Growing up, I had always longed for a sense of home. Not just a place to live, but more of a place in which I could be safe, loved, and accepted. I was always a shy, awkward kid, who always felt at least ten years older than I actually was, which made making friends with kids my age very challenging.
I will never forget the day I learned that Sherlock Holmes died. I was nine. My mother was working late, and my father was making mashed potatoes for dinner. The story’s ominous title, “The Final Problem,” sent chills down my bones and I had a very bad feeling while reading it.
When I was growing up, my dad used to read me a funny poem about mythical town that was situated on a beautiful cliff. There was a very pretty valley below, and the townspeople would often go to scenic overlook. They weren’t terribly careful, though, because people looking over the valley kept falling off the cliff. The townspeople held a meeting to figure out how to deal with this serious situation. Half of the townspeople decided that the town should put up a fence, to stop people from falling. The other half of the town decided it was smarter to put a full-time ambulance in the valley, to help the people who were hurt. I tell this story at almost every training that I give on PTSD and trauma.
When severe violations of safety, trust, or vulnerability occur, including outright threats to survival, humans are wired to shut down higher-order neural functions and fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive the threat. Clients suffering from post-traumatic stress are faced with the dilemma of figuring out how to carry negative personal history in the present moment without letting it dictate or control their behavior.
The core dilemma of post-traumatic stress is how to carry painful personal history forward in life. If clients use fragmented attention and avoidance to cope with what has happened, living a vital life is all but impossible. The alternative is to carry the objective reality of the trauma without the all-encompassing negative self-stories that result from the mind’s misguided sense-making operations.