That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
This platitude serves to ease the discomfort of the observer. It can only rightly be said by those who have been strengthened, and it can only rightly be said about themselves, not to others.
The truth is that some people never get into the second group. Those who do get there experience considerable weakness before strength develops. In this, the old saying skips the essential steps that fall between the sixth and ninth words. Try doing something as simple as assembling your child’s bicycle using this gauge and you’ll fast find out why it doesn’t work for more complicated processes, either.
Trauma is emotionally paralyzing. This doesn’t mean one can’t take action. To the contrary, action is taken in favor of dealing with the emotional reaction – and yes, standing still is an action. Freezing emotions is a defense mechanism used to stave off feeling anything so one may act. It’s normal and natural, allowing us to be productive even in the face of crisis. To delay feeling for months and even years, however, isn’t healthy. It aggravates the initial trauma and artificially inflates the severity of the feelings, thus making resolution seem insurmountable.
In reality, the initial trauma is enough to deal with without making it into something even bigger. The sooner the issue is dealt with appropriately, the more likely a person will see the trauma in perspective, relative to what they are able to do about it right now rather than when the tragedy occurred. Many times a delay in treatment results in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), disassociation, depression, or suicide.
Depending on the severity and circumstances of the tragedy, it can take years before a person feels safe enough to let the emotions emerge and deal with them. Sometimes it is not the person, but rather the person’s subconscious that decides it’s safe enough. This might happen when a spouse leaves an abusive marriage or an accident victim leaves the hospital, but doesn’t follow up with a way to address and resolve what happened. Once the immediate concern has been addressed, the subconscious may say, “My turn!”
If we look at a person’s experiences on a timeline, we will see the location of an unresolved tragedy: it is everywhere on that timeline from the moment it happened up to the present. For the traumatized, it is as if the tragedy just occurred. The initial feelings are frozen in time, thus they are unwittingly carried along like explosive luggage.
Many people don’t realize the positive impact of skills, experiences, and resources gained from months or years of passage between tragedy and treatment. They may not know how these can aid in their recovery and contribute to their sense of self-control and empowerment. Without these realizations, they fear feeling overwhelmed again and re-traumatized. It isn’t until some form of treatment is underway that they recognize the support of their own strength.
Adult sex abuse survivors and war-weary military servicemembers, for example, may not be aware of the skills they’ve gained since first being traumatized or understand the importance of those skills. Their memories and the associated feelings of fear, pain, or guilt are from the perspective of a child or of a younger and inexperienced adult.
It is, however, an older person with experience who will now face the demons, not the child or the inexperienced young adult. They are not only older and wiser, but they are also in a safe place, sometimes far from the physical location of the initial trauma. In this, the person they are now can protect the child or young adult they once were from further harm.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger – eventually. More important, and of more immediate concern, is helping each other and ourselves into that second group with appropriate treatment and support.