Then i read an article by Robert Stolorow on the phenomenology of trauma. I don’t even know what exactly in that article triggered my realization. Something fell into place.
While on a retreat in January, i had a massive, full-blown flashback to an experience during my marriage. I am guessing that the mixture of having been opened up to my inner world and observing alcohol consumption combined to allow my amygdala to take over completely. I had noticed that i had gotten triggered by the alcohol consumption and dealt with it as best as i could – and was completely alone in that. I did not know how to tap into the safety mechanisms of the retreat – and my fellow retreatants either didn’t understand the seriousness of my situation or thought i could handle it or both. After all i didn’t ask for help (though no one even offered any either – i would have gladly accepted such an offer). So, as my system was getting further and further into the flashback, i was journaling about it, not knowing how to reach out for help, being quite ashamed that i got triggered “this badly” by some social alcohol consumption. The flashback didn’t end with the journaling. I went into a full flashback where i was back in the early 1990s – that flashback ended only when i saw one of my roommates. Reality was back.
Now, i don’t think the flashback itself was traumatic. There was a part of me that thought it was very fascinating – and i later used the incident in a paper on interpersonal neurobiology and trauma. There is something very empowering about understanding what happened to me that night. I believe what was traumatic is how the aftermath was handled. I mentioned to the “community” that i had had a flashback and how alone i had felt because no one offered help (even though i had mentioned i had gotten triggered & was leaving a common area because of that). It took three requests until finally people got that i needed to be held by the group. At no point was i told that what i had experienced sucked. In fact, much later, i found out that people still didn’t quite know what had happened. No one from the leadership reached out to me after the retreat to find out how i had coped. No follow-up. Nothing. Help only came when i asked for it – and sometimes i had to ask for the same thing multiple times. Never mind that it’s hard to ask for help when we’re in the grip of trauma…
A few weeks ago, i had the flashback again. This time, it was within the gentle embrace of a guide, which allowed me to tap into my compassionate observer. What we found was that i felt utterly alone back then as my 20-something self in the bedroom with a drunk husband demanding sex. Because i was not alone when i revisited this memory, i was able to heal it, something that had not happened at the retreat where the feeling of aloneness accompanied the flashback.
My decision to leave the program, of which that retreat in January was a part, was mostly intuitive. I woke up one morning, knowing that i had to leave. I am guessing now that this came out of the sense of not feeling safe in the program. How this incident was handled – overall, not in the immediate aftermath – was utterly unprofessional. Trauma is powerful stuff. Having flashbacks is a signal that something deep got stirred up. Handle this with care. One idea would be to incorporate feedback loops – and i don’t mean participant initiated. I mean feedback loops initiated by the leadership team. If we stick something into a hornets nest, we gotta be prepared for the consequences. Otherwise the programs that are supposed to heal trauma turn into retraumatizing mechanisms, as it did for me.
And then i remember the people in the leadership team. All of them are underpaid and overworked. The primary trainers have not been paid at all or not as much as they expected. The program is not supported by the financial power-houses – compassionate communication and healing of trauma are just not priorities in this world. So there’s a tragedy here: The people who are devoting their lives to help others heal are stretched so thin that stuff falls through the cracks.
Maybe this, then, was what ultimately led me to my vision: A place of healing, not just on a weeklong retreat, as a way of living together in a community of mutual caring and support. Because the basics would be taken care of, we wouldn’t be busy trying to earn enough money to keep our bills paid.