07.27.2012 Posted In: NETWORKER EXCHANGE By Psychotherapy Networker
When I first began studying psychotherapy in the early 1970s, for all practical purposes the field had never heard of trauma. Back then, the prevalence and destructive impact of child abuse and domestic violence were virtually unknown, and nobody realized how much terrible events and extreme suffering could profoundly impair our very neurobiology. At that time almost the entire focus of psychotherapy was on the family melodramas involving middle class parents and their basically safe and privileged children. This was territory I knew very well—I had experienced enough of my own family’s emotional theatrics to keep several therapists duly employed over the years.
But the “discovery” of trauma—particularly the identification and naming of PTSD—introduced me and our entire field to another world entirely. I began to realize the vast chasm between the rather “small-u” unhappiness I had experienced in my relatively sheltered life and the unrelenting pervasive misery of people who had experienced the worst that can befall human beings. The lives of these people had been profoundly altered. For them, time—even with psychotherapy—did not heal all wounds. Unlike the fractious, stressful circumstances of my own childhood, traumatic memories often couldn’t be talked into submission through ordinary therapy. These clients showed symptoms—flashbacks, suicide attempts, nightmares, paralyzing anxiety, dissociation, substance abuse—that were much more complicated and intractable than anything most therapists were prepared to deal with.
This was all far from experience. And yet, on one occasion I came horribly close to viscerally understanding what psychic trauma really felt like. Driving home one dark, wet night on a slippery road, not paying enough attention to what I was doing, I turned onto another road and a car I hadn’t seen was forced to swerve to avoid me. For what seemed like a lifetime, I watched helplessly as the driver braked with a great squeal of ties. As a burst of sparks rose up from its undercarriage, the car jackknifed across the road and hurled directly toward a concrete wall, stopping just inches short of it. Thank God the couple in the car were not hurt, but they were too shocked even to reply to my stammered apologies. Afterward, I lay awake night after night, replaying the event over and over and over again, imagining a far worse outcome.
After some months, I did recover, but I can still feel a twinge in my gut when I think of that night. For many people who experience full-fledged, severe, and/or chronic trauma, however, there is no recovery, no safe comfort zone to which they can retreat, no ability to control what goes on in their own bodies and minds. This is why I have a certain kind of awe for people who make treating traumatized clients their specialty. They really do seem like a breed apart, even from the rest of the therapy world.
Which brings me to our upcoming webcast series, The Latest Advances in Trauma Treatment, which features video interviews with half a dozen of the world’s most knowledgeable and adept practitioners of trauma therapy. Listening to them describe in vivid detail, with fascinating stories and examples, exactly how they go about practicing their particular approach—we not only get a sense of different ways of looking at trauma, but see a fascinating variety of clinical talent and creativity in action.
We get a visceral sense from Chris Courtois, for example, of the often eerie experience of working with a person with dissociative identity disorder. Somatic therapist Pat Ogden offers a close-up glimpse of the non-verbal, healing choreography of her approach. Don Meichenbaum plays a kind of therapeutic Columbo using disarmingly crafted questions to help clients realize not how traumatized they are, but rather the hidden stories of inner strength and resilience that have allowed them to move on in their lives. Diana Fosha shows how skillfully she uses herself to break the profound sense of loneliness and isolation that characterizes many trauma clients. Widening the clinical implications of social context factors, Ken Hardy describes his work with clients marginalized by poverty and racism. Mary Jo Barrett identifies five simple but highly critical ingredients in effective trauma treatment. Finally, Francine Shapiro gives us a nuts and bolts lesson about how to use EMDR to treat trauma clients.
So I hope you’ll join us for what I think are a series of candid, inspiring conversations with practitioners who embody the very highest ideals of our profession, but who also have so much to offer in mastering the craft of responding to some of the most profound challenges we face as healing professionals.
The Latest Advances in Trauma Treatment: