sexual abuse

101 Distraction Techniques: Tools for Intrusive Trauma Symptoms

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101 Distraction Techniques


     When it comes to complex trauma, survivors may face any number of debilitating symptoms — from flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive/overwhelming emotions, to unsafe impulses, unmanaged dissociation, and all the challenges of daily living that become magnified as you wrestle your mental health. Many skills and therapeutic tools can be vital to getting through, but sometimes they just don't feel like enough. You may've been successful at putting memories away, but are still left in a funky headspace you can't seem to shake off. Or, maybe you've gotten grounded, but are too flooded with emotions to even begin looking at what got you so off-kilter. Sometimes you just need a middle step before you can get to your other skills. Distraction can be a surprisingly helpful tool, and is often under-appreciated.

     One thing to keep in mind when using distraction is that it's not a long-term solution. Relying on it too heavily - or in place of other therapeutic tools - can actually lead to "stuffing", avoidance, and increasing the dissociation of what's causing you distress. This only makes it more likely to revisit you intrusively or when you're least prepared. But, when you're really struggling in the short-term, switching gears and doing something completely unrelated can give you the footing you need. Even neurologically speaking, it's very common for those with PTSD to recycle through thoughts, memories and feelings circularly. Getting off that feedback loop can sometimes offer a greater reprieve than if you'd stayed on it, repeatedly trying to put things away. Activating different parts of the brain that aren't overtired can bolster your resources and give you access to the circuitry vital to thinking with clarity and reason again. Then, when you return, you're much more equipped to tackle things head-on instead of just going along for the ride.

     We've divided our list of 101 Distraction Techniques into three categories based on how much mental and physical effort they require. We know that sometimes all you can manage is what's doable from where you're sitting and/or involving very little mental energy. Other times you need to get moving a bit or start an activity. Then are the occasions where a really complex, elaborate and intricate task is needed to bring you out of the place you've been trapped for so long.

      As with all of our lists, there will be tools listed that are not helpful for everyone. There may even be some that are triggering, upsetting, or would antagonize some of your specific symptoms. You know yourself and your symptoms best, so use your best judgment, trust yourself, and just pass on the tools that aren't for you. There are a hundred others to choose from — literally!

 

Low-Effort

  1. Watch a TV show. If you don't have cable or a subscription service, many television networks offer free access, without a log-in, until you get closer to the most recent episodes.

  2. Watch a movie. Light-hearted comedy, drama to suck you in, or an old favorite - there are countless films to whisk you away for a bit.

  3. Sing. It doesn't matter if you're a professional vocalist or can't to carry a tune, singing engages a completely different part of your brain. Plus, the vibrations in your chest give great sensory feedback and the vocalization reminds you of your voice.

  4. Watch cute videos on YouTube. About as low-effort as it gets: puppy/kitty videos, laugh challenges, or Vine compilations - take your pick.

  5. Mindless doodles/finger painting/playing with clay. This may be especially helpful to those with child parts (DID/OSDD) who need an activity of their own.

  6. Grab a snack.

  7. Drum on a surface. Like singing, the vibrations and bilateral stimulation of your hands thumping will engage different parts of your mind and bring your attention away from what's intruding on you.

  8. Play a game or use a fun app on your phone. Even if you aren't a gamer, search the app store. You might find one that speaks to you. It can be a great escape to get lost in for a bit.

  9. Video games. Any console, any game!

  10. Tear out words/photos/etc for a collage. Ask a local doctor's office or hairdresser for their spare magazines. Mindlessly rip out photos and words that speak to you. (Bonus: you may get to put tabloids to good use for once! They often have the scathing, overdramatic words that happen to be great for a therapeutic collages. Shocking! Betrayal! You Won't Believe It!).

  11. Discover new music. YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, so many ways to find new gems!

  12. Wash your face/hands or brush your teeth. A quick refresher can help you restart your day on a brand new page.

  13. Re-watch highlights from your favorite sport. It's easy to forget just how many epic, captivating moments there were once some time has passed. Relive your excitement. Plus, you already know how it ends, so you don't have to pay super close attention!

  14. Gratitude list. When your mind only wants to remind you of distressing things, focusing on 10+ things you're grateful for can really take you to a whole new atmosphere in your mind and heart.

  15. Imagery exercises. Containment exercises, healing pool/healing light, guided meditation, so many options!

  16. Play a board game with a friend. Something simple like Sorry!, challenging like chess, or silly like Cards Against Humanity, there are lots of options to distract you in the company of friends.

  17. Card games. Solo works, too, if there's no one around.

  18. Play with a pet. Pets (when they aren't being rotten) are the best distraction!

  19. Listen to a podcast/audiobook.

  20. Try to laugh without smiling. Trust me, this is something you need in your life.

  21. Color-breathing / breathing techniques. An example of color-breathing here.

  22. Untangle cords/necklaces/strings in a drawer. If this is something that won't aggravate potential OCD behaviors or anxieties, this can be a perfect chore when you need a distraction.

  23. Clean out social media friends lists. Aaaah, just imagine the relief!

  24. Read a children’s book to parts inside (OCD/OSDD). If you're struggling to stay focused, maybe young parts are who need the attention and care most. Even if you don’t have DID parts, we all have a younger us inside that needs some comfort, joy and attention, too.

  25. Play with a tangle, fidget cube, pin art, sand tray, etc. You can do this right where you're sitting, without needing to think -- a perfect option when you're still heavily in symptoms but trying to come out.

  26. Count by 7’s, list all the prime numbers, divide. Okay, this may be more medium-effort if math isn't your jam, but at least you don't have to go anywhere! ;)

  27. Browse art sites for images you love. Whether it's DeviantArt, flickr, Pinterest or somewhere else, sometimes soothing, fun or beautiful images can bring your mind to a brand new place.

  28. Sit outside and pay attention to all the things in nature. A change of scenery and a chance to connect with the earth can sometimes be all we need.

  29. Apply lotion. If this isn't a personal or sensory trigger, this can be grounding, an act of self-care and a distraction all in one!

  30. Allow yourself a nap. Sometimes that's just the only functional distraction we can muster.



Medium Effort

   31. Puzzle books. Sudoku, crosswords, word finds, variety puzzles, logic problems, take your pick!
   32. Read a book. Any book!
   33. Play music. On your phone, computer, radio, iPod, anywhere! You just might start singing along ;)
   34. Dance party. Let's be honest, this could solve most things in life ;) And, if you think you're too cool for that, turn this on and tell me you don't wanna move. If those don't get you groovin' and you're more modern, give. these. a. go. And, if all else fails: BAM.
   35. Watch videos on a topic you’re unfamiliar with. It's much easier to have your attention captured when you're learning something brand new.
   36. Draw/use an adult coloring book.
   37. Make an Amazon wishlist or Pinterest board of things you want. If you can't escape your current circumstances, envisioning a future time can be a nice way out.
   38. Send texts/messages to friends to check in with them. Concentrating on someone else can be a great way to step out of our own mind and its symptoms. Caring for others also helps us reconnect to the world at large.
   39. Organize all the files on your computer. Most of our workspaces could use a good cleaning up anyway!
   40. Wash your makeup brushes, paint brushes or other work tools. Yeah, this one probably needed done awhile ago, too! 
   41. Bullet journaling. You can start any time of year, and the structure-combined-with-creativity format can provide a great detailed distraction. There are wonderful YouTube videos on how to get started or sharing ideas to help you get creative with it!
   42. Create a new playlist. One for sleep/relaxation, one to pump you up, a good one for when you're driving or doing chores, or just one for ambient background noise -- put together something you'll love and thank yourself for later.
   43. Take a shower/bath. Concentrate on all the scents and textures for extra grounding, too.
   44. Clean all your electronics. Your phone, your keyboard, laptop screen, earbuds -- they could all use your attention too (if cleaning won't engage OCD loops).
   45. Schedule appointments you’ve been putting off. Call the dentist, women/men's health doctors, insurance company, landlord, whoever you need to see. Make those appointments!
   46. Stretch/do yoga. It's not the answer to all of a body's ails like many often suggest, but it is a phenomenal resource for trauma survivors to get into their bodies, recalibrate their autonomic nervous system through steady breathing, and get out tensions or trapped anxieties that have been buzzing inside.
   47. Write an email or letter to someone. Send some heartfelt kindness to someone who made a huge impact on you, someone you've been thinking about, or those you've been worried about.
   48. Call up a safe friend/family member. Just to talk about anything and nothing at all.
   49. Write reviews for things you’ve purchased online. Do others a great service while offering yourself a distraction by letting them know what you thought of an item.
   50. Take photos and edit them in really unique ways. Use filters you never use, effects you'd normally never choose, and heck, even take photos of things you'd never bother to capture! Have fun with it! Discover something new and creative. 
   51. Try new ways to style your hair. You never know what new aesthetic you'll fall in love with.
   52. Test out a totally new makeup look or facial hair style. You just might love it!
   53. Follow a DIY tutorial (even if just to laugh at yourself). Hey, we aren't all cut out to be on HGTV!
   54. Research new homes/cars/phones/assistance programs/accessibility devices you may need. These important, highly detail-oriented tasks can really grab your focus and reign you in because it matters.
   55. Paint your nails. Any gender, any age, with any color!
   56. Fold laundry. A slightly mindless task, but one that still requires your attention and coordination.
   57. List your recent accomplishments.  You'll be amazed at just how many things you've done recently that you so easily forget without writing them down. It can be easy to recall the challenges, but the impressive and/or proud memories sometimes fall to the wayside. These can also be incredible to review at the end of a year!
   58. Write a poem/alpha-poem/etc. It doesn't have to be a good poem. ..but, it just might turn out to be anyway!
   59. Watch a documentary. There are some phenomenal free ones on YouTube for free if you don't have Netflix/cable -- and they span the range of just about any subject matter!
   60. Creative/expressive writing. There are excellent creative writing prompts online if you're stuck.
   61. Do something childlike. Sidewalk chalk, hopscotch, color with crayons, skip rope. Or, just enjoy this video if you're nervous about letting little you step up.
   62. Buy yourself a small gift. You deserve it.
   63. Do a jigsaw puzzle. There are so many unique kinds out there, too, not just a traditional 500-piece.
   64. Make a handmade gift for someone.
   65. Take a walk. Down the driveway, out in your neighborhood, through a park, on a nature trail - just go anywhere.
   66. Make your own containment box/journal.
   67. Go to the grocery store and buy new foods. Look for things you always wanted to try!
   68. Send positive comments to friends/strangers. Fill up friend's and stranger's social media with kind, helpful, supportive, encouraging and/or complimentary things. We could all use it, but it also makes you feel good, too. You don't have to be fake or forced about it, just say the things you often think but maybe don't always say.
   69. Organize a drawer/closet. This can even leave you feeling as though you've decluttered your mind a bit, too.
   70. Self-care. Look up ASMR videos (if that's okay for you), oddly-satisfying compilations, or other visually/sensorily appealing content that will calm your senses.



HIGHER EFFORT

   71. Go to a movie. Watching at home is great, too, but sometimes getting out of the house, being in the company of others and experiencing a film larger than life can capture your attention in a way that watching at home can't manage.
   72. Make an elaborate meal. Choose something that requires prep, organization, many steps, and the confidence you’ve followed the recipe correctly -- a good kind of complicated.
   73. Begin learning a new language. We're definitely into the higher-effort category now, but sometimes high levels of concentration and detail are needed to get someone out of the places they've been trapped in for days. A new language is a great way to shift gears entirely.
   74. Begin learning sign language, Braille or another communication skill. Help make life more accessible for others and earn a skill of your own to feel proud of accomplishing.
   75. Learn an instrument. Piano, guitar, ukulele, violin, flute, drums -- what speaks to you?
   76. Build/do construction. Whether you're a beginner or this is your forté, working with your hands and with a variety of pieces/elements can be an excellent distraction.
   77. Go for a drive. Definitely make sure you're grounded enough for a task like this, but if that's in-check and you just need to carve out some fresh space in your mind, hit the road!
   78. Volunteer. Pick a charity, shelter, trash pick-up, soup kitchen, or even just a friend in need. Lend a hand, your heart and your time. Focusing on others is a great way to escape your own trials for a moment.
   79. Play a sport. Soccer, basketball, tennis, volleyball, bowling, so many options!
   80. Work out. Whether you hit the gym, or get moving in your home, a workout (especially with great tunes) can be a great distraction.
   81. Build a house of cards, stack dominoes, etc. Pick your favorite tedious, high-concentration task that demands your full attention!
   82. Garage/shed tasks. Work on your car, clean up a tool or tackle box, stain a shelf, complete other tasks that are waiting for you outside the house.
   83. Repair things around the house. Fix a sink, a broken chair, squeaky door, bent light post.
   84. Organize an event/party/vacation. Fewer things more detailed and task oriented than that!
   85. Go through your clothes/closets and donate what you don't need. Focusing on keep, trash, and donate piles can keep your mind focused in many places and present/future tenses at once, leaving room for little else.
   86. Rearrange/redecorate a bedroom or other room in the house. Change of scenery can keep you from falling back into the same spaces of your mind.
   87. Do gardening/landscaping/outdoor work. If you don't have a yard of your own, pot plants for inside your home or offer to help someone else with theirs.
   88. Update your internal world. Many with DID or OSDD have an internal world, and some can add new elements with enough concentration and effort. New rooms, parks, pets, gardens, landscapes, and so much more. Give it an update! If you don’t have this, developing highly-detailed imagery locations for your “safe place” or mental escape is perfect!
   89. Go out to eat. Peruse the menu and pick something you don't normally get.
   90. Go out for a treat. Grab some fro-yo, dessert, or something enjoyable -- bonus if you do so with others!
   91. Try a Rubix cube or other impossible puzzles. Learn how to solve 'em!
   92. Information deep dives. Learn about a social, political, historical topic you always wished you’d known more about.
   93. Head out to a coffee shoppe/bookstore. Do the same work, projects, reading, self-care, etc., you’d be doing at home, but in the company of other people.
   94. Go to or look for new public places. Check out local libraries, parks, bookstores, or other small shops you never even knew existed around you.
   95. Clean out your car/gym bag/purse/wheelchair/wallet/etc.
   96. Finish work you've been putting off. Whether it's schoolwork, take-home tasks for your job, or volunteer projects, get 'em done and cross 'em off your list!
   97. Meet up with a safe group of friends or family.
   98. Visit a barn or farm. Ride horses, learn more about agriculture or animals, experience a different way of living.
   99. Go to an art, space, or historical museum. Learn all there is to know; transport yourself into another time and place.
   100. Money stuffs. Start filing your taxes, collect receipts, balance your accounts, apply for assistance, pay bills, do all those yucky things no one wants to do but has to. It'll demand all of your focus, but then feel like a huge relief to be done and off your mind. 
   101. Learn a new physical skill. Kickboxing, martial arts, jujitsu, self-defense -- get all the anxiety, fear and anger out of your whole system and begin to feel strong and empowered in your body and what it can do!


~    ~    ~
 

     We sincerely hope this is helpful to you! Feel free to bookmark it for the future, particularly for those times when it feels too hard to even think or remember what you may need. Also, share your go-to distraction techniques below and help us keep this list going! You may have the perfect solution for someone else's distress!

 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

  ✧  Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
  ✧  Flashbacks 101: 4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks
  ✧  Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
  ✧  Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
  ✧  DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
  ✧  Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
  ✧  Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller
 
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Article Index  ❖

 


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Index: Library of Articles

Index: Library of Articles

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Dissociation and Survival vs. Living: A Survivor's Story

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A CSA Survivor's Relationship with Dissociation, Survival and Living:

     
    "There are many things I wish I could help people understand about childhood trauma; this just happens to be one I hear very little about. Like many survivors, I struggle to hear sentiments like, "Oh my! I'm so so glad that's over now and you got through it!", "I can't believe you got out of that alive. I couldn't even do that now! I'd give up," or "At least you know your worst days are behind you. You know you can conquer anything!". Even resources and groups for trauma survivors, as well as therapists and clinicians, can share quips like "You survived the abuse, you're going to survive the recovery!". While these things intend to uplift or highlight our strength, they all categorically deny the fundamental mechanism that allowed us to survive in the first place, and why adulthood is the real hard part: dissociation.

    Make no mistake, those of us who endured trauma as children are courageously strong. We were forced to be tougher than most; and, by nature or necessity, we became resilient, creative and sharp. But Little Me didn't even experience the bulk of the trauma back then. I wasn't connected to the physical pain or sheer terror; I wasn't incapacitated by shame, disgust or uncleanliness; I wasn't aware of the immorality, nor was I having a crisis of conscience. I also didn't even know who was hurting me for much of my childhood - parts of my mind did, but not me. Little Me wasn't facing the anger or the blistering sting of betrayal from those I loved most hurting me in such inhumane ways. I wasn't yet aware this was abnormal or something that could make me feel alien or 'different' from my peers. I was numb, I was hyperfocused on the things I could control, and I was even made to feel special or self-confident in certain areas very early on. While some of that confidence dwindled over time and I became more aware of my unhappiness and "irrational" fears, none of that compares to what you imagine a tortured child feels — let alone what I was about to feel later in life.

    That suffering is here now. Adulthood is when all of it breaks through and confronts you with a vengeance. No, the abuse is not "over", it is not "behind me", it is not "something I got through". As far as my mind and body are concerned, it is NOW. It is very alive and in full-effect. Each excruciating detail of physical pain, disgust, and revulsion; every tidal wave of anger at those who knew and did nothing; each immobilizing shockwave of new material that re-writes my entire life story from how I once knew it. THIS is when my survival is tested. I am hypervigiliant, terrified, exhausted, unsure if I'm even real. I exist in hollowing spaces of grief for Little Me and the life I should have had. ...lost in an endless state of confusion, horror, disbelief and dismay. It is all day. THIS is live trauma in my brain and body. THIS is my battleground, and I am fighting for my life NOW. As an adult, not as a child.

     Furthermore, the dissociative process not only contorts the timeline of when we experience our trauma, but dissociation as an independent symptom challenges life as an adult, too. (..even beyond the forgetfulness, memory gaps, driving troubles, safety, maintaining a job, etc.) One of the most critical elements in trauma recovery is establishing healthy relationships and improving our overall worldview. It's very hard to want to carry on when all you've known is the absolute worst of mankind. Being able to look around, connect, and believe the world is still good is vital to our sanity, safety and healing. But, dissociation challenges this. It can dull your senses, leave you numb to positive feelings, keep you at an emotional distance from love or affections shown to you. It can keep you trapped in a surreal in-between state of both the past and the present -- where you respond to what's happening today with the same emotional maturity you had as a child. Emotional flashbacks, unexpected triggers, and other sudden symptoms that crop up - particularly in intimate relationships or the more meaningful aspects of life - can complicate joy and frustrate those in your life. But most of all, no one wants to just "be alive", we want to LIVE. Fully and authentically, with all the vibrance and richness available to us. But, dissociation has a way of diluting and blurring the world - stripping it of its color and beauty. How do you hold onto a light that you can barely see, feel or trust is even there?

    Like most all means of sheer survival, dissociation has its pros and cons. Just like chemotherapy and emergency surgery, they can keep you alive, but there are risks. They're also unpleasant in the moment and, separate from the conditions that necessitate these interventions, they alone carry longterm consequences. But, without them, you wouldn't be here -- so it's a constant tug of war with perspective and gratitude. Dissociation is no different. It got me through. It saved my life. It gave Little Me a fighting chance. But it also made life after abuse so darn difficult. Because, I should feel free. The abuse has ended, I am safe. I should be dancing and singing and holding everything I love dear to my chest. But instead, now is when I fight. Now is when I stare down my trauma, my innocence, my perpetrators - all with adult intellect and understanding - and try to decide if this life is worth living and if I'm up for the task.

    It is worth it. And, I am up for the fight. I'm going to do this and will do it with grace and strength. But then, and only then, can you say I survived the impossible or that 'it's over now'. This is the battle. ..and not for just survival, but for life. To make this existence meaningful now. I am going to conquer this. ..the trauma, the feelings, the defeat, the difficult relationships, the dissociation. I will also remain appreciative of what dissociation made possible for me, despite its thorns. I want Young Me to get credit for surviving the horror. But I want Adult Me to be credited for not only surviving more anguish, but for learning to LIVE, too."

 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

    Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
    Flashbacks 101: 4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks
    Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
    Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
    DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
    Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
    Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller

 

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An In-Depth Conversation with Elizabeth Vermilyea

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   If you've worked in the field of trauma and dissociation for any amount of time, the name Elizabeth Vermilyea will likely be very familiar to you. For survivors new to their healing, you may not know her by name, but you've most certainly been using her tools and symptom management skills! In part due to her own humility and unassuming disposition, it's quite possible to be unaware of the impact of Elizabeth's work, despite having benefitted from it for years and years. If learning the detailed process of containment, modulation, healing pool/healing light imagery, or the more welcoming takes on internal communication, sounds familiar to you -- you have her to thank for that!

   Elizabeth's workbook, "Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress" truly revolutionized the way that trauma survivors could not only learn about their conditions, but explore a variety of tools to alleviate their suffering at the same time. An unintimidating and easy to understand look at complex trauma, it allowed survivors to really work at their own pace. Clinicians were also given a new language with which to explain coping skills to their clients, and most importantly, a chance to work on them together.  Elizabeth's message of educating with compassion and warmth, and always including survivors in the process, has remained steadfast throughout the years and is a lasting legacy on the community. Through her continued work in the field, she keeps the momentum of trauma education and care headed in the right direction -- always focused but empathic.

    It is our absolute honor and privilege to bring to you an in-depth interview with someone we admire and value so deeply. You'll get a chance to learn more about Elizabeth's personal journey, her experience weeding through the at-times tepid and contentious world of trauma, and also explore the past, present and future of trauma care! We sincerely hope you enjoy!


❧     ❧     ❧

 

Let’s start with some background for those who are being introduced to you for the first time.

・Where are you from/currently residing? Where did you attend school and what did you earn your degree in?
How long have you been practicing and in what capacity do you currently work with trauma survivors?

     I was born in Raleigh, NC, and I currently live in Napa, CA. I don’t like to focus on schools and degrees because I don’t think they tell us anything about who someone is. Suffice it to say, I’ve spent a great deal of time on my education, but I really learned the most from the people I’ve worked with over the years both as clients and colleagues. Currently I do not treat survivors, but I do train and consult with professionals and survivors alike. My consultation with survivors focuses on managing traumatic stress symptoms.

 

・What made you interested in pursuing trauma disorders? Did you always know you wanted to focus here, or was it something that found you?

     I like to say that I tripped and fell into this work, and then fell in love with it. I had intended to become an experimental psychologist. My first job out of college was at the Masters & Johnson Sexual Trauma program at River Oaks in Louisiana, and I got that job after sending out resumes everywhere I could. They were the ones who called back! It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to make a career in the trauma field.

 

・When did you come to understand the full impact of complex childhood trauma vs. trauma as an adult? What was your introduction to dissociative disorders like?

     My work at River Oaks was my introduction to all of this. I remember going home one night in tears after having heard some horrific stories of abuse at the hands of a man’s parents. I found my mom and said, “Thank you for not abusing your power over me.” I realized how much that relationship means, how it can be twisted, how it can torment a child. Most of the clients in that program were diagnosed with a dissociative disorder, so I learned a great deal there. The program took a relational approach to the work, and I appreciated that. It wasn’t so hierarchical or tied to the strict medical model.

 

You began your work in this field over 25 years ago — a time where dissociative disorders were even more heavily stigmatized, disbelieved and could even be used to question the integrity of the very clinicians who supported their existence.

・What would you say the climate was like when you were first starting out? Did you face any particular challenges — clinically, interpersonally or even within yourself? 

     I started this work at the beginnings of what would become known as the recovered memory debate era, but I didn’t encounter much of that controversy until I moved to Baltimore and began working at Sheppard Pratt in their Trauma Disorders Program. Across town was Johns Hopkins and Paul McHugh who staunchly denied that recovered memories could be valid and that dissociation was real. The climate among those of us at Sheppard Pratt was one of dedication to the cause and to believing people. When I was starting out, the challenges I faced were related to understanding that horrible things are done to people, but that doesn’t mean the world is horrible. Holding those truths together is an important part of the work for all of us. More challenges came later when I began to chafe against the medical model and hierarchy in the treatment arena, and especially the “once a patient always a patient” mentality.

 

・When did you decide you wanted to write a book? And not just an informational or educational book but specifically a workbook for survivors?

     For several years I ran a PTSD Symptom Management group at Sheppard Pratt. I used to create worksheets because there weren’t any around that met the needs of the clients and my needs as a helper. Over time, I had a rather large portfolio of these worksheets. My colleagues and the clients started telling me I should write a book. So I began.

 

・Were there any unique obstacles to getting it published? Did you ever have any reluctance or hesitation, particularly given the atmosphere back then?

     Getting the book published was an incredibly serendipitous series of events. I was meeting with Esther Giller, the President and CEO of Sidran Institute, a publication company specializing in traumatic stress education and advocacy. Let me see if I can remember it the right way. She was looking for someone to come on board as a trainer for a Federal Grant project she was involved in. At the same time, she was looking for someone to produce a self-help symptom management book for a project being underwritten by the States of Maine and New York who were embarking on a massive training effort in their public mental health systems. This is a long story, but a good one.
     Survivors in the State of Maine had sued the state saying not only was the mental health treatment they received not helpful, but worse, it was hurtful. So the State handed down a consent decree that all state mental health personnel be trained in what is now called Trauma-Informed Care. This was the beginning! Esther had located professionals to create the material for training personnel (the good folks at TSI CAAP – Karen Saakvitne, Laurie Ann Pearlman, Beth Tabor-Lev, and Sarah Gamble – who wrote the Risking Connection Curriculum), and they also wanted material for the clients. That’s where I came in. I left Sheppard Pratt to take the training job at Sidran, and Sidran published the book, which was then distributed to survivors in the Maine and New York public health systems for free. I’m really proud of that.

 

Your workbook, whether you know it or not, truly revolutionized trauma care on the patient level. Worksheets were printed out on trauma units, weekly inpatient groups were held to teach your skills, your techniques and scripts became the go-to standard for coping with specific symptoms, and survivors in countries across the globe use your tools by name (sometimes not even knowing where they came from or having read your book)!

・Did you ever anticipate that your work would have such a profound impact or global reach, let alone become the foundational launchpad for which survivors worldwide would begin their trauma healing? 

     I am humbled beyond words by what you’re saying. I can tell you when I did the second edition I felt really good that there was still an interest in the book and that it was still useful thirteen years after the original publication. It’s mind boggling to think it has the impact you describe. I guess I have to take your word for it! I really felt I had arrived on the day a friend told me her book had been stolen! I replaced it for her, but for someone to steal it… it must be valuable!

 

・What has it meant to you seeing your work, and not just your book but your advocacy and education in all forms, fill such a massive void in the trauma community?

How does it feel knowing most has stood the test of time?

     Like most people dedicated to this work, I feel good about being able to educate, support, help, advocate, and hopefully change for the better the process of healing for trauma survivors. I know that every professional I am able to help will spread that exponentially outward, and that’s why I do it. I think it has stood the test of time because the material I focus on is universal and not subject to treatment trends. I want to offer something that can help everyone every time.

 

・What would you say is the biggest change you’ve noticed in the field of trauma since beginning your studies (ex. education, the approach to care, general attitudes toward trauma/dissociative disorders, etc)?

     The biggest change I’ve seen is the mainstreaming of trauma-informed care. There used to be a handful of treatment centers providing good treatment, and now, thanks to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (A.C.E.) study, there’s a deeper understanding of trauma as a public health issue. Even Oprah has got on board recently! I’ll be working with the Oregon Commission for the Blind next month because they want to better serve traumatized persons in their vocational rehabilitation programs. That’s huge! If you Google “Trauma Certificate Programs” you can find them all over the country. That’s amazing!

 

・What areas do you feel still need significant improvement? Is there anything you feel is almost missing entirely? What changes would you like to see be made in those areas?

     We need to improve the awareness, understanding, and addressing of the intersections of trauma with addiction and the criminal justice system. These intersections are at the heart of recidivism in both arenas. We have to keep showing agencies and organizations what’s in it for them and how trauma-informed practice can support and enhance their existing work. Essentially, we have to sell it.

 

・Do you have any colleagues or mentors that you really look up to or admire?

     Oh gosh, too many to name. I can tell you one person who had tremendous influence on me professionally. Her name was Andrea Karfgin, and she was a psychologist. She died several years ago, but she lives on in me. She taught me how to think about this work, how to understand really important dynamics in the work, and she guided me through tough lessons as a professional. I hesitate to mention other names for fear I’d forget someone. I worked with a number of survivors who were brave and trusting enough to let me into their inner worlds and allow me to walk with them into the wider world with more confidence, faith in themselves, and stronger boundaries toward life beyond survival. I’ve had many colleagues who were instrumental in shaping my professional development. I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the most respected people in the field and to have worked with the amazingly skillful lesser-known warriors for survivors. What I love is that I keep meeting people in the field who continue to inspire me and who keep me on track. I am so grateful that I get to do this work.

 

・What keeps you going after sitting face-to-face with some of the darkest, heaviest tragedies this world has had to know? What keeps you focused, rejuvenated or inspired?

     In the beginning I wrote a lot of songs to process what I was seeing, feeling, and understanding. I would play music for the clients in the evenings, sometimes songs about them and their struggles and strengths. That helped a lot. I keep a guitar in my office in case any of my staff need to sing the blues. Laughter is important and has always been a way for me to rejuvenate. We have to be able to laugh in the midst of awareness of such pain. I’m fortunate that people put up with my goofy humor. What helps most though is that with every workshop I do, I encounter people who believe, who want to help, and who are eager to learn how to be more effective in the work. It gives me such hope!

 

・·Do you have any advice to new, or even veteran, clinicians who are seeking to work with trauma patients?

     Do your own work. Get a good clinical supervisor. Make friends with countertransference. It will help you through so many confusing moments, and being able to notice it, understand it and use it to strengthen the relationship will be helpful and a huge protection when facing ethical dilemmas. Cultivate a good support system. Pay attention to and address signs of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress. TAKE VACATIONS!

 

・What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from your patients, or other survivors, over the years? What have they taught you that books could not?

     I’ve learned that I can never give up on a person, never write them off, because people are more resilient that we imagine, and we never know when the moment of hope will come - the moment of immersive transformation that gives someone a reason and the will to continue. I’ve learned to trust people’s judgment about themselves. I’ve learned to be kinder. 

 

・If there was one thing you wish the world could understand about trauma survivors, or the clinicians that help them, what would it be?

   There is no “them.” There is only us.


 

❧     ❧     ❧

 

     Thank you, Elizabeth for your sincerity, your thoughtfulness, and your humble dedication to survivors everywhere.

    You can find more information about Elizabeth here on her website. You can also order the "Growing Beyond Survival" workbook here (or here). [Note: While the blue cover edition is still available on Amazon, the Second Edition (green cover) is the most up-to-date and has the most current perspective on trauma, so we of course recommend that one. The first is also no longer in print, but Amazon has held onto some copies.]  We cannot recommend this workbook highly enough. It has been the first recommendation on our Resource page, since the day it was made, for a reason!
 

 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

    Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
    Flashbacks 101: 4 Tools to Cope with Flashbacks
    Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
    Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light
    DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative Identity Disorder
    Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
    Trauma and Attachment: 3-Part Series on Attachment Theory with Jade Miller

 

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When #MeToo Hurts

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When #MeToo Helps.....then Hurts

    It was mid-October when the words “Me Too” took us all by storm and shook the ground; impassioned, strong voices broke through the earth to let their stories of sexual assault be heard and felt.  Survivors worldwide began disclosing their experiences, discussions about sexual assault began to spark, and together we all faced the brush fires stirring in our own communities. What started in Hollywood spread to our personal feeds and many were completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of loved ones who’d been affected by sexual misconduct in some way.  Brave, courageous stories were being told, honesty and openness were being more respected, and incredibly moving work was taking off at an unprecedented rate. While difficult, it offered the first glimmer of hope to all the survivors who’d been sitting in their silence since they were small children, ignored and mistreated for so long. This could be the turning page! “This could be the moment we’re seen. This could my chance to be believed! The battles I face every single day just to make it through could lift! …someone will finally understand us!”  Unfortunately, over time many started to see that the movement that held, and still holds, so much promise was letting them down and, at times, even actively causing them pain. Survivors who were most broken by sexual violence were being left out, others were being narrowly characterized as the problem, and then there were those being lifted into the spotlight with whom most couldn't identify. What aimed to amplify the voices of those hidden and silenced the harshest, instead began doing the silencing and hiding.

 

    It’s been three months. Three months since we’ve begun having daily, public conversations about sexual assault, consent, harassment, power dynamics, manipulation, silencing, fear, coercion, and so much more. These topics are fiercely important. Yet, somehow we’ve moved on to where the conversation delved into the smallest of details, to where we even openly analyze the very minutia of one person’s assault, but managed to jump right over entire groups of men, women and children who are most affected by sexual assault. They were left out of the broader conversation entirely. Men have been almost completely shut out. We even had two famous men come forward with their experiences, but as more came forward against Spacey, those men devolved into just part of a number count - not people with names and stories, like each individual woman against Weinstein was given. You also had to work exceptionally hard to find anything about them. On another plane, and it has already been well-observed but bears repeating, people of color have been largely overlooked in favor of powerful, white, attractive women. The most neglected, however, have been those abused as children and teens. So, if you are/were a little boy, or a child of color, forget it. Three months and no one with influence has taken the time to speak on your behalf or any of the populations most exposed to sexual/complex trauma.  Survivors themselves have been speaking, though. They’ve been sharing their stories, as well as their frustrations, their pain, their sense of invisibility, their disappointment, and their desire to just be seen and be given care. But, these strong souls are forced to talk mostly amongst themselves — with those who already get it. Any attempt at more public dialogue or even education has been so explicitly redirected or avoided. That's unacceptable.

 

    Several weeks into the movement, we saw branches like #ChurchToo take off. This brought with it renewed hope for many, particularly the groups feeling most ignored. It felt like there was still a chance we could get to them soon; just give it time, soon the spark will catch. But, then the compassion fatigue seemed to set in, sympathies were waning, and many had their embers snuffed out as they saw it barely trend, never given a hashtag icon, and articles about it remaining very few and far between (and, most were about churches defending themselves). Over time, it seemed concerns about the direction of MeToo - including its re-traumatizing and triggering effects - were either disregarded or met with hostility.  ..as if by expressing concern, one was arguing against its necessity or importance as a movement. Which, is typically untrue and worrying at best.

    In the last month, MeToo has been increasingly described as a women’s movement. “Thanks to #MeToo, it’s the year of the woman,”  “#MeToo gave a chance for women to tell their stories,” “Stars are dressing in black to support the women affected by sexual assault.”. To add insult to injury, men were universally being characterized as the perpetrators. They were emphatically told it’s their turn to LISTEN. They were told they aren’t to be doing any talking, just listening and taking notes on what they plan to do to help women. Male victims are an afterthought or a parenthetical to an article about women. They aren’t allowed to speak, just learn and don’t abuse. This is dangerous, toxic, and painful. It takes away their voices to come out as victims themselves, and re-impresses to ALL victims that, unless their abuse was at the hands of a male, they just shouldn’t come forward. Abuse perpetrated by women has been responded to in a wildly different way. Some have even said it’s “not the time for those stories because we’re trying to help women right now”. No. No, we aren’t. We’re trying to help victims of sexual assault. Humans. That includes men. That includes those who were hurt by women. It means little boys, teens, children and little girls. It means we fight for those hurt by family members, those with multiple perpetrators, whose abuse lasted for years, and those who’ve been trafficked, who are poor, who have nothing to their name, and those with no power elsewhere.

 

    THIS IS NOT A WOMEN’S MOVEMENT. IT’S NOT A POWERFUL-WOMEN EXCLUSIVE movement. IT IS NOT A MOVEMENT AGAINST MEN.

    This is a movement for survivors of sexual assault. And, to exclude any group is to abuse them again. To say their voices aren’t important, their stories insignificant, motives impure, or not as glamorous a story for a magazine cover, is inexcusable. Being selective with the voices we lift up, and when, says to everyone else, “You don’t fit our agenda, your story is too messy or hard to hear, you can wait your turn”. Only, their turn won’t ever come if no one takes a stand for them. They cannot just be expected to talk amongst themselves indefinitely and expect anything to change. They need the world to see them, understand them, to HELP them.

 

More Evidence of Inequity

    We currently have the largest criminal case of sex abuse against children, teens and adults that the U.S. has seen in decades. The number of girls who've survived the abuse of Larry Nassar - former team doctor within USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and club gym Twistars - surpasses the number of Sandusky, Weinstein and Bill Cosby victims combined. Yet, somehow, even in the era of #MeToo, it’s gotten a fraction of the coverage as each of those cases independently. Over one-hundred and forty girls [update: currently over 200 girls and the addition of a male as of January 23, 2018] and women were hurt by one man (as well as the organizations that employed him, and specific individuals who enabled his abuse), over the span of 3 decades, with many reports against him that went ignored or were hidden -- but somehow, the story and all of its lessons has struggled to have any lasting power in the media or public discourse. Is it because many were children and teens when they were hurt? Because it wasn’t sexual harassment, or abuse against independent women, and seen as off-topic? Was it just too difficult to hear? Too unbelievable? Was it because these precious survivors weren't wealthy, didn't have a current platform or large following, or were mostly just strangers from Michigan? In truth, it is because of all those reasons and more. Some of the more ludicrous-sounding posits even have evidence behind them. There only was a sudden uptake in interest, after an entire year of coverage and legal proceedings, once McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and, most recently, Jordyn Weiber, each stepped forward in the case against Larry.  Only then was attention given to this beyond the walls of the gymnastics community. You can even witness the trend yourself. The week Simone Biles came forward is when coverage took off, but then it took celebrities offering monetary support to McKayla Maroney; 156 of the 200+ victims sharing their impact statements in court, to Larry and anyone who would listen; and Aly Raisman's testimony and forceful words being specifically picked up and featured in the New York Times, just to keep it there. To further update: it actually took sassy, fiery, gif-worthy Judge Aquilina to thrust the story into the real spotlight -- I mean, look at those numbers since the case broke. Many deemed her their new hero, but it seems they forgot who the real heroes in this case are.

    This deeply disheartening trend in media coverage and public interest sent a very, very loud and clear message to the 135+ non-famous little girls, teens and women who originally csme forward in the last 2 years: that they alone weren't important enough for the public to care. Their abuse, suffering and stories of survival weren’t something people wanted to hear about or learn from unless they were already emotionally invested in them as a fan. Several of these remarkable girls were even vocal about how much that hurt. They weren't 'marketable' or click-worthy enough by their own accord -- not even in the era of #TimesUp, or as they fought back against the most heinous criminal, and the very powerful organizations, that created the worst case of institutional child endangerment that the U.S. has seen in decades. Once clout, power and celebrity were introduced, publications couldn't be written fast enough. These are the kinds of actions that hurt everyday survivors deeply, and everyday survivors are who this world is made up of. However, even once the brilliant voices of our Olympic gold medalists were added, breathing new life into its visibility, it was clear their fame and power were still inadequate to that of a Hollywood celebrity. They provided a bump in exposure, but only a bump.  They, too, were given the message that their fierce, powerful and also heartbreaking voices, after years and years of abuse, weren’t as meaningful as those retelling one night as a Hollywood elite. And, that not only stings and cuts deep to those experiencing the neglect, but to many witnessing it. Because, if that’s true for even them, it begs the question to survivors everywhere, sitting in their nondescript homes, with names no one knows, and traumas deemed “too bad”, “too gross” or “too complex”: “What chance do I have for anyone to care about me? Who will help me? Who will fight for me to make my life safer? Who helps make sure that what I'VE been through never happens to anyone else? Who will help me get the treatment I need to stay alive? When will anyone believe us? WHEN WILL ANYONE JUST HEAR US?!”

 

    If that isn't a repeat dynamic of the questions they asked themselves as children victimized in their own homes, schools, daycares, and sports teams, I’m not sure what it is.  #MeToo, #TimesUp, and those championing them the hardest promised to fight for those who couldn't fight for themselves. Who can’t come forward. Who are scared, unseen, and voiceless. But so far, we’ve only witnessed stories of abuse to children, teens and men being pushed out of the discussion in favor of celebrities and those who have power elsewhere in their lives. It hurts. This version of #MeToo hurts. And, I can promise you that was never part of Tarana Burke’s mission statement ten years ago.

 

 Looking Ahead

    One thing that we MUST also keep in mind as we continue to spotlight sexual assault and have extremely important conversations about the behavior of those who abuse — is how it invariably pushes those who are actively abusing individuals, especially children, further underground. …which typically involves worsened abuse. Fear of being caught leads to firmer punishments, deeper threats, drilling victims much harder about not telling anyone, convincing them no one will believe them, and instilling the fear of God (or death) into children who might think for even second of telling a loved one or teacher. Teens may be the most vulnerable because their abusers know they have access to the internet and may see these conversations about abuse in the media. They have a unique opportunity like never before to realize “them too” and want to seek help. Unfortunately, those who abuse only care about themselves and will not be scared into inaction; they will only abuse more violently and creatively to further insulate themselves. We need to remember that, while we cannot and should not be quieted just because these individuals exist, we need to do that much more for those presently trapped in abusive environments. If we’re going to have these global conversations — and we MUST — we must also take thoughtful, intentional care of those who are still under threat. Those who are being further endangered by our mission to deconstruct the institutions that make abuse so prevalent deserve better. And, despite beliefs to the contrary, there are absolutely things that we can do on this front. There are actions we can take. We just need to remember to explore them and that this is not just about us sharing our stories and letting people know it’s an issue, but going out of our way to protect others from future victimization as well as rescuing those still in its vice grip.

 

   Above all, we must remember the most vulnerable. A movement FOR the broken, should not leave anyone more broken. Children and most teens are the truly voiceless. They cannot say #MeToo. They cannot put a post on social media and be enveloped in support and care. They may not even know what’s happening to them is even wrong yet. They’re terrified and afraid, just as so many who are now adults but hurt as children remain.  Yet, they’re the ones left out of the global effort to create a better world for survivors right now. We must remember them always. And, we must remember men. The men who’ve been violated but still told to hush up and just listen. The men who were hurt as adults, as little boys, who were trafficked, and men who were hurt by women. We must think about anyone who’s EVER been hurt at the hands of a female — who is struggling with that independently, let alone in the public sphere. We must think of those who are not wealthy, who are disabled, who don’t have jobs, who cannot go to court, who are not safe, who cannot even share their story. We must keep in mind every survivor who is too scared to speak against someone more powerful than them because having their motives questioned, being told they’re lying for attention, or are only seeking justice because they want money/fame is too great an assault on their character and integrity to bear. They've been assaulted enough. They don't need one more against the core of who they are.  We must keep in mind every survivor whose trauma was severe, unpretty, chronic and whose abuse left them with severe mental health issues. They are not crazy, they are not weak, they are not ‘bad’ or ‘gross’, they are not lesser than. They are just as important as anyone else with a trauma history they never asked to own.

 

    We need to get up close and personal with the fact that #MeToo is meant for everyone. Sexual assault is a human issue. And, if your movement doesn’t include those who are affected by it most, then it’s causing more harm to those already hurting than good. But it does not have to remain that way.

 

Our Commitment

    We want to re-confirm our stance to fight for women, men, children and teens today until forever — regardless of race, income level, ability, mental illness or severity of one's story. We will never stop fighting for you or trying to create a better world for us all. That includes helping those already victimized to be seen as whole and complete individuals, and to get them the treatment and care they deserve. It also includes taking every step within our power to educate the public and clinicians on trauma, particularly complex trauma, and to prevent this from continuing. We have faith that this movement CAN shift in the right direction once more. These conversations are desperately important. They are invaluable, and the strength of each and every person who dared utter the words MeToo, as well as those who bear witness, can not be understated. But, we need to see this opportunity be extended to everyone. We believe that’s respectful, responsible and entirely realistic. We also believe the hope we were initially ignited with can be rekindled.

We are honored to be a part of this fight with you, and we will hold each and every hand - big and small - through the journey.


 

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MORE POSTS YOU MAY FIND HELPFUL:

  -  Did You Know?: 8 Things We Should All Know about C-PTSD and DID
  -  DID MythsDispelling Common Misconceptions about Dissociative identity Disorder
  -  Grounding 101: 101 Grounding Techniques
  -  Nighttime 101 and Nighttime 201Sleep Strategies for Complex PTSD
  -  Imagery 101Healing Pool and Healing Light

 

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