When we start to attempt to recover from trauma and PTSD we begin to unpack emotions. Thoughts and feelings arise that were too much to deal with at the moment.
Often we were too overwhelmed at the time, so, our in-built, knee-jerk safety responses kicked in. These responses most likely took us away to a distanced numb place in our heads. Coming safely out of that distant place is a bit like learning to swim.
Before I could swim properly, I remember being in a pool at a friend’s house with some older children who were all strong swimmers.
Desperate to join in
I couldn’t swim well at all, but I really wanted to join in with everyone else.
I could do a few strokes and float for a bit but was not remotely confident when I was out of my depth. If truth be told, I was frightened of water as I hadn’t had much exposure to swimming or had any regular lessons.
However, I really wanted to join in the fun. I wanted to appear strong and self-assured like them as they confidently jumped through the rubber rings and played with the other floating water toys.
As I clung to the side of the pool, I remember thinking that putting my body through the rubber ring would be great fun. I could probably do it. Then I could join in and be like them.
So, I grabbed the nearest ring and stuck my novice swimmer feet into the centre with the aim of pulling it up my legs and onto my waist while still under the water.
I had hugely miscalculated how that would work with this ‘legs in’ approach. Not used to water or flotation devices I didn’t realise what a dumb (and almost impossible) idea this was.
The next thing I know my feet are trapped in the ring and the heavy, non-swimming, non-floating parts of me are forced under water as my feet flip up.
I was immediately plunged into, out of control, terrifying underwater panic. My feet were caught, I could see them above me and I couldn’t rescue myself and pull my heavy upper body up out of the water.
Eventually, I managed through extreme kicking and clawing up the side of the pool to release my feet and get my head above water again. In reality, the whole experience took a matter of seconds, but the resonance of that terror lasted for years. It meant I was quietly (and embarrassingly) frightened of water and swimming pools for most of my childhood.
I can now swim and I have a healthy respect for water, but, while holding the fear of that experience inside me (like with OTSD sufferers), it took years of slow, tentative practice in safe spaces to finally become a swimmer. I’ll never be a world champion, but I can really enjoy a swim, and that’s fine.
Healing from Trauma and PTSD
Healing from traumatic events is like learning to swim. It can be dangerous and foolish to dive off the deep end. This is why we take things slowly so that the client stays in control of the process while being supported by an experienced ‘life guard’.
Perhaps we go an extra metre each time, or just tread water and watch the others for a bit. That is okay too. We can learn, solidly recover while watching others, taking our time, and going at a measured pace. The next time we ‘get in the pool’ we can try to swim a bit further. Until one-day diving in is the easiest thing and life feels manageable again.