Updated: Jun 3, 2020
There's a line from the movie Shrek that has stuck with me from my first viewing. Probably because everyone quoted it over and over. "Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers... You get it? We both have layers." I agree with Shrek's self observation, and Donkey's reaction: "You know, not everybody likes onions." While I have never enjoyed thinking of myself as an onion, that was an eye opener for me. Humans are not one dimensional. We have this weird desire to classify each other as one dimensional, label each other, and fit each other in neat little boxes, but that's not human nature. We humans are a layered mess. I'd venture to say some of us are like onions with neat layers to pull off one by one, while others are like old boxes in the attic with papers, pictures, mementos, etc. all stacked haphazardly on top of each other.
Understanding this concept that humans (including me) are layers of experiences, thoughts, and feelings has helped me understand why healing from trauma can take so damn long. I grew up with teachings that simplified "healing." "Give it to God. Jesus atoned for not only our sins but every hardship in our lives so if things are bad, pray it to Jesus and poof. Healed. Immerse yourself in scripture study, prayer, service, priesthood blessings, and temple attendance and every problem will be taken away." (Greatly paraphrased.) I looked around at my family and wondered why we still had the problems we did. I figured maybe we were doing "it" wrong. This upbringing, which was reinforced by church lessons and those uneducated on the psychological process of healing, led to unhealthy beliefs of my worth and abilities. "Why can I not just get over this?" "What am I doing wrong that Jesus isn't taking this from me?"
It wasn't until a few years ago that I started to understand trauma and it's far reaching affects on victims (who I will refer to as survivors). "Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives."1 Trauma is different than a common, or typical, day to day wrongdoing. Furthermore, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); for those who do, PTSD must also be factored into the healing process. "PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster. People with PTSD may relive the event via intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares; avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma; and have anxious feelings they didn’t have before that are so intense their lives are disrupted."2 This is significant as being thrown back into the trauma can add to the timeline of healing.
Just as our typical, day to day human layers are going to look different (onion vs messy attic box, etc.) so will our healing processes. If one soldier comes back from war without PTSD and easily adapts to civilian life, that doesn't mean every soldier will. If one Rape survivor finds a way to quickly move past the incident and heal without the need of support groups, that doesn't mean that every rape survivor will be able to do so. If one survivor of Domestic Violence turned to religion and found immediate healing, that doesn't mean that religion is the answer for every DV survivor. We all process, deal with, and heal differently. There is no one size fits all method to healing from trauma. I have found that others minimizing what I have been through, and insisting that I be over the traumatic experiences that began in my childhood and added on through adulthood, have added to the layers of hurt and pain that I am still healing through.
One of my support team members reminded me yesterday that 39 years of trauma and hurt cannot be healed in one day. That level of trauma would tear a person to shreds if it was all faced at one time. Yes! That was exactly what I need to be reminded of. Thankfully, not every person has that much trauma in their lives. Seriously, thank whatever god, energy force, or non deity you believe in for that. Some of us started young and the trauma piled on higher and higher. For some it was growing up with Domestic Violence in the home and then going from one abusive relationship to another without understanding, or being taught, what healthy relationships look like. Some were Raped and Sexually Assaulted as children, and never receiving appropriate Mental Health, went on to abuse substances and exhibit risky behavior through adulthood. There are many varied, disturbing, ways that early trauma can affect life into adulthood if not addressed and healed appropriately. Deep rooted trauma never being purged and let go leading to more and more trauma heaped on the pile over a lifetime.
I, speaking for myself alone, am not looking for pity or sympathy. I don't really need anything from anyone besides some empathy, or if that's asking too much, for others to simply keep their unhealthy and uneducated opinions to themselves when it comes to my healing process. If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Since that is clearly still asking too much, I will continue to learn to grow thick skin and mentally hand those comments right back to the commenter. Given that I was molested by several church going, family trusted, men when I was very young; grew up in a home with unhealthy boundaries, and religious messages that constantly had me questioning my worth; spent over a decade in an abusive relationship where I was cut down to point that my family described me as a "zombie" and a "shell of my former self"; and that's only mentioning some of the major trauma that I've gone through, and does not even touch on the wild ride that is healing with PTSD; I will not apologize that my timeline for healing, and getting over a situation, makes anyone else uncomfortable. (I will also not apologize for that ridiculously long sentence.) That's a lot of stuff to work through. I've already scaled many mountains and I still have several ranges in front of me. How about celebrating how far I've come rather than mocking how far I still have to go?
I envision my healing less as an onion, and more as a deep well of tar soaked pages of memory. It's a nasty mess. As I let the light of healing touch the surface I burn away the top layer. Burning the top layer then exposes what was hidden underneath. It makes sense that the heavier and darker issues have sunk to the bottom. The further down I get, the more effort will be required. Sometimes exposing the hidden layers triggers the PTSD and I reflexively close the lid to the well. When PTSD rears its ugly head I use my healthy coping skills to heal through the PTSD before opening the lid again. Layer by layer, trigger by trigger, moment by moment I heal. Sometimes it's a raging fire of healing as I burn through minor issues. Sometimes what's on the surface looked like one page but turned out to be a series of novels strung together.
Point is, I am healing. I'm healing at my pace. I'm not simply healing the surface wounds so that I can paint a smile on my face and look like I'm happy; I'm healing down to the bottom of the well. I experience health and joy at a deeper level with every layer I heal. While I can't say I'm always enjoying the journey, it is necessary, and I can unequivocally say I'm enjoying the results.
*June is National PTSD Awareness Month. Here are some links to learn about PTSD:
Psychology Today regarding PTSD following Domestic Violence including Sexual Assault/Rape
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