LIVING WITH COMBAT TRAUMA: An Essay to Remember…

Parallel Universe
An essay on Overcoming Trauma

By Alison Lighthall,  RN, MS
Combat Stress Specialist

May 15, 2009

Emotional trauma is a special kind of broken heartedness.  It is a permanent condition that, on some rare and lucky occasions, may ease with time or go blessedly into dormancy, but never actually ends.  It takes up permanent residency in you, sometimes making itself known in cruel ways and other times taking a quiet nap from which it can be quickly and easily aroused.

Initially after the specific traumatic moment, your world is ruled by huge emotional energy,  and your day is a series of wild emotional struggles, unseen by all but your most intimate circle.  Over time-much time, if you’re doing it all on your own-you come into an entirely new way of living.  Instead of returning to normal, as you have always been able to do in the past from life’s usual trials, you find yourself very much stuck in a universe that most others cannot see and do not understand, but one which inflicts a deep, throbbing ache.  You slowly realize that the hole in your heart will not heal, that this sadness is your new normal.  Whenever you confront such a thought, you quickly push it out of your mind because it is an intolerable thought-to live the rest of your life haunted by anguish.

Somehow, inexplicably, the world around you continues.  Time on the clock keeps passing, despite you being frozen back in that moment of excruciating pain when your world exploded.  If you’re lucky, you learn more about what happened to you…you organize the events a little better… your frontal lobe reopens communication with your limbic system…and you become conscious once again.

You slowly release your grip on the reality that was and you stop arguing with the Universe about what is.  Eventually, you accept the chronic pain as a stubborn companion.  And you resynchronize with the world’s clock.

Smiling isn’t always forced anymore.  You learn to ignore the ache and sorrow enough to actually forget about it sometimes.  Then one day, a sound jumps out of you that, both familiar and forgotten, startles you:  a mirthful laugh.  You slowly, carefully pick up speed.  A new home.  A new pet.  A new job.  Some new friends.  You decide to start living a little bit again.

For a while, even this small amount of happiness is intoxicating and all consuming.  Color has meaning to you again.  A sense of purpose, for so long absent, is now palpable.  You realize you’re not dead after all.

The new life eventually becomes just life, a set of patterns that are comforting and familiar and no longer new.  And it is at that point, when you think the mileage you’ve logged traveling from then to now has been enough to keep you away from that place forever, that the sorrow reawakens and the pain returns.

At first you don’t buy into it as being true.  But that slumbering, noxious companion is now up and around and in need of attention after such a long nap, so it parks itself in the middle of your no-longer-new life, waiting for you to acknowledge it.

You look at it in astonishment for several weeks.  But slowly the truth dawns on you:  it’s not going anywhere.  You’re going to have to make room for this thing, you’re going to have to name it.  And after years of ignoring it, you may even have to talk to it.

And then one day, you get it.  You are both happy and sad.  You are both here and there.  These two universes exist within you at the same time.  At the moment you are happy, there dwells deep within a profound sadness.  And when you are lost in the pain of your traumatic sorrow, your other life-the good and happy life-still exists, waiting for you to re-engage in it.

Finally, you reach a breaking point and you share your secret about your unwelcomed companion that lives invisibly in your space.

Your own knowing and understanding are part of the process, maybe even part of the solution.  But the only true antidote for surviving this duality is the authentic, enduring loving kindness of another human being, wishing nothing more than to climb inside your world with you to keep you company while you figure out what to do with your broken heart.  Then, the pain and sorrow and loss and anguish and guilt and suffering become bearable and the clock begins to move forward again.

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