• brucepaynejohnston

Abuse, Trauma, and Healing

I get a lot of emails from people who are dealing with the aftereffects of trauma of various kinds - abuse, neglect, life-changing accidents, to name a few. Many don't respond when I try to contact them back. I am guessing that the sheer act of mentioning what has happened to them is hard enough, and that talking about it is harder still. I wrote this post for them. Maybe someone will see it, and that will make things worth it.

While I have been lucky enough in life not to be subjected to sexual and physical abuse, I've certainly gone through my share of stuff. I would have traded some of it for nearly anything else, most certainly including abuse, because people died whose lives I valued considerably more than my own. Some of it has changed me for life; I have been told that a lot of people don't recover from events like these, and that they are about the worst thing that can happen to people outside of war, slavery, and things like this. I don't speak of a lot of it, especially in public, as I don't perceive it to be fodder for people I barely know or appropriate for daily life.

I think most people in US culture who have been through things that are unspeakable in the larger world live double lives of a sort. There is the surface, where things are 'normal' and you can function, and then there are the depths. The depths are very powerful and contain enormous suffering - and an enormous yearning to be whole. Oftentimes healing is not available all at once. It can only be found through the courage to speak to what has happened and grieve it, if at all possible in the presence of other humans and if not, in the more-than-human world. This is sometimes a long process, and not very linear. A teacher of mine, Martin Prechtel, would probably have advised me to just keep heading toward life and not to look back. That's damn good advice, and I tried to take it when I had to do so.

After a particularly horrific loss, I was haunted by nightmares and memories I could not shake for years. They could reduce me to tears, a desire for death, and mindless terror at any time, and they still can, but far less frequently. In and of itself these things were not bad; they were simply my being trying to integrate itself again. I fought them off sometimes, though, with tobacco and alcohol, because I was so tired of trying to recover and failing. One day, when I felt an attack coming on, I just went upstairs to my bed, lay down, and said 'Go ahead. Do what you're going to do.' I wept for an hour, shaking all the time, screaming more than once, and never judged what was happening. That was when the healing really began for me.

I need to say that none of this would have been possible had I not had the support of a real community. I am fortunate to live at Earthaven Ecovillage, one of the last holdouts of the 'alternative tradition' of disciplined, non-acquisitive life in the United States. Had I been in the middle of a modern housing tract somewhere in the suburbs or urban core of Asheville, I would not have made it. I would have died from aesthetic, sensory, and social deprivation, surrounded by people who did not understand what was happening and could not bear to listen for fear of 'losing out' in a competitive race for wealth and status.

Older cultures, when something horrible happened to someone - and it did with some frequency - understood that they needed 'time out of mind' to heal. They weren't going to be part of ordinary life for a while. They had the space to let that happen, because they weren't paying rent to landlords or depending on money to eat; nor were they infected with acquisitive individualism as a religion. In the modern world, especially the English-speaking world, it is different. To grieve or heal properly one needs a kind of time and community that is in short supply nowadays, and in many cases, completely unavailable.

I know that there are people who feel this lack in their bones. They may not be able to articulate it, and they are a minority, but they need to find each other. To each other they can tell their stories of grief and loss, abuse and illness, and loneliness. When that happens, something begins to change. "I" becomes "we". And there is much strength in "we."

Well, I have said many words. I hope that some of them 'hit the mark' and move people back onto the life-giving way, if they've fallen off. Blessings to everybody and everything.

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