This past October I was playing at a park with my daughter when I was inspired to go down a tube slide. Too tall to sit up, I lay back, let go, and descended into a disorienting few seconds that landed me sacrum to soil with the back of my head hitting hard the bottom of the slide. The world went dark. As vision returned I heard my child fearfully calling, "Mom! Mom!" "I'm okay," I offered a reassuring lie. Being a stubborn sort, it took days of pounding head aches and multiple calls to Ask-a-Nurse before I finally went to Urgent Care and Dr. Bonk (that was really her name) informed me that I had a concussion and whiplash. I remember sitting tearfully in the small white room telling her that I felt like I was in a tunnel and everyone was really far away. I remember the crushing "headache helmet" that wouldn't let up and the sinking feeling that everyone could tell something was wrong with me and nothing I did could help, save brain rest. Then came the forgetfulness and the slow response time to simple requests. Bright lights made me irritable, as did loud sounds and people talking fast. In fact, I was often either irritable, sad or overwhelmed. This was an awesome condition to have being a therapist (insert sarcastic tone), and I am grateful for my patient clients and reassuring colleagues and friends.
Three weeks into my healing, I was due to present at the UW-Madison Conference on Child Sexual Abuse on the attachment work I do with children who've experienced severe and complex trauma. As the day approached, I found myself feeling anxious that no matter how hard I tried I wouldn't be able to control how my injured brain performed. "My trauma broke my brain," an eight year old client told me once. As a therapist, I often want clients to understand the neuroplasticity of the brain and its ultimate ability to heal. Yet one of the challenges we face in trauma recovery is the defining nature of trauma. As egoic beings, we naturally cling to the "I Am." When our life is framed around "good enough" circumstances that doesn't pose too much of a problem, but when we've experienced trauma, the "I Am" attaches to identities like, "crazy, broken, angry, difficult." The event, "I hit my head," quickly becomes, "I am not okay." When a six year old client rips the leaves off my office plant in anger, when a teen refuses to talk in session, or when an adult client hides behind a pillow in fear, their trauma is asserting itself, saying, "Here I am!" Yet, to be a true ally, we need to see beyond the trauma. I know in these moments my client is vulnerable and their brain is trying to heal. Together, we make space for the trauma, the anger, the hopeless feelings and in doing so, we make space for the rest of the person to come forward. We are not our brokenness.
I recently took my daughter ice skating and she met the new experience with whining and crying. As I encouraged her to skate with me, she stood on the snow bank refusing and eventually said through her cries, "What if you fall and hit your head again?" We're designed as humans to assess for risk and avoid danger whenever possible, but when we've experienced a trauma the boundaries of what's safe get smaller and smaller. I knew in that moment we needed to have a breakthrough; after all, it had been months and I still hadn't worn the skirt I was wearing when I tumbled down that slide. So, I started purposefully (and carefully) falling down on the ice, getting back up, and falling down again. My daughter's tears and shouts to stop soon turned to laughter (she's too young to be embarrassed, yet). It's essential, post-trauma, that we create a new narrative and I knew if I needed one she probably did too. Once back in our snow boots, we ran around the snow and ice at Tenney Park - climbing on rocks, rolling down hills, running over bridges. "Mom, we're the Adventure Girls!" my daughter eventually exclaimed. Adventure Girl, now there was an identity I could stand behind. It captures the fun, the resilience, and the unpredictability of living.
Hitting my head, feeling so completely not myself, was disorienting and challenging yet I recently realized I gained something important through the experience: another opportunity to find acceptance for the "imperfect me." The "Rainbow" who strives for perfection didn't lose her practice or stop being a "good enough" mother. In fact, it made me feel even more connected to why I do this work. I know for myself and my clients that when we do find the other "me's" that exist alongside the trauma we can discover the Adventure Girl inside us all.
Rainbow A. Marifrog