploring his trauma in this way can play around with his role as the powerless victim and then choose to reframe it if he wants, so that he can see what it would be like if he had the power over his perpetrator.
This is just one of many things that can be explored using stones. What is more, this stonework, as with other creative therapeutic tools, has the power to tap deeply into the unconscious and create change at a very felt level. For many survivors of past abuse, habitual separation from their feelings, related to the trauma, can block a person from processing those important feelings which they need to access to move forward. This is why re-living the trauma, with all its feelings, is so important.
Monsters put to rest
With PTSD, a flashback forces someone to re-live the trauma again, probably with a purpose of potential healing. However, somewhere in the brain the re-living gets stuck again and again like a loop. This is where Freud’s repetitive compulsion comes in. For many survivors of abuse there can be such an unconscious need to bring dangerous situations into the current life again that offer a chance to re-live this trauma. Often the repetitive compulsion can cause many survivors, unconsciously, to be re-victimised, leading to similar abusive situations that get played out. When re-living the situation within counselling using the help and support of a trusted counsellor the situation is re experienced safely using all the best tools and coping mechanisms the individual can now pull upon in their life today. Imagine going back to the scene of the crime, after many painful revisits, but this time it’s put to rest.
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