What it's like to be highly functional with unprocessed trauma

Articulating what it’s like can be difficult for those of us who are living with unprocessed trauma. Trauma may affect the area of the brain that’s responsible for speech, so sometimes people can’t quite put words to their experience. And being “in” it is a far cry from being “with” it. Developing “the witness awareness” helped me a lot. More on that later.

Some quick background: I’m a highly functional person who struggled with C-PTSD symptoms for decades. I didn’t know what I was experiencing at the time, only that life felt indescribably hard most of the time with glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout the darkness. And when I tried to participate in various programs designed to “help me get to the next level,” I rarely got there.

My life felt a lot like a hungry woman sitting on her sofa watching TV… while image after image of pizza flashed in front of her… watching other people enjoy this fantastic food… reaching for the TV to grab a life-size slice… feeling like it was impossible to get to the pizza that she needed to satisfy her hunger. In other words, something in me needed attention, and I tried my best to “fix” it, I watched other people make progress, but no matter what I did, progress eluded me. If I could sum up the years I spent doing everything I knew to do to get better, I’d use these words: Stuck. Frustrated. Confused. Alone. Ashamed.

And despite AAAALLLL those feelings and then some, there was a part of me that forged ahead and kept looking for the root cause of all my symptoms. I most certainly had life symptoms:

  • Health issues—insomnia, night sweats, digestion problems, fatigue/exhaustion, anxiety, lack of impulse control, intrusive thoughts

  • Relationship issues—high conflict, partners with narcissistic tendencies, sexual assault, boundary struggles, power struggles

  • Career and money issues—lack of focus, disinterest, feast or famine.

And at the same time I considered myself to have great health, relationships, and career opportunities. I was and am a dedicated yoga practitioner and teacher whose daily practice gave me confidence, strength and flexibility. I had and have a wonderful network of friends and family who believe in me, support me, and love me. I did and do produce outstanding work. Thus, I appeared on the surface to have myself together, but taking a look behind the curtain would reveal one hot mess.

To be real, we’re all a mess in some way and/or at some level. But we’re talking . . . people who are high functioning with unprocessed trauma are like a mullet: Business in the front, party in the back. You know what I’m saying here? It’s hard for us to live a dual reality - highly independent and deeply helpless. At least that’s how it seemed for me. And the tension between those two worlds created a lot of ups and downs, further adding to the effects of trauma.

If you’re reading this but don’t relate, then GOOD. You probably got here because someone you love is affected by trauma and you want to know how to help. Let’s start with this: Platitudes don’t ease pain. Things like:

Let go and let God

It was meant to be

You are in a better place / better off without that

Time heals all wounds

At least it’s not like or you’re better off than [comparison story]

Look on the bright side…here’s the positive

… sound great to a lot of people and probably bring some form of comfort to them. Cool.

But for other people, those statements reinforce their helplessness and may add to the shame and blame game they’re already playing in their minds. So if you really want to respond intelligently to the pain in front of you, avoid using some cliche and say this instead:

That sounds painful. Is there a way I can help?

Would you like me to listen, or would you like me to offer a suggestion?

I’d love to support you. Would you like a hug / meal / to watch a movie … ?

And if you’re reading this and DO relate, then GOOD. You’ve hopefully found someone who understands, who “gets” what it’s like to be trapped inside one experience on the inside while trying to live a different one on the outside.

Remember the “witness awareness” I mentioned at the start of this article? The practices of mindfulness and yoga allow me to remain WITH my trauma rather than absorbed by or IN it.

If you’re struggling with the symptoms of C-PTSD, I highly recommend finding a way to work with your mind. Peace is possible. There are a lot of variations on the mindfulness theme, so there is value in trying different techniques until one sticks for you.

Know that you’re not alone. I know what it’s like to try one therapeutic or healing intervention after the next with hopes that “finally this will work” only to experience failure and disappointment again. Trauma is in both your brain and your body. The natural response to trauma IS dysfunction. There is nothing wrong or bad going on with you. It’s just your Being letting you know that it’s time to take a deeper look and attend to the hurting parts.

May you and all beings be happy and free.

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