Trauma and ReTrauma: A Painful Cycle

Adjustment. Time. These are the necessary components for processing the reality of living with a chronic physical illness. Following the diagnosis of a chronic illness, it can take a while for a person to come to terms with the fact that his or her life will change in some way, big or small . This period of adjustment can at times be painful. For some it can take months or even years, but eventually many people find a way to successfully live despite their illness.

Pre-diagnosis, initial diagnosis, and learning to cope with a chronic illness is an experience of trauma all in itself. A person comes to face many existential issues that otherwise would have remained in a position of denial until a much later time in life. Fragility of the human body, mortality, renegotiation of interpersonal relationships, changes in career and daily life, among many other constituents are confronted. This is a lot to cope with but it happens. Human resiliency finds some way to manage the chaos that comes with a new medical diagnosis.

Sometimes people even enter a period of partial or full remission. This is a blessing. During a period of remission, one can even forget all the difficulties encountered during the active phase of the illness, as well as the complex psychological experiences that came along with it. Much of the trauma encountered during that active phase of the illness is left behind and an emotional healing parallels that of the physical.

Then the relapse bomb hits.... Trauma all over again. One visits his or her doctor and hears, "I am sorry but your body is acting up again." The person sits their thinking, "but I thought I had it all under control" ... and then the person is reminded "oh yeah, what control?" The chaos sets back in as the person recalls all of the initial trauma lived when s/he was  originally diagnosed. The person remembers that control is only an illusion that humans hold on to in order to feel comforted, but that we only have very little of. The person is reminded of the adjustments that need to be made in his or her environment because of the fragility of the body, and begins to sift through memories of discussions that were and need to again be had with important people in his/her life.

Coping. Coping is not something that happens only during an initial active phase of a chronic illness. The word "chronic" in "chronic illness" tells us that it is something that is going to have to be dealt with long term. What happens when one stops actively coping with an illness during a period of remission is that one can be overcome with illusions and denial, as if the person was never diagnosed. This makes sense. Who wants to remember a trauma? Any trauma. It is like asking a person to recall a horrible car accident. However when traumatic events are pushed out of conscious processing they still remain somewhere in the unconscious and are stored in our memory within our bodies and brains. It does not disappear. And if a relapse bomb hits, an unprocessed trauma will be much more difficult to cope with than a consciously processed trauma. Either way, a relapse can be a very retraumatizing experience. One has to deal with many issues that come up again that one thought s/he had already dealt with.  That is why it is important to explore all the concerns that arose following a diagnosis of a chronic illness even after a period of remission.

... But that's the illusion of control speaking through me in the moment. We do have a bit of control and that is the part of the person that tries to prepare for the next trauma....the retrauma.  However, one really never knows what it is going to feel like when that retraumatizing moment occurs. The most important thing is to consciously process it. Get it out of your mind and your body as much as possible by putting it into words. Take some of the power away from the overwhelming emotions and put it back into your hands but putting the emotions into words that then come out of your mouth and outside of your body.  Rebegin the process of adjustment and time. Continue with that chronic cycle...the at times chronic painful cycle. You did it once, you can do it again. Find your life with the quality that fits just right for you and your needs. Adjustment. Time.