Creating a support system that works for you
In my work as a therapist, I have learned that the word trauma can be problematic with clients. Asking clients if they have had any traumatic experiences, and they are likely to say no. But ask, instead, about their worst experiences, and stories come out about being physically or sexually abused as a child or an adult, being the victim of or witnessing a crime (including domestic violence), sudden hospitalizations with intrusive and painful medical procedures, and one or more losses of people with whom they were very close, just to name a few.
Trauma is a loaded word for a lot of people and for a variety of reasons. But if you are someone who has experienced an event so distressing that it overwhelms your ability to cope with it, you may well be struggling with post-trauma effects. Often those experiences and their aftermath lead to a certain amount of isolation—a feeling of being cut off, misunderstood, or changed in such a way that you can no longer easily relate to other people. For this reason, building a support system after those traumatic events can be an important process in not only surviving but also thriving after a particularly difficult life experience.
But where do you begin locating support and reconnecting with people whom you might have distanced yourself from? And how can you use a support system if and when you feel like you’re not worthy of the support? Or when you can’t trust people? (Those are two common beliefs of some people who are struggling with post-traumatic experiences.) The following are suggestions for beginning the process, with hope that if you have been affected by adverse experiences, you might find and benefit from the connection and support that you deserve.
Consider your resources. These resources can include current or recent friends, family, professional helpers (such as therapists), spiritual or religious communities, activity groups, self-help organizations, and services provided by victim-witness organizations, among others.
The important thing to remember is that you can and should have different types of support. The friend who’s led a “charmed life” and may not understand your current struggles can be a great person to go to the movies with and help take your mind off things. Family members whom you suspect can’t handle knowing details about the difficulties you’ve experienced can still be sources of connection and reminders about your strengths and accomplishments. Similarly, members of a trauma support group (even those whom you might not want to hang out with on a Saturday) can be sounding boards regarding your difficult experience and current challenges, and when some of them are thriving, they can be powerful examples of the healing that can happen after traumatic experience. Churches and volunteer activities can help promote a sense of meaning and goodness that people who’ve suffered can often lose sight of, and activist groups can help you feel empowered.
A good beginning place for thinking about this is to ask yourself, What has been missing as a result of what I’ve been through? In which ways would I like to see my life improve? What kinds of connections would feel good, safe, and valuable to me at this time?
When pursuing therapy, look for expertise in trauma treatment and for therapy approaches that have been proven to help people do and feel better after bad experiences. A lot of therapists and organizations will claim expertise and experience “working with trauma,” but that does not necessarily mean they have received specialized training and proper supervision. They might not have worked very extensively with people whose primary challenge is dealing with post-trauma symptoms or been kept up-to-date on current treatment methods. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about a therapist’s training, experience, and philosophy. You are looking for someone who believes that post-trauma effects are understandable and treatable, and the ideal therapist can explain clearly which approaches he or she uses and why.
The trauma-treatment field has grown and changed significantly in recent years, with the addition of some treatment approaches that are brief and highly effective. It’s in your interest to do some research so you understand the process, procedures, and rationale for newer trauma-treatment approaches.
Recognize that you have something to offer, too! It’s common for trauma survivors to grapple with mixed feelings about needing to “lean on” people. Such a way of thinking overlooks the very nature of human relationships and interactions: that you are not simply a passive recipient when interacting with others.
It is impossible to know the degree to which your sharing your story, bearing silent witness to someone else’s struggle, or taking a longtime friend to a movie benefits another person. In a support system, you are not just getting something, you are giving back, and sometimes that happens in subtle, hidden ways.
Even when it comes to enlisting the help of a trauma therapist, that therapist has likely chosen this line of work because it holds meaning for him or her and because he or she finds it personally and professionally rewarding. It often fits together with this person’s ideals about the kind of person he or she wants to be in the world. So you never need to feel that support is something unavailable to you or something you don’t deserve.
Our society places high value on independence and autonomy, which can make it hard for people to ask for and accept help. But the healthiest of us, in my opinion, are interdependent, leaning mutually on one another and tackling this complicated thing called life together.
May you find the help and hope you deserve in the company and with the support of other people.
In addition to support from professionals, family, and friends, you might also find that our confidential community of Sisters can be a source of valuable connection.
Susan Lemere is a Solo Mom of two, as well as a therapist, a writer, and an artist coach.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.