This week’s blog post may seem basic enough; after all, SA Lifeline is a community of women seeking recovery from Betrayal Trauma.
Unfortunately, however, it often takes people who are suffering much longer than they would have liked to find us. This was certainly the case for me.
Let’s just say when I was stuck face-down at rock bottom I was not googling the term, “Betrayal Trauma.” I had never heard those words before in my life and I was completely clueless that I was suffering from it. So were all of the family members, friends, church leaders, and general psychiatrists who were trying to help me.
What is Betrayal Trauma?
So, what is Betrayal Trauma? Is it even a real thing? Shouldn’t women just be “getting over” it?
Those of us who have experienced Betrayal Trauma know the answers to these questions all too well. My post today is aimed most directly to explain Trauma to people who have not experienced it, to help them understand what is really going on with this “crazy woman,” and thus be more equipped to help her.
It is also for all of us “crazy women,” who are sometimes just as clueless as anybody else about what we are going through.
Betrayal Trauma is a mental injury, a psychic wound, that is most relatable to PTSD, the mental disorder that is rampant among post-war veterans. Dr. Jill Manning explains “Betrayal trauma occurs when someone we depend on for survival, or are significantly attached to, violates our trust in a critical way.”
When such a wound happens, (a woman discovers that her husband is betraying her, that the reality she had believed in and built her life on is a lie) the brain reacts by activating the limbic system, the “survival” part of the brain.
When the limbic system begins to drive, all logic goes out the window. The limbic system is programmed for survival and it beats the pre-frontal cortex to the punch every time. The limbic system has registered to this woman “Your (spiritual, mental, emotional, financial, relationship, even physical) life is in danger! Run! Hide! Fight! Protect!” Anything it can come up with to help her survive.
With trauma, the brain has carefully recorded the exact details of every aspect of the situation. It stores all of this information in a file titled, “Stuff That Might Mean You Are About to Die.” When anything happens in the course of everyday life that the brain picks up as being possibly associated with anything stored in this file, it releases the limbic system Emergency Crew immediately, blowing sirens and calling out the dogs.
This is why sometimes women will react to situations that may seem unrelated to the actual trauma: seeing a woman on the street who resembles someone my husband acted out with, hearing a song on the radio about lust, seeing billboards with scantily-clad women, being in places where I have specific memories of times that I now know happened when my husband was lying to me, places associated with my discovery of the betrayals, calendar dates associated with past betrayals….all of these situations have triggered trauma reactions in me.
The Trauma file in the brain is not selective—when something happens to trigger those feelings of fear, shock, terror, and anxiety—no matter how big or small, it is connected to the entire network of images, emotions, and events that created the Trauma file in the first place.
This understanding helps explain the frequent appearance of “over-reacting.” I used to feel so much shame when I would spin completely out of control over what seemed like a small indiscretion, a seemingly normal situation, or a meaningless circumstance. What was wrong with me? Why was I so crazy? Would I ever be “normal” again?
I have come to understand that no matter how big, small, or coincidental the event may be, if a traumatized individual’s brain associates it with the Trauma file, it will unleash the entire contents of the file. It can’t isolate just an appropriate portion of the hurt, the lies, the fear that have been embedded into her nervous system. She will feel it all, like it’s happening all over again right in that moment…just like a post-war veteran will feel as though he is back on the battle field and his life is literally in danger.
Husbands, church leaders, friends, and family who feel frustrated that a wife is “so mad” over a little thing when her husband has a “whole month” of sobriety under their belt would do well to realize that the trauma their loved one is experiencing in the moment is most likely not really connected to the small thing that happened today, but to the weeks, months, and years that have embedded a deep pathway of fear into her brain.
Her brain and body are reacting at a cellular level.
She doesn’t want to be crazy.
She didn’t ask for this.
But now the trauma is programmed in there, and it has to be dealt with. It can’t be shamed, ignored, laughed off, argued, or ridiculed away.
What does Trauma look like?
This depends entirely on the specific person and the way her brain is processing the danger she is in, based on past experiences.
For me, my trauma would typically swing between two extremes.
I experienced deep depression and an inability to stop crying, to function normally, sleeping for hours every afternoon to escape the pain of being awake and having to face the reality of my life, but not sleeping at night because my brain would wake me with fearful dreams replaying my husband’s infidelity at 4 am. I became fixated and obsessed with suicidal thoughts for a time. The pain of living like this shocked me. I had no idea that human beings could feel this much pain and still live.
The other extreme was rage. I could have said anger, but Rage with a capital R is admittedly a more accurate term. When new information about the ways in which my husband had been acting out would trickle out, which continued to happen for about the first year after my husband’s big disclosure, and we would try to “talk through things” at night after the kids had gone to bed, this often ended in a Rage. I was insane, screaming, kicking, flailing fists, sobbing, exhausted. The Rage was like a drug on my system. It seemed to offer me this brief respite from feeling completely worthless, which is how I felt pretty much all the rest of the time. It gave me a few powerful moments in a life where I had become completely powerless. But the Rage high never lasted long and always brought with it a Rage hangover: shame, regret, humiliation, and an even deeper sense of how pathetic I had become.
My Trauma had convinced me that either I was totally worthless, or else my husband was. It took serious Twelve Step Recovery to realize that there were other options.
Other ways Trauma can manifest itself include:
A sense of confusion or fogginess, like my brain is not quite able to process or connect the dots. Mundane, everyday tasks suddenly seem as baffling as College-level Calculus.
An inability to manage emotions. Small things seem to trigger big reactions. There is an ever-present current of anxiety and fear flowing underneath the surface of everything you do, say, perceive. A feeling that you are barely holding it together without falling onto the floor and sobbing hysterically. All the time.
Many women experience a sense of paranoia and resort to hypervigilance, trying to control or spy on their husband at all times and “figure out” what might be going on. Women in trauma may also become distrustful of all people, especially men.
Still others seem to fade into a going-through-the-motions, completely numb manner of living. They survive by becoming so busy they don’t have time to feel their emotions. They become completely disconnected from being able to feel anything…painful or joyful.
Does Trauma ever go away?
Trauma reactions still occasionally occur for me, even almost four years down the road of recovery for both my husband and myself. They are not so full-blown and out of control anymore, but they could be if I don’t work my recovery and use my tools.
I believe that Trauma reactions will always be a possibility when I am faced with a situation that for some reason opens that file in my brain, and my brain and body immediately react on a cellular level.
However, I have gotten much better at being able to recognize this early on: my chest feels tight, I am suddenly breathing faster and my heart is pounding, my head is squeezing, or I feel ice chips in my chest.
Almost immediately now I can beat my limbic system to the punch and know… “I am having a trauma reaction. This is not real, this is my limbic system trying to protect me. I can breathe through this. I need to slow down, breathe, call someone, and talk this through. I am not in immediate danger. I can do this.”
The limbic system wants you to move quickly, react, protect yourself, SURVIVE! The trick to beating Trauma is to slow down, breathe, and give yourself time to assess the situation (with a 3rd party perspective—a sponsor), so you can respond appropriately with grace and dignity.
Learning this skill and gaining access to the Higher Power who can give you the light and discernment you need to see clearly is what practicing the Twelve Steps is all about.
Shouldn’t there be accountability for this type of behavior?
Certainly, women who are experiencing Trauma can appear crazy. After all, they are not only trying to make sense of the big betrayals that have unraveled every aspect of their life, but most likely years of being habitually manipulated, lied to, and blamed for the day-to-day attitudes and behaviors that define their husband’s addictive cycle.
And yet, of course, women in trauma are no different from anyone else struggling from any other difficulty: Accountability is key to making a change.
Essentially, we need to understand this first about Trauma: Trauma is not about trying to manipulate or control others. It is not about playing games.
Trauma is the psychological result of a deep, unconscious belief that you are fundamentally unsafe.
Trauma is not a choice.
It is not about making a point. It is about survival.
Since Trauma is the result of a brain interpreting danger, then the antidote is the creation of a safe place.
You can help to create that place of safety by allowing your loved one to express herself without being judged or chided. You can help by never ever blaming her for being betrayed.
Mostly, you can help by encouraging and supporting her to seek help from a support group that works the SAL 12 Steps Betrayal Trauma with a Sponsor. This is the safest place for a woman in Trauma. This is the right place for her to begin to figure out how to be accountable for “her stuff.” As our literature states, “We take full accountability for our actions, and reactions.”
Let her learn from those who have been in her shoes.
Getting advice from those who haven’t just doesn’t work.
How can I help my loved one heal from her Betrayal Trauma?
The only way to heal Trauma is to give it a safe place to be expressed, acknowledged, and processed.
Husbands, church leaders, family members, and friends…if you can offer this to your loved one in Trauma, it will be the greatest chance you have to helping her heal.
Let her get out all the ugly stuff that needs to come out and just be there to hold her hand. Don’t judge her. Don’t correct her. Don’t argue with her. Just let her know that you are there and you are not going to leave. Let her know that there will be a safe place for her again someday.
Betrayal Trauma is such a misunderstood condition, but when it is given the healing attention it needs, it can be, just like addiction, the pathway to spiritual growth and progress.
Women in Trauma, You are Not Alone.
You have choices.
You have strength beyond what you believe.
That strength lies in your Higher Power.
Come to Him. Work the Steps. They will show you how to find Him and yourself, and when you do, you will realize that that journey was one and the same.
And there may even come a day when you will be grateful that Trauma has become your greatest teacher. I promise.
We know that every story is unique and individual. We hope you will share your thoughts and experiences with Trauma. You never know who may need to hear it.
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