Monday, July 3, 2017
I purposely have left Mark's addiction unnamed. For one, I think keeping it neutral makes it easier to apply to your own situation. Second, I have wanted to give him privacy. Recently there was an article I came across on Facebook that I wanted to share, but it would make it obvious what Mark's addiction has been. I was completely surprised by his encouragement to share it and that he doesn't care if people know or guess. With his willingness but me still dragging my feet, I realized there was also a third reason. It was still too hard for me to talk about. Mark's choices created and brought up insecurities and lies about myself that cut deep. If I told you what his addiction was then maybe you will "see what I am and all the reasons he did what he did." I NOW know that is a lie, but it is still extremely vulnerable for me to share. I recognize the biggest downside to me not sharing more details is that I couldn't write what I am about to write this morning.
I wasn't planning to spend my time like this right now. Although I have know this post was coming soon, I wasn't expecting it yet. Right before my alarm went off I had a dream. The details of it elude me now, but the message was clear. I was in a small group and I had a trauma response...and nobody cared. I was completely sobbing and covered my face in my lap. Those around me either froze in shock or fear or smugly fanned the trigger: it was all my fault...that I wasn't enough.
As the alarm went off and that dream faded, I became aware of my body and surroundings. "It was only a dream," I reminded myself. In real life, I rolled over to be in my husband's arms. Instantly, his strong arms helped to calm my shaking. As I shared the shreds of what was left of the dream as it evaporated from my mind, there was nothing but love and validation.
But I realize not everybody has that. I realize that my dream is the reality for many. My heart aches for those who are either trying to still make sense of themselves as the spouse of a loved one struggling with sex addiction or pornography or those who still don't have a safe place to turn to. So this morning, this is for you...whoever you are. Today is the day I need to be more brave for you than I ever had been before.
Although I have written about triggers and trauma before, this type of trauma, betrayal trauma, can be even more entangling. It is a relatively recent discovery in the psychology world. Individuals used to be treated under a co-dependent model rather than a trauma model. Professionals who have worked with spouses like me have discovered that for many, it can be equivalent to working with a client with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Regardless of whether a couple stays married or not after betrayal, betrayal trauma must be addressed or it can continue to be transferred to other relationships or situations. The good news is that it can be worked through! Rather than being a victim to it, it has been so empowering to understand what it is, why it is happening, and what to do about it!
What is betrayal trauma?
My counselor began using the words "trauma" and "traumatized" right from the start of our group counseling program. I hated it at first. I felt like it was dramatic. She would say, "You ladies have been traumatized." It sounded so victim-y to me. But the farther I got in working my recovery, the more convinced I am that "trauma" is the perfect word to describe what has happened.
When I hear the word trauma, the nurse in me still jumps up, ready to spring into action. Thinking about the kind of trauma I learned about in nursing school: it's a wound caused by a significant blow. I think this gives a pretty accurate definition to emotional trauma as well. It is ANYTHING that causes a deep hurt. The interesting thing is that what is considered trauma for one may not be for another. Two people could go through similar experiences and have completely different reactions to it. Whether it is received as trauma is going to be different for each of us. For example, as parents we can sometimes catch ourselves saying something like, "It's not a big deal" to our child. It may not be a big deal to us, but to THAT CHILD, it is. That type of a response can completely shut down sharing. We aren't a safe place for the other person when we are unwilling to let them express how they feel.
Although any form of trauma can be debilitating (and I don't want to in any way down-play that), betrayal trauma, or the kind of trauma that results from betrayals in what should be a safe, primary relationship, can be devastating. It can happen with a spouse's infidelity whether that infidelity is in person, with online relationships, or the viewing of pornography. This is my personal feelings, but I think it can add an additional depth of trauma when it happens in what was intended to be an eternal marriage...the expectation of complete eternal fidelity is broken. Betrayal trauma can also result from significant events from the parent-child relationship such as abuse or neglect. Since I don't have personal experience with parent-child, spousal betrayal trauma is my focus. I would guess that any betrayal trauma work would be similar. When in doubt, seek out good professional help and support!
Why is this happening?
However a spouse discovers the infidelity, it can be normal to feel betrayed...to feel hurt...to feel angry. For me, my first response when I found out what was happening was actually relief...Relief that I wasn't crazy like I thought I must be all the months trying to piece together what was happening and why I was feeling like something was really off. When there is such a deep blow, there can be such a deep wound. In order to "move on" in life, that wound must properly heal. I cannot expect a wound to heal when it is infected. I cannot expect it to heal when there is still debris in it. I cannot expect it to heal when it is continually re-injured. It must be handled gently by the individual and those who care for her/him. I must take proper steps to clean the wound and give it plenty of time and the proper care if I expect it to heal. More about that in a moment.
The reason a person has a trauma response is that he/she encounters a trigger. A trauma response can unfold from a seemingly simple trigger in a split second and without conscious knowledge of it. That seemingly harmless little trigger can cut deep as it not only reminds of a spouse's betrayal, but also seems to point to the "obvious." Why did he/she choose the form of infidelity? It must be me, right? It harps on faulty beliefs (AKA Satan's lies). In this example of spousal betrayal trauma, it can often center around "not being enough." The situation can be further compounded when a spouse realizes what he/she is being compared against...the photoshopped images or other forms of media put out by the porn industry, strip clubs, another real human, fantasies, or even someone of the opposite gender for those whose spouse's infidelity includes same-sex or gender identity struggles. "I can't compete with that!" We agonize. For me it was especially difficult knowing I had willingly given my body to the bearing and rearing of children. I had stretch marks now and things are saggy. I didn't have what my husband was looking for! This insecurity can leak into all aspects of my life. "If I'm not good enough for my own husband then I must be ___." Can you see in an instant how a trigger can completely unravel us if left unacknowledged and unaddressed?
I would encourage you to make a list of your triggers. Some you may already know. Others you may be surprised to discover. I was surprised to discover pages and pages of triggers. Triggers can take any form. Our counselor had us consider subcategories like sounds, sights, smells, holidays or certain times of the year, people, situations. ANYTHING can be a trigger. Just like with trauma, what may be triggering for one person may not necessarily be triggering for another. Even if we can't yet detect or explain it, it can be a trigger.
Triggers are things that remind us of the blow, in this case it would be our spouse's infidelity. They throw us back to actually reliving the trauma (hence the PTSD element). It is so bizarre to try to explain. In the moment I can be perfectly safe. In the moment my husband can be nothing but faithful, but as I hit a trigger, the past is suddenly the present as if it is my reality. It is complete panic. It is complete fear. All logical thinking goes out the window and it is simply survival mode. The really bizarre part to try to explain is that this heavy trauma work didn't being for me until about 3 years out from Mark's last major relapse. I understand why it happened that way, but on the outside it may not seem to make sense. I had been "holding everyone together." I had been the stable one for Mark and the kids. With significant effort and attention, three years out Mark was stable and had consistently demonstrated enough safety that subconsciously I knew I could finally completely fall apart.
Until I knew what was happening when I would hit a trigger or have a trigger go into full blown trauma response, I felt crazy! I would be going along just fine, then suddenly angry, crying, etc. At first it was every few hours or more frequently. Fortunately I have never had a full-blown panic attack and I don't struggle with anxiety, but I know people who have had this difficult mix. They have literally opened their eyes to find themselves on the floor in a public place. I hope my speaking so openly can be empowering to you! It helped me to know what it was and why it was happening. It was such a relief that my counselor, the others in my group counseling program, and other recovery friends I made along the way all spoke of this as normal for the trauma I had been through. And by the way, trauma responses can happen even before a person has discovered a spouse's addiction. Sometimes there are flags a spouse picks up about the infidelity and "knows" before she/he knows.
What can I do about it?
I would say first and foremost, seek out good help. Just because a person is a counselor or psychologist, doesn't automatically mean they will understand how best to support betrayal trauma (or even be a good fit with personalities or support your religious beliefs). It's okay to "shop around" until you find the best fit and it's worth the effort! Although most bishops cannot offer support from a professional or psychological way, they can offer a balm that only the Judge in Israel can offer. He stand in place of your Savior and can offer spiritual help, healing, and suggestions, tailored to you and your situation. Find a 12-step group for those who are dealing with betrayal trauma. There are even groups where you can call in to participate.
We just went through the first step a moment ago: do your best to generate a list of known triggers. Although you can't avoid them, (but maybe some big ones you may consciously choose to decrease your exposure until you feel stronger) if you can name them---that right there in and of itself that can be empowering. If you know that X triggers you, when you come across it and find yourself suddenly having a strong emotional (or sometimes physical) reaction, you can more easily and quickly connect the dots. You can walk it back and ask yourself, "Why do I feel so angry about that?" "What am I really thinking about?" (What is the faulty belief about yourself AKA Satan's lie?) Oh! It's a trigger. If you can learn to walk it backward when you notice you aren't feeling good emotionally, than you can usually spot the trigger on your own. Can you see how this would be possible even with an unknown trigger? It may be more challenging to catch it quickly or quickly enough to keep a trauma response at bay. Just identifying a trigger and knowing that is what it is can sometimes hold off or soften a trauma response. We don't go into a trauma response, because it's happening at a conscious or more conscious level. (Maybe I will write more another day here, but there are two types of memory. Implicit and explicit. One happens without our awareness that a memory is even being recalled. It is simply a knee-jerk, auto-pilot reaction to the present.)
A counselor, a trusted friend, a spouse who is safe, a family member, a mentor...somebody who is safe and worthy of your confidence can be helpful in times like this. I was blessed to build myself an entire network of safe people. When I would have triggers threatening to "go off" because I couldn't detect the details or after a trauma response and my thinking was still clouded, I would send out a text to these safe people, "Can you talk RIGHT now?" I had prearranged with these safe people day or night to be able to reach out like this. I had a big enough network that I never sent out such a text without at least one person immediately being available. I know not everyone has this luxury, but I hope you would do all in your power to create this for yourself! It meant I had to go where I expected to be able to find other people in this situation: recovery meetings. It took me being proactive and brave on my end. It took me asking and reaching. I had to swallow my pride and catch them after meetings or ask group members if they were willing to do this for me and actually exchange phone numbers. It felt a little juvenile at first to ask, but at hard moments, I was grateful to have them in my back pocket. You can do that part! Create the opportunity and watch for others farther along in their own recovery and who can become a safe contact for you. If you are proactive and pray, I am confident God will help you cross paths with safe people who can do this for you.
I was also blessed to not only have safe people to reach to, but REALLY GOOD safe people. A typical call would go something like this.
Me: "Hey! I am having a trigger/or just had a trauma response and I can't put my finger on it."
Friend: "What happened?"
Then listens as I explain what was happening right before and the details of the trigger/trauma response.
A really good safe person knows that your situation isn't their own situation and allows it to be different than theirs. A really good safe person will do his/her best to listen, to validate your experience, to help you see WHY you had the experience you did and that it is okay and normal. A good safe person will do their best to "get out of the way" and let you make your own discoveries rather than tell you. A really good safe person will help you discover what you need moving forward.
Sometimes all I needed in reaching was to be validated---to feel heard that what I went through in the past and the recent reminder of that hurts deeply...that it wasn't okay that my husband did what he did...that I am separate from his choice and I didn't somehow make him turn to addiction. Sometimes reaching out was simply to be the opposite of my dream this morning...that others around me really do care and that it is normal and safe to feel hurt.
As part of our check-in's we included set-aside and safe time for me to share my trauma responses from the day. Early on I had to learn to be a safe place for Mark to share. As part of our check-in's Mark reported sobriety. He had 24 hours to disclose when there was a slip. We were taught a script to use when a spouse disclosed slips. It went something like this, "Thank you for telling me. I really appreciate knowing. Right now I feel X (hurt, angry, confused...whatever). Can we talk about this tomorrow?" Then leave it at that. Although it was hard for me to not say more, it wasn't safe for Mark to disclose when I would freak out. He didn't feel like he could share (or wanted to share) when he anticipated I would be angry or he would see my knee-jerk reaction of full blown hurt. (Regardless of my reaction though, I acknowledge, it was his responsibility to always share. What I am saying is that my creating safety made it easier on us both). It was important that he knew that his slip did effect me, but to keep myself in check in order to keep safety for him. Then I had 24 hours to do whatever I needed to process through what he disclosed. Usually that meant extra self-care. For some of my friends it meant they got a hotel for the night. Whatever you need to process through and feel what you need to feel. Then I could come back in 24 hours ready to talk about it because the emotion wasn't as fresh and raw. We could usually take care of it then, but if 24 hours still felt too hard, we could push it out another 24, but always came back to address the situation. It was my job to tell him how I felt. I am not saying that I couldn't"react" to what he shared. He needed to know how I felt, but by taking time to blow off some of the steam it created safety for him. It kept things open enough for him, so he would continue to share in the future. With trauma, it was similar.
Mark had to learn to curb his initial reaction when I shared too. He temptation was defensiveness. It was difficult for him to hear the triggers and trauma responses from the day and to not take it personally. He had a difficult time, especially at first, understanding that although what I was feeling was because of him, it wasn't about him. My bringing trauma to him was about me. It was about what I was feeling and what I needed. I needed him to be safe and present for me rather than turning inward at that moment that I disclosed what had happened. Some day I just need Mark to write or record a movie clip.:) He received some awesome training in our group counseling program on how to do this for me. We also both had additional training on shame (a Berne Brown course). His job at this tender moment is to see what I am holding up to be examined. It's his job to acknowledge what he did in the past...to acknowledge the original trauma. It's his job to pull me out of the past by validating why I had a trauma response or why that would be triggering. I need to know that he sees this. It is his job to bring me back to the present and reassure me for the future and create safety for the future. Sometimes a trauma response has alerted us that I need a boundary or I need extra special reassurance with an event coming up. Sometimes I need him to SHOW me safety by taking action. Just by itself, his willingness to do WHATEVER I needed has created safety and helped rebuild trust little by little. The opposite is true as well. When he is defensive or unwilling, in an instant the fragile trust can be completely shattered. Sometimes he was able to do that without shutting down. That was difficult for him, especially at first. Again, his innate response was to get defensive. In those times, it's similar to me needing another 24 hours. Some of my triggers we had to push out for a week+ because he just knew up front he was going to need some extra time before he could handle himself like he needed to in order for me to have what I needed. But the important thing is that it is always addressed. We always come back to it. I needed him to be tender and to "sit in it" with me. Now after almost 3 years of practice, he can do it genuinely, and usually without the concentrated effort like before, and most of the time in the original conversation.
Once I have put my finger on what is the trigger and what was triggered (the faulty belief or lie), once I have felt validated by a safe person (ideally this be or additionally be a spouse, but that isn't always possible because of safety), and create a plan for what I need for the future is that it? From a professional standpoint that was all I learned. But that isn't all we can do.
There is more
Just a few weeks ago I was able to articulate a deeply rooted betrayal trauma trigger. It was a sneaky bugger, because unlike many of the other triggers I have already blasted out of my mind that hit on lies ("you aren't beautiful enough, you aren't exciting enough, you aren't good enough"...) this one was technically true. That is why I think it had eluded my grasp up until now. It was, "He didn't choose you." I went through all of the above with my husband as my safe person. He did great and I felt validated. It happened right before bed, so I prayed and went to sleep. I have a really cool promise in my patriarchal blessing I just shared in the last post. I assumed it would be one of those going to sleep upset and waking up happy times. The moment the alarm went off in the morning, I could still feel it hanging over me. I got up anyway and went about my routine. I wrote it out as I took my journal time. I prayed. I told Heavenly Father I needed help because I couldn't quite see through this one yet. I opened my scriptures and as I read, I was lead to a footnote verse:
D&C 121: 34 "Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?"
In that instant all of the confusion melted away. It couldn't change what had happened---my spouse really hadn't chosen me in the past. It didn't change that no spouse should ever have to go through that. No spouse should ever have to worry about whether or not his/her spouse will be faithful. No spouse should ever have to worry about whether "he/she will choose me." Marriage rightfully holds the expectation of complete fidelity. It didn't change any of that nor could it. But what that moment did for me was to remind me that God is aware. He heard my prayers. He has been there every moment along the way. It helped me center on Truth---absolute and eternal Truth. Although it is ideal and rightfully be expected that my spouse choose me, I can be okay even if he doesn't. That is what God wanted to remind me. Rather than relying on my husband and his choices for my happiness, peace, security, being loved or lovable, or feelings of adequacy, God reminded me of what I know. There is a better way. I can anchor myself in my God. In Him I can find peace, security, love, and adequacy that is sure and reliable. In that moment with Him, it was as if He was gently shaking my shoulders. In that moment that was all I needed to remember and to be released from the confusing fog. As I have consistently turned to Him through this process of working through the roots of betrayal trauma, He has always given me what I need, whether I have recognized it in the moment or not. This is just as sure of a pattern as going through the trigger and trauma examination process. We can turn to God EVERY. TIME.
And it gets even better than that! God not only loves me, knows me by name and the very details of my heart and life, and is standing open-armed to give me what I need each time, but He made a plan. This perfect plan is to help me through betrayal trauma or any other difficulty I will face as I am here on the earth. Although it has brought comfort to surround myself with people who understand betrayal trauma pretty closely, nobody knows exactly how I feel or exactly what I have squared up my shoulders to bear. But Jesus Christ does! He knows first-hand what it feels like to be betrayed. He was betrayed by one of his apostles. He was betrayed by someone who should have protected him, loved him, and stood by his side. I know it had to happen that way, but it brings comfort to know that Jesus Christ is coming from personal experience. He knows what it feels like to be betrayed. That isn't the extent of what He offers, though, or He would only be just as good as my wonderful safe friends. Although I don't completely understand it, I know that the Atonement covers betrayal trauma. I know that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus Christ suffered not only for my sins, but these moments of intense pain and hurt and confusion. He did that so in my moments He could be right there, ready to succor me, strengthen me, and give me the peace that can only come from Him and Him alone. I don't know how it is done, but I know it is done. I am literally a living witness that it is possible. I recently came across this verse "For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20, emphasis added). That is exactly how I feel! I will continue to praise again, and again, a million times over, in a million different ways, but always of Jesus Christ!
I know this is a lot to take in. At the same time for someone battling betrayal trauma, it may not be enough. Although there is much shared here, it is general and may require paying attention and practice for it to "click" in your own situation. I love when I get to pay it forward! I have made plenty of my own desperate phone calls in the middle of the night. I leave my phone on the night stand now like wonderful friends have done for me. It's there just in case somebody needs a lifeline and sometimes they do. If you don't have a safe person yet and feel comfortable, I would love to be that for you, whether I know you personally or not. That dream this morning was so haunting! I am grateful that when I have a trauma response I am able to surround myself with those who know what to do and who care. I want that for you too and I'm here to help in any way I can. NEVER forget you are not alone in this. God is always there, and because of His Son, you can have what you need to face this moment...then the next...then the next.