Editor’s note: Darrell Taylor is a member of the Mattawa North Bay Algonquins of Ontario. He retired after 25 years as a mental health professional, including eight as a clinical supervisor in Inuvik. He hosts a weekly meditation group in Yellowknife that gets “Zoomed” across Canada.
Many today are struggling with trauma. We may unexpectedly lose a loved one through accident, illness or addiction. Even listening to the news can trigger us. The recent reports about unmarked graves near Residential Schools are an example. Experts tell us childhood trauma can cause problems later in life.
What is trauma? It is any negative experience that overwhelms our ability to cope leading to certain symptoms such as PTSD. The stress of trauma can lead to instability and chaos. Children especially are very sensitive and rely on their parents for protection. But there are no perfect parents. Anyone can experience childhood trauma. The trauma may get “stuck” in our memory. As adults the memories may “re-surface” and we can re-experience the trauma. We may not even know what is happening. These re-surfaced memories are called “flashbacks” and they are usually quite disturbing. The good news is; “if you can feel it, you can heal it!”
Many people heal from trauma simply by living healthy lives forming new, positive memories. They learn to cope. They “integrate” the trauma and it no longer disturbs them emotionally. But others may need outside help to heal. There are three stages to heal from trauma.
STAGE 1: Establishing Safety and Stability
This may take days, weeks, or even months for those living an “unstable lifestyle.” We need stable lives and safe, supportive friends before we can “open the can of worms.” It is important before opening up the wounds of the past that we are relatively stable where basic needs are met, the bills get paid, employment is steady, relationships are respectful and any addictions are being dealt with. We should also have some healthy coping mechanisms before moving into stage 2.
Unfortunately, many survivors of trauma want to jump right into Stage 2 “processing” and skip Stage 1. Even some professionals get impatient and want to jump into the healing work as soon as possible. If we try to process our trauma without being safe we can re-traumatize ourselves and get pulled back into the old wounds. We get lost in the anger, bitterness or depression. We may then fall back trying to cope patterns by gambling, using alcohol or drugs. I do not recommend opening up past wounds if one is living in a home where there’s violence, conflict, drug or alcohol abuse.
STAGE 2: Processing the Trauma
This is where the hard work comes in. There’s no magic wand. We usually have to take some kind of action to get help either from modern professionals such as counsellors or traditional healers using cultural methods (or both).
At first we can get more distressed, more angry and more depressed. That’s why opening up the wounds of the past before we are ready can backfire. But if we have safe, stable lives, then, with the right help, we can safely open up the past and let it “flow through us” without getting stuck in the pain. Ceremony and ritual can be very powerful in processing the past. Medical supervision also may be advisable. Usually, the flashbacks and pain diminish or may disappear altogether. This is very liberating. We start letting go of the hurt and anger.
STAGE 3 Integrating the Trauma
In stage 3, we are no longer disturbed by past trauma. We can now function and we’re okay. We may even see the trauma as something that has made us stronger, more compassionate and wiser people. We consolidate our gains applying the lessons from Stages 1 and 2. We may come to a point of forgiveness, or “letting go.” We have established “safe boundaries.”
We still remember the trauma but it is not intruding on our lives. There is less drama in life. We spend less time with hurtful people or avoid them altogether. We have overcome any addictions and are in long-term recovery. We are no longer just Surviving. We start “thriving!” We start to live lives of serenity, joy, meaning. We can play again and even prosper. We take care of ourselves and our families. We can help others. We can contribute to our community and make the world a better place for the generations to come.
A final word about the latest news of unmarked grave sites and Residential Schools. Whether someone has attended Residential School, or not, some may be “triggered” by the news of unmarked graves and past abuses.
Maybe the trauma didn’t happen to you directly. But if heard often enough, you may feel the pain, anger or trauma This is called “vicarious” trauma. This happens to many professional helpers such as nurses, doctors, counsellors and social workers. The same healing processes apply as mentioned above. Building safety and maintaining stability always come first.
We are just coming out of the COVID crisis and now we are hearing this disturbing news. It is important to take care of each other. If needed, reach out for help. FN people have been around for a long time. We are strong and resilient. Lastly, always remember the basics; eat good food, get plenty of rest, exercise, maintain healthy routines. Take time to enjoy life.