I think we all tell stories. We want to have control of our own narrative. The stories we choose to tell are the stories we want believed by others and by ourselves.
“One system creates a story for public consumption, and if we tell that story often enough, we are likely to start believing that it contains the whole truth. But the other system registers a different truth: how we experience the situation deep inside. It is this second system that needs to be accessed, befriended, and reconciled” (By Bessel Van Der Kolk)
In my physiotherapy practice I see this often amongst people who suffer from a chronic pain condition. They get so tired of dealing with pain that they learn to tune it out. These people still experience pain, but they are able to somehow mute the attention that they give to pain. The problem is that they then lose the ability to manage their pain because they become unaware of what makes them feel better or what makes them feel worse.
The first thing I suggest is that they start to periodically quantify their pain throughout the day. (This forces them to tune in.) This strategy hopefully reveals a pain pattern, encourages self exploration and I believe empowers them because they finally gain some control. I have come to understand that those same strategies can also be applied to people who have experienced trauma. Or at least those strategies seem to have worked for me.
I purchased these journals called “One Line a Day” for each of my kids. The idea is that you write a sentence about your child’s day, everyday, for 5 years. My daughter’s book is now complete, and of course I also started one for Oscar when he was born. I even journaled on November 26, 2018 when he had his first seizure.
The problem with the book “One Line a Day” is that every date has a designated page. As November 26, 2019 was approaching, I became anxious anticipating what it would feel like to read and therefore relive what had happened just a year earlier. I mentioned this anxiety to my social worker. I was concerned with how I would feel if I accidentally glanced up on the page and read my entry from the year before.
I was clearly avoiding.
By November 26, 2019 Oscar had been doing well for several months and I was scared to be reminded of how bad things had been. I wanted to move on and live in this story I had created for “public consumption”. Actually, my husband should probably take credit for creating this story. He truly believes this as his “whole truth”, that Oscar is good, better than what any neurologist could have predicted. This was the story that my husband would repeatedly tell me and that I would tell myself. But it wasn’t my “whole truth”. I was still unable to read, let alone deal with what was written on the page marked November 26, 2018.
My social worker gave me some advice… Before you read the page, make sure that you take the time to put on something comfortable, snuggle under a blanket, maybe have a hot cup of tea…anything to promote a sense of calm. She knew that reading that page may make me relive the trauma, how I “experienced the situation.” This truth I had been avoiding.
I read the page.
It is amazing how, like my patients who suffer from chronic pain, I had tuned out. I thought I was moving on because my rational brain believed that my husband’s story was my whole truth too. But it wasn’t. I was scared of what might happen if I tuned back in.
November 2018 was a lot to deal with. So was January 8, 2019, February 2019 and April 2019. By May of 2019 my mental health crashed.
I was desperate to get better so I worked hard on myself from May 2019-October 2019. I think that this is also why I thought I had “moved on” and “gotten past things” and explains why I was terrified to read that journal entry because I didn’t want to feel how I felt in May of 2019. I didn’t want my mental health to regress. I didn’t understand that this truth needed to be “accessed, befriended, and reconciled”.
Written by: Bessel Van Der Kolk