Pine needles drop from branches out my window. First, they grow brittle, fading from green to ochre. Then, all it takes is a breeze, and they let go. They swirl up into the air and settle into gutters. They pepper the shingles with orange.
I used to think the only way to heal from the past was to face it. Dive straight into its heart, shivering with terror, and look it in the eye.
I believed this with such conviction that I spent nearly a year on this blog recalling some of my deepest traumas, putting myself back in those moments and experiencing them all over again.
I believed this was the only way to become stronger.
I believed the reason I hadn’t yet healed was that I still had nightmares. If I could just expel those nightmares, they would be gone. I’d seen memoirs and novels published alongside author assertions that the writing process had healed them. Even Virginia Woolf swore that once she wrote To the Lighthouse, her dead mother no longer haunted her. The grief had ended.
Two years ago, memories still overtook me like tidal waves. So I told myself that if I walked straight into the sea, the tide couldn’t take me by surprise.
The problem is, once I walked into the sea, I was in the sea. And I’m not a strong swimmer. By the time the pandemic hit, I was moments from drowning.
Cognitive Processing Therapy takes a very different approach. We don’t have to call up every detail from our past in order to let go of its impact. We just need to understand that impact.
Cognitive Processing Therapy is a branch of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which specifically addresses the ways we think about past events. According to Tull, Gratz, and Chapman (2016), “Cognitive processing therapy focuses its attention on how you interpret your traumatic event, as well as on the beliefs about yourself and the world that developed after your traumatic event.”
Some of those beliefs—men can be violent towards women who don’t behave the way they want you to, white people can be violent towards Black people who defy the racial hierarchy in this country—are accurate. Through our traumas, we confront inequities that underpin society and the violence that enforces the status quo.
But other beliefs we adopt in the aftermath—all men are dangerous, all white people are murderous, I will never again experience safety—can have long-lasting and disastrous effects on our relationships, our careers, our education, and our well-being. We all deserve better.
At first, I was afraid of writing impact statements. After blogging about trauma for nine months, the last thing I wanted was to return to the cave and travel deeper into that darkness.
The first challenge was deciding how many to write. For someone who has experienced only one trauma, it’s straightforward: one impact statement. But for those of us with multiple traumas, we have options.
Some people have reported that, along with their therapists, they have chosen to write one impact statement for each type of trauma (sexual violence, physical assault, natural disasters, accidents). This can be helpful if you want to see how different categories of experiences impacted you. For others, though, it may be most helpful to write an impact statement for each event.
As a reminder, traumatic events “occur when you are exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (Tull, Gratz, & Chapman, 2016). Natural disasters, combat, serious accidents, life-threatening illness, violent deaths, physical assault, sexual violence, unexpected or sudden death, and exposure to warzones (as in the case of refugees) are all common experiences of trauma. Even witnessing or hearing about these often enough can leave people traumatized.
It’s also important to remember that 90% of us will experience at least one trauma during our lifetimes, but only about 7% will develop PTSD (Tull, Gratz, & Chapman, 2016). Factors that increase the risk for PTSD include: experiencing multiple traumas, receiving little social support (i.e., being disbelieved or blamed as a sexual assault survivor), and lack of access to therapy and other resources (a fact the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to nationwide).
The workbook that I’m currently using (The Cognitive Behavioral Coping Skills Workbook for PTSD) offers a chart on page 4 where readers can list traumas under 14 different categories. It drives home the fact that even if PTSD is not a common experience, trauma certainly is.
As I went down the list and jotted down the age at which I experienced each trauma, I counted more than two dozen traumatic incidents. And I had to be honest: not every trauma had contributed to my PTSD. So I decided to focus on the 15 incidents that were the hardest to think about. The mere memory of them could put me in a rage and leave me distracted and sleepless for a week. The first occurred when I was 5 years old; the last when I was nearly 34.
And to my immense relief, impact statements are not about what happened. They are about the horrible lessons that trauma teaches us. They are also about the way those lessons can warp our worldview.
One of the reasons, I think, that the workbook puts CBT tools first, and impact statements later, is because we have to understand—before we ever put pen to paper—that our beliefs are not facts. Beliefs are malleable and subjective. That’s what makes them beliefs.
This is not to cast doubt on survivor stories. Again, impact statements are not about what happened. Traumatic memory, as research has shown again and again, is indelible. The way a survivor tells the story may be disordered, chaotic, or messy, but the experience is a fact. She was assaulted. He was shot. That child was abused. Calling into question whether such traumas happen is quite simply evil.
What we are instead reminded of, when writing impact statements, is that violence often conveys a message. In a society with as many prejudices and structural inequalities as the United States, violence is not random. It is targeted. And it is most often targeted to keep people in line with existing power structures.
Boys and men are attacked to teach them that “you’re not a real man” if you don’t adhere to normative masculinity.
Girls and women are attacked to teach them to “shut up” and “be what men want you to be,” which is permissive, people-pleasing, and sexually available.
LGBTQIA+ individuals are attacked to teach them “you’re not acting right, so this is all you deserve.”
Immigrants are attacked to teach them “you don’t belong here.”
Black people are attacked to teach them “keep your head down and always say yes to white people, or else.”
Disabled people are attacked to prove “you’re sick and weak and broken, so you don’t get a voice; you don’t even get to control your own body.”
The list goes on.
This is what we’re looking for in the impact statement. Now of course not every trauma has intentionality behind it. Car crashes, earthquakes, and a sudden heart attack can impart completely different messages, such as “You’re completely powerless” and “It’s not safe anywhere” and “I’m going to die any minute now.”
The point is that from all our traumas, we learned something key. False or true, we learned something about safety, trust, control, agency, self-esteem, intimacy, and our position in society. And in Cognitive Processing Therapy, the beliefs that emerged are called stuck points. The impact statement helps us identify those stuck points, so we can begin to evaluate them.
For four months, I wrote one impact statement a week. The first question is “Why do you think the traumatic event happened to you?” The second question is “In general, how do you think your traumatic event changed the way you think about or see yourself, other people, and the world?”
When writing an impact statement, you spend about half a page to a page answering the first question, and another half-page or so on the second question. Then, at the end, you read back through your answers and identify stuck points. What beliefs did you carry forward? What awful lessons did you learn?
For me, it was only a couple weeks before I began to notice a pattern.
From my earliest trauma at age 5 and on through my childhood and young adulthood, violence was used to teach me again and again that I was responsible for adult feelings. When adults around me refused to manage their own feelings, they imposed those on my body—hoping to displace them. For 25 years, I was blamed for my father’s tantrums. I was blamed for my mother’s meltdowns. In the Mormon church, I was blamed for a middle-aged man’s attraction to an 18-year-old girl. I was blamed, so adults never had to face the consequences of their own choices and behavior. They preferred, as many adults do, the victim position.
While this certainly reflects society’s view that rape and abuse are “women’s problems,” I absorbed the lesson so well that it became a stuck point. It became how I lived my life. For over 30 years, I sought those who were the hardest to please, the easiest to set off, the most distant, the most withholding—and I tried to endear myself to them. I tried to reassure them. To help them become healthier and happier. It only set me up for future abuse.
It was why I responded to mistreatment with kindness. It was why I stayed in friendships and relationships where I was routinely disrespected, dismissed, and even abused.
It was the method a child had developed to give her a sense of agency in a powerless dynamic: You just don’t know how to behave, I thought often of my parents after each act of abuse. Here, let me help you.
For child abuse survivors especially, we look for ways to feel a sense of security and control. Role reversals are common, and they can do untold damage for decades.
Impact statements have helped me identify my “stuck points” and begin dismantling beliefs that have limited my life and my happiness. So I’m going to spend some time sharing the insights I’ve gleaned from them. How much time, I’m not sure. A couple Mondays, maybe a month.
But here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far:
Repeated traumas, especially if they begin when we’re young, teach us lessons that are hard to unlearn. They teach us to fear certain things. They teach us to avoid certain activities. They teach us to keep quiet, to hide, to make ourselves small.
And this is the thing we have to remember as we begin to see these beliefs that have shaped our lives. They are just beliefs. Most often, they are beliefs forced on us by others who saw our power, our wisdom, our strength and found it threatening.
But in the end, violence is not coercive. It is only frightening. And everyone gets tired of being afraid. One day, we wake up, and we are done letting the fear that others planted in us dictate the circumference of our lives. Even children grow up one day. And when we do, there is no cage, no lock, no shackles they can place upon the courage that lived in our hearts all along.
Trauma is an attempt to imprison.
But the day comes when the prisoner has outgrown the prison. Because we were strong and loved and spoke truth and dared defy you, you tried to shut us in. When all along, in that dark, we were growing stronger yet.
There is no prison that can contain the human heart.
Not even fear.
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Featured image from Pixabay on Pexels
*I am not a therapist or treatment provider and am only recounting my personal experience of PTSD and its treatment. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, licensed therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding PTSD or any other mental health disorder.