Have you ever taken a wrong turn and found yourself in a scary part of town? Did you have a hard time finding your way out again? Been there; done that. When we reach a spot where we recognize our surroundings—and we feel safe—we take a deep breath and feel very relieved. But it takes a little while to get over the fear, the adrenaline, the experience of where we’ve been.
What if you couldn’t get out of that scary part of town? That’s what trauma is like—trauma that’s still going on or hasn’t been grieved.
Peaceful Readers, I recently interviewed a very experienced and gifted counselor named Liz Taylor—an expert on Traumatic Grief. This five-part post will share that interview with you.
The levels of grieving
In the first post of this series, I mentioned “The Levels of Grieving, from fairly-minor “pops” of grief all the way up to Traumatic Grief.” In the Practice section of that post, I shared my current “pops” of grief as my mom deteriorates from dementia.
Today we’ll begin exploring the other extreme in The Levels of Grieving: The Road of Traumatic Grief. This road leads to Trauma Town. There’s only one road into town and you have to take the same road out. You can’t be air-lifted out. You have to journey out the way you came. You have to remember…. You have to feel….
The road of traumatic grief
Sit down, Peaceful Readers, take a deep breath, and put on your seat belts. Today’s tour will take us down a steep, rocky, winding, dangerous road that’s off the beaten path—The Road of Traumatic Grief—the road into Trauma Town. This isn’t a road that anyone chooses to go down. Some people have lived in Trauma Town their whole lives—the crime bosses, their hit men, the gangs and the terrorized people who don’t know the way out. It’s very rough and painful. It’s shocking. It’s scary. If you’ve ever been here before, it’s a place you try to forget. But the bruises, scars, fear and heartbreak leave this town’s mark on you—deeply.
Our tour guide: Liz Taylor
Our tour guide will be counselor and Traumatic Grief expert Liz Taylor. She’ll be driving our armor-plated Humvee with bullet-proof glass very carefully and slowly. We’ll be protected inside our special virtual vehicle, and Liz will narrate for us what we’re seeing, hearing and smelling—and what it means. Most importantly, she’ll describe the way out for those who’ve been stuck in Trauma Town and want out.
A familiar road?
You may know someone who was thrown down The Road of Traumatic Grief once, or you may know someone who grew up in Trauma Town. You may have seen the scars. Many, many scars. Maybe you’re the one who found yourself here.
Some of the side streets and neighborhoods here are cleaner and less dangerous than Main Street. Some of them are actually quite affluent. But everything isn’t what it seems to be on those pristine side streets and exclusive cul-de-sacs. Appearances can be deceiving….
One of the many strange things about Trauma Town is that the people who live here call it T Town. The people who live on Main Street know that the T stands for Trauma. But the people who live in the nicer parts of town think the T stands for Terrific. Because they think they live in Terrific Town, it’s really hard for them to (1) accept that they actually live in Trauma Town, (2) admit how trauma has affected them, and (3) make the challenging decision to leave. To leave Trauma Town, they have to journey up The Road of Traumatic Grief.
The nicer parts of town
We’re turning past the security booth into the most exclusive area of T Town. The first street is Perfect Place. Over there is the turn onto the coveted Performance Avenue. A little further down is Family Secret Drive. The next street is No Feelings Allowed Way. Now we’re passing Sociopath Street—and up ahead is Narcissist Row—which both T into Show Boat Lane, with its stunning gardens and oh-so-much more. Behind all the streets in this high-dollar district of T Town is a long, dark, lonely path that may sound familiar: Competition Alley.
Now we’re approaching the up-and-coming area. Yep. Can you see it? We’re about to pass Moving Up Boulevard, I’m Too Busy Terrace and You Should Be Thankful Drive. Hmmm. These houses look really nice. The manicured lawns, the flashy cars, the nannies. But something’s missing. Something is terribly wrong here….
Liz, our tour guide, grew up on The Road of Traumatic Grief—the road that leads into and out of Trauma Town. She was sexually abused as a child, and she stayed on this road during her years of substance abuse. Now—sober for 30 years and with skillful tools at her side—she helps rescue people from The Road of Traumatic Grief, Trauma Town and the surrounding area, one at a time, while she serves as their counselor (who specializes in COPSD: Co-Occurring Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Disorders).
What is Traumatic Grief?
Traumatic Grief is an event that you experience over an extended period of time or a sudden hurricane. It creates in you the PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] symptoms—hypervigilance, flashbacks, being easily startled. It screws up your sleeping habits. All kinds of issues come along. I work primarily with [people who experienced] childhood sexual abuse. Even if it’s just one time when someone tries to touch you…, depending on your resilience, it can impact you at an astronomically deep level. [You] lose control. [You] lose trust. Even if it’s just one time.
If your parents sold you to a pimp for drugs or had sex given [by you] to drug dealers—or a grandfather who consistently abuses [you]—that long-term effect is really hard to get over. I’m a child of sexual abuse. I really get that type of disturbed reference about trust. It’s almost impossible to get over by yourself.
Child abuse and substance abuse ~ the cycle
There are 20 women and 30 men in the residential program where Liz works. Of the 20 women, almost 90 percent were sexually or physically abused. Of the men, 70% were sexually or physically abused, “and they’re finally learning that it’s okay to talk about it.” Liz relates that the men suffered “horrific sexual abuse, and most of it has to do with drugs.” She explains this connection. When you’ve got an uncle who’s high all the time, [he’ll] invariably try to touch somebody. Our clients, of course, are here for [treatment for] alcohol or drugs.
If you have seven deaths within two years, that’s Traumatic Grief—so many levels; [it’s] overwhelming. And so a death—a natural cause of death—if there are several in a row, it’s hard to come back. We can’t process that [amount of] loss.
Liz’s weekly grief group
I do a grief group every week, and [I hear] that whole process of [clients saying] “It doesn’t bother me anymore”—five deaths in the last five years…. “But I wasn’t close to any of them. I miss them, but I was told to get over it.”
We stuff it. We layer on top of it—drugs, alcohol, food, work—anything I can, to stop those feelings from happening. And I’m going to try my best to not even think about it.
They’re 35 or 45 years old and they’ve got years of hurt and pain and not a clue that it affects them. Or they’ve never had any resource to begin to process that grief. I do a lot of different kinds of therapies to help them bring that loss to the front of their minds.
Peaceful Readers, why does Liz have to help her clients “bring that loss to the front of their minds”?
Because we can’t grieve what we don’t acknowledge. I have to acknowledge it, see it, reflect on it, look it right in the face… as part of the grieving and healing process.
Remember from the first post: “I’ll be encouraging you to lay down The Heavy Baggage of Denial and begin walking The Journey of Grieving.”
From in to out
You may be thinking I like my denial better than the prospect of grieving! I understand that. I really do. But here’s the thing. Everything you keep inside because of your denial is still there. It’s inside you. Trust me; it feels much, much, much better to get it out of your body, your mind and your life. To lay it down. To put it to rest. To move forward without it.
The denial—even the really well-done, fully-denied, “I’m pretending that never happened” denial—really does affect our thinking and our living, our distractions and our time, our eating and our sleeping, our relationships and our unspoken, unacknowledged fears. It’s there. Lurking…. In our dreams and nightmares. It’s still there.
Let’s lay down The Heavy Baggage of Denial and begin walking The Journey of Grieving.
Coming next: In part 2 of this post, we’ll begin with a story about Oreos and then we’ll continue our tour of Trauma Town with our tour guide, counselor Liz Taylor, as we learn about Phantom Pain and more.
Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.
Truth from The Word: Lamentations 3:19-26
Song for Healing: You may want to close your eyes as you listen to this melancholy, somber piece: “Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 3, No. 11, Siciliano” by Antonio Vivaldi, performed beautifully by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra.