Abuse Recovery: Should I Stop When I’m Fairly Comfortable?

Reader’s Question

I experienced trauma as a child (violent abuse, neglect, homelessness, and more). To survive emotionally, I have buried the past and divorced myself from reminders of it, including family.

I tried twice in my 30s to revisit the old issues. Emotions took over both times and I started having flashbacks, terror, depression, and paranoia. I made two suicide attempts, each ending in hospitalization.

Over the last 30 years, I have rebuilt a self and a life that I now enjoy. I am happy. It is clear, however, that the trauma has affected my life choices. I am acutely aware of vulnerability and
reduce or eliminate it where possible. It can take me years to form a friendship, and I have not had a romantic relationship in over two decades. Nonetheless, I do enjoy the life I have made, and spend my time reading and learning.

My question is: Given that life seems good, is there any reason to revisit that old trauma and try to work through it? Or is it reasonable to view life now as an understandable result of what happened and to just move forward with what I have?

Psychologist’s Reply

Prolonged exposure to trauma and abuse, as you describe in your childhood, creates thousands of “emotional memories” — memories that contain not only the details of our life experiences but the emotions/moods we experienced at the time. If we think about a traumatic incident in our past, within minutes our mood will change dramatically, forcing us to reexperience the event. Your revisting your past in your 30’s is a textbook example of how the emotional memories can completely derail, destroy, and even incapacitate us when they surface without proper planning and control.

Obviously, you have recovered and managed your emotional memories to the level that you now have a good life. Should you try to go further? It’s like inheriting a house with a lot of damage, working hard to remodel a few rooms to make a very livable but limited area. Do you keep remodeling or live comfortably in the area you’ve fixed? Some thoughts:

  • In your process of recovery, you have made yourself personally comfortable…but not socially comfortable. Why would the next step be so difficult? The majority of your traumatic emotional memories involve relationships with people — verbal/physical abuse, neglect, etc. These trauma memories surface when you move out socially — two years to make a friendship and romantic relationships are too stressful to consider. The area of social relationships is clearly your next step if you decide to take it. That’s up to you.
  • Do you need to revisit, process, or emotionally recover from your childhood to be happy? Answer: No! You do need to be aware that emotional memory will always be an issue and can surface at a moment’s notice. Happy people with a background such as yours typically have a strategy and technique to manage their emotional memories — something I discuss in my article on managing your memories. We can have a happy life with a variety of medical conditions as long as we have a strategy to manage our symptoms when they appear.
  • To improve your social functioning, are you required to have a romantic partner? Answer: No. Emotional memory tends to make us think catastrophically. There is no requirement that you must have a romantic partner and five best friends. You can improve your social functioning and enjoyment by developing friends of all kinds at all levels. Separate friends for hobbies, work, educational experiences, and social activities. Friends at all levels — best friend, work friends, school friends, friends in the neighborhood, people you wave at, etc. It’s totally up to you…and there are no time limits.
  • If you want to move forward, is help available? Answer: Yes. You can start by learning about Emotional Memory and about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the psychiatric term for individuals traumatized by horrific experiences. Shift your educational focus and learn about how your memory works. Your Emotional Memories are a history of where you’ve been — not where you are. A professional therapist will be helpful, especially one who works with cognitive restructuring. We also have medications that can reduce the anxiety of increasing our social functioning. In many cities, support groups are also available.

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Your current life and lifestyle are understandable results of your traumatic history. You have an option to move forward in a haphazard manner or you can select areas for a concentrated effort. Allowing your environment to control your progress places you in the same place you were as a child. I would recommend assuming control of your life and making a decision about what you want to remodel first. You’ll also find that remodeling is more fun and entertaining when you have people willing to help.

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