What does a trauma therapist actually do?

Two young people who survived the murderous shooting spree at their school in Parkland, Florida have taken their lives in the past week. It’s heart-breaking and my love and sympathy go to their families and friends who are struggling through horrific days.

In Sydney Aiello’s case, her family mentioned her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nine years ago today, I sat in a psychiatrist’s consulting room being told that I have PTSD. The doctor called it ‘chronic’, meaning that it wouldn’t pass quickly; now it’s known as ‘complex PTSD’. For me, life after diagnosis has always been better than the life that caused it, and that has kept me breathing. The other life saver has been trauma therapy.

We’ve come a long way from the days when symptoms of PTSD were described as ‘lack of moral fibre’. From the beginning, I was assured that PTSD is ‘the normal reaction of a normal person to having to endure or witness things that are beyond the range of normal human experience’. It took a while for my PTSD-shattered brain to absorb those syllables so it was repeated to me time and again.

The second part of this mantra was that, given time and safety, anyone with PTSD can heal and lead a normal life.

If you have a rescue pet, you probably know what PTSD looks like. The cat that scoots under the table every time a tall person in a coat comes through the door, no matter who it is. The puppy that shivers if someone raises a hand, even if the intention was kind. Those pets, with time and love, become loving and sparky, great fun to be with.

We are just the same. That is because PTSD is not an affliction, it’s a healing process. It has a dark sense of humour sometimes in the way it approaches its work but one of the most significant benefits of trauma therapy is being coached in how to co-operate with PTSD, rather than getting in its way.

Qualified professionals help us understand how PTSD works and why. They reassure us that, however out of joint we feel, we are normal. They give us a space where we can be totally honest about what happened. Family and friends do their best to listen and help but events so large that they carry PTSD in their wake can be too disturbing for normal life. We find ourselves protecting our loved ones from details.

PTSD isn’t easy for friends around us either. Trauma and the PTSD that follow steal our learning capacity & concentration. PTSD takes up so much energy that it can knock us flat, like a migraine that goes on for days & weeks. Months. Our exhaustion can look like laziness but it’s not. Our avoidance of triggers – people, places, tastes, smells – can look like cowardice, but it’s not. It takes tremendous courage to get through PTSD and I’ve learned (the hard way) that an expert’s company, care & advice are indispensable.

With a professional, we can also be totally honest about how lost we feel. They give us company in a deep, unique way.

PTSD is dreadfully solitary. Isolation is at the heart of it all – we were alone and helpless during the damage and we feel alone afterwards. It’s as if no-one can get what we’re going through or ever will.

I am still seeing a trauma therapist who has seen me through some bad dips. Now and again, I reckon I’m brave enough to try and manage without her. After a six-month stint without therapy last year, I found my past getting the better of me again, the psychological murk getting deeper, so I booked in.

It was a tremendous relief just to be where I didn’t have to pretend to be OK. Where I could be totally frank, knowing that I wouldn’t shock. She gave me understanding, sympathy, advice and reassurance (again) that all this is normal for what I’ve been through. And a hug.

So, if you have a PTSD diagnosis and feel crap, please, PLEASE talk to somebody – a friend, your doctor, a helpline (the charity MIND has an excellent list of helplines here), a therapist qualified in trauma work. Reach out. You do not have to carry it on your own. In fact, as my therapist taught me, keeping it to yourself can make it worse. PTSD is still with me nine years on (for reasons that are peculiar to me – I hope you heal sooner) but I have loads of fantastic days, more and more of them, and each good day shines more.

Japanese potters have a way of repairing pottery with gold mixed into the varnish so that the fractures become the most valuable parts of the whole. The repairs are part of the history of an object and should be celebrated, not hidden. This beautiful, porcelain bowl came to me from http://www.kintsugiplanet.com


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2 thoughts on “What does a trauma therapist actually do?

  1. petexa says:

    I think you’re brave posting about this, and I hope the psychological murk clears for you.

    I’ve been wondering recently if I write horror because I have a tendency towards anxiety. Anxiety means that metaphorically I’m imagining monsters everywhere, so it’s then an easy step to put symbolic representations of them in stories.


  2. rosiejpoet says:

    Hi Pete, thanks for this. I think many of us write to try to make sense of things and bring some control where there doesn’t seem to be any. Writing has always helped anchor me, even if it’s only scribbling a bit of journal every day. My therapist says that any creative endeavour helps, no matter what it is.


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