Long before I was a psychiatrist, I worked at a golf course rummaging through thorny shrubbery and dense pockets of oak trees to find golf balls that had strayed from their masters. As an eight-year-old boy, this hardly seemed like work - it was more like a treasure hunting adventure, complete with the threat of poison ivy and villainous snakes. After a couple of cycles in the ball-cleaner, a relatively unscathed Titleist could fetch a dime, and a bucket of similar balls could finance an extravagant trip to the candy store.
Occasionally I would come across a ball that looked as though it had been mauled by a wild animal (or, more likely, a large lawnmower); the ball's hard shell filleted open, allowing the mangled elastics to protrude through the untidy gash. Such a ball had no monetary value at the time - but these many years later, the image of the ruptured golf ball has become a meaningful metaphor in my work with individuals who have experienced trauma.
For humans, trauma can take a myriad of forms, yet the immediate response is surprisingly predictable. Like most animals, trauma in humans evokes an automatic and primitive instinct to survive. The traumatic stress response has little need for logic or reason, but instead relies on the unconscious reflexes of fight, flight and freeze. Therefore, out of necessity, the tender and vulnerable aspects of trauma are often swallowed up and pushed away. Survival is the goal.
Actually, this universal response to trauma is remarkably successful... at least in the short-term. By in large, people do survive. After experiencing trauma, most people get up and they face family and friends, they go back to school and work, they re-engage in life. Often, there is no other option. Life keeps moving - it doesn't pause for trauma processing. People do survive, but the trauma is still there.
In many cases, the thoughts and emotions attached to the trauma are too tangled and messy to be processed openly, so they get pushed to the back, into a dark corner of the psyche. But trauma has tentacles, like rubber bands, that reach out from the darkest corners and pull at the mind and body, threatening implosion and utter collapse. So, frequently the traumatized individual unwittingly severs the rubber bands - disconnects from the trauma - letting the frayed elastics retreat into the dark where they twist and turn into a ball.
This ball of elastics is ripe with potential energy - wrapped tight with anger, fear, shame, and self-blame. Often, there is tremendous anxiety that the quivering ball will unravel and all that pain will burst into awareness, wreaking havoc from the inside. So, like the shell of a golf ball that contains its elastic core, the traumatized individual applies an analogous hard, protective coating over the reactive ball of trauma. This resilient shell is meant to encapsulate the energized elastics of trauma and allow the individual to bounce back into life.
For some individuals, the trauma is walled-off with layers and layers of denial and repression. In fact, the protective coating of repression can be so effective that, over time, the person may not have any conscious recollection of the traumatic event. For others, the trauma is encapsulated with the help of alcohol, drugs, work, food, or sex. However, the protective effects of these practices are often short-lived and eventually, the addictive behavior contributes more pain to the process than it does protection.
The layers of repression and addiction can be applied for years, sometimes even decades. However, keeping the loaded bands of trauma sequestered and contained taxes the mind and the body. As a result, defensive barriers can be unexpectedly breached by a subsequent trauma or loss later in life, such as infidelity or divorce, children leaving home, retirement, financial insecurity, or the death of a loved-one. Sometimes the protective layers are peeled back by more subtle insults: a random encounter with a person from childhood, a television program or newsworthy incident, or a body-oriented experience like massage or surgery.
When the trauma finally breaks through the ruptured shell, there can be tremendous fear, anxiety, pain, anger, and confusion. Many individuals feel like they are losing their mind - they doubt their own inner experience or blame themselves for not keeping the painful emotions under tighter control. Often, desperate attempts are made to stem the emotional hemorrhage using familiar defensive tactics, like avoidance and addiction. However, much like a ruptured golf ball, it may be impossible to repair the untidy gash in the protective coating and push the traumatic content back under the shell.
In this vulnerable position, where old defenses are no longer effective, the traumatized individual may benefit from clinical treatment. With the supportive guidance of treatment professionals, a safe therapeutic environment can be co-created so that habitual defenses can be relaxed and the traumatic material can be acknowledged. Through a variety of treatment techniques, the intense thoughts and emotions associated with the trauma can emerge from dark corners, into the soft light of awareness. The tender aspects of trauma that were pushed away in the service of survival are finally allowed to come forth and are the very seeds that will give rise to a growing inner strength.
As recovery progresses, there can be an inexplicable movement towards wholeness - a genuine desire to open oneself to what has long been walled-off. For most people, the trauma doesn't necessarily go away. However, out of the wreckage of ruptured defenses, one-by-one, the tangled bands of trauma can become an integrated part of a person's life. Indeed, many people have discovered that the experience of trauma can become a pathway to profound tenderheartedness and compassion for oneself and others. In the poetic words of Rashani Réa, "There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken, a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable."
Jon G. Caldwell, D.O., is a board certified psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of adults with relational trauma histories and addictive behaviors. He currently works full-time as a psychiatrist at The Meadows treatment center in Wickenburg Arizona. For a number of years he has been teaching students, interns, residents, and professionals in medicine and mental health about how childhood adversity influences health and well being. His theoretical perspective is heavily influenced by his PhD graduate work at the University of California at Davis where he has been researching how early childhood maltreatment and insecure attachment relationships affect cognitive, emotional, and social functioning later in life. His clinical approach has become increasingly flavored by the timeless teachings of the contemplative traditions and the practice of mindfulness meditation.