Trauma therapists see patients struggling with the aftermath of abuse, rape, neglect every day. I am honored to be among them. Honored by the trust that survivors show when they sit in the office and explore these dark places. Amazed at how like caterpillars they are. Trying to survive the chrysalis, waiting on their wings.
The trauma that many have faced is amazing, overwhelming, soul crushing. All they want to do at times is run from that vulnerable place. Run to the distraction of alcohol, drugs, sex…whatever. Getting survivors to accept that the way to real relationship, the way out of the suffering, is to be vulnerable in the world again is a delicate dance of advancement and withdrawal, trust and retreat. Winning over the caterpillar inside is not easy. He feels small and vulnerable to everything in his world. The courage they show just sitting there for an hour or two a week is amazing. It astounds me.
The effect of trauma on human beings, especially early abuse and trauma, is that it leaves individuals believing the lies they heard daily. That they deserved to be hit, that they have no value, that they are a burden, that this sickness and abuse is the only way someone can love them or see any value in them. Or that they deserved the assault because they were careless or ignorant or….or….or. None of it true. All of it an unending tape of assault running over and over in their heads. All of it tearing apart their souls, stripping them of their ability to see value.
They come like that into the office. Plop down on an overly soft and absorbing love seat and, ultimately, look for what is broken. All they see are the twisted behaviors that have been meant to keep the nightmares at bay. Broken tools for coping with the damage. The worm they have been told they are.
But I have been studying caterpillars for some time and I see what they can become if they choose to brave the chrysalis. I see the beauty already there. The seed that lies planted in them from the time they were born. It has been buried under abuse and trauma but has been waiting for its chance.
When a caterpillar crawls into the Chrysalis it actually liquefies. It dissolves into a goo stage contained by the outer shell. Survivors go through this. In the midst of dealing with what has happened. I warn them about the pain of this stage. Tell them it will feel like someone has stripped all of their skin off and left them raw in the world. Then all that is left is the goo held together by the thinnest of shells. But inside that goo is the seed. The seed of survival and the truth of who they are. Somehow they find the courage to allow it to germinate out of the goo, inside the chrysalis.
Helping them hold that space in the goo. Helping them survive the chrysalis is an honor. A gift of trust where we glimpse the butterfly they are becoming.
It takes amazing courage to make it through the chrysalis stage. It takes putting aside the anxiety and fear. “What if they were right?” “What if this is all I’m worth, all I’ll ever be?” “What if I’m not strong enough to do this”. Terrifying questions with uncertain answers.
Sometimes I wish I could show them what I see inside. The seed that waits. The butterfly to be. But that would rob them of the journey and I don’t see all of it. Only the parts I am allowed to see. Only the potentials.
It really is amazing to watch, as they emerge and go through the phase of letting the wings dry, testing them with a few timid battings and then they are off. In flight. Headed to who knows where. They are so beautiful!
I work with trauma survivors for a living. I produce a podcast devoted to teaching mindfulness to trauma survivors and addicts called Mindful Recovery. It is dedicated to assisting those recovering from trauma and addictions by providing psycho education and mindfulness training.
For the iTunes podcast and mindfulness exercise, “On Becoming: Journey Through the Chrysalis” go here.