Experiential Exploration of Trauma via Timeline

75b44b0e9c2e5d305fa323c6c51d3476_XLAt the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, trauma is described as anything less than nurturing. This definition allows for all traumas, big or small, to be acknowledged and honored. In doing so, the client’s protective defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization or minimization are explored and challenged so that healing can finally take place.

Types of trauma can include chronic illness, death of a loved one, physical abuse, sexual abuse, unbearable ridicule by a caregiver during childhood, or verbal and psychological abuse experienced within an intimate relationship. Trauma can also be the loss of a job promotion, a lost friendship, witnessing harm to a loved one, or unescapable harassment at school or work.

In recognizing the potential lasting effects of these traumas, at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center each young adult completes a trauma timeline which allows them the opportunity to explore how trauma has affected them in the past and how it may still be impacting their present-day life. A trauma timeline begins as a pen and paper assignment of constructing a detailed history of one’s painful life experiences that left them feeling abandoned, unsafe, confused, fearful, sad, angry, shameful, guilt-ridden or stuck. Then they identify the distorted self-beliefs that are connected to the events and assess their methods for adapting, surviving, and avoiding the pain that accompanied the trauma.

All of this is revealed within a small group composed of supportive peers under the careful facilitation of a skilled therapist. The sharing of these vulnerable experiences allows peers to make connections with each other resulting in shame reduction, self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness. While recognizing that he or she is not alone, each young adult finds the courage to face these wounds, let go of beliefs about self that are no longer serving them, and discover new empowering truths about self.

The gift the trauma timeline process provides can be seen through Jessica’s experience. At the age of 20, Jessica had several previous treatment experiences and felt very defeated believing that the Claudia Black Young Adult Center would have nothing to offer her.

Jessica endured a very difficult upbringing. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, which fueled great instability during Jessica’s childhood. Home was not a safe place. She found herself in the middle of her parents’ chronic battles, each vying for her undivided love and trust. Each parent pitting Jessica against the other. This only pushed her further away from both of them, and as the pain became too unbearable, Jessica coped by developing impenetrable walls, which locked in the trauma and prevented true intimacy. Her experiences of chronic instability led to an overcompensating desire for safety, which she learned early on could only come from self. This would have unintended consequences for Jessica; such as, a deep mistrust of others, unhealthy relationship patterns and the silencing of her own inner pain. Jessica made it abundantly clear that her walls were up, and she was always ready for danger.

Each trauma timeline is unique; there is something very special about witnessing a client courageously taking the risk to share their pain with the group. The timeline itself is a deeply explorative and powerful exercise. However, I felt Jessica could further benefit from bringing an aspect of her timeline to life through a holistic and adaptable experiential process to provide her with more clarity and instill some hope. The beauty of experiential-based therapy is that nothing is scripted, and everything is used to foster an organic moment of truth with new insights and hope not just for the client but for each member in the group. Jessica’s work speaks to just how powerfully trusting the process can truly be.

At the beginning of her timeline presentation, Jessica shared that her only goal was to learn more about her struggle to connect with others. After offering support for her willingness to share her story, and giving the group instructions around safety, confidentiality, and a general sense of what the process could look like, I asked Jessica to describe her family of origin. She described her dad as “strong, hardworking, diligent, lectures a lot” and described mom briefly as “super-psycho.” I wrote her words on the white board. Jessica shared that around age five, she learned that her own crying would “shut mom down and give mom crazy eyes.” She shared how she was told by her mom, “I never wanted you and I wish you’d never been born.” Jessica’s voice began to shake as she started to get in touch with painful emotions but quickly resorted to intellectualizing her story to avoid the pain. I invited her to slow down her words and brought her attention to the feelings she struggled to experience. For Jessica, this was the beginning of a turning point in her work.

As the process transitioned toward an experiential approach, I invited Jessica to “set up” this memory so that she could visually show what her pain at age 10 looked and felt like. I covered the floor with pieces of paper with different identified feelings (e.g., pain, fear, joy, passion) and asked her at times to pick up the feelings listed to help her connect with walled-off emotions she struggled to allow herself to feel. As Jessica recalled her mom’s words of, “I wish you were never born” the group held the space for her to feel the reverberation of that pain. From the floor Jessica picked up the emotions of sadness, anger, and fear while sharing. I asked, “What do you remember feeling the most around this time in your life?” She replied, “I felt like such a burden” and quickly added, “I want to leave this room.” As she looked at the nearest door, I gave her permission to do so. Jessica froze and didn’t leave. It was clear that in that moment, she had to confront her desire to run away to avoid pain.

I asked, “What do you need right now?” She tearfully said, “Love.” The feelings sign for love was still on the floor. I asked her to pick someone in the room to role-play ‘love’ and place them anywhere in the room to show how connected or disconnected to ‘love’ she currently felt. She chose a peer, and placed the peer holding the sign for ‘love’ in the corner, not facing her. Her hands tightened around the emotions she was currently holding which were sadness, anger, and fear. She then added shame, guilt, and pain. I asked, “What would ‘love’ say if it could talk to you?” She responded, “I love you, you are lovable.” I directed ‘love’ to repeat the lines, and as she did, Jessica suddenly began to honor her tears and pain. The trauma that had been frozen inside was beginning to thaw as she allowed herself to cry. Her stored up pain and anguish that existed in silent suffering was given a moment to experience the healing power of love and she knew exactly what she needed!

Jessica concluded her work by dropping her carried sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt, and pain and embraced ‘love’ with a long overdue hug. She then invited the group to share their feedback and there was a moment where she expressed gratitude to the room for all of the support during her work.

After her trauma timeline, I asked Jessica to keep the piece of paper with the emotion ‘love’ as a token of her work for that day. Facing one’s pain is the start of something amazing and I hope it will encourage her to trust her needs, while acting as a reminder that she has the ability to love herself, which is an incredible source of empowerment and hope.

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