Using Empathy to Heal Trauma & PTSD

When I sat down to write this blog, I wanted to talk about childhood PTSD, its causes, and how it often affects people for the rest of their lives.

I decided to write this particular blog a month ago, when I started reading The Body Keeps the Score, a New York Times bestseller written by Bessel Van Der Kolk, who spent nearly his entire life studying PTSD. I think the book is incredible; it explores how common disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression are often just symptoms of the larger issue of unresolved trauma, which permanently changes the brain. It isn’t all doom and gloom, because Bessel also explains how to treat the symptoms of PTSD by reprogramming the traumatic memories so that you are generally less affected by them and can begin to return to normal life.

It may be controversial to some people to suggest that disorders, especially those as serious as PTSD, can be healed and resolved in therapy. It’s important to note that it can’t cure everything—some disorders are, in fact, genetic. Bessel, however, learned through decades of research that many disorders previously believed to be “incurable” can be treated and healed.

I’ve had first-hand experience with some of the methods of treatment written about in the book, and despite my initial misgivings (I’m a skeptic by nature), some of them worked.

I received my PTSD diagnosis in 2018. Three years earlier, I’d been in a cult, where I was raped a number of times by the leader. After that, I thought I was losing my mind. Innocuous everyday occurrences triggered traumatic flashbacks. Minor inconveniences plunged me into shame spirals that left me feeling out of control and overwhelmed. Everyday interactions grew more difficult, and social settings left me paralyzed with fear.

For a long time I denied it. I didn’t want to be suffering from PTSD. Part of me still believed it made me weak. But by 2018, I was finding it difficult to get through the day, or even find reasons to continue living, and I realized if I didn’t do something about it, I wasn’t going to be able to live much longer. I researched therapists who specialize in PTSD treatment and started seeing one.

We began treatment with a process called EMDR, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. After a few months, the flashbacks involving my rapist subsided. I was able to disconnect myself from the memories so that when I remembered what happened, I wasn’t consumed by the emotions of what happened. Rather than triggering a panic attack, the memories remained just that: memories.

In resolving what happened, I was able to uncover how it happened. When I met the cult leader, I was already masking a much deeper and prolonged trauma from my childhood. In the moments before he would rape me, rather than entering “fight or flight, ” my body would shut down. I retreated inward, telling myself repeatedly, “it’ll all be over eventually, think about something else.” Closing out all of my feelings and hiding inside myself was something I’d learned decades earlier, and when I returned to that place during the rape, I unlocked feelings I’ve been running away from my entire life.

Although I was no longer plagued with flashbacks to the cult, I was now experiencing flashbacks to traumatic memories from my childhood. Cowering upstairs while my parents screamed at one another and broke things. Being beaten with belts or shoes, often with no explanation as to why. The feeling of being completely out of control.

So when I first conceived of this blog, I intended for it to be a chronicle of the memories that made me feel unsafe in my home. I wanted to list out each and every thing that happened to me that I’m still processing, that’s still affecting the way I live my life (and preventing me from living it to the fullest). I thought doing so would be helpful in resolving some of the issues.

But the more of The Body Keeps the Score that I read, the more I realized that listing out my trauma was the wrong approach. Firstly, it wouldn’t be fair to my parents, who for all intents and purposes, did the very best that they could. They loved me the only way they knew how, and honestly gave me a childhood that was better than the one either of them experienced.

One of the other things Bessel realized in his research is that people who inflict trauma on others are almost always running from an unresolved trauma of their own. Trauma acts differently than other memories—it doesn’t slip in to the background. It paralyzes you emotionally as the person you were when you experienced it.

I feel sorry for my parents. Even though I’m still affected by what was done to me, I know that they are affected even more deeply by what happened to them. So instead of vilifying them, I’ve decided to empathize with them.

I don’t know everything about their stories, I only know the parts they were comfortable sharing with me. From my own experience with trauma, I know how impossible the worst memories can be to even think about, let alone speak about. Considering the memories they were comfortable sharing, I can’t even imagine the ones they must have kept private.

So I’m going to write about them. Not about what they did, but about their feelings, and what happened to them that made them into the people they are.

Virginia

My mother was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois to deeply Catholic parents. Her father was Italian, and her mother had been sent to the US from Slovenia as a child, I believe to keep her safe from communism. I never knew either of them, as he died before I was born, and she died not long after my birth.

My mother was convinced that her father never actually wanted her, and that her mother had become pregnant with her to prevent him from leaving her for another woman. This claim wasn’t unfounded—he had had a number of affairs, including at least one that resulted in a pregnancy and a child being born to another family in Canada. My mother’s siblings were 10-16 years older than her, and their names had been chosen so that the first three letter of each name spelled out “Dollar Bil”. This was then written onto the bottom of a wakeboard, along with a painting of a dollar bill. When my mother was born, they tacked “gin” onto the bottom, and added a bottle of gin to the painting as a loud and constant reminder to her that she was, if not unwanted, at least unplanned.

I know her father was a drinker. He’d served during WWII, and I’m sure was suffering from his own PTSD. Maybe he had childhood trauma as well. I don’t know how often he hit his children, or under what circumstances, but I know that he did it. I know it was more violent than when my mother beat me with a shoe, because while she was hitting me, she made sure to remind me that I should be grateful, because her father hit her with far more painful objects. I have to imagine this did not make her feel loved or wanted.

She found out at far too young an age that her father was cheating on her mother, possibly (and probably) with lots of women. Although he remained married to my grandmother, he had a daughter with a woman who lived outside the country, which my mother found out about the same time she discovered he was a cheater.

There are a lot of stories about young Virginia around this time. She told me that she refused to pay attention in school. She would tell the nuns (she went to a Catholic school, back when the teachers were allowed to “discipline” the children by beating them with rulers) to call her a different name every day and refused to respond unless they got the name right, and sometimes not even then. Her mother let the nuns know why she was acting out, that her father was a cheater and had another daughter, partly because she needed someone to talk to, and partly because she wanted the nuns to give my mother a break.

From this experience, my mother learned that she could get away with things by playing on the sympathy of others. She had also learned a profound distrust of men, especially husbands. This would prove to be a problem, as her strict Catholic upbringing meant that she couldn’t have children unless she was married, and the only thing she ever really wanted out of life was to be a mother. So her task would be to somehow find a man who wouldn’t cheat on her.

Virginia has a lot of stories of the types of boys she dated when she was a teenager: boys who wouldn’t call back, who lied to her, who did drugs… part of her thought a good man didn’t even exist. After a long line of these types, she ended up picking the man who would become my father. Much like her father, he was away on business a lot. I don’t believe he ever cheated on her, but the mere fact that these trips were so frequent meant that the possibility was always on her mind.

Knowing how trauma works, I’m sure every one of those trips triggered feelings of fear and jealousy. If my father cheated, in her mind, it would prove that he never actually loved her and that she’d become her mother. She was volatile and angry whenever he wasn’t at home, especially on overseas business trips that could last a month at a time. Nothing satisfied her except being constantly reminded that no cheating was happening, including phone calls and photographs that proved no other women were on the trip, or late at night, that no one else was in his hotel room.

Because she couldn’t control the actions of the men in her life, she made it her mission to make sure she raised a son who would treat women with respect. That, of course, was me. As long as I followed all the rules of being the perfect man, I could make my mother happy. Anything that strayed from what she deemed acceptable would trigger emotional breakdowns where she would lament that she must have failed as a mother.

When it became clear to me that I wasn’t a man at all, that I’m a woman, all I could think was, “even if she can’t say it, this is going to destroy my mother.”

Joseph

My father was one of eight children born to an extraordinarily Catholic family in Indiana. His father, also named Joseph, had been a coal miner in Kentucky, and then served during WWII. He almost certainly suffered from PTSD.

My father had an impossible standard to live up to. Having been given the all-important family name, he had to be the masculine ideal. This was a problem, as he was always smaller than the rest of the boys his age. Unable to play football, he took up wrestling, which he excelled at—even winning the State Championship. Anything less than that would have been considered failure. He hated that he was called “Little Joe” to his father’s “Big Joe,” which I’m sure had to do partly with his father’s expectations for him.

I don’t have a lot of memories of Big Joe, but every memory I do have is of the most stubborn, selfish, abusive person I’ve met in my life. We once were playing a card game, and he accused me of cheating (I hadn’t). Until I “confessed,” no one was allowed to leave the table, and the game was not allowed to continue. He was in his 80s, and I was around 9. Later, my father and all his siblings remarked how much their father had calmed down in his old age.

I know how Big Joe made me feel in that moment—impossibly small & terrified, knowing that only giving in to his delusion would allow anyone else’s lives to move forward. The truth didn’t matter, what mattered was what he believed.

Considering the stories my father was comfortable sharing, I truly can’t imagine the stories that were kept quiet. For instance, there is a well-known family story (told at family reunions as a joke) where my grandfather forced my father and one of my uncles to join the swim team. My uncle didn’t enjoy the swim team, and began skipping practice. Because my grandfather believed there was nothing worse than a “quitter,” he hid in the janitor’s closet and waited for my uncle to walk by. Then he dragged my uncle into the closet and beat him mercilessly.

Another time, his family told him that he snored very loudly at night (I can attest to the fact that he definitely did). He yelled at them that he’d never snored in his life, and they were all liars. Then his children and wife bought a tape recorder to prove him wrong. When they played the tape for him, he refused to speak to his family for a full week, but still expected them to make his food, do their chores, and obey his rules. He finally opened his mouth Sunday at church, saying that now, God had forgiven him, so no one was allowed to be angry with him for his emotional abuse. It was resolved.

There are a lot of stories of physical abuse. Most of the stories make it abundantly clear that my grandfather ran his home like it was the military, and his orders were not to be questioned. The difference is, no one had volunteered to be in his family.

My father needed to be the man his father wanted him to be. He needed to succeed in business, he needed to have a happy family with a happy wife, and he set out to achieve the ultimate American dream. As long as he could provide, and his family had their basic needs met, he was a success. It didn’t matter how anyone felt—feelings were for pussies.

I wasn’t told a lot of stories about my grandmother. I know a lot of her siblings died during the Great Depression, and I believe the only thing that mattered to her was that her family was healthy and had enough food on the table. She could handle her emotionally distant husband who abused their kids (and possibly her, but I have no evidence for that) as long as he continued to bring home enough money for everyone to live mostly happy lives.

My father was very excited when I was born. He’d always wanted a son, someone he could talk about sports with who could carry on the Smith legacy. He did me a huge service by not naming me Joseph, but he couldn’t shake the “impossible expectations” thing, which he passed on to me.

I hated sports. Being neurodivergent meant I was also extremely sensitive. He never understood me, and I think he was intimidated by my intelligence. I believe that I made him feel inferior, which reminded him of how his father made him feel. Because he’d never been able to speak back to his father, he took out his rage on me. Even though I’m sure on some level he’s proud of me, I only ever felt like I was an utter disappointment to him, especially when I realized I was never his son at all.

I can only imagine that he has to cling to the areas where he succeeded in life, because the idea that he might have done anything wrong is paralyzing and makes him feel like a child all over again.

Healing

I haven’t been able to speak to my parents in years. I’ve forgiven them for what they did, but they remain the same people they were when they raised me. They haven’t been able to heal from their own traumas, and that keeps them paralyzed.

There was never a phone call where they didn’t point out all of the ways in which I was failing at my life. They treated me like a disappointment, but always made sure to talk about how great their lives were. If I expressed how their words made me feel, I triggered all of their childhood traumas. My father, unable to accept anything less than being perfect, would resort to anger, throwing tantrums and calling me “ungrateful” for all of the things that he had done well. There was no point in calling him out for bad behavior if he hadn’t been praised at least a dozen times first. My mother, on the other hand, had different sets of trauma. She would meet these conversations by breaking down emotionally. Talking about my hurt feelings hurt her feelings, and it became my job to apologize for mentioning them, and then do the emotional labor of making her feel better. She would effectively get out of trouble by playing on my sympathy.

I got tired of them invalidating my experiences and making me feel guilty for having feelings, so I had to stop speaking with them. It’s painful every day, but it’s a lot less painful than having to speak to them—emotional support just isn’t their strong suit. It isn’t their fault. I know that. They did the best that they could—the best that they were emotionally capable of doing.

Seeing them as people helped me to forgive them, but it didn’t heal my trauma. As much as I’d love to say, “everything worked out, the therapy cured me, and I’m back to living a normal life!”, it would be disingenuous to do so. I have a long road of healing ahead of me before I can begin living a normal life.

2020 has been an incredibly trying year. My business was forced to close down at the start of the COVID pandemic, and I haven’t been able to find full-time work since, despite sending hundreds of applications since March. The uncertainty of the future and lack of income means that I had to stop going to therapy, so I’m more or less in a limbo state, hoping that I can find something that will pay the bills and also afford me enough extra money to continue healing.

I’m not giving up. I want to be able to appreciate my life, and I’m more capable of doing so now than I ever was before. For that, I’m grateful. I appreciate that I have the privilege of receiving any therapy—a lot of people are never able to afford it. A generation ago, the research didn’t even exist. But as long as we can do the work of healing today, the next generation will have less healing to do. I will continue to fight for my happiness so that people in the future don’t have to experience what I did.

My trauma is my responsibility. No one else can heal me—I have to do it. It’s difficult, it’s painful, and it forces me to look into dark corners of the past that I’d rather pretend don’t exist.

But it’s worth it.

If I hadn’t begun to heal, I never would have been able to acknowledge that I’m a woman. I never would have come out. I would have continued to live in my disguise, trying my absolute hardest to be the man I was always expected to be.

Wrap Up

If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading!

If anything I said in this blog resonated with you, check out The Body Keeps the Score. It has been tremendously helpful in recognizing my own symptoms and patterns, which has made it easier for me to forgive myself when I’m unable to live up to my own impossible expectations for myself—expectations that are surely not as strict as the expectations that were placed upon my parents, which were not as strict as the expectations placed on their parents, and so on, and so on… It’s helped me find empathy for people I never imagined I would have empathy for, and best of all, it allowed me to finally explore who I truly am.

I’ll be back in the future with another blog, and I promise (for the 3 of you who care) that I’m not done with my Star Trek series.

—Chloe Skye

Published by Chloe Jade Skye

Hello! I'm Chloe Skye. I'm a trans woman currently living in Los Angeles. I write, I podcast, & I think too much. Check out my TV review podcast "Skye & Stone do Television", or my podcast about women in history, "Broads You Should Know".

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