Uncovering trauma - Trauma, dissociation & coping mechanisms
Clients can indicate that they are approaching difficult memories in a session by throwing out clues. They may say something like ‘my mother worked, so my aunt always took me to the library after school… because it was a good place to do homework and I didn’t have my own desk at home and some other things…’. The trailing off effect often signals a red flag alert and the client’s hope that the therapist will pick up the trail that they have left. So the therapist might just ask, “and some other things?”
With any client, I am aware that they may be conducting multiple layers of thoughts in their heads and selecting what gets voiced. They may be struggling in ways I don’t yet know about, while putting into words, memories that could never have been spoken aloud before. There may be a civil war being conducted in the session, between the coping self that can’t continue to ‘go it alone’ and the vulnerable feelings that can’t be suppressed anymore. In this stand-off, there could be an evident, paralysing effect on the client’s life… and the right moment to start counselling.
Clients who are traumatised may only be able to communicate blocked memories as sensory pictures. Images that have stuck in the client’s private ‘photo album’ may recall trauma; they seem to appear in slow-motion detail in and around blocked memories, while the client is still protected from some parts that are too upsetting to recall.
For example, a client may remember standing around a vehicle somewhere near a wheat field. They remember that the sun reflected off the metal of the vehicle, that they were wearing a woollen purple top and the people caught in the picture, standing around them. They recall that they felt self-conscious and fear. Memories of the words and the actions may be more blurred, perhaps they don’t remember these in the same close-up, slow-motion detail. They remain like photographs in the memory. The trauma depicted pays careful attention to sensory detail, so the client may never forget the purple top they were wearing that day and the fear, though they may draw more of a veil over the precise minutiae of crucial detail. The scene may turn out to involve painful verbal abuse and the collusion of others. With time the client may reveal a later scene involving sexual violation, and further collusion.
Broken connections can litter the trail to the direct causes of the bad feelings. Our coping mechanisms fragment memory. It is a self-anaesthetising response. If the memory is traumatic we may dissociate or de-realise altogether – we protect our minds when we cannot process and understand what is happening to us, without developing a full pathology.
Client’s circling a traumatic memory will indicate that they are closing in on it, by the ‘close-up, slow-motion’ effect that I have described. At first they may only depict images remembered, periphery to deeper wounds. ‘My new wife watched me pick up a chicken drumstick by hand, from the serving dish. I felt as though I’d done something dirty. I never did it again in front of her.’ Therefore they just open the subject by suggesting that the new wife had power or control over them and that she was intimidating.
Our defences can create a time-lag between memory and meaning. Clients may remember something spoken, something said, without letting them take shape as a full idea. The session may be the first place and time where the client’s defences allow them to draw an inevitable conclusion. For example, there was a client who had lost his wife, Karen, in a fatal fall. It was a bolt from the blue and it left him in shock. A close cousin shared the client’s grief. One day, the cousin said ‘I miss her so much, it would have been better if my own wife had died, rather than Karen.’ The remark had a strong impact, but the client was still in the early stages of shock and loss. It was only months later, that it’s meaning fully struck home for him. The client had known how well they had got on, his cousin and his wife. Only though, when he repeated the words remembered, did he draw a conclusion from the cousin’s comment. The client’s narrative brought home the words into a newer, starker meaning.
It could be said that clients enter counselling when their coping mechanisms have begun to keep them ‘in a holding bay’. The more vulnerable self stirs, rather than stay anaesthetised indefinitely. As in the fairytale of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, eventually our feelings may awaken. The feelings signal a readiness to activate, when the client’s life has got stuck or they notice negative life patterns repeating like a ‘Groundhog Day’. Clients come with symptoms that seem to show that their coping systems - their central, old ways of functioning - have been outgrown. The coping self has served them well as a way of surviving trauma, but it may have to concede its dictatorship. The client envisions a new liberty in which they can feel more immediacy and re-open emotional aliveness that has fallen into disuse.
All names and specific details in these examples have been changed, to protect the identities of those mentioned.
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