Recently, someone asked me, “Why do you talk about childhood trauma so much? Why do you talk so much about the past and our families versus focusing on the future?”
There is, of course, the obvious answer that I’m a trauma-informed therapist who specializes in relational and developmental trauma who happens to love to write.
But there’s a deeper, bigger answer here, too.
There’s a big why behind my work, specifically what I put out onto the internet, that’s worth sharing.
So I want to share a story with you – a story about my husband – and some different ways to think about this question, “Why do you talk so much about childhood trauma?” in case you’ve questioned what the point of focusing on this is for yourself.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
I want to share a story with you.
It was early Summer in 2019.
Our daughter was about nine months old and, like all new parents, my husband and I were moderately worn down with sleep deprivation from cumulative broken, fractured sleep across the start of her life.
But approaching nine months old, she was starting to sleep in longer stretches.
I would get five, six hours of sleep at a time and feel soooo good – like a superwoman compared to the two or three-hour chunks the first six months mostly held.
But my husband, though he was also getting these six-hour chunks, too, remained exhausted.
Like, couldn’t form sentences tired.
Running into the corners of our furniture tired.
Leaving the cell phone in the fridge tired.
My husband had always been a restless sleeper who “didn’t get great sleep” but being childfree for the first seven years of our relationship, it was easier to just sleep in, go to bed earlier, take it easy during the day.
Basically to compensate for the bad sleep, like over adjusting to your strong ankle when you have a weak ankle.
The “bad sleep” didn’t have as much of an impact back then so we didn’t look at it too closely.
But with a baby and with both of us working full-time, his poor sleep – even when the hours were available – was increasingly becoming a problem. For him and for us as a new little family
His reserves simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of our life very well anymore.
So, even though the timing was terrible, we doubled down on him seeking out some answers because this didn’t seem like typical new parent exhaustion – something else was at play here.
Taking time away from me and the baby, he attended medical appointments and ultimately ended up doing a multi-night sleep lab away from home so we could figure out what was really going on.
It turns out that he had severe sleep apnea.
Not the snoring kind that’s more identifiable, but rather the kind where he stops breathing many, many times per hour all night.
Depriving himself of oxygen and never fully getting the good rest he needs to function well during the day.
He has this because of structural issues – a very deviated septum thanks to a broken nose in his youth.
And we didn’t know about this sleep apnea or deviated septum.
He doesn’t tick any of the boxes when it comes to a sleep apnea sufferer: he’s fit and healthy, young, and didn’t snore. His nose looks fine from the outside.
So it was revelatory for us to know this diagnosis.
And more revelatory still when he got the custom sleep guard that helps him get more oxygen and airflow at night.
Now, even with less sleep, he can wake up more rested.
It was a game-changer for us to learn this and our lives have really improved since.
When we can see a problem plainly and accurately, we can get the right supports.
So why am I telling you this story about my husband and his sleep?
Because it illustrates something very important: when we have the right information, the right diagnosis, and awareness of what’s really going on, we can more easily get the correct and right supports that can lead to dramatic changes.
This is true for our medical health and, I believe, it’s true, too, for our mental health.
But here’s the rub: so often people who come from abusive, neglectful, or relationally-traumatic childhoods don’t see themselves in the description of “trauma.”
Like a fit and healthy young man who doesn’t fit the standard profile of a sleep apnea sufferer, so many people may miss seeing themselves in a descriptor of childhood trauma.
We don’t know what we don’t know and I truly think that there’s a huge gap of information out there about childhood trauma, developmental trauma, and relational trauma that causes people to miss or dismiss their reality, and the root causes of why they may feel so poorly.
Over the last ten years, I’ve seen patient after patient present with symptoms and complaints of not being able to find and stay in a healthy loving partnership, or struggle with panic attacks, or with binge eating and purging, or with depression that gets worse around the holidays each year, but often these symptoms are not seen for what they may actually be: extensions of a trauma history that’s unacknowledged and underprocessed.
(For more information about how trauma symptoms can manifest, please explore this past essay of mine.)
I talk about childhood trauma, developmental trauma, relational trauma – three names for the same experience – to help people see themselves, their histories, and their present-day realities more clearly so they can seek out the right, effective kinds of support they need in order to feel better, to heal, to transform.
I talk about what I talk about, not because I’m invested in the “shame and blame the parents game”, but because I truly do want to help people see their reality more clearly so they stand a better chance at having a wonderful adulthood no matter what their childhood looked like.
The right supports can make all the difference.
(Like my husband’s blessed mouth guard.)
Supports for healing childhood trauma.
So what are the “right supports” when it comes to healing from a childhood trauma history?
I think it boils down to a few key things:
- Psychoeducation (like what you will find liberally on my blog and in over 120 essays that I’ve written over the last five years).
- Grieving and processing
- Skills development (such as emotional regulation, asserting boundaries, and assertive communication)
- Having different kinds of relationship experiences
Now, all of this can be achieved through work with a trauma-informed therapist and those who specialize in developmental and relational trauma (like myself and my team of trauma-informed staff at the therapy center I founded here in Berkeley).
AND, you can supplement your therapy journey with my signature online course and with additional self-inquiry work like the kind you’ll find in the journaling prompts that accompany this essay.
I TRULY believe in my bones that you can have a beautiful adulthood no matter what your early childhood looked like.
But sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.
And so I’ll keep writing with the hopes that my words and ideas can help even one person see themselves and their reality more clearly so they can seek out the right kind of support.
Now, if you’d like to deepen your own personal growth work, please explore the reflection and journaling prompts that accompany today’s essay. They’re designed to help you see your own history and reality more clearly and to provide you with even more tools and resources to make any change you need or want to make in your life.
And, until next time, please take very good care of yourself.