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Restoring a Sense of Safety After Early Life Trauma

November 26, 2013

By Eric Arauz
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

I have never felt at home. 

Most of the initial interactions surrounding the treatment for my mental illness focused on my symptoms. 

What was wrong with me? I was asked to describe how I was feeling and what my thought process was as trained medical professionals observed my phenotypes to titrate them down to an agreed upon diagnosis. 

As my symptoms abated for longer and longer periods and my recovery from my disorder matured, other more dominant issues presented. I was not exhibiting any of the hyperbolic moods or magical thinking that fit my bipolar I diagnosis, and, while I have a tendency to the melancholic, depression never manifested.

Instead, a more subtle, constant undertone of angst or fear, or, when more pronounced, terror, seemed to be my constant companion. 

I was sober. There were no drugs or alcohol in my system to dampen this existential pain, and the pain was starting to drown out my life. 

I added mindfulness training and martial arts to my recovery plan, but moments free of visceral misery were brief. 

It wasn’t until I began to study trauma as part of my professional education that I began to understand what I was living with day-to-day. 

I had never been asked in treatment about my child abuse or my time in restraints. If it did come up, I moved right by it. Stoic. In control. A man without vulnerability. A Navy veteran of Operation Desert  Storm, you don’t rescue me… I rescue you… I rescue you. 

But it was becoming very, very clear that I never felt safe. Not in the world and not with my bipolar disorder lurking in my blood. I didn't feel safe in my own skin. 

I began to see that my entire life was determined by this lack of comfort. This lack of home. 

When my father’s mental illness bloomed we lost my childhood residence, a large home in a Jersey suburb. My mother took me and my two siblings under her care and raised us alone. I slept on a couch for a few years. 

Even though there were restraining orders against my dad, when he was symptomatic he would walk straight into the apartment and sit on the living room couch/my bed. 

The terror I felt was numbing, constricting, paralyzing. I was too young to stand up to him, so I would burn alive from the skin inward with the shame and cowardice of a boy unable to protect his family. 

Years and years later, as I started to gain a somatic literacy due to my self-directed trauma work, my life began to make sense. I was able to step back from my life and see the dread sewn into the foundation of my being. 

I needed to become more vulnerable to the world and to others. 

I had to drop the armor of my life and realize that no one was trying to hurt me. To this day I walk into places and tell myself over and over again that I am safe. I am with friends. 

I am a military veteran with experience fighting in judo tournaments. I have a vicious and cutting wit sharpened in my Jersey adolescence and perfected after years in the Navy. I would hurt you before you hurt me. 

But now I saw how I had constructed an identity to fight everyone and everything. I saw a potential war in every meeting. Trapped in the foxhole of hyper-arousal, I could not engage with a world that only held more and more promises of pain. 

I now own the home we moved into after the apartment. My mother lives with my wife, daughter, and myself, and I am working very hard to re-paint the house with a fresh perspective. 

It takes daily work to not fall back into my physical, cognitive, and affective lifetime conditioning, but I am determined to not recreate the model of my youth.  I am determined to offer my daughter a childhood of connection and security so she has much less to unlearn as she comes of age. This gives me the fortitude to continue my work and live this unknown life. 

There is a character in the novel Moby Dick named Bulkington. He is introduced early on while Ishmael is trying to gain a billet on a whaling ship. What makes Bulkington notable is that he is part of a crew that just completed a global, four-year cruise, and he immediately turned around and signed up for the fated Pequod on its terminal trip chasing after Ahab’s obsession. 

Bulkington had no homeport. 

He was forever at sea. Dissociated from terra firma. Rootless without an existential anchor. 

I have come home to myself with the trauma work to feel safe in my own skin, and I am starting to feel the ease of being “home” behind the front door of my house, sitting on the couch I was institutionalized off of twice in the 1990s. 

Anchored. A soul sailor home-ported in his heart and life. 

How do you handle the larger, existential questions involved in recovery from mental illness when the more serious symptoms subside? 

Have you found early life trauma in many of your patients? 

Can this lack of safety make treatment planning harder for you in your work?

Eric Arauz, MLER, is an international behavior health consumer advocate, trainer, and inspirational keynote speaker. He is a faculty member at the Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Department of Psychiatry, the Vice-Chairman of the current New Jersey Task Force on Opiate Addiction in citizens 18 to 25 years old, and a person with the lived experience of bipolar I disorder, PTSD, addiction, and suicidality. He is the SAMHSA 2012 "Voice Award" Fellow and the author of An American's Resurrection: My Pilgrimage from Child Abuse and Mental Illness to Salvation. 

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors.

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