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Recovering From Trauma

by D. Mathers

After a divorce at age thirty, ending a five-year confusing and abusive marriage, I seriously began to question many situations in my life to which I had previously been blind, and I began four and a half years of intensive psychoanalytic therapy. A few months after the therapy period, I felt there was no particular crisis, but wanted to keep moving along in a positive way, and my introduction to the Intensive Journal method was an enlightening experience. Although using the workbook privately at home was helpful, I found participating in the group at seminars and workshops provided a special kind of consciousness expansion. The feeling of belonging as part of this community was validating and extremely supportive after being in the individually focused process of psychoanalysis for several years.

Intensive Journal work allows connection with parts of the self that are subtle yet powerful. There are moments when a flash of insight occurs that can be caught, expanded and made meaningful in the workbook. This kind of experience could probably only be done otherwise by creating a significant work of art, which is hardly possible on a regular basis.

What I knew about my life or my "self" until I was well past thirty was similar to an iceberg. Only the tip was visible and nine-tenths were hidden. There were several reasons for my situation. I uncovered during many long years of therapy that in my early life many of my family members had a pattern of non-communication and oftentimes did not want to see reality clearly. I had learned these patterns and developed my own intrapsychic noncommunication. This caused my analyst to say at the beginning of sessions, "You don't know who you are." As I look back, I think I was moving through life like a person blindfolded walking on the freeway.

Psychoanalytic work allowed me to see a more objective view of myself and how my ability to function in life was impaired. As I look back now, I can see that not even the analyst completely understood what was going on because there were so many matters that I could not even verbalize. I understood only much later that it would have been nearly impossible to pick up on them since I had dissociated so much since early childhood and had learned to compensate in ways that made many things appear "normal." My emotional numbness and inability to integrate thinking and feeling caused a lot of confusion in relationships and was not easy to comprehend. As I learned later, many of the effects of the early trauma in my life had been somaticized, taking their toll on my body as physical problems: hypoglycemia/endocrine imbalance, lowered immunity, frequent viruses and bouts of Epstein-Barr and mononucleosis that sometimes had mysterious symptoms.

Many times in Intensive Journal workshops, I have begun writing some thoughts about the situations in my life, and at some point in the program an entirely different and much more significant concept or idea will emerge. For example, at one particular workshop I was trying to decide where to live. I had several choices. After moving through some sections, particularly the Depth Dimension or Steppingstones, I realized that the real issue was my approach to life. Was I basically motivated by love or fear? Was I moving toward something or away from something? The Intensive Journal process always seems to take me to a deeper, more intuitive and integrating place of consciousness.

When I was fifty-two years old, I was seriously injured in a pedestrian/auto accident a few months after a major life transition in which I had completed a master's degree program in Social Work. Previously I had worked in financial research, business and writing. The brain injury was so severe that I had many cognitive and emotional impairments. My "life transition" process thus became a "life reconstruction." I was unable to read functionally for more than four years. I was not paralyzed, but my recovery was similar to that of a stroke victim. With help from speech and cognitive therapists, I had to learn to compensate and work out strategies to manage tasks, work and emotions. Often, the effects of brain injury are referred to as "the shattered self."

One specific part of the Intensive Journal workbook that I turned to frequently during this time was the Dialogue Dimension. For example, using the Dialogue with Body exercise made me aware of what I was coping with and kept me grounded when I was experiencing considerable numbness. At times when I experienced "body flashbacks" of pain or trauma, dialogues allowed me to gain meaning and integration. Therapists often say, "If you can feel it, you can heal it", and with that I kept moving forward in my recovery process using the method.

In rehabilitation from brain injury, one generally goes through the process of being unaware (and possibly denying) what is not functioning to acknowledging impairment and understanding what might be done to compensate. As with skilled, intuitive therapy, the Intensive Journal method aids this process to allow healing at one's own pace. The trauma and pain can emerge consciously in a measured, controlled and safe way. Because I was always in control of what I wrote, I could decide when I wanted to work on a certain issue and if it became too difficult, I could stop and consider resuming it at a later date.

An unexpected part of the post-traumatic stress connection with my brain injury and trauma was uncovering the cumulative effects of much earlier, but hidden, trauma in my life. They became evident because my usual defenses and ways of coping were now no longer available. When a severe trauma occurs, often the "trauma file" in the psyche is opened and earlier traumas are linked together, creating a feeling that all of life has been trauma. Perspective is lost, and the ability to maintain balance is limited. The Intensive Journal method helped me gain perspective on my life because the exercises enabled me to look at issues from different angles. The structure of the workbook gave me balance because I was working with many different areas in the context of my entire life, and it gave me a broad scope and solid foundation with which to work.

In a psychotherapy session, when the subject of a molestation by a neighbor's grandfather that happened to me at age three was brought up, a distinct dissociation effect resulted. The therapist noted that I was describing the situation as if I were talking about someone else. Although I could sense and understand that I was expressing myself in this way, I could not integrate the feeling. Dissociation felt normal to me.

I had a sense that something else happened prior to the incident with my neighbor's grandfather, but I could not remember consciously. In looking at past information along with more recent events that I had also ignored, some ideas came together. For example, according to a neurologist, my brain scan showed a pattern that occurs when a child is abused. Also, I remembered my grandmother telling me that I occasionally had black and blue marks as an infant. Several years ago an older cousin told me that when she visited me as a baby, my sister, age nearly three, was sticking pins in me while my mother ignored it. In the past, I had had periods of intense physical total body pain that I thought were related to being depressed at times. It was actually body flashbacks.

It was clear to me, as the puzzle came together, that my mother had been abusive and was disturbed in several ways. She died when I was eighteen, so nothing was ever discussed with her.

I had always known that my connection with my mother was unusual, but because the whole family system worked around such behavior, some very bizarre actions were accepted. It seemed alright that my mother rarely spoke to me. I really cannot remember a conversation of more than ten words with her in my life. She would only talk to my sister or others about me. There was a kind of wall, and I realized much later that I could never tell how she was, where she was coming from or how she felt about me. She essentially treated me like an object. I was not physically abused as an older child, but there was serious emotional neglect and abuse.

The consequences of the emergence of these early traumatic events were painful and required several years to fully work through. It seems that a spiritual approach is useful and even required in healing this kind of trauma. The Intensive Journal method is an example of such a spiritual approach that allows validation of vague, unclear and confusing memories to emerge often at random as they are triggered by some experience. The openness of the method, which has no time limit, helped make sense of the material I was developing in my workbook.

In life, crises do happen, and when an extreme trauma occurred in my life, the Intensive Journal process was most significant in helping me to maintain balance and unravel some destructive, painful confusion. The program has also been a supportive and incredible motivator, as well as an aide in promoting emotional and spiritual growth. I have been amazed so many times at the effectiveness of the Intensive Journal work in weaving together the strands of ideas, feelings, sensitive intuition and physical sensations into meaning, understanding and healing of the real, authentic self while maintaining balance.

Not only did the method get me through the mental and emotional pain that resulted from my traumatic past experiences, but it also helped me to understand the dissociation that resulted and was a coping mechanism to deal with such pain. Dr. Progoff's program helped me get past the dissociation on my way to recovery because it helped me develop more functional and healthy ways of living. It enhanced my ability to reflect on body and emotional states, feelings and fleeting thoughts. Work in the Intensive Journal workbook provides a way to "reassociate" or integrate the disconnected parts of the self, mind or psyche.

I was a child who had no hope and very few positive feelings about life, going through adolescence believing that only early death would be an escape. I now see the survival and resilience of human beings as truly amazing. I have had such unusual situations and conditions to deal with, and what I am able to do and the way I live may not be considered typical for many people of my age or circumstances. Despite these difficulties and challenges, my life today feels more balanced, fulfilling and meaningful.

I am at the stage of my life where integration usually occurs--the paths taken in life are reviewed and either appreciated, savored or regretted. Since I virtually passed over some entire stages of development, I am now filling gaps that feel out of synch. I feel that I am moving along with my soul's path more and more, and will continue to do so.

When Ray Charles died, there was a story about his mother telling him when he was a child that there are always two ways to do things, and because of his blindness, he would "have to find the other way." I feel that this is often what I have to do, and the method was greatly helpful in giving me perspective in finding my way. I believe that the Intensive Journal process can be used in ways that are incredibly effective in so many aspects of life; from inner guidance and integration for a fractured soul, to moving and inspiring a highly functioning person forward to accomplish their best creative work.

"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.