We feel overwhelmed at the start of any recovery process and folks need to understand that this is normal and that fear is part of every new beginning. Some of us approach healing with great trepidation and others of us want to dive right in. This is a process. It hurts, it sucks, and it’s scary. It’s also totally worth it. There are no shortcuts. You need to know that going in. Just as you’d get yourself prepared for any big undertaking, there are small achievable tasks that will help you get off to a strong start.
There are things that always work. When people tell me they don’t know where to start I tell them to drink water, eat an occasional salad and take multi vitamins. They almost always shrug this off and want to go deeper. I go back to Maslow and encourage them to consider that first we crawl, then we walk, then we run. As much as they hate hearing this they hate what comes next even more:
Get organized. Write down everything and make lists. This will reduce your stress. Make a schedule. Put it on a calendar. I know, I know – you do better flying by the seat of your pants, you have a well organized mess, and you do your best work when your back is up against the wall. Trust this – as you start working through memories you will forget day to day stuff. There’s something about a flashback that will leave you not concerned with picking up milk on your way home and you’ll feel ridiculously bad about not having milk because you’re dealing with some really powerful emotions from the past.
Get grounded. A huge part of trauma recovery is separating the past from the present. Being grounded in today means using your five senses to have a strong sense of being in the here and now, being safe in your own skin, and having a sanctuary (a place you can feel safe – at first this is a place – later in the journey it becomes a place within us).
There are hundreds of ways to get grounded. Getting more comfortable with your body is a great start. It’s really a matter of personal style. I hate yoga, working out, and I have no intention of dieting or quitting smoking). I like eating healthy, walking, and massage therapy (best form of self care ever especially since I just lay there). The idea here is that ultimately we’re bringing the different parts of ourselves together and physical safety/connectedness is the most basic part of this process.
For those of us who abuse our bodies it’s best to make this a priority in treatment. Cutting, burning, purging, bingeing, starving, hair pulling, and other forms of self abuse are to varying degrees attempts to cope, attain a sense of self control and achieve an emotional release. Addressing past traumas while continuing to abuse one’s body is like pouring kerosene on a fire. Self abuse tends to add a level of shame to recovery. Better to view it as one more thing that can be improved upon. Self abuse is generally not something that we simply stop doing. It’s something we replace with a far healthier form of coping and means of release.
People tend to have a lot of misconceptions where self harm is concerned. Folks tend to believe that those who do damage to their bodies are also suicidal. In the vast majority of cases, the person doing harm to themselves has no intention, plan, or desire to die. The person who fears addressing these behaviors in treatment generally expects that they will be judged and may fear being hospitalized against their will. There are exactly three criteria by which a clinician or medical professional can force a person to be hospitalized: Imminent threat to self (suicidality), imminent threat to others (serious harm or homicidal), or being medically compromised in a manner that impairs a person’s ability to make choices for themselves and which creates opportunity for serious harm or death. Other than that, it is not possible to hospitalize a person against their will.
For those of us abusing our minds and bodies with drugs and alcohol…I am very sorry, but in a big way my field has lied to you. In our quest to be seen as a more respected science (mental health) we have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater (one of the many things I dislike about getting older is that using these old expressions cause young people to stare at me like the kids from South Park). I’m referring to “dual diagnosis treatment.” With some notable exceptions (psychosis and other severe forms of mental illness), it makes no sense whatsoever to start mental health work until a person has a reasonable foundation in recovery from addiction. If we’re dealing with today in a way that is destructive then it flies in the face of common sense to even look at the past. This is the most important distinction between substance abuse COUNSELING and mental health THERAPY – counseling is about today forward. Therapy is largely about exploring how the past impacts the present.
There are exceptions to the rule. Trauma survivors are often amongst them. Judy was a notable exception. She explained herself to me so well. She simply said, “Every time I get sober, I remember and every time I remember (her past abuse) I get drunk.” Developing a manageable life without drugs and alcohol was something a good substance abuse counselor could do for her. Judy needed to understand how to cope with flashbacks and develop a sense of personal safety in order to maintain sobriety. There’s an old adage about how if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If the only way we know to deal with overwhelming emotions is to abuse substances, then we must add some tools to our tool box because coping with substances always creates a downward spiral.
Starting any recovery process requires a solid foundation in exactly the same way that houses need solid foundations You can build something beautiful – but it has to be solid and built to last.