Trauma can be sudden or cumulative experiences but the healing of trauma is always cumulative. The healing can only begin once the trauma has been acknowledged. D. W. Winnicott writing about the fear of death as a significant symptom links it back to a death that happened but was not experienced. One of his examples is what he calls phenomenal death …this was not death as a fact but a death that happened in the psyche. He finds this in the people who spend their lives wondering whether to find a solution through suicide – that is sending the body to death in a way that has already taken place in the psyche. This then he sees as a gesture of despair rather than the answer.
The fear of the death that has already happened but was too much to be experienced, leaves the person with a fear of annihilation.
Winnicott explains it in this way: ‘It is like this, that a pattern developed in which the continuity of being was interrupted by the patient’s infantile reactions to impingement, these being environmental factors that were allowed to impinge by failures of the facilitating environment.’ What he means is that the mothering person intruded overly and inappropriately to force their attention and needs on the infant rather than responding to the baby’s. This would then be a cumulative experience of trauma starting in the very earliest of days.
The difficulty with the healing of trauma whether through psychotherapy or spiritual direction and spiritual practices is that it is not a straightforward process because there are always flashbacks, and/or repeats of what happened – what Freud called the compulsion to repeat what happened, and this compulsion is occurring at largely an unconscious level. Freud advocated a remembering instead of a repeating and so bringing what happened into conscious awareness.
As Christians one might say it is a bringing into the light out of the dark shadows. The hymn ‘Nox et tenebrae’ found in the Benedictine Office has this as the first verse:
Darkness of night and evil things,
Confusions of the world, give way,
Light enters and the day is here;
Disperse, for Christ the Lord has come.
The repeating and the flashbacks seem to take us back to the original shattering of the self, but as Ann Belford Ulanov explains: ‘the nature of healing is layer by layer, dream by dream, giving in to dependence on an other again and again, a sliver of insight and then another. We put down layers of a new way of being…’ She also suggests we forge links back to the self we once were before the trauma, but that can be especially difficult if the trauma (in the way that Winnicott describes) happened almost from the point of birth onward. I wonder instead whether it can become over time an awakening to and resurrection of the self that we were intended to be – the self that creator God intends us to be.