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What Happened to You?

20 July 2021

Barbara read What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry, MD, PHD. It turns out thinking about trauma differently can help you feel better while you're healing.

Tags: barbara read, mental health, self-compassion

When children and adults act out, we often quickly ask the question in our minds or out loud, “What’s wrong with them?” or “What’s wrong with me?” Oprah and Dr. Perry say that instead we should ask, “What happened to you?” Almost always some trauma, big or small, caused the beginning of the behavior we don't like in ourselves and others. That behavior is often our best effort to start coping, and we can help each other more if we first ask, "What happened?" rather than, "What's wrong?"

I read the book fast because I was racing to get to the part where they would talk about healing. The book gives many examples of big trauma—the PTSD aftermath of war, sexual abuse, domestic violence, neglect, but it also says each person decides what is traumatic for them and can use the same healing techniques. It was useful to me to learn that I could apply the lessons to my current trauma even if some part of me feels sort of guilty describing what I’m going through as trauma when I think of how so many others are suffering even more than I am.

In April and May, I had carpel tunnel and cubital tunnel surgery on both my arms. The physical therapy afterwards is long and slow and painful. I also have been doing physical therapy on my shoulders and knees because they got out of whack by my having to sleep on my back for several months because my arms and hands hurt.

I’m not an athlete and didn’t grow up knowing about muscle soreness. After my second child was born, I became a 30-minute-a-day runner because I wanted to try something that would maybe make me less tired. It worked. After our move to Florida in 1983, I wrestled with shin splints for months, so I changed to walking 30 minutes and had done that until these last few months. It's been heartbreaking to lose my reliable form of exercise after 38 years. I'm praying that all this physical therapy will get me back to the walking I love and the travel I miss.

As I’ve done physical therapy on a lot of body parts, I am sore in many places, wake up in pain in the night, and have a hard time keeping my mind from going negative during the day. I’ve written several times about affirmations and how necessary they are especially when you don’t believe them. However, when I hurt, I become reclusive and negative, anxious thoughts flood my conscious mind and my dreams. (I'm having such a hard time practicing what I recommend to clients right now, that I can't even believe someone interviewed me for a podcast about overcoming anxiety last year.) I’ve been making feeble attempts at what has worked in the past, but so far I haven’t stuck with them. I know the affirmations will help me eventually but until they do, I’m taking comfort from the wisdom in this book.

The advice that stayed with me after reading the book is that whoever has experienced trauma must decide who they want to talk to, when they talk about it, and how much they will say. Perry says, “Healing takes place when there are dozens of therapeutic moments available each day for the person to control, revisiting and reworking their traumatic experience. When you have friends, family, and other healthy people in your life, you have a natural healing environment. We heal best in community.”

Don’t let anyone make you talk about it longer than you want just because you brought it up. The many quick conversations controlled by the person who is traumatized can help more than an hour on the topic with someone who tries to delve deeper. If you talk too long you can relive the trauma and become more upset.

I decided to try applying their healing recommendations to my much smaller trauma of continued muscle soreness and my larger anxiety that I will not be able to travel and do fun things again. I finally called friends that I used to talk to regularly. I'm talking to my therapist every week even though I often want to quit. I rejoined a group of three women who have an hour discussion after watching each of David Whyte’s July three-Sunday series, A Timeless Way: Seven Steps for Deepening Any Conversation. I confessed my darker thoughts to my daughter, and she's been listening lovingly. She encouraged me to blog again when I was ready because writing often helps us both. I'm glad I did.

Being honest about what happened to me in a few sentences to a few people is more healing than I thought it would be. I had to take action to put myself in situations that would give me the opportunity to talk with people whom I knew would respect my boundaries about how long I can talk about my current struggles. I'm still having a hard time, but I can feel these conversations helping me heal. I hope you can reach out to people who would be willing to listen to what happened to you.


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