Compartmentalizing: A Commentary on Trauma

I had an old bookshelf. It seemed worthy of its task. I loaded it with tomes of theology, my children’s storybooks that I couldn’t bear to box up, education books from college, and my favorite fiction fun reads. It was a happy hodgepodge of words and memories. One day I looked at the shelf and it appeared the shelves were bowing towards the middle. “I should do something about that.” But I was a busy woman and a sagging bookshelf was the last thing I had time for.  Sometime later I noticed the shelves were seriously complaining. Still, I didn’t have space in my days for this to be a priority. And then it broke. My favorite books tumbled down, bending pages and snapping covers. The shelves were irreparable. Unlike bone which gets stronger when you graft it back together, these breaks forever weakened the structure, rendering it unusable, at least for books.

Trauma and Memory

Coincidentally, this is how my trauma damaged brain worked too. Granted, I was given some shaky scaffolding to start with. Abandoned, adopted, abandoned, and adopted by parents who, tragically flawed by their own upbringing, abused us children in unthinkable ways. I wasn’t set up to thrive. In an effort to survive all through my childhood and adolescence, I took the traumatic experiences and filed each emotional memory up on a shelf. I stored my memories and my tears, one by one, year after year, on crowded shelves in the recesses of my mind. Much like college textbooks that had cluttered my bookshelf, my memory held volumes that I never intended to open again.

Will Compartmentalizing Work Long-Term?

Adulthood brought with it the freedom to write new stories, including some very happy ones. Marriage to my college sweetheart, four beautiful children and occupational fulfillment. It also brought with it tragedy. My work as a pastor brought me to an urban area of ministry with volatile situations and a challenging “fringe” population. A parishioner took her life by shooting herself in the chest. I was caught in the middle of a knife fight between an angry Mexican and a mentally ill Puerto Rican. A young mother of a three week old died tragically.  I held a screaming prostitute as she found out her love, her john was murdered. On the home front, the challenges had not been small either. My toddler got cancer. Challenging in-law relationships blew a hole in my need for family security. My only sister died after a long and ugly battle with drugs and mental illness. My marriage was struggling and on the ropes. With each traumatic event, I relied on my tried and true method of coping, tuck it away and forget about it.

Compartmentalizing is a common coping mechanism for trauma victims. The mind separated trauma from my feelings and emotions. They separate like oil and vinegar, until the last straw. As they say in trauma treatment and addiction therapy, “It worked. Until it didn’t.” Eventually my shelves of memories, hurt, pain, frustration, insecurity, and abandonment broke under the weight of my immense sadness. I found myself in a psych and trauma hospital with no ability to even understand why I was there. I had experienced a major mental breakdown and was diagnosed with Complex PTSD, with all of its ugly bedfellows, depression, anxiety, and physical manifestations of stress. All my stories I never wanted to see again lay scattered at my feet.  The huge mental mess in front of me, if compared to physical items, would put even the best hoarder to shame.

A Space to Process

The goal is to have the emotional, mental and spiritual fortitude to be able to process events as they happen without needing to shove them away. It is also a goal to be able to unpack the memories that I had previously tucked away, one by one, without triggering too many negative side effects.  It is slow, arduous and frustrating, but hopefully I am clearing my “space” so there is room for love, acceptance and security in the places where brokenness previously lived.

Scripture:

 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. Psalm 27:5 (NIV)

Prayer:

Lord, we are desperate for you in times of sorrow and confusion. In our brokenness, we come to you. Give us a space of grace to find healing from this trauma—emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Help us to see truth over lies, and teach us to accept your love. In the powerful name of Jesus, Amen.

Next Steps:

  1. Are you suffering from Trauma or PTSD? We invite you to seek counseling at https://hisheartfoundation.org/request-a-counselor-referral/
  2. You can also find more information on trauma at www.mentalhealth.academy

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