A former therapist of mine stated that relational trauma nearly universally results in feeling “Alone with a capital A”. This reflects my experiences as a psychologist who specializes in relational trauma and also a survivor of relational trauma personally. Ironically, if all survivors at some point feel Alone, then maybe feeling Alone could be part of what brings us together.
In my experience as a survivor, part of what contributed to my feeling Alone was the fact that I would sometimes experience care, compassion, or connection with other people as threatening. This mattered not just for my own personal comfort and quality of life, but it also mattered deeply in my work as a therapist. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), there is an often used exercise called “Eyes on.” The idea of the exercise is to practice willingness to sit with uncomfortable internal experiences (e.g., thoughts, emotions, and physiological sensations), which is one method of helping to cultivate a more flexible way of approaching life. What happens during the eyes on exercise is that participants in the group or workshop are asked to pair up and gaze into one another’s eyes for several minutes, as they are asked to imagine what it is like behind the eyes of the other person.
The first time I participated in the eyes on exercise was as a young graduate student attending an ACT workshop in my hometown. I recall my heart racing as soon as I made eye contact, as seemingly every cell in my being was communicating to me that I was in danger. The close contact was too similar to my experiences of being intruded on in the past, and so my mind was not able to know that I was safe, no matter how much I tried telling myself that everything was okay. I got through the exercise by periodically looking away and surreptitiously biting my lip. It struck me then, that if I wanted to be an effective therapist working with relational trauma survivors, I needed to work on healing myself.
Over the next several years, I began a regular meditation practice, and joined a meditation community. There I was able to communicate more openly with students and teachers about my difficulty connecting as a result of my trauma history. I also engaged in my own therapy during this time with a therapist well-versed in attachment and dissociation and who clearly walked the walk in terms of taking a caring approach with herself and her own healing, which allowed her to do the same with me. In addition, I began a practicum placement with a supervisor who was known for her highly relational work with clients. This supervisor guided me to gradually open my heart more with my own clients, which allowed me to be wholly present in a way that was previously not accessible to me. I was starting to hear from my clients for the first time that our work together was transformative, rather than just helping them deal with their symptoms.
At the end of graduate school I moved to San Diego to complete an internship with the Military Sexual Trauma Clinic at the VA. As part of the rotation, I was paired up with a senior therapist who informed me that we would be doing the eyes on exercise in our group. We had an odd number of group participants that day, and so I paired up with one of the Veterans as the senior therapist led the exercise. Rather than white knuckling as I had previously, I actually felt curious about the person sitting in front of me, and I truly wished for him to be happy. For the first couple of minutes, his face appeared armored and blank. Then, when the instructions asked him to look at my face, he broke into tears. Afterward, I recognized in him my own past struggle with fear of connection when he said to me, “Initially, it was impossible for me to look at you. It wasn’t safe. But then when I actually saw you, I could see in your face that you were with me, and I didn’t have to be alone anymore.”
Survivors so often feel Alone because of the messages that accompany or follow trauma. When the suffering of sexual trauma is met with silence, threats, or disbelief, the survivor is left alone with an unmanageable amount of pain. Our bodies and minds find somewhere to put it, but at a cost. Sometimes we create imaginary worlds, sometimes we learn to communicate with animals, trees or imaginary friends, sometimes we hold sadness in a leg and anger in an arm, sometimes we keep it locked up in little cuts all over our bodies. These strategies often keep us alive, but it is still lonely being in a world in which we are partially locked away. Meanwhile, so many people are going through the same thing, each believing she is the only one.
My experiences of feeling Alone motivated me to heal in order to be able to more freely connect with people. At the time when I was beginning my own transformation I was not aware of any public healing space like the Monument Quilt Project. Fortunately, I was able to piece together what I needed in order to live a fuller, more connected life (which is still a work in progress). That said, I think the process may have started earlier for me had the Monument Quilt Project existed at that time. The primary message of the Project is that although we all have our own unique experiences and perspectives ,we are not Alone, and it is not the survivor’s fault. This is the opposite message of the one that typically accompanies sexual trauma.
The Monument Quilt Project is providing a space in which the Alone parts of us can be held by community. From my perspective, the public healing space sends a message of, “You are welcome here anytime. You don’t need to feel better. You don’t need to look sane. We believe you, darling.” It is a space that both normalizes and reifies the experiences of survivors so that we can we can be Alone together, and then not Alone.
Dr. Platt is a licensed psychologist who specializes in helping people heal from relational trauma at Portland Psychotherapy Clinic, Research, and Training Center. Along with Dr. Jason Luoma and Dr. Jenna LeJeune, she is a regular contributor to www.actwithcompassion.com.