Retraumatization and Renegotiation

Part of what makes it hard to write these days is I usually like to let the dust settle a bit, but so much is still in the air in my mind. There are many themes and issues I want to write about, but another challenge is deciding the right amount to share. I need to decipher whether an issue is really affecting me, to what extent, and how to share that online without seeming like a crazy person. Usually there’s one good topic that surfaces, but right now, there are about six things floating in my mind. There isn’t much method to the madness of this blog right now.

In trauma, there is a disruption of in the fight-or-flight cycle. The traumatized person is stuck in the energized state and is unable to disperse the energy, instead opting for a third response of playing dead; sometimes animals defecate here. 

Part of what keeps a person stuck in this vicious cycle is a key image. It contains what they felt, how the situation looked, and the critical definition inscribed into their identity (amongst other things). Retraumatization occurs when a trauma victim replays the critical scene(s) of abuse in their minds. This technique is even encouraged and recommended, to revisit the painful memory so that it’ll go away. This happens in healthy people as well, but the traumatized person is unable to bounce back. If someone has been physically challenged, they could fight back or run away. If they manage to pick a response, they will live to fight another day. Perhaps they’d even go to the gym to level up their strength. If they cannot muster a response, the person’s mind and body disagree on what to do, and they play dead. The body likely knows how it wants to respond, but the prefrontal cortex is able to overpower the body’s instinct. That’s what makes us human. What makes us traumatized is when the mind and body disagree, it freezes, and plays dead. Think of it like a manual transmission vehicle stalling its engine.

The situation that overwhelmed the person is then imprinted into their minds. Feeling flustered, appearing powerless, the traumatized person binge watches this scene on an endless loop. For me, my mind dissociated from my body, and I witnessed myself being abused from outside of my body. (Dissociation is a normal mechanism that protects us from experiencing immense pain. Another topic for another day.) I replayed this scene endlessly over the years. It never really haunted me for long periods of time, but whenever I did think of it, that’s the scene I relived. My identity was fused with this experience: I was powerless to stop someone from making a sexual advance on me (more broadly, from someone violating my boundaries), being defenseless, unable to raise my arms to fight someone bigger than I was. As a result, the person I became was unable to speak up against situations where I was short-changed. I let people walk over me. I was a weakling that let abuse happen even though I knew better. Identity precedes behaviour, so having my identity affixed to weakness, I acted as was appropriate for my identity.

In my activated state, I looked for danger where there was none. The obvious danger was my attacker, but since I couldn't discharge that energy, my body just kept searching for it. I couldn't leave doors unlocked, I heard criticism that no one was voicing, and I suspected friends of having it in for me. I'm still a bit generally paranoid, and it's hard to catch it as it happens. 

It’s not all hopeless though. I was able to win battles in life, but they were more hard fought than if I were not abused as a child. If the image of my abuse retraumatized me over the years, replacing that image with a more positive one would help me to escape the vicious cycle. This is the concept of renegotiation. It sounds simple, but it’s not an easy swap. It’s probably one of the more awkward parts of the healing process. Waking the Tiger calls it Psychosomatic Experiencing. I place myself into the abusive situation, and then I handle it differently than I actually did. I could be shouting “Stop,” punching back in the air, kicking, running away, anything that would release the energy stuck in my mind and body. It obviously helps to do this when I’m not around others, even my wife. Fortunately, I was able to fight back against my abuser when I was a kid, which made him stop, but I’m still trying to replace the retraumatizing image with one where I punch him instead.

 Renegotiation isn't a simple swap Renegotiation isn’t a simple swap

I see renegotiation a lot, even in my funny shows. In 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy’s feelings about his father leaving his family resurface when his mother starts dating someone else. Later in the episode, he unloads a big speech to his mom’s boyfriend, even though it’s meant for his absentee father. In the Key & Peele sketch Flicker, Key visits his opponent’s grave in order to finally get the upper hand in their game. Why is renegotiation such an important theme? It relates to justice. We have to balance the imbalance of power. Even though the balance has tilted to one side, what’s more important is the emotional impact it leaves on us. Even though a baseball team loses a game, all the players handle the loss differently, as do their fans. We all renegotiate situations in our minds, and sometimes it helps to pretend like we really did handle it better than we did in reality, especially when it's too late to rise to the occasion.

I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders, where my traumatic freezing energy resides from my abuse, but it can be partly released with massages. When you get a massage therapist to work out a knot in your back, it’s a painful and lengthy process. You feel better at the end though.

We all have regrets with images and emotions attached. However, evil has not won. Good has overcome. People with trauma can find healing, and there is hope for those who hurt.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le