Lasting reactions to post-traumatic feelings, are natural, normal, and justified. But how those feelings about horrible events in the past affect your life in the present is your choice.
The reactions you choose to post-traumatic feelings can be the difference between emotional growth, a socially useful, personally satisfying life, or lifelong bitterness, and stagnation — being a permanent victim, or becoming a survivor.
It’s never too late to become a survivor (I did at 50), and nobody is too traumatized to make their post-traumatic feelings less crippling., even if they never completely go away.
I know people can choose their reaction to trauma because I handled my post-traumatic feelings badly for 40 years, until I learned I could choose to handle them differently. Making a different choice was the start of my recovery, and is still the driving force behind my expanding personal satisfaction, happiness, community connections, and contributions to changes I helped bring to people’s lives, and the mental health world.
I still lose my temper occasionally, but it doesn’t happen as often, or last as long, and I get better at controlling it all the time.
I think even victims sexual abuse, as children or adults — the most intimate, disempowering, violent trauma — can choose their reaction to justified post-traumatic feelings. They can tilt their emotional scale toward survivor, away from permanent victim.
Choosing My Reaction to My Post-Traumatic Feelings
When terrible, traumatic things happen to you, it’s not your fault, but it’s your choice what you do next.
When a therapist told me that in 1997, my recovery began. I became a happier person, and my life has been expanding and becoming happier ever since. I have setbacks and dark periods, but the growth has been unmistakable for 15 years, visible to people who know me.
Since 1997, I have channeled my post-traumatic anger and blame into activism, recovery education, peer support, and advocacy. My main advocacy tool is writing and public speaking, because that’s what I’m good at, and enjoy. Teaching recovery principles and skills, based on the work of Mary Ellen Copeland, is the best way to learn them, and stay conscious of them.
I was in leadership of the NH Consumer Advocacy Council for 15 years, Council chair from 2001 to 2004. When I was chair, our group accomplished two major legislative victories for our brothers and sisters.
Now, I volunteer with Wellness Wordworks. spreading our idea of distress-based services, as opposed to the permanent brain disease model. Now, recovery-based services are national policy, no longer radical like they were when I started teaching recovery 15 years ago.
I feel sure distress-based services, which can cure people, will be as accepted as the recovery idea 15 to 25 years from now, maybe sooner.
These choices of mine don’t stop my post-traumatic anger and blame, but they keep me focused on the present and future, not my traumatic past. I keep learning new things, and feel empowered, knowing I’m making things a little better for people. They get my post-traumatic feelings out of the present, where they limit my life, and into the past. There, they instruct, inform, and motivate my constructive activity in the present.
A New Reaction to Post-Traumatic Anger Changed Me
My childhood trauma, and eight years of constant emotional abuse and betrayal in my 20’s, crippled me in the present from the time I was 10, until I learned I could choose to stop being crippled.
The post-traumatic feelings and behavior were so justified. I could reel off all the valid reasons to anyone who would listen, But I could not move ahead with my life, and I kept shooting myself in the foot whenever I started to gain traction.
The terrible people, things, and mental health system that hurt me were really terrible, and really happened. So I thought I was stuck with my crippling post-traumatic feelings and behavior. When people suggested I get past it, I reeled off the long list of justifications and got angry again. I thought they were saying my rage, and what happened to me in the past, were my fault.
A Break-Through in Trauma-Based Psychotherapy Made Me a Survivor
Everybody knows trauma embeds itself in your body and brain. To tell a trauma victim (I was a victim then, not a survivor) to “just get over it” is the height of insensitivity and ignorance. When a trauma-informed therapist told me I could choose a different reaction, I got defensive when I asked how to do it.
She said “by taking responsibility for my choices.” It sounded like she was saying my crippling pain was my fault.
No, she said, it’s not your fault, but it’s your choice what you do next. Staying crippled was my choice, she said, and I could change it.
So we looked at my life as choices I made, not terrible things people and the system did to me. I understood why I made those perfectly understandable, forgivable choices, and forgave myself. I let go of anger at myself, that was a big part of my post-traumatic anger, that I never knew existed.
Several times in my life, I made understandable, even admirable, forgivable life choices that went sour. That was not my fault. It was my choice to stay with them too long, instead of looking for alternatives because I had low self-esteem. That was not my fault either. I could understand, forgive myself, and raise my self-esteem.
Once I knew I could choose my reaction to post-traumatic feelings, and started forgiving myself, I was able to forgive many of the people who hurt me, not all. My post-traumatic anger at them was hurting me, not them. They were in the past. My post-traumatic anger at myself kept the traumas in the present, and stopped me from moving ahead. I became a happier person almost overnight.
What about Innocent Women and Children Who Were Abused
Does any of this apply to innocent women and children who were beaten, sexually abused, or neglected? Nothing about that was their choice or responsibility.
But I think they can choose what they do next, that can make them a survivor or permanent victim. Post-traumatic feelings and behavior may be permanent, but the emotional pain need not be constant or crippling.
The people I know who have moved from victim to survivor of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and neglect by a caregiver, got active in something: a support group, an advocacy group, or in their own families, to stop the cycle of abuse from continuing in future generations, as it so often does. (I was abused and neglected by two groups of professional caregivers, not family.)
Christina Enevoldsen, a victim of sexual abuse as a child, stayed silent when her husband sexually abused their daughter. She launched a website with her confessional story, and gets comments that validate her, reach out to her daughter, ask question,s and tell their own stories, which she answers and validates.
She now shares with other parents the expertise she acquired to help her through her own post-traumatic anger and guilt. She’s a survivor, not a victim, because she’s making good use of what happened, supporting and informing others in similar situations.
Sexual abuse disempowers victims completely, and isolates them. Empowering other victims restores their sense of power, and community connection.
Even when the most traumatic, isolating, disempowering things happen, it’s still your choice what you do next to keep your justified post-traumatic feelings from crippling you.
Can people change their reactions to post-traumatic feelings?