You grew up. Did the best you could and “moved on.” But, you’ve had a lot of struggles. You’ve suffered anxiety. Don’t feel lovable. Haven’t been able to find love that works. You’re afraid of wanting too much.
Maybe you have an eating disorder. You feel hopeless; a lot. Have even been haunted by dark persistent episodes of depression. When you least expect it (or want it), panic attacks take over. This is no way to live.
And, you’ve started to wonder: Could any of this be because of what happened so long ago? Could you still be suffering? Yet, how?! You might even be thinking: “Why would my childhood trauma still be bothering me? I should be over it by now. Shouldn’t I?”
No. But, these are common thoughts in adults who suffered childhood trauma and haven’t had sufficient help. Or maybe any help. Or worse, when help has failed you.
Anyone who has endured childhood trauma has tried very hard to go on. Sometimes, even, to “soldier on;” which means toughening up. You block out feelings; don’t think about what you went through. Sometimes you find yourself just going through the motions of life, because what else is there to do?
“Not Being There”
Going through the motions in a detached way is what psychologists call dissociation. It’s how anyone who’s had trauma (or repeated trauma) copes. Dissociation happens as a form of self-protection. During your trauma – you “went away.” You might describe it like this: “I was floating above myself; watching.” As if you weren’t there.
Mostly, you didn’t feel. “Not being there” is a way to cut off feelings that are simply too much. They’d be too much for anyone, but certainly for a child. This is how most traumatized children live through their original childhood trauma (s).
And, later, when memories or flashbacks or terrifying feelings return; there’s no option but to cut them off again; to tell yourself to forget (so fast you don’t even know you’re doing it); that you’ll be ok. Yet, what happens is: you have to live with the secret of how you really feel, how terrified you are (and were), and how hard it is to trust.
Living With Secrets
Yes, you’ve had to keep your feelings a secret from yourself. And, it’s part of the reason you’re still suffering. Childhood trauma is very complex; whether you were abused, neglected, or had no one in your early life that could be counted on.
Very likely, no one ever talked to you about the trauma either. Or, as is often the case in abuse, threatened you and told you that you’d better never tell.
But, what if you weren’t threatened, and still couldn’t tell anyone? Something inside held you back; you were too scared to open it up. Or, maybe, the people you tried to tell didn’t believe you or didn’t think your childhood trauma was that serious.
And, so you kept quiet. You were ashamed. You didn’t think it should bother you then, and you certainly don’t think you should still be suffering now. So, you’ve lived with it alone for many years. Maybe you finally trusted someone enough to talk. Or maybe it’s still a secret.
The reality is: you had no other option but to try to forget. And, the saddest thing you had to forget is the hurt and scared little child inside you. Still living inside you with all the feelings you can’t and couldn’t feel. And, that’s why you continue to suffer.
The Child Inside You
That’s right. You may be an adult, but your child self still lives inside. And, that child lives in your memories and feelings. The ones you can’t feel. For some people, there are good memories and feelings, and they provide a foundation to build a happy and satisfying life.
But, all too often, your childhood trauma has made (and is making) you suffer. And, that child hidden inside has suffered deeply. Has even lived with terror.
Your childhood trauma (whether abuse or loss or illness or something outside of anyone’s control) has deeply affected your life. Has interfered with your trust, success, relationships, and especially with your happiness.
No wonder you still suffer. The past lives on, as hard as you’ve tried to forget. And as much as you’ve done everything possible to build a good life in spite of it.
Perhaps you’ve managed quite well in the easier times. You work around your childhood trauma. May even have found love. Have your own children, and you do much better with them. Maybe you’ve even created a very successful career.
But, there are other times in life; a loss, major stress, an abusive boss, or something else – and all the memories and feelings still living in that hidden child are triggered. There you are; suffering a lot. Even if you managed not to suffer so obviously before.
Or, maybe you’ve been suffering your trauma all along. You just didn’t know it.
The Past Waits For Reminders
The past lives on inside waiting for reminders. And, what if you’ve had no help for your childhood trauma? You’ve had to put it aside or forget about the child part of you that is the one who suffered. Although it probably seems unfair, the past lies in wait for something that brings it up.
But, why doesn’t forgetting work? You’re strong. You’ve managed to go on. Why isn’t that enough? You’re pretty convinced that putting it aside should be successful, right? You haven’t needed anyone’s help before.
Yet, help may be just the thing you need. The unconscious mind; holding all that has been buried – begins to show evidence of the feelings you’ve put aside. There are reasons. First, if there are triggers for memories and feelings; they can’t be kept quiet.
Second, if there are unsettled things from the past; part of what the unconscious does is to help them come up. You have dreams, symptoms or feelings. And, these are messages that the traumatized child needs to be heard. And if the child inside you is heard, you now have a new opportunity to work things out.
A New Chance
Realizing that you’re still suffering isn’t a bad thing. That may sound strange. Why would you want to suffer? But, if you are (and I’m sure that’s what brought you to this blog); then you now have a new chance to know more about your suffering. And, maybe finally, to turn that suffering around.
In order to do that, it’s essential to take very seriously that the one who is suffering is the traumatized child still living inside you. The one who has had no voice; no one to listen; no one to take seriously the effects of what happened. The feelings of the traumatized child still live in your symptoms.
It’s not too late. With the right kind of help, plus learning to trust it (with a therapist that understands why you wouldn’t trust easily), your suffering can change.
You don’t have to keep all your feelings secret or live with them alone. Yes, it’s a big leap to even consider that you might stop having to be so tough. Or stop telling yourself: “it’s over; it happened a long time ago; I should be done with it by now.”
Isn’t it time to take a chance, listen to the child inside, and get help from someone who knows about childhood trauma? You can have a place to share your secrets, take what happened seriously, and be with a therapist that listens well. Someone who knows how to be the right kind of guide to find your way out of suffering. Once and for all.
I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychologist and psychoanalyst. I specialize in working with people who have suffered childhood trauma. If you haven’t had the help that deeply understood your trauma, it isn’t a surprise you’d still be suffering now. Perhaps it’s time to give a new psychotherapy a try.