I’ll start with what sucks. People do astonishingly terrible things to other people–unbelievable, unspeakable, and completely messed up things. This happens all the time and on every street. Trauma happens in virtually every family. A fair chunk of trauma is caused by people who claim to love the people that they hurt. Many of the most severely traumatized people I have worked with had extensive contact with modern safety net services throughout their childhoods, with repeated foster care placements that resulted in round after round of additional childhood sexual trauma inside the systems designed to protect them. Many of my clients have never had a single safe person, a safe place, or any safe time.
In the vast majority of cases, trauma doesn’t end in childhood. It certainly doesn’t end with the person becoming my client. Trauma is alive in my clients because so little of it has ever been resolved, including the horrible stuff that happened since last session. Trauma often affects people in ways that makes them difficult as clients. Some are so anxious that they struggle to leave home. Others are so angry that they come to session to verbally accost me about the unfairness of the universe. Some are so depressed that they look already dead. Many are highly dissociated and a few have other selves that have grown into the absences.
Few professionals get a clearer view to the awfulness that people wreak on each other than trauma therapists. I sit three feet away from all of it all day long. I get exposed to the inside of it. My internal maps of Mahoning and Trumbull counties are dotted with the locations of fatal car crashes, family suicides, rapes, abductions, and accidents described to me by clients. We take a lot in. Yet, I find the work that I do with my clients incredibly rewarding, hopeful, and encouraging. Why?
Being a Trauma Therapist Forces You to Accept the Reality of Awfulness
It’s my job to see it.
Before I started my mental health internship, I was aware that I would be seeing some of the most unwell people in the county. I guarded myself against making broad generalizations about how life is–how people are–based on working with this very select sample. But, everyone I saw had trauma. Horrible, horrible trauma. I spoke with classmates about my experience in my internship, only to discover that many of them had survived horrible trauma. I talked to strangers about my internship and they told me about their extensive trauma. I started reading about trauma and came to realize that trauma is as ubiquitous as many of the rites of passage in our culture. That was the beginning of learning that trauma isn’t about them… it’s about us and it’s absolutely everywhere. Recognizing that something is ubiquitous takes away some of the shame in it. Eventually, I would see trauma clearly enough to be able to confront it in my own childhood.
For the trauma informed therapist, trauma is not the once or twice a year reminder from televised scandals that sexual predators exist. We see it and hear it all day long. When you are no longer in denial about the reality of something horrible, there is no huge shock when that thing appears. Each trauma therapist finds his or her own way to live in a trauma-saturated world with some semblance of hope. Part of my survival strategy is to place a lot of the blame on cultures. Accidents happen, but cultures enable or fuel most of the trauma that I see. Cultures are the work of human hands. Cultures can change. I can play a small role in advocating for that change.
It is Healing to Assist in Healing
If EMDR is your approach to psychotherapy, you are likely to see most of your clients find deep, lasting, and transforming healing. This was not the case in my internship. This was not the case before I became trained in EMDR. For a long time, I had a front row seat to suffering. Now, I have a front row seat to deep and astonishing healing. Now, I see client after client safely reprocess and get remarkably “better” nearly every session. Who wouldn’t want to witness that each day? It’s endlessly astonishing. I never doubt the importance of the work that I do, carefully helping people find their way out of the underworld and into sunshine. Believing in the real possibility of healing makes trauma feel less horrible. It makes the huge history of awfulness feel less awful.
You Get to Be a Kind of Healer Without the Healer’s Ego
There is nothing to own in EMDR. At best, EMDR therapists are navigational assistants. We help clients to a path where they hold a difficult memory/issue and notice what comes up on the journey. Once they are on that path, we get out of the way and follow. If they have a problem, we help them navigate around obstacles. We encourage them to stop at hotels, instead of along the side of the interstate. We assist. We are clear about our role and our primary role is connecting clients with healing pathways that have always been inside them–pathways that are encoded from the start into every cell. The bright yellow line at the center of that pathway is noticing. Once on the path, clients heal themselves. There is nothing for us to own–success or failure. There is nothing to create. Everything needed is already there. We don’t have to prescribe, order, conjure, or orchestrate. At the points of our most direct involvement, we point, we encourage, and we witness.
The Trauma Lens Provides a Lot of Answers
For many EMDR therapists, the trauma lens helps answer a lot of why questions and dramatically simplifies how we look at mental disorders. We do not deny the existence of organic brain disorders, but we see client after client who has been diagnosed with every variety of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder throughout their lives who clearly do not meet criteria for those disorders. Some do. The vast majority do not. It is unusual for a client to come to me with an existing PTSD diagnosis, despite the fact that most of their symptoms are clearly a direct result of unspeakable horror. Across hundreds of clients, I have yet to have a client who has ever had any form of comprehensive trauma treatment. Not one. Despite most of them being in therapy for much of their lives. Trauma is invisible. It is invisible inside mental health clinics also. Not seeing trauma is why we have a DSM that is 947 pages long. Not seeing trauma turns our clients into medicated zombies. Not seeing trauma allows us to avoid treating it. Not seeing trauma creates the space for horrible things to happen in our world, passing it down like a bad inheritance. But, you find it everywhere once you learn to see it. Once you see trauma for the historical and global public health crisis that it is, things make more sense. It’s easier to make sense of the world. It’s easier to understand your clients. It’s easier to understand yourself.