Understanding and Healing Trauma

Today’s blog consists of an interview with one of my sister friends, Samaria Williams. I’ve known Samaria for years now and it was a pleasure to sit with her to discuss trauma. We discuss what’s misunderstood about trauma, what trauma can look like so people can learn to recognize it, and ultimately how to heal from it. Samaria bravely shares her personal experience with trauma and what her path to healing looks like. The discussion of trauma is important because it is so misunderstood, many families and cultures, particularly the African American culture, live with trauma on a day to day basis, and because it’s so common to us we’ve normalized it. My intention with this interview is to raise awareness, provide some insight and education, and most importantly to let people know that they don’t have to suffer because help is out there and healing from trauma is a possibility, although it is a continuous process.

Samaria: I am a licensed clinical social worker, certified in addictions treatment, and a trauma recovery. I specialize in supporting women heal from emotionally dysfunctional childhoods. I believe I have a passion for empowering people with the tools to heal from trauma. I think subconsciously I felt drawn to supporting people heal from addictions and mental health because both of my parents had addiction issues, it was a big part of my experience.

Akiva: I have a similar experience, I mean you know we met in my internship while I was in grad school and we worked at a drug and alcohol facility, however at the time I had no intention on working in drug and alcohol, but I agree with you  because both of my parents are also, well my father is deceased but he was addicted when he was alive, my mother is still currently addicted and I do agree with you that working in that field, it really helped me to look at addiction differently and helped me to get a better understanding.

Samaria: I gravitated towards that field because it was what I had the most experience in. So, I really began to learn how integrated care is what helps someone recover from addiction. When someone has experienced a great amount of trauma there are mental and emotional and psychological impairments that the trauma itself has caused to the nervous system. So, my personal experience has really been in integrative care. How do you help someone with their addiction issue but also with their mental health issue and then how do you help them to live as a recovered person?

Akiva: So, I think that is a great Segway into the discussion about trauma because as we both know that most of the people that we work with who do have experience with addiction, they have untreated trauma.

Samaria: Yes!

Akiva: And even more alarming some of them don’t even recognize that they have trauma

Samaria: Nope

Akiva: So, let’s start there, because I feel like trauma is so misunderstood in the community, like outside of our profession so how would you describe trauma to a lay person who has no idea what this is about?

Samaria: My working definition of trauma is anything that we experience as a threat to our survival or overall well-being. Almost anything can be traumatic to a person.

Akiva: Yeah so that’s true trauma is subjective, and its individual to each person. I was just like randomly having a conversation with someone about this recently and she was talking about trauma and the best way for me to explain it to her was very similarly to what you said. I said trauma is anything that we experience that we felt incapable of handling.

Samaria: Yes, that’s a beautiful way of putting it.  

Akiva: Like if our brain and our body is overwhelmed by any type of a situation and we feel incapable of securing our safety in that moment that’s a trauma.

Samaria: Yes, that’s beautifully said.

Akiva: Thank you

Samaria: And like you said it can be anything. People think that all trauma is huge trauma, and you were the first person that I heard say there is big T trauma and little T trauma but it’s true some people think that it has to be this big thing like a house fire or somebody dies or like something huge but it doesn’t. It can be things like I said that somebody may experience and not feel traumatized by it, but you may have felt that way. So, I think that’s a big myth that all trauma must be life altering huge.

Akiva: That’s something I learned in school the big T and little T, I got that from one of my college professors and it’s very true because not all traumas have to be big. Ok so how do you think trauma impacts our lives?

Samaria: On every level! What took me awhile to learn is that trauma impacts a person at a cellular level. Even when you’re doing all of these things to be well it can impact your immune system, how often you get sick, how fast your recover, the way that your body processes stress, the way that you deal with adversity, all of these things can be impacted by things that you experienced as a young child. And so, I would say that I think trauma impacts you really on every level of life, emotionally, physically, your heart, psychologically, your physical health, your emotional health, your finances, your ability to be assertive, your ability to protect yourself and have healthy boundaries. A person may not have issues in all those areas but certainly if you’ve had a good amount of trauma in your life at some point many or all those areas can be affected. However, it’s not all doom and gloom when it comes to healing. When you heal any of those areas it tends to create healing in other areas as well.

Akiva: I love your mention of the body because trauma is stored in the body even when we experience traumas and we are not old enough to consciously remember them, our body remembers them. I went to a play therapy training a few years ago and the case that was used to demonstrate the effect of the work of the play therapy was a little girl, who was born prematurely and she had a lot of medical complications when she was born and all of her play was surrounding her medical trauma. Her body remembered the trauma even though she was just born, and she consciously couldn’t remember. I was blown away that, that’s what was coming out in her play because that was what her issue was.

Samaria: That is amazing to me, I have more to say about that later when it comes to my own personal experience with trauma but it’s true that the body does store suppressed trauma, and I’m hopeful because we have so much more training and information about how to help kids heal and adults heal from trauma now than we did years ago but it’s still so astonishing that the body remembers so much that we don’t even have the words for it.

Akiva: So, what do you think happens when the trauma is untreated, what does it look like when people are untreated?

Samaria: It looks likes dysfunction.

Akiva: Mmmmm, yes!

Samaria: Any time you have dysfunction I believe that there is untreated trauma somewhere. When you hear people say that they have tried multiple ways to heal yet life is still very dysfunctional for them. A person often can look like they are having challenges in certain areas if they had emotional or physical trauma as a child. So, it’s still the major areas, I feel like it’s relationships, I feel like it could be money, it could be physical health, emotional health. I think a lot of mental health challenges are emotional challenges and psychological injuries that happened as a child and the body learned to compensate for that disruption in different ways. The challenge is once we grow up and we’re no longer a child anymore some of those same dysfunctional coping skills that maybe helped you survive in childhood; they literally don’t work in adulthood. And that’s when they dysfunction and dysregulation becomes clearer.

Akiva: Umm Hmmm

Samaria: But there’s often less compassion for adults who are dysfunctional than there are for kids who are dysfunctional

Akiva: Yeah that is very true because, at the end of the day that really is about survival. People who experience trauma, especially chronic and complex trauma they are always dysregulated.

Samaria: Yes

Akiva: Their central nervous system is always out of balance, they are always in fight and flight and everything is about survival so whatever experiences they have had previously that made them feel safe in that moment, whether it’s adaptive or maladaptive, it’s like hey this worked for me, this kept me safe last time so I gotta keep doing this.

Samaria: Beautifully said. I think it is all about the nervous system and we’re learning so much more about that now and ways to help regulate it. Whenever you have dysfunction, I believe there is dysregulation there also.

Akiva: So, I agree that we have a lot of advancements, I love the neuropsychology and neuroscience around it and studies of the brain and we’re learning so much. However, there is still a lot of misunderstanding. So why do you think trauma is so misunderstood?

Samaria: Well, that’s a good question, I think for so long mental and emotional health wasn’t as valued as it is now as far as how important it was to someone’s well-being. We know that people value physical health of course, we want our bodies to work well, but I think people underestimate how much mental health played a part in someone’s wellbeing. I think the confusion comes in when people look at it more as a moral issue or a will power issue vs nervous system dysregulation

Akiva: Yes! That is excellent. I’m sure you heard of her Tonier Cain; I had the luxury of going to one of her trainings. She’s not clinical, she just had her own healing and started sharing her journey of healing. One of the things that she said which always sticks out in my mind, she said instead of asking someone what’s wrong with you, ask them what happened to you?

Samaria: Yes, exactly.

Akiva: Because that is what leads to the dysregulation

Samaria: It’s true, I had that same moment with a client at a place of employment some years ago where she was sharing how she struggled to remain clean and how she had lost custody of her son. So, I’m like what happened that would cause you to relapse even though you love your son so much. She had this significant abuse history and she said to me, you know no one’s ever asked me that before and I’ve been in therapy for over 10 years and no one has ever asked me what happened. And so, I learned the power of that question.

Akiva: Yeah, that’s amazing so with this discussion of trauma do you think it’s possible to fully recover from trauma is this something that you can get over?

Samaria: That’s a good question and it’s a hard question, I think that a person can recover from trauma I would put an asterisk beside fully. I think that for someone to fully recover from trauma it takes a lot of determination and I also think that it takes a lot more resources then our current insurance system will provide. So a person has to really work on their own independent healing journey and often the cost of that is out of pocket, it’s self-pay and the reality is many people don’t have access to the kind of healing that impacts neurobiology and mental programming. Because its more than just about moving through what happened it’s regulating the nervous system and when you talk about regulation your talking about certain modalities that will help that. There are natural modalities I think we discussed them before, there’s yoga, there’s talk therapy, there’s acupuncture, and there’s massage therapy, neurofeedback, NLP, all many more techniques that help regulate your nervous system. But when you use the words FULLY  heal I think you have to heal body, mind, heart, spirit, and psychology for all of those to be healed it’s not just talk therapy, it’s not just medication, its these different modalities that have to be integrated, like you said the whole person must be treated.

Akiva: Ok so this is a great Segway to the next question, so how can people begin their process of recovery?

Samaria: I believe it’s all about self-awareness, I believe that we must start looking at what in our life is not working and thinking about how we would like it to be. I think that If you start there you can begin to find the threads of the dysfunction and the dysregulation and that will lead you to each next step of the healing process. So, if relationships are really a challenge for you, going back and looking at you know how you grew up and what your relationship was with your caregivers, was there dysregulation was there chaos, was there trauma that occurred. For some people was there emotional support, was there abandonment, was there neglect? We never want to through our parents under the bus but sometimes we did have circumstances that just weren’t healthy for us as children its not to say that a parent or caregiver intentionally hurt someone. But maybe they were not able to give the nourishment that the child needed and so there became a wound. So when you look back over your life and look at what some of these wounds are that will share with you what needs to be worked on for you to have a different experience and for you to create something different  in your life

Akiva: I totally agree awareness and acknowledgment. First you must be aware of whatever the issue is, and you must acknowledge it and acknowledging only means that your stating that this happened. You must be able to acknowledge that you know maybe mom or dad didn’t do the best, but it was their best, but unfortunately their best wasn’t good enough for you and it left you with certain scars.

Samaria: 1000% and it takes a very very wise therapist to be able to say to you just like you said a caregiver could care so much about you and still make mistakes that hurt you. It’s not either or its not one or the other, it’s a big part of the healing process. Life is often about both / and paradigms. I think some people like you said, they don’t want to embrace awareness because they are so scared of what acknowledgment might mean.

Akiva: That is very true, so if your comfortable I would like to transition a little bit, and again it’s whatever you are comfortable sharing about your own experience with trauma and let’s talk about your healing journey. One thing that I do know for sure is that our experiences are not our own and when our test becomes our testimony, I feel like it’s our right to share it. So maybe that we can help others.

Samaria: You’re right. I agree with that 100%. I had a chaotic childhood. And again, it wasn’t necessarily that my parents meant to make the mistake that they made, because they both had addiction issues. And some things I think are cultural and maybe even like being a victim of a time period. I think that the late 70s and 80s were hard on the African American community because, you know, cocaine and crack were introduced to environments that were already a  bit vulnerable, because the industries were changing, so people were losing jobs. They were feeling, you know, kind of hopeless. And I think that it was kind of bad timing for a lot of children born during that time.

Akiva: (laughing) that’s a good way to put it…. bad timing

Samaria: Right? You know, I mean, because it’s taken me a long time to really like, embrace that, because I blamed my parents like, WTF? What was the problem. So, I say that to say again, both of my parents had a lot of untreated trauma. A lot of dysregulation and again, back then there wasn’t as much of an invitation, I think for African American people to go to therapy to have different services, to help them have a better life. And I think a lot of kids paid the price to that. And so, I experienced significant sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and abandonment, and just general chaos for years. My mother, doing the very best that she could, also had significant mental health issues. We were left alone a lot. We weren’t necessarily with babysitters, and a lot of terrible things happen that really shouldn’t have happened. And so, for me, like what we were talking about earlier, much of the memory of what had happened to me had been suppressed for a long time because I was highly functional. PTSD symptoms were present and I was sick a lot, no matter what I did. Exercise, eating right, keeping the stress down, and having healthy friends. I was still very sick for all for a long-time, the doctor couldn’t really figure out what was going on. Years ago, I had no idea what complex PTSD was and how it showed up. I had a car accident in 2007, a pretty significant car accident and had a spinal injury. And so, what we now know about trauma is that whenever the neck area, the spinal area, or concussion occurs, it can open old traumas.

Akiva: Wow. So, your car accident is what triggered your memories of trauma?

Samaria: Yes, they didn’t all come back at once. And I’m grateful for that because I don’t know if my system could have handled all that at one time. But I did begin to experience chronic, daily, all over body pain. And in some ways, I think the chronic pain helped me prepare me for the emotional pain. I had a lot of developmental trauma early in life and the pain had been suppressed for a very long time. When trauma occurs there’s, less oxygen going to the brain, when a child is being abused / traumatized. And so that creates psychological issues, mental issues, emotional issues and even physical issues as far as memory and focus and mental clarity as well as physical health. Because your brain has lost oxygen for periods of time, and so when kids have experienced trauma for significant amounts of time, the body, to protect itself goes into shock. And that’s what my body did. And for so long, I was stuck in a survival pattern. I would shift between freeze, fight and flight modes, but I was burning out my nervous system to the point where more medical issues came up because there was this underlying emotional dysregulation happening. Years passed, I worked hard to recover, I feel in love we had a daughter, she’s healthy, things were good. However, when a person feels safe, that is when more trauma can open because the system feels like there is a capacity to absorb what wants to be revealed. So, things were going well in my life, but more trauma came to the surface of my memory, and then it became too much Years ago, it was just like, wow, like, why is this happening now, when things are finally good for me. I realized I had to get some support in my healing journey. I did not get help because I wanted to, I feel like if I didn’t get help, I was not gonna keep my sanity at this point in my life. I was a mother. And so I had to be well for my daughter, which is a reason why I did whatever I needed to do, get second jobs to pay for different therapies and different healing modalities to help my body to move through the healing of the trauma. And it was worth it. But I realize that it was more of a process than I could have ever imagined.

Akiva: So, you said something I think it’s significant. You said when things were going well in your life and your body felt safe, that was kind of like an invitation for more trauma to come. Can you say more about that?

Samaria: Yes, and it’s something that I’ve hated to hear, since the first time I heard it, but it’s true. I had a lot of traumatic memories come up in my relationship because I did feel safe for the first time with a man. And so, because I had trauma involving other men in my past, the trauma came up when I had the significant relationship and more capacity to deal with the suppressed / repressed memories of what had happened in my childhood.

Akiva: Thank you, the answer was perfect. It was very enlightening for me as I’m sure it will be for the readers. So, what was your healing journey like? What were some things that you’ve done to facilitate your healing?

Samaria: Yeah, it was a lot. I mean, it was this awareness, the awareness was big, not even just awareness of like, the actual details of the trauma, but just also the awareness of deciding that I didn’t want to live my life dysregulated. I made a conscious decision, I decided to do whatever needed to happen for my experience as an adult to be different than what I had known as a child? I intentionally decide that I would raise my daughter in a different, more conscious way which started with taking care of myself. So, it was a big acknowledgment piece to say, I can’t do this on my own. But I need support from people who have been through this and people who have helped other people to get through it. As black women, we can get caught up in being a martyr and that’s not healthy. And so definitely talk therapy has been a big piece of my healing process. With people who were trained in trauma therapy, I think that you have to have specialized trauma training, to be able to hold space for people who has experienced significant trauma, because it can be so overwhelming to the system. And so, for me, it was about self-empowerment, and personal development as well. I healed a lot through empowerment strategies, because I think that’s how we heal trauma by finding our own personal power. I’m going through a path of self-forgiveness. I have a very strong faith and I grew up in the Christian faith, and so there’s this big ideology about forgiveness. And so, I was trying to force myself to forgive people who have hurt me very deeply to be a “good Christian”. And I really had to look at that to say that even though I do want to forgive, I have to make sure that I go through a proper healing process for myself so that I can ensure that the forgiveness is authentic. And not just me saying it because I want to be a good Christian. Yeah, that was a very difficult process for me because I was like, some of the stuff just doesn’t make sense. It’s like, the Bible talks about forgiveness, but it also talks about repenting for our sins. And I think that often we can put more energy into victim blaming than holding people accountable who have hurt us very deeply.

Akiva: I love that you brought up forgiveness, I know the sayings are so cliché and we’ve heard them all, but forgiveness really is for you. It’s not about the other person, forgiveness is giving up that emotional charge that’s connected to that person or that event. Okay, so how has your life improved as a result of your healing journey?

Samaria: Oh, so much. I mean, it’s improved even in the way that I feel. I really do feel whole as a person and I’m able to have the life that I always wanted to have which is really like a nice normal life with a mom and dad in the house. With all the bills paid, you know, the kids happy and healthy and everybody’s on the same page, like a regular kind of life, but with regulation and learning how to move into thriving together.

Akiva: So, it sounds like you just wanted normalcy, which is such a beautiful thing because so many of us don’t have that normalcy. And now that you have that, that’s amazing. So, with that, are there any areas where you still struggle with regarding your trauma?

Samaria: Yeah, I mean, I have things in my life that that no one else in my family have experienced. So, when you talk about being like a business owner, when you talk about having a healthy relationship and a marriage. When you talk about raising kids in a more conscious way, and how do you, you know, love and spoil them and not give them so much that they feel entitled like they don’t have to work hard? Some stuff can still feel traumatic because your inner child is like what are they doing? I had to overcome so much and now things are so easy, you know, for these kiddos.

Akiva: okay, so let’s wrap it up with this. So, what advice would you give someone who’s currently struggling with trauma?

Samaria: Be patient with yourself. Please Be patient with yourself. Be gentle with yourself, get support from someone who has a background in trauma recovery in any way that you can. But trying to heal from trauma on your own is not always the best. You need someone to help you to hold all that’s going on for you. But I would say be gentle with yourself because as much as we want to feel better quickly, it’s almost like having the flu no pun intended. We’re gonna feel bad for a while before it gets better. And even when you start to feel better, you still may not be back at your full strength. So, when it comes to trauma healing, you must take it bit by bit. And of course, you’re gonna make progress, but there might be things that feel like setbacks, which is why you must be gentle with yourself. And you also must have support and I would also encourage community. I think having a group or peers who are safe, but who can relate some extent to what you have gone through to help you to feel less isolated is vital.

Akiva: I concur, healing trauma is not something that no one should try to handle on their own because that’s just not wise. It’s unwise and it’s unhealthy. Because you can trigger yourself and who knows what could happen.

Samaria: There are many different ways to heal but first you must realize that you’re not alone, and that you’re not making shit up. It’s like when your healing on your own, like for a long time I thought this didn’t really happen, it’s like your trying to talk yourself out of what your body knows is true. Denial is powerful. But when you’re with somebody else and they can be that witness for you, they can help you to normalize what’s happened. We need someone else often to say what happened to you should NOT have happened but healing is always always possible.

Akiva: Well, I am so proud of you, and all your work that you’ve done personally and professionally, and I just felt good. I feel like this was such an amazing interview. I feel like we both did such a great job.

Samaria: Yeah, me too. You did excellent.

If this article trigged something in you please contact either Samaria or myself so we can provide you with resources and get you on the path to healing and recovery.

Akiva S. Harris, MS, LPC can be reached at:

www.beyondlimitsmhw.com

Facebook: Beyond Limits Mental Health & Wellness, LLC

Instagram: www.instagram.com/beyond_limitsmhw

Samaria Williams, Licensed Psychotherapist, can be reached at

http://www.sacredsoulpractice.com

@sacredsoulpractice     

@andshespokeup

FB: https://www.facebook.com/sacredsoulpractice/

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