Do We Heal from Trauma?

Do We Heal from Trauma?

Trauma - arbutus tree


I had a session with my mentor, during which he claimed that we don’t heal from trauma. It was one of those shocking statements he’s famous for – at least in my world. It undermines the consensus of experts in the trauma field.

I almost wrote the “trauma industry”. A lot of professionals these days make their living off of trauma. If it’s true we don’t heal from trauma, wouldn’t that threaten the very edifice of the industry? Most therapists want to believe that we have the power to heal. It’s humbling to take healing off the table.

And yes, it strikes at the heart of deeply held core assumption of people like trauma expert, Gabor Mate, who claim that we can and do heal from trauma.

Bullshit, says my mentor. Ok, my word, not his. Trauma is not a broken arm or a physical malady like a burst appendix. With proper treatment we do actually physically heal.

But trauma is not something you get over. With support, you get through it.

But not by going inward and “finding yourself”.

Trauma, he says, is a “disaster”. It’s not about going “within”. It’s about finding solidarity with others, finding community with those who treat you well. And staying away from those who treat you badly.

You actually need to venture outward, then, not inward. He cites the holocaust. The aim of the perpetrators of holocausts is to destroy community – to devastate entire ethnic identities and the sense of being part of a global community beyond your own.

Trauma alienates.

What I appreciate about this way of holding trauma is that it doesn’t minimize trauma, whether that trauma is a holocaust, a failure of love in childhood, a loss of a parent, or the horrors of war. Professionals who use the language of healing from trauma may inadvertently set people up to believe that they should be able to get over it. If they are unable to heal from it, there must be something wrong with them.

I wonder if conveying the message that we can heal from trauma might also signal to perpetrators of emotional neglect and abuse that their bad behaviour won’t have lasting effects? Those who sexually abuse their children already believe that the child won’t remember anyway. Now, they hear that eventually their victim child can do some therapy and get over it. How convenient.

But if you don’t “heal” then what hope is there for victims of trauma?

My mentor used the example of the arbutus tree that grow almost horizontally out off of a cliff or over a body of water. It will never grow upright because of initial conditions. Yet, they are beautiful and contribute to the stability of soil on steep embankments. They are essential to the ecosystem. Nobody ever looks at one of those trees and concludes that its angle of growth is disgusting. The tree is more likely to be praised for its resilience, a living testament to how Life itself overcomes and works with obstacles.

We may not be able to heal from the disaster of trauma. But we can live a good life, a true life, a beautiful life in spite of it. We can bring consciousness to why our nervous systems contract under certain circumstances and with certain people. We can grieve the source of our isolation and loneliness and sadness. We can learn what it feels like to turn towards ourselves with tenderness. We can seek out communities of care. We can learn to stop putting ourselves in situations and with people who hurt us. We don’t have to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to us. We can live a life that is truly our own, despite how we were treated. And we can make a promise to treat others well.

Maybe the broken and tender parts of us that were devastated can’t be cleanly knit back together like a broken bone. But they can be woven into an ecosystem of caring humans that is in need of our broken beauty to survive and thrive. Our broken hearts and shattered nervous systems can be loved and nurtured and protected by reclaiming a power that we didn’t have back then, but now do.

The tilted resilience of the arbutus tree only adds to its beauty.

(With gratitude to Andrew Feldmar for his wisdom and teaching)

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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