Friday on CNN’s Headline News, I was very excited to catch a glimpse of an uplifting and inspiring new docuseries called Rise from my colleague Cheryl Hunter which profiles people who’ve triumphed over trauma and extreme adversity. Cheryl knows a great deal about this topic as she’s a kidnapping and rape survivor who’s overcome her experiences and now supports others in building their resilience and strength to heal from trauma.
Hunter’s Rise feature truly stuck a chord for me. She mentions how this is a deeply divisive, politically-charged time, and her hope in making it is that the stories would bring people together and build bridges that have been broken, highlighting how we have much more in common as people than what separates us. I couldn’t agree more, but I’d add that we also need new tools, resources, and materials that can help us continue to bridge our gaps. Without these tools, I’m concerned we’re forgetting how to come together and support each other to rise above our pain and our differences.
Here’s what Hunter shares as a trauma recovery expert, about her new series, healing from trauma, and more.
Kathy Caprino: Cheryl, what do you make of the events we’re hearing about every day, from pipe bombings, to mass shootings in sacred places of worship, to targeting with violence people who don’t agree with our ideals and values?
Cheryl Hunter: Unfortunately, the state of the world today routinely includes shootings at schools and places of worship, natural disasters and terrorist threats. People reach out to me regularly asking how those closely impacted by recent tragedies make it through and how we all can make it through our own deeply trying times, collectively.
That’s a good question. What we’re seeing today, I think, is a cumulative awakening to the fact that we are all in this together. It may not look that way at first glance; in fact, many insist that we’re more polarized than we’ve ever been. I don’t see it that way, however. I’m witnessing a groundswell of people speaking up and giving voice to their pain – often for the first time ever. I’m witnessing people listening to different points of view than their own because there are too many people speaking up to be ignored any longer. As I say to my clients, “ You cannot heal from that which you cannot name. ”
The truth is we all face unexpected challenges. We all face some form of trauma in life, albeit not necessarily as horrific as what today’s headlines are revealing. What would make a difference to all people who are struggling through trauma is to learn how to heal, recover and move through it with a greater sense of ease, grace and resilience.
I’ve learned that trauma is a spectrum. Trauma can occur at age 10 when a person’s parents got divorced, or when they themselves got divorced at 40, or if they’ve faced an unimaginable occurrence – many different types of events can cause trauma.
Caprino: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about facing trauma?
Hunter: The single biggest misconception is that trauma is someone else’s problem. It won’t happen to me…until it does. Another misconception, “My experience doesn’t qualify as trauma.” A client was raped at 6 years of age, but said it wasn’t violent, so she didn’t think it counted.
This kind of belief keeps a person from seeking the help that they need. Others believe some version of, “If I push down the bad feelings, they’ll go away,” or, “I don’t want to think about it; it’ll make it worse.” Conversely, not dealing with trauma makes it a constant companion. Others think that they should be over their past trauma by now, because it happened a long time ago, or they mistakenly feel that the trauma of their past is no longer impacting them. What I’ve learned is this: if a person is stuck in their lives today, the culprit is unhealed, unresolved trauma from the past.
Caprino: As a resilience expert, what would you say are the two most powerful steps to take right after experiencing a trauma, that will help us heal?
Hunter: The most effective steps I’ve seen are:
1) Understand that time does not heal all wounds
2) Discover where you lost yourself
Caprino: Since time immemorial people have said, “Time heals all wounds.” Are you saying that, in your work helping people overcome trauma, you’ve found that idea is false?
Hunter: Actually, yes, I have. Waiting for time to heal the wounds of the past is a dead-end strategy, and the notion that “time heals all wounds” has got to be the most destructive myth that holds people back after they’ve faced difficulty. If someone gets knocked down and never quite gets back up again, it’s because time does not heal all wounds. On the contrary, time often makes wounds worse and more ingrained in day-to-day life.
When we wait for time to heal our wounds, we can’t fulfill our potential. Even if we have already proven ourselves to be successful, smart, resourceful people, we can feel unfulfilled and empty. Oftentimes, we’ll sell out and settle for crumbs and not make the money that we deserve or have the love we desperately long for. We work harder and harder and end up “living for the weekend” and barely hanging on until our next vacation (which, let’s face it, is never long enough). Worst of all, we live our lives gripped by the gnawing feeling that this is not the life we’re supposed to be living. We were meant for more.
I’ve made these same mistakes in my own life – waiting for time to heal me – and it put me in a downward spiral for a time. The “time heals all wounds”adage put me into magical thinking mode that somehow the act of checking off days in my calendar would provide relief. It wasn’t until I rolled up my sleeves and proactively took control of my healing that any true relief could begin.
Caprino: Next you mention “discovering where you lost yourself.” I’ve heard many people complain about “losing themselves” after facing trauma. Is that what you mean? Can you explain the process of that?
Hunter: When we face unexpected adversity, it’s as though a piece of us splinters off, and we lose who we truly are. To make up for that, we unwittingly contort, compensate, and become someone else…someone we often don’t even recognize. Many find themselves not liking the person they’ve become and wondering, “How did I get here?”
When we face trauma, we unwittingly isolate the part of ourselves that we blame for getting ourselves into the situation or the trauma in the first place. It’s as if we splinter off from that part of ourselves and we leave it behind, push it down, shun it, or kill it off.
When we face a trauma at a young age, the situation is exacerbated. Developmentally as children, we believe we are the center of the world. When something goes wrong in our world, we think something is wrong with us. Imagine that you were a child who lost their parents. You might say, “I made that happen! I was a bad girl!” No one in their right mind would think you’re to blame…except you.
If, for example, we feel like we ended up in the situation in which the trauma occurred because we were too trusting, we’ll kill off, push down, or leave behind the part of us that was trusting, so that we never experience that kind of pain again. If we feel that we were too naive or kind or curious, for example, we will splinter off from those parts of ourselves and get rid of them so that we can survive in the future. Then we end up in the present day feeling like we lost ourselves, as if we don’t know who we have become, or feel we’ve lost our spark or the best part of ourselves. Today it’s as though we are fighting ghosts, and we are operating at only a fraction of our power, and we don’t know why.
Personally speaking, when I was abducted at age 17 in France, I was so naive, trusting and confident in my own ability to figure it out. Once I was free, physically speaking, I began beating myself up – blaming those parts of myself for getting me into the situation that could have cost me my life. For many years after the terror I experienced at the hands of these criminals I continued to push down and “kill off” my natural proclivity to be trusting and self-confident, until eventually I was just a shell of my former self.
Caprino: Would you share a bit about why you created your series Rise? What are you hoping it will help us do?
Hunter: No matter where we fall on the spectrum of trauma, we can learn an immense amount from those who have suffered extreme trauma and who have already walked that path. As a teenager, once I became free from my captors, I became fascinated with the study of freedom, and I made it my life’s work to understand how some people recover from adversity while others never do.
I first learned that recovery was even possible when I started interviewing Holocaust survivors, 9/11 first responders and war veterans. Their stories provided both inspiration and a roadmap to recovery. My hope is that Rise can provide a similar support and roadmap to help people recover from trauma and also support us to pull together and connect with what is similar in us all rather than hunt for how we’re different. That seems to be a powerful antidote to the intensely challenging times in which we’re living.
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