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When Words Are Not Enough: Why Experiential Forms of Healing Are Desirable in Treating Relational Trauma

When Words Are Not Enough: Why Experiential Forms of Healing Are Desirable in Treating Relational Trauma

Tian Dayton MA, PhD, TEP

We need to feel the stories of our lives in order to heal them, but trauma is all about not feeling. Even asking the question, “Can you tell me about your trauma?” can be befuddling, if not disturbing, for ACoAs who have learned to rationalize and deny our pain and confusion in order to stay connected to the families we love and need.

When we reduce therapy to only words—for example, when we ask first responders to tell us about the horror of watching groups of people lock arms on the top of a building and leap to their deaths, or recollect the screams of those buried in rubble waiting to be rescued—we ask too much, and it is too painful, freakish, and shocking to put into words. And then, over the next several months within the lives of these first responders, divorce rates rise, alcohol and drug addiction shoots up, and cases of spousal abuse become commonplace—the terror and pain are locked in the part of the brain-body that words do not reach.

Similarly, when we ask clients to tell us all about their experiences of being sexually or physically abused, neglected, or frightened by frequent scenes of drunkenness or rage, we are asking them to move past their own primitive, defensive barriers and to feel feelings they long ago shut down. Debriefing and describing these experiences in words is neither efficient nor effective because, in spite of their profound and disturbing impact, many of us caught in these experiences have sometimes barely let ourselves believe the events actually happened.

When we are facing danger, whether that danger is a charging elephant or a drunk, raging parent, the thinking mind shuts down and our feelings of fear make the limbic system rev up. We are supercharged with extra adrenaline and blood flow to enable us to flee for safety or stand and fight. When we can do neither, we freeze and dissociate—we stand there in body, but disappear in mind.

Then years or even decades later, when a well-dressed therapist in a nicely furnished office asks us to reenter those disparate remnants of personal experience and drag them from their hidden world into comprehensible, well-ordered sentences, we feel anxious and put on the spot. What are we supposed to say? It was so long ago, and it feels so very far away. And when asked how we felt at the time, we just do not know. Maybe our stomachs get queasy, we tense up, and we want to leave the room, but we have no idea why. We appear to be resisting the therapist’s question, but in truth we are just very much afraid of the feelings that may come up and overwhelm us. These are feelings we never made sense of to begin with, firstly because that part of our brains was temporarily offline, and secondly because for us as children in alcoholic homes, the people we would go to for reality checks, comfort, and to help us find words to understand the pain we were in and describe it, are the very people who were hurting us and robbing us of a sense of safety to begin with. If this pain were repaired on the spot, it could relieve us as children, allow us to reconnect with ourselves and our parents, and actually build understanding and resilience. When it is not repaired, the pain goes underground.

The days, months, and years of broken promises, drunken scenes, and the mood swings in the household and the parents themselves create deep pain, confusion, and resentment for children who learn to rewrite reality to make it more “manageable.” Later, as adults, our personal narrative can have big, blank spots in it. It is as if parts of us were strewn all over a room, but that room is too dark for us to see what is there. Entering that room, gathering up those pieces of our personal experiences, and stringing them into a meaningful and understandable whole—allowing the shards of self to float back and nestle themselves into the framework of our life script or narrative—is the work of therapy. To accomplish this, we need forms of therapy that allow us to feel, sense, and grope our way along the associative mind-body pathways that will lead us toward these forgotten fragments.

Why Traumatizing Experiences Remain Nonconscious

When the thinking mind or prefrontal cortex is not doing its job of elevating experience to a conscious level, converting it into language, and making sense of it, then frightening or traumatic experiences do not get processed and recorded in the same way as ordinary experiences. This inability to tell a clear trauma story, in my opinion, can also look like memory loss around traumatic events. Herein lies a danger in trauma resolution: clients may either create stories that seem to fit the profile expected of them, or they may accept another person’s interpretation of events because they cannot come up with a satisfactory one of their own. Another danger is that clients may jump at the opportunity to get out of their moment of reliving—which is so uncomfortable and has so long been defended against—by forcing themselves to respond to questions that are actually pulling them out of those incredibly tender moments of remembering and reliving; questions that are not really helping them to stay in the moment and with themselves. The real healing, however, is in tolerating the reliving, the discomfort, the confusion, the fear, and the anxiety we may not have been able to process at the time, which can be triggering for therapists and group members. Going for words too soon can actually collide with clients’ wishes to avoid feeling the pain that these moments of reliving bring up. 

Approaches to therapy that allow the body (as well as the mind) to stumble down an associative path that leads to truth tell a more complete, compassionate, and full version of the trauma narrative. We need to use therapies that allow clients to feel safe during their process of remembering and reliving; if we can do this, they will be able to reknit the fragments of forgotten experience back together into a coherent whole themselves. This can even occur in one-to-one therapy if therapists can understand the human response to trauma and how to heal it. I use role-playing because it stimulates and simulates the family cluster that needs to be made conscious. Talking to rather than about, even if it is simply an empty chair representing someone else or a part of the self, invites a spontaneous connection to emerge naturally. We reach out and get to know our depressed selves; we make connections with the inner child, whose creativity we may have shut down; we befriend the lonely adolescents, encourage the inner adults, or invite the carefree selves we have lost touch with to come back to us. 

All of this direct and targeted interaction is self-referential; it emerges spontaneously from a simple role-play that can trigger a flood of words because we are free to fulfill that inner hunger to reconnect, to express ourselves, to be seen and heard, and to find our own voice within a relational context. Then in psychodrama we reverse roles so we can get a felt sense of what it is like to see ourselves from the position of the other. Or we talk from the role of our child selves back to our adult selves. Or we stand in the shoes of those to whom we have given so much power and experience their humanity as well as our own. In this way clients spontaneously warm up to their own story—it is theirs, told in their voices and the voices of those they care about, with all of the emotion, action, and nuance that is particular to them, to this relationship, this context, and this scene.

Untreated ACoA pain can present itself in adulthood as a posttraumatic stress reaction in which unprocessed relational pain from childhood is surfacing and being lived out in adult relationships. When ACoAs grow up, partner, and parent, the deep connection this requires can act as a trigger for unprocessed, childhood pain. This is also the kind of pain that, if left untreated, can lead to self-medication, which is why many ACoAs have trouble with their own process addictions or addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Twelve Step programs are a powerful first step in getting to know more about the disease of alcohol and its far-reaching impact.

To learn more about the effects of adverse childhood experiences and to gain guidance on how you or your community can begin to heal, visit www.nacoa.org.

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Tian Dayton, PhD, is the author of sixteen books, including The ACoA Trauma Syndrome; Emotional Sobriety; Trauma and Addiction; Forgiving and Moving On; and The Living Stage. In addition, Dr. Dayton has developed a model for using sociometry and psychodrama to resolve issues related to relationship trauma repair. She is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is the director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.