Note from Ellen Lacter: I am so happy that Anne Redelfs, MD, has contributed this article to my website. Dr. Redelfs is a ritual abuse survivor and retired psychiatrist. She has created a healing ministry where she helps people listen deeply to their hearts and minds as inner guides to health and wholeness. She calls herself a “gardener of the soul.” Her website, anneredelfs.com, offers many videos, articles, and audios. She has written the following books on trauma and healing, including: The Awakening Storm (2013), Illness Can Be the Cure (2017), With Every Addiction, “Infants” Are Trying to Meet Their Needs (2017), and with Deborah Chelette-Wilson and David Johnson, What the World Needs Now! Trauma Recovery for Our Children and Ourselves (2019). Dr. Redelfs welcomes people to contact her with comments and questions at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Life Changes Us
Our life stories change dramatically as we grow up. Have you noticed? If they are not changing dramatically, we may not be growing as much as we could be. Both life-affirming and traumatic experiences may spur our growth. Some traumas are “normal” life challenges, such as the loss of loved ones, illnesses, injuries, and so on. Other, more damaging, traumas involve human cruelty—inhuman acts which can be deliberately directed against us. When too much trauma happens early in life, including people consistently not meeting our developmental needs—our growth is stunted. We may then create a fictional storyline and idealized characters to imagine that our needs have been met, a fantasy in which we can lose our true selves, sometimes for a lifetime!
To give you an example, I grew up in an upper middle-class home in Western Pennsylvania. My maternal grandfather paid for my education at Duke University and most of my medical school training at Tulane in New Orleans. I considered myself fortunate. I tried to do right by my fellow humans, so I believed I was a good person. When anyone asked how I was, I’d smile and say, “Fine!” For the first 28 years of my life, I had no conscious knowledge of the dark underworld into which I had been born. I had no awareness of the horrible acts my abusers had forced me to perform under torture and threats of death, nor the depth of my heartbreak.
I believed my storyline. My parents’ estranged marriage was the only circumstance that I considered traumatic, so I figured I was relatively healthy and ready to begin helping others as a doctor. That unscathed identity was who I believed myself to be. I had some issues that I thought were minor at the time, such as chronic fatigue and mild depression. As a medical student and resident working very long hours and dealing with sickness and death on a daily basis, I could easily rationalize my symptoms by these obvious stressors. Any normal human being would be tired and depressed! I went to therapists because I had read somewhere that good doctors work on themselves as much as their patients, not because I thought I had any serious issues.
For fun, or so I thought at the time, I used to share with friends that I had multiple personalities. I’d laugh as I told them about “Annie,” the silly little girl inside. “Anita” was the wild woman who liked to have a good time. “Office Worker” or “O.W.” was the non-stop workaholic. My friends seemed amused by my many anecdotes! Poking fun at painful truths is a phase of development where we survivors can get stuck before we begin to face our trauma. (You can access the stages of soul development through the “How Old Is Your Soul?” Quiz on my website–https://anneredelfs.com/quick-human-development-questionnaire/)
My early therapists supported my story of being a relatively healthy person who had been reared by a relatively functional family. They soothed my largely unconscious fears and insecurities with a lot of positive feedback, and they encouraged my goal of becoming a doctor and my interest in helping others. This reinforcement fed me for a time.
One of my first therapists diagnosed me with an adjustment disorder, based on the opinion that I was having trouble adjusting to the intense, multifaceted demands of my medical training. Later, I was labeled dysthymic, burdened by chronic, low-grade depression. My early therapists missed that my fatigue and other symptoms originated in extreme child abuse and that the horrible victimization was ongoing.
Then one day during my pediatric residency, I scheduled an appointment with a new therapist on the recommendation of my then husband. Being British, he didn’t give details of why he felt this was important, but clearly something concerned him. This new therapist was a social worker named Carol who had been recommended by a friend.
The night before my first appointment, I had watched a movie about a young woman who had been molested by her father. I felt so bad for her that I cried with gut-wrenching sobs during and even after the movie. Such was my surfacing grief that I had trouble sleeping afterwards. I tossed and turned with terrorizing nightmares in which the villain was my father. At one point, I woke up feeling utterly devastated, my heart pounding. The word “incest” was stuck in my throat. I tried to say the word out loud, but I couldn’t get it out.
When I went to work at the hospital the following morning, my staff doctor observed, “I don’t know who you are, but you are not the woman I have been working with for the past few months!” In retrospect, I think that a different personality had gone to work that day.
During this first appointment with Carol, I told her about the previous 24 hours: the gut-wrenching grief, the terrorizing nightmares about my father, and the word “incest” stuck in my throat. I did not recognize the significance of these experiences nor of my emotional responses. I also somehow felt it important to tell Carol about my four different personalities and each of their character types and names.
Carol listened attentively and responded gently, “It sounds like you may have been molested by your father and now have a Multiple Personality Disorder” (what is currently known as Dissociative Identity Disorder [DID]). Moments before, I had attributed almost no importance to anything I had described to her. Now, suddenly and surprisingly, I felt deeply heard. A profound grief welled up inside me, and I found myself crying intensely as I allowed this agonizing pain to surface. From the depth of my soul, I felt every fiber of my being responding to her queries with, “Yes!”
Carol comforted me with words of kindness. She assured me that she could help because she had had similar traumas and similar traumatic reactions. She explained that she too had developed dissociated personalities in childhood to cope with her own extreme abuse.
Finally, I had found a therapist who could see beyond my white-washed stories and characters and could guide me into the truth of my life! She didn’t tiptoe around the issues, afraid of lawsuits for “implanting memories,” like so many therapists these days. Following the guidance of her soul, she had informed me more in one hour than in my many years of therapy before this. I was impressed! Having found someone capable of knowing me truly and supporting the enormity of my suffering, I also felt tremendous relief, as did my then-husband! He told me he had suspected “there was something seriously wrong.”
Life Moves Us to a Greater Reality
Within a few months of treatment with Carol, I was having agonizing memories of ritual abuse (RA). I slowly became aware that my rosy character and storyline had actually been “programmed” into me by my abusers. In this context of RA, programming refers to the calculated application of torture to induce the formation of new dissociated identities. Programmers then psychologically indoctrinate and manipulate these induced identities to establish long-term control over their victims’ beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and behavior for their own nefarious ends. By design, this utter control is outside of the conscious knowledge of the front personality who normally interacts with the outside world. For example, I had been unaware that I was programmed to always answer the question, “How are you?” with a smiling, “Fine!”
Every vague remembrance of RA that surfaced within me was accompanied by excruciating emotional pain that convinced me that the memories were real. Carol was able to corroborate the horrible reality of ritual abuse from her own childhood experiences. After I had become clear that this was my history, she shared that she was a ritual abuse survivor herself.
Carol used muscle-testing, also known as applied kinesiology, to help me to know my unknown parts and my forgotten past, and she taught me to muscle-test too (See Andrew Weil, MD, describe applied kinesiology on his website: https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/balanced-living/wellness-therapies/applied-kinesiology) Carol invited me to join the RA group she created to help the dozen or so people she worked with who had been ritually abused and/or were living or working with RA survivors. I welcomed the company in this extremely difficult and painful healing process. I developed close, authentic relationships with a few survivors who, like me, had dissociated identities that had been forced through torture, intimidation, and indoctrination to submit to the ideology and practices of their cult.
I like to refer to these dissociated identities as “soul parts,” because I believe that they each contain part of our souls at their core. They are all inherently human, but their natures can be warped by trauma. Discovering their innate humanness became a part of my healing practice, both individually and within Carol’s group.
With such community support of like-minded people, I was able to release my tight grasp on my identity as a solely good person and my storyline of a fortunate upbringing. I began to inch towards the whole of what my life had been and the darker sides of what I had become in reaction to the extreme, unrelenting trauma.
My father was a psychopath. Before I was even born, he sold me into slavery to the organized criminal network to which he belonged. Throughout my childhood, he routinely conducted torturous practices as part of his Satanic worship, as an individual, in small groups, within his “Christian” by day/Satanic by night church, and within his larger criminal networks. Each abuse episode forced me to detach from my sensitive human qualities and to harden myself, in order to minimize my suffering.
My father’s criminal network designed these malevolent practices to destroy the good and godly qualities within their victims. These abusers applied torture until a new identity formed who would be in a state of such pain and terror that it would believe, feel, and do anything that the abusers instructed. These abusers defined each new identity and molded it into a character that served their purposes. As the souls of their victims increasingly froze in traumatic shock, these characters stiffened and hardened to become pawns that they could easily manipulate around their game board.
At this time, I had no conscious awareness that my unconscious parts were still being horribly victimized and exploited by a local group affiliated with my father’s cult. Unaware of the retaliation that such a disclosure would bring, I naively shared with my parents the most benign surfacing memories of being sexually abused as a child.
My mom responded by flying into town to spend time with me, comfort me, and meet Carol. After I shared the details of abuse by my father, she said, “The signs were always there. He couldn’t keep his hands off of some of those little girls.” Now she understood these events for what they were and repeatedly said: “How could I have been so dumb?!” My Mom was very supportive and has been in my court ever since. Upon returning home from her trip, she filed for divorce, something she had been considering for years. This decision resulted in health and happiness that she had not known in decades!
My father’s reaction to my disclosure was to travel to the area where I was reared and tell the people our family knew that I had been diagnosed with a mental illness and was saying bizarre things.
In the ensuing years, my father and his compatriots retaliated directly and intensified their persecution with ineffable violence. They inflicted many episodes of near-death torture on my body in efforts to punish and browbeat my mind-controlled soul parts into subservience once again. At the time, I was aware of feeling terrified, but I did not consciously know I was being tortured until years later.
Fearing for my life without fully knowing why and not knowing whom to trust or where to turn for help, I bolted, putting my career on hold. I even left therapy with Carol, as much as it had helped me. One afternoon, I stepped into my car and drove out of New Orleans. Except for food and rest stops, I kept driving for the next four days! I ended up in the Cascade Range of Northern California in a charming little town, called Mount Shasta. There, I found a job cleaning vacation cabins with a couple of fun women who both had an earthy, natural wisdom.
When I finished work, I escaped into the gorgeous mountains that surrounded the town, where I read psychological and spiritual books, prayed, and worked on myself for hours. This inner work usually involved tuning into which soul parts sought attention. This focus included sensing what they needed to express, such as grief, terror, anguish, guilt, shame, outrage, and feelings of utter worthlessness. I also attuned to their unmet needs so I might finally attend to them, what has become a life-long endeavor!
The reality underneath my storyline overwhelmed my immature humanity. In my desperation, I turned to the only One I felt I could wholly trust—Almighty God. To my great relief, I began to hear life-affirming help and guidance within me and feel the presence of something older and wiser than I. My faith strengthened. Surrounded by nature’s exquisite beauty and this newfound spiritual presence, my body gradually relaxed. At last, I’d found the safety I needed to admit my lifelong lack of it!
Greater Realities Are Inside Us as Well as Outside
By the time I returned to New Orleans four and a half months later, I had started a new path for my life. Now following my inner guidance, I no longer felt the need for Carol’s strong leadership. I had found my true voice! Listening to and following this resourceful inner guide, I came to know true choice—based on my free will, not my programming. And this voice inside directed me to many therapists, counselors, and body workers in the following years.
However, one serious problem emerged in regard to this new skill of listening to my inner guidance and following its direction. I had so many voices inside—so many soul fragments. I heard voices of apparently all ages, with a wide range of feelings and thoughts, each wanting different things and not wanting other things. There were arguments and feelings of conflict. How could I be sure which voice was the benevolent wisdom of my healthy, whole soul and which were voices programmed into me to distract, deceive, or lead me into harm’s way? I had been raised to be a people-pleaser by my father who demanded complete subservience. I definitely couldn’t keep everyone within me happy. So, whom do I choose?
There were many voices with many different thoughts and feelings outside of me too, coming from other people. Some told me emphatically what I should be doing, like putting all my efforts into finding a job and shelving my “impractical” personal development pursuits. I began to notice the similarities between my inner and outer worlds, an awareness that has only grown over time.
Like many Americans, I too had been conditioned to judge people by their appearances and by their standing in society. However, my emerging healthy instincts were telling me that these standards were poorly placed. For instance, most worldly authorities didn’t seem to have a clue about these largely unspoken, sinister layers of reality that rob so many souls from their lives’ paths and purposes. These “authorities” couldn’t see, hear, or feel these deepest and darkest layers, nor could they recognize their effects. Some “authorities” even fiercely fought to discredit the few professionals and survivors who were working to expose these sinister realities and to protect the children and psychologically young adults that fall prey to them. I discovered each of these defensive stances within me as I was getting to know my traumatized soul parts, so I realized these stances were yet manifestations of wounded human beings reacting to what reminds them of their own unresolved trauma.
I find it rare to meet people capable of perceiving and responding appropriately to trauma. To give you an example, one night I spent hours crying hysterically as I relived the memory of some torture. Although I wore plenty of make-up when I went to work the next day, my eyes were still red and puffy. None of my colleagues at the hospital seemed to notice. However, mid-afternoon, one psychiatry patient said, “Doc, you’ve been crying—what’s wrong?” How often do the recognition, kindness, and support we crave come not from those who have worked to arrive at the top of the totem pole but from those who have worked instead to heighten their humanity?
With so many people “on top” possessing less of their humanity than those they were leading, life became very confusing. Yet, with so much programming and so many unresolved traumatic experiences controlling my mind, I didn’t feel capable of judging anything! I merely had a growing awareness that my blind trust in myself, worldly authorities, and the standards of my culture and profession had been misplaced, grievously so!
When I looked closely at other people, I so-often saw a full-range of soul parts, the same as I’d found within myself. Most of these people were unaware of the deeper layers, especially the darker layers, just as I had been oblivious and still was, at least in part. More and more, I turned to the One who I deemed worthy of making judgments and guiding me on my life’s journey. I soon began to hear this wise counsel coming from others just as much as myself. As my trust in this guidance grew, I allowed Him to move me in every aspect of life.
Trauma Can Drive Us to Get to Know Ourselves
Paradoxically, seeing that other people were neither wholly mature nor wholly good helped me to forgive my immaturity and the guilt and shame I carried over having been so horribly abused. I had discovered that underneath my superficial belief that I was a good person was the dreaded, more firmly entrenched belief that I must be truly wretched to have attracted so much violence, bloodshed, and torture into my life—even before I was born!
I received help with this self-recrimination from a place I would not have anticipated. As a pediatric resident, I held so many babies in my arms and treated so many sick and injured children. Through this work, my soul deeply grasped that no child is to blame for such abuse.
By this time, I had been listening more to my inner guidance, finding it consistently trustworthy, objective, and untouched by the extreme conditioning and programming that had been inflicted upon me. I realized that this guidance was my truly free self, and becoming this was my goal.
I increasingly grew to comprehend the effects that unbearable trauma has on every human being. I believe what most determines how people think and behave is the individuals’ stage of emotional and mental development. The younger we are, psychologically speaking, the more we will deny our most devastating traumas and make up stories to fill in the blanks. The older or more mature we are, the more we gain insight into our traumas and their effects. We can then use this insight to embrace and develop every part of ourselves and to relate to all people in order to help free them and propel their growth.
Of course, my freedom required freeing the dissociated-off parts of myself from their jail cells within my unconscious mind. I had to welcome them into my conscious life and meet their needs. For example, I had a number of previously dissociated child parts who had endured egregious trauma. To nourish these inner kids and to give them experiences of normal childhood enjoyments for the first time, I began gardening, hiking, biking, traveling, children’s movie watching, learning Spanish, experimenting with international cuisine, weightlifting, playing baseball, and video-gaming. I stretched as a person, and I became skillful in new areas.
There weren’t just kids inside either. There were women and men inside too, previously dissociated self-states, who were forced to grow up on “the wrong side of the tracks.” This is the term my father used when he pretended to be morally superior to those who were “living in sin.” Of course, no one during my upbringing ever acknowledged that our family was deeply entrenched in this “wrong side.” My father was a perpetrator of such trafficking! He maintained an illusion of self-righteousness to strengthen the dissociative barriers in my mind between his extreme victimization of me and the facade of normalcy or even superiority.
Integrating these other-side-of-the-tracks, abuse-submissive parts of myself into my conscious life took some agonizing negotiations, as we each seemed focused on each other’s weaknesses and failings. For example, the most abused parts typically viewed me as weak as I had not endured any of the abuse that they had. They also believed that I didn’t care about them because I hadn’t noticed their plight for so many years. For my part, I viewed many of them as conceding to the beliefs and bad acts of our abusers. I thought: “How can you go along with people who have tormented you since before you were born!” My psychiatric training, however, reminded me that when we humans can’t beat life-threatening adversaries, our terror compels us to join them in self-defense. (See Stockholm syndrome: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/why-stockholm-syndrome-happens-and-how-to-help-0926184.)
I was dependent upon soulful guidance coming from both inside and outside myself to tell me what to do to resolve these conflicts. Like any diplomatic negotiation, I got a few things that I wanted, and “they” got a few things that they wanted. For example, I, a vegetarian, was willing to have barbecue, burgers, and salami and mustard sandwiches from time to time. And they were willing to put up with my general preoccupation with health and healing, as long as we watched the occasional violent or thriller video that aligned with their abuse-driven interests.
My harsh feelings toward the most traumatized parts of myself softened as I understood their outrage and all of the programming and conditioning that had compelled them to take their fury out on me and others. I realized that those stuck at the youngest stages of psychological development due to chronic and overwhelming trauma are very limited in thought, feeling, and behavior. Like infants, they receive what they are fed and go where they are carried. They have little ability to grasp their own needs, let alone express them.
In my immaturity, I had spent many years believing a fairy tale, oblivious to the enormous suffering of the most damaged parts of me and unaware that we shared important unmet needs. I had been clueless that my playful stories about having multiple personalities were actually poking fun at the truth. My soul parts had every right to be upset with me! With this shared understanding between me and the previously-dissociated parts of me, I finally embraced these devastated aspects of me and their true-life stories as growth-spurring parts of my identity and my life.
Trauma Can Press Us Out of Our Stories
I believe that at a deep level, we are all whole in our true nature. Every voice and every character type that exists in our world can be found to various degrees within us all. For every trait we possess, we also have the opposite trait.
For example, we all possess the capacity for kindness as well as cruelty. Sometimes, we get the two confused. For example, we may need to cause pain in the short term to alleviate pain over the long term, as in giving a sick child a shot of life-saving medication. When we have access to the full range of human qualities within, we can then use every trait we possess to positively influence the full range of people whom we meet each day, thereby facilitating their soul development.
People who enjoy hurting others sometimes learn important life lessons when they become hurt themselves, experiencing similar effects to those caused by their actions. Enduring this pain can motivate them to choose another way of interacting. However, when they do not make the connection between the pain that some part of them is passing on and the pain they are experiencing, they often feel victimized by the pain rather than gaining insight into their own pain-producing behavior.
For example, parents who were abused as children and now abuse their own children often feel victimized by their kids’ reactions to being abused. When their kids withdraw from them, “disrespect” or “defy” them, or get in trouble at school or with the law, such parents view their children’s problematic behavior in isolation. They fail to see how their abuse and neglect caused their children’s behavior nor how this was an intergenerational reenactment of their own childhood abuse and neglect.
People who are superficially sweet or morally self-righteous can also have a blind-spot for the ill-effects they have on others. They too can feel victimized when others have strong negative reactions to them. The “nicest people,” over time, are likely to suffer the effects of their constrained emotional expression. This issue often manifests in chronic psychological or physical health conditions long before these individuals begin to question their basic assumptions. Sometimes the superficially kind or moral learn best by being the witnesses of a deeper kindness and morality, one that has the courage to confront people about their hurtful behaviors, including those that might appear kind or moral.
When we are attached to one side of the vast continuum of human character traits, whether excessive aggression or “kindness,” we cannot respond effectively to both the people who need a mirror held up to their hurtful actions and the people who need a model of more authentic, mature, and mutually beneficial ways of relating. This is particularly true in close relationships where most opportunities for growth present themselves. When we’re one-sided, we often leave people stuck in their trauma and lacking the much needed experiences that might compel them beyond it.
Sometimes, life itself steps in to fill this void. Something happens that forces or guides us to “try on” human qualities that we’re not comfortable with, giving us much-needed opportunities to accelerate our return to wholeness. Forced acceleration was largely my experience for many years.
I had spent my early adulthood being an externally-directed person, focused on meeting the expectations of others and ignoring myself. As I became conscious of my actual history of extreme abuse and its effects on me, I quickly transitioned into someone who focused on my own needs, especially my safety and transcending my trauma. I took a ten-year sabbatical from professional work to concentrate on me. I needed to get to know myself and process my many layers of trauma. I grew to care about myself and care for myself—spending hours each day on my psychological development. However, I had also gone from one extreme to the other, from an outside focus to an inside focus, until one day, Hurricane Katrina approached…
Trauma Can Urge Us into Action
The hurricane and Levee Disaster destroyed 80% of New Orleans, and suddenly the life I once knew was no more. I had evacuated with friends to a safe house in Greensburg, Louisiana. When government officials finally allowed us back into town six weeks later, I was surrounded by an entire city of traumatized people! With my wealth of professional and personal experience with trauma—I knew what to do to help each traumatized soul —listen to my inner guidance, of course.
I had studied post-traumatic stress disorder thoroughly in my psychiatric residency and through my work on myself, so I saw that seemingly everyone in New Orleans was afflicted to various degrees. Some people’s symptoms manifested through traumatizing behavior, such as the perpetration of corruption and crime. Others revealed their trauma through ignoring the corruption and crime or absolving perpetrators of personal responsibility by making excuses, such as, “We’re all doing the best we can!”
I would like to offer a brief summary of my way of looking at post-traumatic stress. I leave off the word “disorder” because I believe that post-traumatic stress (PTS) is more accurately portrayed as an injury, not a disorder. (See Dr. Frank Ochberg: https://jmvh.org/article/art-trauma-and-ptsi-an-interview-with-dr-frank-ochberg/.)
My conceptualization of PTS is a simplified model of what is written in textbooks. After all the unnecessary and horrifically harsh complications forced upon me by an EXTREMELY and chronically traumatized family, I crave simplicity!
My extensive experience has taught me that PTS symptoms fit into two categories: (1) re-enactment of the trauma and (2) avoidance of trauma.
The first category of symptoms is the automatic re-creating or re-living in the present of dehumanizing trauma. These re-creations are mental, emotional, physical, and/or relational.
Mental re-experiencing includes nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive memories of the trauma—“I can’t stop thinking about it!”
Emotional re-experiencing is feeling the intense emotions brought on by the trauma, such as anger, fear, and grief, as if the trauma were still going on.
Physical re-experiencing of trauma involves a stressed body state—muscular tension and anxiety with a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, trembling, and more. Re-experiencing body pain and other uncomfortable sensations (dizziness, suddenly feeling extremely hot or cold, nausea and other stomach distress, etc.) are further examples.
Relational re-experiencing is when we unconsciously re-enact with others the roles of victim and victimizer that we experienced within the trauma that we endured. When we re-enact the victim role, we repeatedly enter into relationships with people who victimize us. When we reenact the role of the victimizer, we unconsciously drive our victim to experience the unresolved traumatic scenes from our lives and the accompanying thoughts and feelings. In this case, we treat others as we were once treated, passing on our pain. (For a more thorough description of re-enactment, see Sandra L. Bloom, MD: http://sanctuaryweb.com/Portals/0/2010%20PDFs%20NEW/2010%20Bloom%20Reenactment.pdf.)
For example, some people in New Orleans who lost their possessions to the floods then stole from others to get their possessions back. In this relational re-creation of their own loss, victims became thieves, forcing their victims to experience a similar loss.
On a larger scale, many city officials also acted out their unresolved trauma and PTS by engaging in acts of corruption or turning a blind eye to rampant corruption. Greed was also widespread as many heads of corporations prioritized their money-making agendas over the needs of struggling citizens. The media regularly reiterated storylines, such as, “Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans!” or, “This was the worst natural disaster ever experienced in the US!” In fact, the massive flooding in New Orleans was largely man-made, caused by breached levees that had been originally poorly built or had been damaged by people. Again and again, traumatized New Orleanians were re-traumatized by criminal, corrupt, greedy, or deceitful people, who I believe were unconsciously re-creating their own unresolved childhood trauma, forcing others to feel their yet unexpressed pain.
The second category of PTS symptoms is the automatic avoidance of the trauma or people, places, or things that are reminiscent of the trauma. Again, this avoidance is mental, emotional, physical, and/or relational.
Mental avoidance includes forgetting the trauma, spacing out when the topic of trauma comes up, or generally lacking concentration or focus. This mental avoidance is often mis-diagnosed as attention-deficit disorder.
Emotional avoidance comprises feelings of detachment from oneself and others or general emotional numbing.
Physical avoidance involves shunning the sensations that may activate traumatic memories, or complete numbing of sensation. For example, I had grown so physically insensitive at one point, that I had trouble feeling a patient’s pulse. I had to really concentrate to re-activate my perception of touch.
Relational avoidance includes shying away from human relationships or interactions that may activate painful or frightening traumatic memories or feelings. For example, many trauma survivors never marry or they marry those who are incapable of intimacy. Many isolate, perhaps suffering from social anxiety or agoraphobia. Some people change the subject quickly when someone begins to talk about painful emotional experiences; they cannot relate on a deep emotional level, especially about human cruelty. Don’t we all know people like this? Serious unresolved trauma underlies this inability to authentically and deeply connect with other people.
The Pervasive Damage of Unknown and Unseen Trauma
After the Levee Disaster, my experience with traumatized citizens of New Orleans and many insensitive out-of-towners taught me that most people in our world are traumatized in one form or another, just in different areas and to various degrees. Most of us are stuck at young stages of emotional and mental development as a result of our unresolved trauma. The youngest, psychologically speaking, cling to fictional stories of who we are and what our their lives have been, just as I had done. As “adults,” we can then collude in others’ fictionalized storylines, just like all my therapists had done before I met Carol.
Walking down this trauma trail with my fellow New Orleanians got me to look earnestly outside myself again and realize that the path of trauma recovery is the same for us all. It is a journey from reiterating comforting or comfortable illusory tales to confronting our true life stories—a growth-producing reality. We create rose-colored fictional tales in an effort to meet our human needs in a world where they have been so-long frustrated. And, we then unconsciously re-enact or avoid our trauma in ways that hurt self and others.
As long as we avoid the truth of our own traumatic experiences and their effects, we cling to only fragments of ourselves, we create yet more storylines, and we continue to be detached from so much of who we really are.
For example, we often struggle to understand why “otherwise normal” people behave in hurtful or bizarre ways. We may decide that these people aren’t normal at all, but they are constitutionally pathological—genetically flawed! We may even attribute their behavior to the influence of extra-terrestrials! In either case, we fail to comprehend that they are manifesting the effects of their own unresolved trauma. Alternatively, we rationalize, excuse, or minimize their behaviors.
My old profession of psychiatry is particularly accomplished in normalizing or over-pathologizing traumatized people. For example, people with PTS and dissociated identities are frequently misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. (See https://www.isst-d.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/GUIDELINES_REVISED2011.pdf.) These clinicians are missing that these wounded souls are calling for help through their symptoms.
This blind spot is in part the responsibility of the faculty who develop the curricula for medical schools that generally fail to address the devastating and widespread effects of psychological trauma on both physical and psychological health. (See ACE Studies: https://www.joiningforcesforchildren.org/what-are-aces/ and the prevalence of dissociative disorders, including, Loewenstein R. J. (2018). Dissociation debates: everything you know is wrong. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 20(3), 229–242. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2018.20.3/rloewenstein) Of course, many physicians see psychological problems through the lens of biochemical defects because they don’t want to be reminded of their own unresolved traumatic pasts (avoiding their trauma).
Other physicians are actually abuse perpetrators and fiercely advocate a strict medical model within their calculated disinformation campaign to conceal the prevalence of child abuse. My father’s cult included doctors who practiced in local hospitals and the community. Perpetrator doctors have a vested interest in causing abuse victims, both children and adults, to fail to be recognized and to be misdiagnosed by all health providers, and to be otherwise silenced if they attempt to disclose their abuse. I believe that these perpetrator doctors are re-creating their own trauma as they disseminate disinformation to keep traumatized children from receiving much-needed help.
Having been subjected to such trauma-blind indoctrination in my professional training, it took the surfacing of my own trauma memories to open my eyes to the far-reaching impact of trauma on individuals and the institutions they create.
Traumatized and Traumatizing Souls Can Compel Our Growth
Yes, the journey of trauma recovery requires that we look afresh both inside and outside of ourselves. We must move beyond an illusory view of ourselves as merely “good guys” and embrace the “bad guys” within us too. We must see all that is within us as within all individuals. We are capable of heroic, life-saving acts of virtue! When we feel threatened, we are also capable of acts of violence or turning a blind eye to these acts. The more we face the “good” and “bad” within, the more we grasp the catastrophic role that trauma has played in all of our lives.
Our psychological differences are shaped mainly by our stage of psychological development, the kinds of trauma that have stunted our growth, and our degree of post-traumatic stress. Once we understand our own trauma and its effects, we no longer “other” people as “good” and “bad”—“us” and “them.” We see all people through a lens of compassion—we empathize with each traumatized soul.
Of course, extreme trauma can arrest us in young stages of development. We then create a story that denies the trauma in an effort to meet our needs. We may “grow” to defend such false narratives into “adulthood,” as if our lives were at stake. We may even react defensively or offensively to those who challenge our stories. We desperately cling to our self-deceptions, much as we would have clung to a doll or stuffed animal as a hurting child. Can’t we all relate to this scared child?
How do we evolve past relying on illusory self-concepts and life-stories?We must integrate and forgive the youngest and most wounded soul parts within ourselves and recognize these wounded parts in others. This ends our rageful condemnation of these most damaged parts of us all. We can now resonate with the enormity of their pain. We understand that until the most traumatized soul parts are given what they need to progress in their development, they will unconsciously re-create their trauma, forcing others to feel the agony that is buried within them.
Traumatic re-creation abounds in our world, impeding the evolution of humanity. When we are threatened, we tend to pass on our pain, as do the ones that we hurt, creating a ripple effect that can extend into society as a whole. Consider dehumanizing school systems where students are forced to compete rather than taught to know, value, and cooperate with one another. Instead of facilitating the development of free thinking and emotional intelligence, they are rewarded for rote memorization. Similarly, students are often indoctrinated into patriotic versions of history that omit the atrocities committed by their own countries. (See Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, [New York, New York: Harpercollins Publishers, 2017].) Individuals who cling to fictional storylines about their own lives and the harm perpetrated by societal institutions have damaging effects well beyond the home!
Consider a legal system which routinely dismisses the reports of child abuse victims and allows the guilty to walk free. (See Nick Bryant, “The Jeffrey Epstein Cover-up: Pedophilia, Lies, and Videotape,” scheerpost.com, https://scheerpost.com/2021/07/18/the-jeffrey-epstein-cover-up-pedophilia-lies-and-videotape/#comments.)
Consider a medical system that functions much like a factory assembly line where each human being is perceived and treated as a diagnosis or potential diagnosis rather than a whole person. Many credible writers argue that the current practice of medicine is determined more by profit motives than the health and growth of patients. (See Eli Y. Adashi, MD, MS, “Medicine and Society–Money and Medicine: Indivisible and Irreconcilable,”American Medical Journal of Ethics, August 2015, Volume 17, Number 8: 780-786, https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/sites/journalofethics.ama-assn.org/files/2018-06/joe-1508.pdf.)
We humans can only be wholly healthy when we are whole! Integration of all aspects of ourselves requires internal processing of our own past trauma. We must also be conscious of the world around us and go beyond being passive bystanders. We must stand up! Wemust work to meet the true developmental needs of the many different types of people outside of ourselves just as we work to meet the needs of the many different soul parts within ourselves. In this manner, we can each play a unique role in curtailing this widespread and far-reaching passing on of pain across our globe.
The more I participated in this evolutionary path of furthering wholeness for all, my life became richer and more fulfilling than I ever imagined, much more than within the fanciful stories that I once held onto for dear life!
One day within the lengthy process of recovering from my trauma, I suddenly realized that my father too had been overwhelmed by the abuse in his childhood—like me. I was overcome with a deep knowing that everything my father did to me had been done to him as a child. Although my humanity survived the many tortures, his did not survive. Even as a child, I sensed there was something seriously wrong with him. He had no humanity to appeal to—no tender heart or curious mind to engage. He obviously took sadistic pleasure from hurting others, displacing his rage toward his abusers onto innocent people. He was like a machine which automatically did to others what was done to him. He lacked any awareness of the enormity of unresolved trauma that was driving his sadism. To my surprise, I found myself crying deeply for him.
After what must have been at least an hour of gut-wrenching sobs, a feeling of true forgiveness for my father emerged within me. Then, just as suddenly, I forgave my father within me. In that moment, a lifetime’s baggage of rage, resentment, and self-incrimination was largely lifted from my soul. I was left feeling awestruck that the most atrocious assaults upon our humanity can also drive us in our greatest achievement—the return to wholeness.
When we have brought our most overwhelming traumas to consciousness and worked through our own PTS, we are no longer fooled by fictional characters and storylines. When we have traversed each young stage of soul development ourselves, we know how to guide people into and through each stage… when they are ready. And when they are not ready, we hope that some experience, whether seemingly helpful or hurtful, will come along to motivate them, sooner or later. After all, it took a psychopathic father, a cult upbringing, Hurricane Katrina and the Levee Disaster, and many lesser traumas to motivate my growth!
Let’s look at the path of human development through trauma recovery:
1) We begin to become conscious of our painful unresolved traumas through our symptoms, whether physical or psychological. These symptoms are our wake-up call—we can no longer pretend that we are healthy and “normal.” Sooner or later, we must come out of denial and admit we need to look within. In fact, we can even learn to understand every illness and injury as a soul communication seeking help and healing. (For further information, please read my book, Illness Can Be the Cure!)
2) Our symptoms motivate us to seek help from others who are further along the developmental journey and from higher guidance inside ourselves.
3) We investigate the stories and one-dimensional characters to which we have become attached, ever opening our minds and hearts to the greater truth. We discern which truths we have avoided and which we have distorted in trying to meet our unmet needs.
4) We allow into our awareness any unresolved traumas and our authentic thoughts and feelings about these traumas.
5) We welcome the truth, in every aspect of life, to further our growth. As we pick up and integrate each missing piece of our lives and selves, we become a bigger person—more skilled, more caring, and all-embracing in our care.