This post is dedicated to survivors of suicide and those who may be suffering. Tuesday, September 10, is International Suicide Awareness Day. You can break free and live again. Keep reading.
Suicide is mostly equated with depression. Depression is a common experience in our society. Its frequently diagnosed, sometimes in routine medical settings, such as primary care, where it is also usually treated with medication. Aside from the strong body of research that shows medication alone is actually less powerful than placebo, the biggest problem with this monolithic view of depression is that not all depression is the same. Depression that stems from unresolved trauma requires a different response than the conventional treatments for depression. Trauma itself is not a monolith. We respond to developmental trauma differently than adult onset, single incident trauma. Of course, plenty of adult onset, single incidents can occur to someone who has experienced developmental trauma. The rest of this article is based on my experience of hundreds of clients impacted by development, especially attachment related trauma. The opportunity for lasting impact is extremely high during these “formative” years. They are called formative for a reason.
Let’s take a look at how these experiences can lead to a legacy for the adults who remain haunted by events, feeling much like the proverbial unwanted gifts that “don’t stop giving”. Let’s take a look at how you may not even realize when you are in the process of getting gifts.
For ordinary experiences, we have ordinary memories. The experiences that matter more to us will be translated into memory. If they are particularly meaningful they may possibly become part of one’s narrative, one’s “story”. No matter how meaningful, ordinary memories fade. Take old photographs, for example. With enough time, it becomes hard to remember details. The experience isn’t as vivid, perhaps its even fuzzy. It may not even feel like “you” anymore. You may not even be able to relate to how you were feeling in that photo. Other times, you may feel something completely contrary to what the picture capture. Just ask any divorced person who looks at his or her wedding photos!
Now, let’s compare this with how chronic trauma gets captured (Keep in mind, this is a very simplified illustration. ) Remember trauma lies in the experience, not in the event. By knowing “what happened” to a person, you don’t really know what someone’s actual experience of it was like, unless they choose to share that with you and you happen to empathize strongly with their experience. Even still, your empathic experience won’t be an exact replica of anyone else’s. It’ll be your experience superimposed upon theirs. We are all uniquely alone in our subjective experiences.
Imagine a fresh roll of photography film; yes, we are going old school here. The nervous system sets the lens speed for the photograph. Traumatic experiences require a particular setting, which captures it differently. The lens freezes a particular moment, zooms in, and captures the affective and somatic aspects of experience, and snaps the photo. Like ordinary photos, that moment is isolated from the continuous whole experience.
In ordinary memories, the brain functions involved are associated with language and other abstract capacities. Traumatic events inhibit those functions in order to be able to use areas of the brain reserved for managing core survival needs. Therefore, the sense of time, as well as the ability to create your own “story”, to interpret and to make meaning from it, is offline. The brain functions connected with somatic and emotional experiences store those experiences in a manner that is immediate, I.e., not affected by time, or space, or symbolic functions associated with interpretation or meaning. The effect of this on the subject of this experience completely identifies with the snapshot taken of that moment in time, as a true reflection of “me” and “mine”, without being impacted by perspective or context.
The manner in which these images are captured determine how they are stored and later retrieved. Unlike ordinary experiences, the memories aren’t processed once and for all. That would make them be as vulnerable to erosion as ordinary memories. Instead, they remain a negative on the subconscious. Somatic sensations, including emotions and affects, are retrieved as they occur: in the flesh. Rather than “looking at a photo”, that seems separate from you in time. the memory is re-experienced in your very body. Its the only way to reencounter somatic experience: on an immediate level. It’s not abstracted. The imprint remains there like a negative. You can move on, even forget about it, and there it stays like a ghost.
When conditions (aka triggers) in the here and now resonate with the feelings or sensations stored in that negative, the original experience is “released”, like a hologram. The 3D experience of the negative gets superimposed upon current reality. What’s most effected is the sense of self of the subject. If you felt small, helpless, vulnerable or if you felt angry, rageful, even, or if you felt shame, humiliated, then angry but unsafe too, so you dare only to turn it against yourself. All these experiences are captured in a separate negative, like a glint of stars in the lights, and when the negative is released in the moment, you step into these experiences, as if you put on a pair of glasses in which you can only see through those eyes, those old prisms that you now interpret reality through.
If you live with a particular set of glasses on for a while, you may forget what it used to look like. Sometimes that looks like chronic depression. Other times, long term body image issues. Other times, its acting out behaviors, like binge eating, drinking, using drugs, cutting. Other times, it can be a dissociative response, leading to a sense of depersonalization, like who you see in the reflection isn’t you. You may be unable to relate to parts of your life, to feel certain things, or to feel numb, or shame and disgust may intrude on particular experiences.
After a while, it may feel like the only escape from this one dimensional hell is to kill yourself. The person who wants to die feels that death is less painful than living. Living is painful. There’s loss and pain, physical, emotional, psychological. However, the defining characteristic is that life is a constant state of flux. Its a process of change. Nothing lasts forever, even what we most want to hold onto. When a state of being seems to last forever, something has gone wrong in how you relate to experience. That is not living. It is not natural. So give yourself an opportunity and seek services from a qualified person, someone who has had experience working with experiences similar to yours. Keep searching for the right person to help you through the stuck experiences you have living within you. The past is not past yet. It needs to become past, in order for you to have different and new experiences.