Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma
By Dr. James Gordon
Trauma comes to all of us, and its consequences can be terrible. That’s the truth and the bad news. The good news is that all of us can use tools of self-awareness and self-care to heal our trauma and, indeed, to become healthier and more whole than we’ve ever been. If we accept the pain that trauma inflicts, it can open our minds and bodies to healing change. If we relax with the chaos it brings, a new, more flexible, and more stable order can emerge. Our broken hearts can open with tender consideration and new love for others, as well as ourselves.
Fifty years ago, as a resident in the emergency room of Jacobi, the Bronx’s public hospital, I met Diana and began my trauma-healing work.
In medical school, I’d learned to enter the inner world of troubled children and older people struggling with life-threatening illness and also to listen to my own confusion and troubles. I reached out for help to Robert Coles, a young psychiatrist at the Harvard Health Services, who was working with the Black kids who were braving murderous mobs to integrate New Orleans schools. Bob helped me learn for myself the lessons that Freud had taught—how early childhood trauma of loss and forgotten abuse had made me more vulnerable to present loss. He also set an example of personal vulnerability and courageous commitment, sharing with me his own pain and loss and showing me I could make a healing difference in the larger world as well as with individual patients. And Bob helped me begin to know who I was, to appreciate my identity—an enduring sense of myself that has pulled me through troubled times.
While I was working as a student on medical and psychiatric wards, I was also welcoming other teachers who began to appear—in books as well as in my life.
Early on, there was Man’s Search for Meaning, a slim memoir by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist whom the Nazis had confined in concentration camps. In Auschwitz, in the midst of the most inhumane abuse and unimaginable suffering, Frankl had found the meaning and purpose of his life. “Suffering ceases to be suffering,” Frankl wrote, “at the moment it finds a meaning.” He found his in appreciating, understanding, and having compassion for his fellow inmates and himself. He realized, even while his wife was being condemned to death in another camp, that “love is the ultimate good to which man can aspire.” He learned to “say yes to life in spite of everything.” Reading Frankl, admiring him, I knew I wanted to do the same.
Helping Diana heal called on everything Bob—and books, medical school, and my internship—had taught me and demanded a willingness to learn and take emotional chances I couldn’t have imagined.
Diana arrived in the middle of the usual late-night chaos. She had a pixie face, chopped-off brown hair, and a compact body. She wore a pencil skirt and a Peter Pan blouse, and spoke in a wised-up Bronx way that mixed foul-mouthed street talk with offhand, spot-on psychological observation. Her medical chart was filled with dire diagnoses. Several psychiatrists had referred to a “borderline personality disorder,” another, “multiple personalities”; one suggested she was “schizophrenic.” She told me her current therapist was finishing his residency and that she was thinking of killing herself.
For the next two years, Diana and I met three or four times a week. I was her doctor, and she was my teacher. Every session was compelling, surprising, absorbing. I never knew who would appear in my office: a terrified eight-year-old; a snarling murderous version of her mother; a hip twenty-something; a helpless, thumb-sucking infant.
Diana’s features seemed to change to fit the personality who was appearing. Her voice fell with whimpers and rose with screams and shouts. Sometimes she shrank into a corner and stared wildly, as if seeing her mother’s ghost. Her severe trauma had apparently caused her self to fragment, to dissociate into different personalities that were unaware of one another. Freud’s case histories were coming alive.
It became clear to me that Diana’s diagnosis was far less important than the early, deep, and often repeated trauma that was responsible for her tortured ways. Over time I became aware of how childhood abuse shaped some of Diana’s most disturbing and bewildering symptoms. “I am garbage. I stink,” she growled at me one afternoon more than a year into our therapy, as enraged as she was ashamed. “My mother,” she said between sobs and gasps, reliving it now, “used to force my head into the garbage. She told me that’s where I belonged.”
Sometimes I was stunned by Diana’s rage—at my inattention or the least hint of less than honest words. Sometimes I was flat-out frightened by what she was going through and of what she might do to hurt herself. And in between one or another kind of fear and all my effort to understand her and what she was teaching me about myself as a therapist and as a person, I felt my heart opening, maybe more than it ever had, my arms reaching to hold close the terrified child, the whole person, who lived inside this divided, troubled, brave young woman.
Slowly, slowly, Diana became aware that present challenges—her young children’s needs, her husband’s anger and sexual demands, my upcoming vacation—were evoking, “triggering,” memories of the unmet needs, threatening rages, exploitation, and abandonment that had deformed her childhood.
As Diana shared and played out her past trauma with me, she seemed to grow taller, stand straighter. “I felt safe with you. There was a ‘me’ in there that was real,” she told me years later. “I was drowning and you were warm and solid. I felt accepted, more full. Finally me.”
As Diana felt safer, she became kinder and more generous to her kids. As her anxiety subsided, her “crazy” fears and rages began to quiet, and the light of her fine mind turned on.
Diana would have years more of demanding psychological work to do, but I could already feel the fragments of her being beginning to knit together. Healing, I was coming to understand, was possible even for the terribly traumatized.
Excerpted from The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma by James S. Gordon, M.D., copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne/HarperCollins.
James S. Gordon, MD, is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, former researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health and Chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, and a clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown Medical School. He has authored or edited 10 other books and has written often for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, as well as numerous professional journals, and has been featured on CBS 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Sunday Morning, Nightline, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR.