Meaning—What does the loss & its impact say about me?
I sat on the back porch of our custom-built little house in the backwoods of Virginia. I had everything I’d ever dreamed of except for one thing. A life. I thought I’d be free. Instead, I was drowning in Complex trauma symptoms. Anxiety had turned into constant terror. Depression as black as a starless night hovered over me all the time. Chronic pain and debilitating illness had pushed me into almost total isolation. I had plenty of time to mull over the past and torment myself.
We had moved back to the scene of the crime so to speak. My husband had taken a job in the same tiny Southside Virginia town I grew up in. But moving “back home,” did not help. I thought it would be good to live in a familiar place. I would know how to fit in and perhaps I could recreate the fantasy that had been taken from me when my family blew up. But living in a fantasy is never a good idea. Old friends had moved away or gone on with their own lives. No one knew my story or understood the trauma of my past. They didn’t want to hear about it, either.
Sitting at home going over the events of my childhood was turning into nothing more than churning. I was trying to skip the second task of healing—meaning and continue on as I always had. To assign meaning to the loss is to understand both the impact and what that impact says about me. Not just know about it but understand it.
By the time we moved to this little town, I had done a lot of healing work. I knew that my family of origin was hopelessly broken and had even gone no contact with my mother, but there was one thing I had not done. I didn’t understand the meaning of the loss or its impact on me. I kept living the role assigned to me by my abusers. I was in default mode. So thorough was the conditioning of early childhood, I automatically lived in the place I had been put. I was stupid and incompetent. Driven to people please, I had no thoughts of my own, not any I shared anyway. Trying to control everything around me in order to feel safe, even for a few seconds, broke me. I was simply existing. I had no idea how to live.
What is the Meaning of Trauma?
What was the point of it all? What did it all mean? The losses I faced from childhood trauma were most profound. I lost my parents, my childhood, career choices, relationships, joy, peace, and happiness. I lost myself. And most importantly, I lost my place in the world. I lost any sense of confidence and personhood.
The first task of healing from childhood trauma is to accept the loss.
The second task, which is the topic of this blog, is to understand the meaning of the loss. The family system you grew up in and the relationships you experienced were destructive. How do we assign meaning to that? How do we assign meaning to suffering? And how has this trauma affected and impacted my life? It is an enormous task.
I once stood on the north shore of the island of Oahu in Hawaii and watched the waves roll in from the Pacific Ocean. A constant stiff breeze permanently bent the palm trees at odd angles. Looking out over the vast ocean, I felt as though I was standing on the edge of the world. completely isolated. Storms beginning in the Pacific Northwest flow south driving the tremendous waves Oahu is famous for.
Childhood trauma is isolating—bending us in permanently damaged ways. Abuse lays down neuropathways in the brain. Betrayal causes distrust in relationships. Waves of confusion, fear, regret, and despair seem impossible to stop. We live at the edge of life. Others do not understand. We are undermined and attacked by our families for speaking the truth. Even extended relatives do not offer support. Religious communities offer platitudes and often make recovery more difficult. Gaslighting, manipulation, and blame are laid at the feet of the victim.
We question our sanity. We question the meaning of life. We question our spiritual beliefs. We question the very foundation of what it means to be human. The betrayal of our own parents means that nothing in life, and most especially any relationship, is trustworthy. These are just a few of the ways childhood trauma has impacted my life.
How to Make Sense Out of Trauma
I now live as far away from that little house in the backwoods of Virginia as I can get. But moving to the west coast didn’t cancel out the damage. In what ways have I dealt with the second task of healing-the meaning of the loss? I decided to call my brother. My one and only sibling, separated by a mere eighteen months, was my companion in the darkness of our childhood.
Our text went like this…
Me: “Could you sum this up in a sentence? What has been the impact of the loss in your life caused by childhood trauma? I’m trying to put my finger on meaning. What is the meaning of the loss, to you?”
Bro: “This is pretty difficult.” Pause. “I think it boils down to the loss of love. When you are exposed to severe trauma, you enter a place and time where there is no love. And you really need this love. You need it all of your life but especially when you are a child. And that lack of love, the fact that you were used for other purposes besides love, causes profound damage that alters a person for life.”
And there it is. The meaning of the loss can be summed up in one simple phrase; the loss of love. It is hard to wrap your head around, hard to fathom being used in such a way just because someone else wanted to gain power over a helpless child.
How do you assign meaning to your life and find your place in the world after trauma? In childhood, we saw ourselves by the definition our abusers gave us. Dumb, stupid, inept, hated, despised and rejected. They put us in the place they wanted us. The place that would serve them best. For me, this carried over into adulthood and lasted until middle age. The system is so powerful, the longing to be loved so deep, we will do anything to believe we can achieve it. So we continue to flail around doing the best we can to fulfill the place we have been assigned.
Accepting the flaws of our families and then assigning a new meaning to our place in the world is what healing looks like. We are the exact opposite of what our abusers forced us to believe. Our place in the world can be many things. We can find new purpose as we get to know other survivors and participate in support groups. We can choose trustworthy people to be in a relationship with. We can enjoy the day for its own sake and our place in it. We can serve others, and we must strive to embrace this core belief—we matter just because we exist.
The meaning of the loss is tremendous. I honor that, and I honor myself as a survivor. What is the meaning of the loss to you? Defy trauma, embrace joy.
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Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four.