How Feeling Helpless Helps My Trauma Recovery
Wednesday, February 28 2018 Elizabeth Brico
Feeling helpless helps my trauma recovery? Yes--you read the title correctly. The subject of this article is helplessness as a form of healing. If that sounds completely counterintuitive to you, you're not alone. I'm sure that if I had come across an article making this same claim in the past, I would have labeled it as completely ludicrous. But hear me out. If you totally disagree, you can write out your counter-argument in the comments.
Also, as you read this, I need you to understand that I'm not arguing you should intentionally bring yourself to a place of helplessness for trauma recovery, nor that dangerous helplessness (the kind that can cause posttraumatic stress disorder--PTSD--or re-traumatization) is somehow cathartic. Instead, I want to tell you about a situation in which I was clearly helpless, and how accepting that helped me feel a little bit safer in this chaotic world.
How Feelings of Helplessness Helped My Trauma Recovery
Accepting Helplessness After a Suicide Attempt
I attempted suicide in 2015 and was subsequently placed on a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold (Why People Kill Themselves, Attempt Suicide). My husband was very angry at me for a long time after I attempted suicide. He felt that my act of desperation represented an act of abandonment and he resented being left alone with our two young daughters.
While I was in the hospital, he cycled through a sort of grief that manifested--from my perspective--as unnecessary cruelty. Sometimes, he refused to answer the phone and let me talk to my daughters. Other times, he promised to bring them by but then didn't show up or call. When the doctors began asking my husband if he felt safe to have me at home, he waffled on his answer, leaving me uncertain as to whether I'd be forced to stay longer in the hospital. I broke down into a nervous wreck more than once while in that unit, afraid for my own freedom and anxious over my children's safety.
Finally, an inpatient I'd befriended on the ward sat me down, took my hands, and told me:
"You can't change what your husband says about you coming home, and worrying about your kids won't make them any safer. You trust your husband to take care of them when you aren't in here, you have to trust him--and the world--now."
Of course, trust is not something that comes easily to me and the way my husband was behaving toward me was not helping. But my friend was right. The person guided me through a breathing exercise and helped me to calm down until I could accept the fact that, though it was far from ideal, I was helpless to care for my kids or control my husband in that moment. Once I accepted my situational helplessness, the passage of time no longer felt as grating. My concern stopped manifesting as a stabbing, desperate anxiety. Ultimately, I was able to be released at the end of the 72 hours and my kids were all safe.
Why Accepting Helplessness Is Helping My Trauma Recovery
In general, PTSD results from a life-threatening or physically violating event in which the victim is or feels helpless. This type of experience is terrible to live through. The helplessness I felt while being attacked made me desperate to be able to control my life since--something none of us can truly ever do, at least not totally. It has also created a mental relationship between feeling helpless and being in danger, which is also not necessarily true.
Accepting I was helpless to change my immediate circumstances or take care of my family while in the hospital helped me to understand that being helpless isn't always an indicator of danger. It may be unpleasant, but that's not the same as dangerous. It also helped me to let go of my desperate need to control my environment. Of course, that is a lesson I often have to re-learn; my abuse went on for years, so I can't expect to unlearn everything it taught me in a day or two. But the ability to sit with discomfort, and recognize that helplessness does not always equate to danger, has contributed to my trauma recovery. We can't control every aspect of our lives, but if we can accept what we cannot change, we can gain a measure of peace.
Living Through the Discomfort of Helplessness and Trauma Recovery
Discomfort is a part of life. Sometimes we all have to experience situations that leave us feeling bad or helpless. In this short video, I share with you some details about my current unpleasant experiences and how continuing to live and work through them is helping me reach a better phase in life without suffering too greatly.