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The tools I use to recover from developmental trauma
I have had developmental trauma, complex ptsd, disorganized attachment, and structural dissociation for as long as I can remember. In fact, these are all different ways of describing the same problem. My nervous system, my attachment system, my neurological patterns, and the structure of my personality have all been profoundly shaped by attempt to adapt to an impossible situation. The impossible situation is this: the source of safety and security is the source of terror and threat.
In infancy my dysregulated and unattuned care givers were unable to provide me with a sense of safety and security. As I grew up I was exposed to abuse and neglect from the very people who I was attempting to form attachment with because I had no other choice. Like so many other people with developmental trauma I developed strategies that lead to further traumatization, especially my chaotic substance use, my chaotic relationship to sex, and my inability to accurately discern danger (on the one hand my threat alarms were going off in mundane situations, on the other I repeatedly put myself in danger and thought it was fine). All of this of course compounded my trauma.
I got sober when I was 25 and finally developed enough safety in my life to begin doing the work of healing. But I honestly had no idea what the work was. Being poor and traumatized I had to patch together my healing from whatever free resources I could. I began the long process of self-education and attempting to understand what was going on for me. Slowly, over the course of years, I gained more and more recovery in various areas of my life. And as I did this, more and more areas revealed themselves. Basically, I was so used to profound distress that I didn't even notice it. The more I was able to turn down the volume of stress in one area the more I discovered alarms going off in another.
It is only in the last few years that I finally really understand what my problem even is. Truly grasping what complex trauma is, and the various components of it, and the way it has entirely shaped my personality, my feelings, and the way I connect with others, has been overwhelming and also freeing. I can see now these patterns that have played out in different forms over and over again. And I'm beginning to grasp the pieces of a complete, holistic recovery.
Everyone's path is different, and everyone will find different tools useful. But I want to spell out the puzzle pieces that have most profoundly opened the door to healing for me. For me these are:
- Starting with 'safe enough': This means that in order to heal I first needed to find a way to step out of the pattern of constant repeated traumatization. I don't have total control over whether or not I will be traumatized (no one does), but getting sober and getting non-coercive, non-psychiatric therapy were the key components for me to be safe enough to start the work of healing.
- Nervous system literacy: Understanding and working with my nervous system is key. For this, I use polyvagal theory, or other models like the window of tolerance model. My nervous system which is supposed to move smoothly from connection to protection as needed, is constantly set in a state of protection, inhibiting my capacity for connection, and generally making me feel awful.
- Attachment theory: Attachment theory, in particular learning about disorganized attachment, heps me to understand why my attempts at connection have so often failed, and why I both long for and am repelled by intimacy. Because co-regulation is fundamental for healing, I need to figure out how to access co-regulation. Attachment theory teaches me the barriers I face and how to work through them.
- Understanding structural dissociation: Structural dissociation is a key component of complex trauma that is widely misunderstood. I think for a lot of people this is the piece missing from their recovery. Structural dissociation is the reason why there are parts of me that seem totally far along in my recovery, and way more regulated, and then I can switch to parts of me who seem to have no idea about any of that and are acting as if I have no recovery at all. Understanding my various parts and the roles they play in attempting to keep me safe is a hugely important part of my recovery.
- Safely working with my body: Including my body in recovery is very hard and also very necessary. It's important that I enter into this work absurdly slowly. I think it's important for people to know that we can begin and gain a lot of progress in recovery before we are ready to work with our bodies. The modalities I use here are mindfulness, pleasure practices, walking, yoga, and sensorimotor psychotherapy.
- Spirituality: A spiritual practice (for me, a combination of witchcraft and 12 steps) helps give me a meaning structure and a container for my large existential feelings. Without my own spiritual container I don't think I could have held a lot of the pr0found grief and overwhelm that comes up in my healing.
- Discernment, boundaries and effective interpersonal communication: Unlearning people pleasing, learning to ask for what I want, finding ways to communicate 'no' (including nonverbal strategies), working on discernment about whether or not I am currently safe or whether or not I should trust someone, moving into authenticity and integrity, all of these practices help to ensure and maintain that I am safe enough in the present.
Co-regulation strategies: Straight up, getting a dog has maybe been the best thing I've done for my recovery. It isn't always easy, but she teaches me so much and attuning and co-regulating with her has made these things way easier to access for me. Nature is also a strong co-regulation tool for me. Working on this in human relationships is harder, but slowly and surely I'm coming along.
Agency and volition building: The core experience of complex trauma is an overwhelming experience of helplessness. Learning to cultivate and practice my agency and volition has been invaluable. This simple means noticing and developing my capacity to change my circumstances and act on my own behalf.
Radical compassion and a complete rejection of shame: I don't believe shame is useful at all or ever. Remorse is different from shame and is a healthy response to acting out of alignment with my integrity. But I reject shame as a strategy entirely, meet it with compassion wherever I find it, refuse to take part in any community or relationship dynamics that uses shame as a tactic. I work on offering myself unconditional positive regard.
Kindness and helping others: Practicing kindness wherever and whenever I can. Especially refusing to dehumanize anyone I am encouraged to dehumanize. The more I act my value of treating all humans as inherently worthy the more I show my traumatized parts that I am inherently worthy, no matter what.
Curiosity and self-education: As you can see from the stack of books above, I do a lot of reading and self-education on trauma. I find this incredibly empowering. It connects me with my adult self. It helps me find and develop the tools listed above. I always have a therapist (free or sliding scale when I was poor, I made it a priority no matter what), but showing up with knowledge helps me feel like an active participant who understands my own healing work.
These are the main tools I use in my recovery complex trauma. I know that it can feel daunting and overwhelming to do this work. I know there are so many times when I'm like this is not fair and I wish I didn't have to work so hard to find the baseline that some people were freely given. It really isn't fair and there is a lot of grief there. At the same time, these tools help me to earn secure attachment, learn how to regulate and co-regulate, integrate my personality, and help me to experience as much freedom and joy as possible.
I wish you all the best on your healing journey.