So many of are plagued by painful past experiences. Regardless of what happened, we can find ourselves stuck in the past. This creates much sober suffering (a wonderful term coined by Fred Holmquist). We end up reacting the present though it were our past. When we are stuck in the past we can’t deal well with what is going on now. This is what creates our sober suffering.
It is easy to conclude that sober suffering means that something is wrong with our recovery. But this is a deadly mistake. What will determine if something is wrong with our recovery is how we respond to what is happening, how we respond to our problems. I’ve said this many times in my writings, “The problem is not the problem, the problem is how we cope with the problem.” Recovery doesn’t mean we we will be free of our problems, it means that we will discover new ways of dealing with them.
The good news is that regardless of what caused so much pain in our lives, whether it be a significant loss, physical or verbal abuse, neglect, over indulgence, abandonment, adult-child sexual molestation, rape, or some other unspeakable traumas, we can always grow from the experience.
But in order to grow from these experiences we need to learn how to claim our experience instead of letting our experience claim us. Thom Rutledge, a brilliant author and therapist, put it this way, “Learn from the past, and then get the hell out of there!”
If we are going to grow from a traumatic experience we need to learn how to digest the experience. Today there is much talk about a phenomenon that we have called “Post Traumatic Growth.” PTG is defined as the growth that can take place when we properly digest the traumatic experience. Let’s talk about what we need to do to properly digest a trauma or any other painful and disturbing experience.
The Psychological Imperative Mirrors the Biological Imperative
The biological imperative involves a process that operates outside of our awareness or unconsciously. It is governed by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is a division of the peripheral nervous system which influences the function of internal organs. The autonomic nervous system is a control system that regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, body temperature, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system moves us to satisfy a need or gratify a desire. It is mobilized by needs or desires.
For the purpose of this discussion I will focus on the digestive process. When we are hungry we make contact with our environment to satisfy this need. We ingest food to satisfy our hunger. What happens next is quite fascinating. Our body takes what was not us (food), and makes it us (this is called assimilation). It separates what is nurturing from what is not. It does this by breaking down the food so we can digest it.
The first thing that happens in the digestive process is biting and chewing. The better we chew up our food the more we aid the digestive process. After we chew up our food and swallow it, it moves into the digestive tract where it is further broken down for digestion. Our stomach releases certain acids and enzymes to begin the process of separating what our body needs from what it does not need. Once the food is precessed by our stomachs and broken down into smaller molecules it moves through the small and a large intestines where nutrients are absorbed into our bodies and where the waste, that which won’t become us, is moved through the intestines to our bladder or anus to be eliminated.
It seems strange to say this but we take what we need and discard the rest. When we absorb the nutrients from the food we eat it is no longer alien to us, it becomes us and we are indistinguishable from the nutrient that has become absorbed into our bodies. If we eat something that is toxic our bodies will forego the entire process and eject the toxins by inducing either vomiting or diarrhea or both.
This process operates automatically outside of our awareness. Psychological problems can interfere with the functioning of our autonomic nervous system and create what we call psychosomatic problems.
Our psychological imperative operates along the same parameters. If we digest our experiences, which means to be fully present to the experience we are having, we will do exactly the same thing. We will take what can grow us from the experience and eliminate the rest. But we will need to digest the experience, chew it up and break it down to separate what will nurture us from what needs to be eliminated.
In order to grow from a traumatic experience we need to go back and relive it but this time to say what we didn’t say, to stand for ourselves as we wished we could have, to shout, to scream, to cry, and to find the words that will best reflect what we needed to say but didn’t because we either didn’t dare or couldn’t because we were so terrified. When an experience is really toxic we may need to vomit up the toxins. This is all part of the digestion of a traumatic experience and will help us separate what will grow us from what won’t.
The bottom line is that we need to trust ourselves and get out of the way of our ability to heal and grow regardless of the situation or experience that we faced. Doing this alone is not recommended. We need a guide, a good therapist, who can help us process our experience.
Remember recovery is about the discovery of new possibilities.
Allen Berger, Ph.D.
Dr. Berger is a talented psychotherapist and popular recovery author who has written extensively about the experience of recovery, the important topic of emotional sobriety, integrating modern psychotherapy and the 12 Steps, and the psychological forces operating in the Twelve Steps. His most recent Hazelden book is a sequel to the popular 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery and is titled 12 More Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.
You can learn more about Dr. Berger and his work at www.abphd.com.