How can you tell if returning to your place of trauma will be beneficial? I discuss my own experiences with returning to my place, and share a list of actions you can take to make your return a healing and helpful one.
Tw/Cw: Mention of sexual assault, abusive relationships, trauma, PTSD, dissociation, and panic attacks.
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Chances are, when you return you’re probably going to experience a place steeped in past trauma, pain, emotional turmoil, and chaos, and it’s probably going to be very ordinary.
0:14 *Intro music by Ramshackle Glory*
Hi there, thank you for joining me. I’m Hecate and this is Finding OK, a healing podcast for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. In today’s episode I’ll be talking about returning to your place of trauma. I’ll be sharing my own experiences with doing this, walking you through some ways to tell if you’re ready to return, and some ways to support yourself if you decide it’s time to return. And now it’s time for…
0:56 *sound of a tambura playing*
Trigger and Content warnings for this episode include the following: mention of sexual assault, abusive relationships, trauma, PTSD, dissociation, and panic attacks. Please check in with yourself and make sure you’re all right to continue.
So first I’d like to say that there’s no real consensus within the psychological community on whether or not returning to your place of trauma is healing, and the reason for that is simply because it depends so much on the person and where they are in their own individual healing timeline. There’s no real way to measure this effectively or consistently in studies. If you go back when you’re not ready, it can be retraumatizing or just triggering rather than cathartic or healing. This begs the question, how do I know if I’m ready?
The first answer I’ll give you may seem very obvious but it’s worth giving. A sign you’re ready to return is that you want to return. If you feel drawn to this place there’s probably a reason for that. This was my personal experience. I felt very drawn to one of my places and I even became slightly obsessed with it. It was a janitor’s closet at an events venue and I started drawing the door almost obsessively once I recovered the real unedited memory. If you find yourself focusing on the place strongly, not just the trauma events, but the place where it occurred, returning may be helpful to you. The advice I would give is to discuss it with your therapist and see what they think. Your therapist can have this conversation with you and help you decide if this is something that would be beneficial or not.
Some people might think they should force themselves to return because they actively don’t want to and because they actively fear the idea or fear the place or the charge it might hold for them. I would be very careful if this is the reasoning behind your decision. Pushing yourself to do something that makes you psychologically, emotionally, mentally, and possibly physically uncomfortable is in itself a possible trigger – to have that be at the core of what takes you back to a place where your trauma occurred might increase the likelihood that it will be retraumatizing rather than healing.
Having PTSD or healing from trauma is a long and frustrating process and I definitely understand the desire sometimes to push yourself in the hope that it will accelerate healing and make you feel better faster. Sometimes we do need to push ourselves, I can’t deny that. But we have to stay in touch with ourselves and learn from how we respond to things along the way. Ask yourself, are you going to be leaning into discomfort? Or are you going to be putting yourself in distress? We can’t always know, especially when we have PTSD, but asking that question is important. It’s a critical part of self-care.
I’ve experienced a number of traumas of different sorts in a number of places. I’ve returned to some degree to most of these places. I say to some degree because a common roadblock in returning is access. You may not be able to gain access to your place anymore for various reasons. When it comes to gaining access, my advice is to make use of lies or honesty, intelligently and as you see fit if it is important to your healing and if it harms no one. Remember that people rarely need as much information as you think, being vague and asking politely is sometimes enough.
Out of all my returns I found my returns to the janitor’s closet most important and so those are the examples I will discuss. I have returned to that closet twice since the trauma occurred when I was 14 years old. The first time I returned I think I was in High School a few years later. I say “I think”, because I barely remember the experience. I think I must have driven myself. I don’t remember telling anyone I was going, and I remember being alone. I was on a cocktail of psych meds at that point in my life and that can affect memory. Honestly though, I think I just dissociated and pushed it away. That was the time when I was feeling drawn to that place and drawing doors obsessively.
I think I felt I needed to go there for some kind of catharsis, I think I needed to go there to feel connected fully to a memory that had been edited heavily and repressed. What happened in that closet happened in the first year of an abusive relationship and after sharing my honest grievance with my abuser he apologized and felt guilt for months. Over time the story was changed and he would retell it to me as a consensual experience. I was encouraged to rewrite my own history. The relationship lasted about two more years with multiple sexual assaults over that time. When I finally identified what I was experiencing as abuse and ended it, I started recovering memories.
The non-consensual experience in the closet was a dominating trauma because I had been a virgin and because of the rewritten history. Once the memory was recovered it became a flashback that occurred often and was debilitating. I think I felt I needed to return there the first time to own my own memory and to own my own trauma. I think I needed to ground it in a way. But I think I went there with unrealistic expectations. I went there looking for closure. I wasn’t anywhere near that point in my healing process. What I ended up doing was giving myself an experience that I could point to and say, “that was a psychological and physical pilgrimage, having had that I can now say that I have achieved something” While that’s true, it was an achievement, it wasn’t total and complete closure. I hadn’t even begun to fully process and understand what I had experienced and I wouldn’t for years.
It wasn’t a mistake going the first time. But the fact that I can’t really remember it says something I think. It was unrealistic for me to expect it to be closure. I think it was wishful thinking. Years passed and I returned again as a sophomore in college when I was doing the Voice of the Survivors series with Dauntless that’s discussed in the Catharsis episode. I returned as a part of my own healing and because I wanted a photo reference for a painting I wanted to do as part of the series. I decided I wanted to draw the door again for the first time in years and I realized it was just a big scary door in my mind. The memory was still murky because I hadn’t retained any memories or photos of my first return. I knew the floor was carpeted, but what color was it? Was there a pattern? What color were the walls of the hallway? Were they white or cream? Was I wrong and they were wallpapered? Was there wainscotting? I had no idea.
In my mind it was just, the scary door. I didn’t want to draw just any door, I wanted to draw that door. On a break from school I drove up to the venue again with my camera. I think I let Dauntless know I was returning so I had support if I needed it. The woman at the desk was fine letting my look around both times I’ve gone back. All I had to do was say I’d been there before. I think the second time I mentioned that I was an artist and that I was hoping for a photo reference. Being an artist has worked as a pass for a lot of strange behavior in my life, gotta say. But I walked down the short entrance hall out of the lobby, turned right, turned right again…and there was no door. They had taken it off its hinges and filled the space with storage shelves for dishware.
All those years ago when I was in high school and speaking up about the abuse in that relationship my mother said that she had called the venue to let them know that her child had been assaulted in an unsecured janitor’s closet at a party they hosted. I like to think that made a difference, and that that’s a part of why they removed the door and changed the space. I think I may have written something creepy on the inside of the door the last time I was there…that probably helped too. I took photos the second time I returned so I would have a record of what the place actually looked like, and I smiled. Because there was no door I’d have to fabricate one for the painting. While it would have been preferable to have a reference photo from an artist’s perspective and have accurate lighting information – the shelves meant what happened to me in there would never happen to anyone else.
That brought me some comfort. I stood there for a brief while, and was just, present. It was a kind of emotional meditation. It felt empowering to be there, and to be there doing the kind of work I was doing. Before I left I found a drawing pencil in my bag and leaned into the shelving to write on the inside of the door frame, “You can’t keep me in here anymore” and my first name I think. I walked down that hall again and thanked the lady at the front desk, and I haven’t been back. I haven’t needed to go back. I felt like there was a part of me locked in there for years, and I don’t anymore. It’s not because the door is gone, though I’m sure that helped. It’s because of the actions that I’ve taken in my life to rescue and reclaim myself.
An important part of the experience of returning that I want to talk about is mundanity. Chances are when you return you’re probably going to experience a place steeped in past trauma, pain, emotional turmoil, and chaos and it’s probably going to be very ordinary. I’m going to argue that discordance is a part of what can make returning a beneficial experience. When we are traumatized, and we suffer from PTSD, trauma memories come up when they’re not called upon or desired. Trauma memories aren’t filed correctly and they are out of time in a sense. The way they act makes your past your present. Your experience of time is disordered in a way. Going to that place, when I was ready, was helpful because now I have a memory of that place that is ordinary, there’s no trauma charge to that new memory.
It’s mundane and I know that’s the most recent memory. Do I still have a memory if being in the closet and in crisis? Yes. But creating a new memory for myself helped me to better file that trauma memory in the past. Instead of that closet existing only in one moment in time where I was in pain and feeling trapped inside it with my abuser, that closet now exists elsewhere to me in time in an extremely boring way. Before I was there it held mops and buckets. After I was there it changed and holds dishes and no one can be trapped inside it anymore. That helps me, even if it sounds silly.
If you feel returning to you place of trauma might be beneficial, here is a list of things that might be helpful. It should be said, please only return if it is safe to do so. If returning to your place of trauma involves putting yourself in an unsafe situation, please reconsider. Perhaps there’s a way you can see it from a safe distance.
Number 1 *xylophone note* Make sure you have support. Discuss your decision with your therapist if you have one. Your therapist might be able to schedule your next appointment around your return experience or they might make sure they’re available in case you need to call them for support during or after the experience. There’s the possibility that you could have a panic attack, feel extreme distress, or dissociate. If you don’t have a therapist is there a friend that you can turn to for support in this? Another survivor is preferable but definitely someone who loves you and understands the full weight and significance of what you’re doing.
Number 2. *xylophone note* Plan ahead. Make sure your support person knows when you’re going and where this place is. Have an agreement to connect afterwards. It’s ok if you don’t feel like talking, even just having someone to text that you’re home safe is a good idea.
Number 3 *xylophone note* Consider how you’re getting there and make safe decisions. If getting to and from your place involves operating heavy machinery please consider having someone else come along in case you’re upset or need to take meds. Safety first. This might be a good time to be a passenger in a vehicle rather than a driver. If you ignore this and you’re the driver. Pull over if you need to cry. I’m not kidding. Be safe.
Number 4 *xylophone note* Be mindful about making a new memory. Do what you have to do to help yourself do that. Taking a picture on your phone might be helpful to some. Bring a notebook or journal. If there’s a place nearby where you can write down your thoughts and experiences in the moment it will help you to process and retain them.
Number 5 *xylophone note* Notice change. If time has passed chances are things look different. Notice those changes, write them down if you need to. If it’s in nature have trees or plants grown? Has it changed hands? Are there new owners? Did they change the paint color or remodel? Is the building gone? Were you young when the trauma occurred? Does everything look small to you now?
Number 6 *xylophone note* It’s your time. Fuck everyone else. Make the most of it. If you need to sing a song or do a dance, or flip an inanimate object or building off, or write on a wall, or leave flowers, you do it. You do what you have to do to make it a worthwhile journey. If it’s a public place and you’re concerned that people around you won’t understand, do your best to let that self-consciousness go. Everyone around us is having private and personal emotional experiences that relate to stories you aren’t privy to. So what if you need to cry and a few people see you. We’re all human. My advice is to try not to let self-consciousness or shame get in the way of your healing.
Number 7 *xylophone note* Pick a day that’s all yours if you can. Make this your day. You have no idea how it’s going to affect you and make room for that. Don’t do this when you have a project due or a meeting with your boss later. Make room for yourself to feel this out fully.
Number 8 *xylophone note* When you’re there take a minute to breathe deeply and be present. This will help you. If you need to do the grounding exercise from the start of Season 2, go for it. But do your best to stay grounded and present, whatever that involves for you.
Number 9 *xylophone note* Take care of yourself! Practice good self-care both before and after your return. That means different things to different people. But make sure you eat and make sure you drink lots of water. If you have meds, make sure to take your meds. If you have meds or supplements you take when you’re in crisis remember to bring them with you. Bring tissues, you might need a good cry.
Number 10 *xylophone note* Remember that this experience might hit you days or even months later or in different ways. Everyone is different and there’s no right way to do this.
Number 11 *xylophone note* There’s no correct emotional response to returning. Maybe you’ll feel nothing. Maybe you’ll feel everything! Maybe it’ll be somewhere in between. Your response is as unique as you are. Don’t judge it in comparison to someone else’s.
Number 12 *xylophone note* Have a playlist. Have some empowering and uplifting music to play during your journey. Music is incredibly powerful and can transform our experiences. Use that power to your advantage.
Number 13 *xylophone note* Celebrate your return in some way. It’s an achievement and you should mark it if you feel moved to. Take the opportunity to treat yourself somehow.
That’s my list. If this episode helps support you in your return and you want to tell me about it feel free to reach out, I’d love to hear from you. Please write in with feedback, listener questions or episode requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know if you're interested in joining me on the show. Finding OK is crowd funded and paid for out of pocket. Anything helps. You are the ones helping me make this happen. Thank you. A link to the Go Fund Me can be found on the podcast website and I post links routinely on my Facebook page. I also post relevant articles, art, memes, and resources daily. Feel free to friend me, Hecate F. Okay. *spells name* You can also find me on Instagram. I have created a private Finding OK Facebook group for survivors.
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21:25 *Outro music by Ramshackle Glory*
*fade in to folk/punk chords of guitar* Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep on loving. Keep on fighting. And hold on, and hold on, hold on for your life *echoes into brief silence*…(Chorus and full band) Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep on loving. Keep on fighting. And hold on, and hold on, hold on for your life. *triumphant and uplifting music plays till end*