I have an assumption about learning that influences how I perceive the process of “healing,” but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it. I thought I would mention it today, and that is just I assume we understand the world in the way Piaget describes it. I think our minds do make sense of things in constructivist ways. It isn’t the way we learn our times tables or our own names—there are various kinds of learning—but the bigger issues are learned in a constuctivist way.
That is why it is not possible to experience trauma, survive it, “heal” from it, and emerge on the other side of that the same person you were before the trauma. The trauma must be placed within the context of everything else you know about life, about human beings, about the world so that you gain a more nuanced and complex understanding of the world.
If you experienced childhood trauma, that probably never happened. You flip back and forth between two—or several—ways of looking at things: one in which the abuse happened but perhaps other things are not possible, and and one in which the rest of life happened but the abuse is not possible. Forming a coherent view of the world that includes the totality of what you have known and experienced is not that easy.
It isn’t easy because every piece of that is emotional. It’s not like the child pushing soap into the water and seeing that big things don’t always sink, where the emotion might be nothing more than mild interest. Every bit of it is intense.
And then there are also the emotions about needing to do it at all: why can’t I grow up, realize it won’t ever happen to me again, and get on with things? Because the human mind doesn’t work that way. It understands life by feeling it. There is no way around that.
So there is also, for most people, a grief that “healing” involves integrating the experience of abuse into one’s view of the world and oneself. There is the loss of a hope that it doesn’t have to be done that way and the loss of a hope that it can be enough simply to have gotten it to stop.
I think there is also a fear. How will I trust anyone again if I know what some people are truly capable of? How will I form relationships if I know that you cannot tell from the outside what is really going on behind closed doors? How will I ever live with that uncertainty? People who have not been traumatized do not “know” this the way people who have been traumatized do. They know it like they know their times tables. They know it as a fact, but it is never integrated into how they see the world (which is why the same kinds of events elicit shock each and every time they are reported by the news media—people never actually integrate horror into how they understand the world.)
It seems to me it is doubly difficult, because the larger culture understands not being traumatized as the preferable way to be, so the goal always seems to be to try to return to that non-traumatized state. People who have lived through trauma, especially as children, usually have a core sense of worthlessness. They were harmed, after all, because someone who ought to have valued them didn’t. So it touches on that older pain. How will I ever be someone who can be valued by society at large when I can never become what it seems I must become, a person who was never traumatized?