I Thought I Was Done: The Non-Linear Pathway of Healing
Heather Pierce, MSEd, LCPC
Owner and Managing Director
Trauma Therapist and Consultant
“I thought I was done” is something I hear frequently from clients and also in my own head. I thought I was done feeling like this, I thought I was done getting triggered by that, I thought I was done working through my trauma. For some people, as soon as they start in therapy, they want to know how long it’s going to take: when they will be “done.”
There must be something about the human brain that compels us to want to check off boxes. To desire the satisfaction that comes from imagining a finish line and crossing it. The good old-fashioned value of a job well done. Or perhaps when it comes to recovery and healing from trauma, it is simply the desire to put it all behind us and “get on with our lives.”
For the traumatized and victimized, the desire to speed up and speed through is a natural and common trauma response. Who would want to slow down and stay present for abuse and neglect? Who would want to linger in pain, discomfort, and overwhelm?
The hard part about speeding up is that it almost always involves going around rather than going through. How can we see the complexities of the landscape when we’re driving by at 100mph? How can we see ourselves?
Judith Herman’s model of trauma treatment in her seminal book, Trauma and Recovery, encourages survivors to consider pacing and grounding in their recovery. She suggests a pathway to healing in three parts: one that fosters a felt sense of safety and stabilization, another that focuses on an ability to experience deep grief and mourning, and a third that involves a meaningful re-engagement with a renewed sense of self.
Even with a model that offers three phases of healing, Herman emphasizes the process and the journey of recovery rather than “completion” of the phases. Just because we find a sense of safety and stabilization doesn’t mean that we would or should never feel unsafe again. Just because we have mourned the ways we have been impacted by trauma doesn’t mean that grief won’t come when we least expect it. And just because we have been able to form healthy relationships with ourselves and others doesn’t mean that there won’t be times when we feel disconnected and disengaged.
No matter how long we’ve been on our pathway to healing, there are significant challenges to recovery all around us. Finding safety and stabilization amidst a country and a climate that is shifting beneath our feet. The remembrance and mourning of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And, not least, the ways in which the pandemic requires us to reinvent and reconnect with ourselves and our relationship to each other.
It is when we are in the pain and struggle of feeling that our recovery and healing has been derailed, damaged, or destroyed that we must draw again on the very capacities that helped us move through the process in the first place:
Be realistic in our expectations—Healing takes as long as it takes. We can’t do the work of recovery unless all parts of ourselves (especially the terrified and defended ones) feel safe enough to step into vulnerability and authenticity. This takes time, patience, and a willingness to move through struggle when it comes.
Be compassionate with ourselves—This goes hand in hand with expectations. There is no “right” way to heal; there is only the way that we are able to go through it in our own way, in our own time. The process is aided greatly by how kind and compassionate we are with ourselves, especially when we find ourselves back in a place from which we thought we had at last moved on.
Seek the support of kind and compassionate others—Trauma groups are wonderful spaces for receiving support and validation from others on the same healing journey. It is guaranteed that you will find that people brave enough to walk the path of recovery have had to retrace their steps along the way.
In my work as a therapist, one of the most meaningful experiences I share with clients is recognizing with awe and gratitude how far they have come. Even at the very beginning of a healing journey, taking that first step is an incredible act of bravery and self-love. When we’re in pain and struggle we can become blind to our progress. Gratitude for our strengths, gifts, and the road already traveled is a valuable companion when we find ourselves back on a well-worn path.