Coping Versus Healing: On The Complexity of Living with Trauma
Last week my dog was diagnosed with focal seizures, and I was five-years old again: powerless, terrified, alone, panicked, abandoned. Of course, the news about Edward shocked me; it also activated all of my trauma triggers.
A quick perusal of the Internet and any social media site will turn up a plethora of resources for healing trauma. Some of those resources are helpful, many are repetitive, superficial, and incomplete. Still, the rhetoric of healing from trauma is strong and getting stronger. While I embrace my own healing path everyday, often on a minute-by-minute basis, I am increasingly curious as to whether I am healing or whether I'm getting better at coping...until I'm not (like last week when my nervous system went haywire).
The distinction between coping and healing is tricky when we're talking about trauma. Typically, we think of coping or coping strategies as tactics or devices we employ during an active crisis in order to stabilize ourselves. As a psychological process, coping is not intended to go on forever. Ever heard of caregiver strain? That's when a caregiver has exhausted their coping mechanisms. Nervous system crashes come on the other side of exhausted coping mechanisms. Healing, on the hand, is the idea of moving through a crisis–which usually entails some level of growth or evolution–towards homeostasis. That's normally how we talk about coping versus healing. But in trauma, I think the two might necessarily need to co-exist. Forever.
First, let me clarify that when I'm talking about trauma here, I'm specifically referencing my own trauma. I can only ever speak from my own experience of this journey, and I hope that, in doing so publicly, you can learn something about yours. Trauma comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and cuts and bruises. My trauma story is complex, steeped in developmental experiences compounded with retraumatizing events as an older teen and young adult. That is the space from which I am exploring this question of coping versus healing. It may not be the case for everyone that healing is a life journey. For some, there may be an endpoint. There's not for me, because there is no me outside of my trauma. That's the result of developmental trauma. It's the experience of trauma before you have any conception of self, any notion of a "normal" world. In those cases, the water of life is the trauma. And so, while healing is an ongoing journey that occurs in nonlinear phases, coping is a way of life. That feels like an important distinction to emphasize, because if not, it's easy, when you have a return of symptoms, to feel like a failure in your healing journey.
I think one of the ramifications of centering our trauma rhetoric around the notion of healing is that it underscores what it means to live with trauma. In my case, living with trauma is like living with an open sore that's perpetually in some stage of healing. Some days it's scabbed over and I feel confident I can move about the world without so much as a bandaid. Other days it's weeping and I need to perform regular bandage changes; and still other days (like last week), it tears open and bleeds as fresh and raw and angry as ever. If I only focus on my healing path, in those moments, I can feel deflated. Like, fuck, I thought I was past this, but here I am again. I guess I haven't healed. But that's where coping comes in and the notion that living with trauma is not the same thing as healing it.
There's almost a cleansing sensation that comes from the idea of healing the trauma. Again, it's that move towards homeostasis. I have a cut on my finger, and I work to heal it, to resolve it. Living with the cut, though, is acknowledging it as a part of you, a responsibility you didn't ask for but now must carry forever. There's a way in which, in my lower moments, that can feel like a life sentence, and I am filled with rage all over again. But in my more compassionate moments, I can embrace it as a facet of who I am, just as I embrace the fact that I'm right-handed. And so coping becomes a way of life for me, because healing is something that I can only ever really chase or move towards. The water of my life will always be the trauma. There is no me outside of it.
When the vet diagnosed Edward two things happened inside me. First, I searched for all the ways in which I might have possibly failed him and caused this diagnosis. Of course, I did nothing wrong. Logically, I can state that with a clear conscious. But my trauma, the child who was tasked with adult responsibilities she could never handle and should never have been burdened with, was triggered and felt the loss and the failures and the grief of never being enough all over again. And not felt them as a forty-five-year old woman, that's not how trauma works. The emotions send you back in time; they are the triggers. You feel the emotion that is associated with the trauma and then you're reliving the trauma as if it is happening now. You feel it in your nervous system as if the threat exists now. That's what trauma is, emotions out of time.
The other thing that happened was I jumped to the moment of losing him, the moment of Edward's death. And again, the child who felt unsafe and abandoned before she even understood herself as a self, was activated. In both cases, adult me felt frustrated. The ground falls out from under you so quickly and the result is feeling like you've made no progress. Of course that's not true, I know that. But if we only talk about healing from trauma, we miss out on the opportunity to see and empathize with what it's like to live with it, and so when we have an experience where the living with it gets smacked in our faces, we can forget that this is the water. There is no sanctifying it; there's no cleansing it beyond what it is. There is only ever coping while moving towards an unobtainable target: I am healed. We can forget the necessity of having strong coping skills, a full toolbox, and we can feel deflated as a result.
Consciously living with trauma, pursuing the healing path and honing strong coping skills, requires inconveniencing others. I spent decades trying to hide what was happening inside me, trying to conceal how much I struggled. I prided myself on how little I needed, on my hyper-independence. I have said out loud, "I can't believe how little food I actually need in a day" and thought it was a badge of strength. Look how little I need to survive. And so people liked me, because I didn't ask anything of them, because I was always the strong one who everyone else leaned on. I had no needs, and I had no boundaries; and people loved me for it. But living with trauma requires boundaries. It demands honesty and integrity and acknowledging that I actually need a lot. I need patience and compassion and space and time and understanding, and I need food–quite a bit, as it turns out.
I've spent the last ten or so days pulling out all my coping strategies, including hiring a new therapist. I've journaled about the relationship between coping and healing, the sort of two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance of living with trauma. I allowed myself to come undone in a safe environment, and I did so without judging that unraveling as a failure in my healing journey. As I move forward on this blog, I want to write much more about what life with trauma looks like across all areas. From career to relationships to leisure to spirituality, there are no areas of my life untouched by my trauma experiences. That's what is means to live with trauma. It doesn't mean I'm broken; it doesn't mean I'm damaged. It doesn't mean the trauma gets compartmentalized (now I'm working on my trauma, as if it and I are separate). It simply means that this is a facet of who I am. I didn't ask for it; it's an alteration to my self that was done to me, nonetheless it is mine now. Healing from trauma, I think, means accepting it as a responsibility to tend to, to nurture and care for without guilt or shame or frustration, and to understand that sometimes coping is the best we can do.