on complex trauma

I took my first drink at fifteen. Rum. Bacardi Limon, to be precise. Over eighteen years later my throat still recoils at the memory of the flavor. The liquid tasted awful going down, but it sure felt heavenly once it went into effect.

It wasn’t really ever about the alcohol. I never really liked the taste of it. It was about how the alcohol made me feel. I didn’t know how much pain I was in until the first drunk softened it for me. Alcohol removed all of life’s edges.

Complex trauma. What is it? “Most people with trauma-related problems have experienced multiple traumas. The term, complex trauma describes exposure to multiple traumas. It also refers to the impacts of that exposure. Complex trauma is usually interpersonal, i.e. occurs between people, involves ‘being or feeling’ trapped, often has more severe, persistent and cumulative impacts, involves challenges with shame, trust, self-esteem, identity and regulating emotions, has different coping strategies which include alcohol and drug use, self-harm, over- or under-eating, over-work etc., affects emotional and physical health, wellbeing, relationships and daily functioning.”

At fifteen I began drinking to cope with childhood trauma. Of course I did not know I had trauma. I did not know I had depression. All I knew was that drinking was fun and made me feel good. By the age of twenty-five when I quit drinking and began to recover, I had added many more traumas to my repertoire.

Trauma is like a snowball, gaining in size and momentum as it rolls down a snowy slope. Adding to its core (original trauma) by the inability to stop rolling downhill, the snowball continues on. Forward. Progressing on in the only way it knows how, unaware of its own role in growing larger. Like attracts like. Snow sticking to itself, flake by flake adding to the bulk.

In ten years of drinking I nearly lost it all and simultaneously prevented myself from ever getting anywhere. After over seven years of sobriety, therapy, and trauma work (specifically EMDR therapy), I see how the complex trauma, depression, and alcoholism were all interwoven. Each contributing the continuation of the other. Different shades of the same dark color blocking out the light. Seamlessly integrating and resulting in immense suffering.

Shame. Self-blame. People pleasing. Inability to trust others or the world around me. Depression. Trouble sleeping. Night terrors. Defensiveness. Always in fear of losing what I had worked so hard to get- jobs, money, boyfriends, security- and always feeling I had to defend my right to have a place in this world.

Complex trauma created a story for my inner child that she was bad. That she was not deserving. My traumatized inner child held on to these storylines, believing them. My traumatized adult self perpetuated my traumatized inner child’s truth. Creating more trauma. The snowball continuing its roll.

This is what happens when traumatized children become traumatized adults, who often cope through substance abuse and using behaviors that continue the toxic cycle. It is incredibly difficult for survivors of complex trauma to exist in a world that they feel has abandoned them, betrayed them, and told them they are fundamentally wrong because of their decisions, alcoholism, addiction, mental health disorders, and other behaviors that lead to more trauma.

Have you ever felt lost? Misunderstood? Broken? Hopeless? Unseen? Unheard? Unchosen? Maybe in brief moments or for perhaps most of your life? Have you ever wondered what the point is?

Me too.

I drank to feel differently. I drank to overcome the pain I wasn’t aware I was in. Then I drank to overcome the pain that I could feel and that wouldn’t stop. I partied so that I would become someone I wasn’t. It was fun and it worked. Until it wasn’t and it didn’t. When I stopped drinking, I did it because I wanted the bad stuff to stop. I wanted to feel better. When I stopped drinking I came to know myself. I discovered that alcohol was only a symptom and that I used it to treat my trauma and depression. When I stopped drinking I got to know my pain and my darkness. I found sobriety, eventually I found EMDR, and somewhere in the process I found freedom.

I don’t live in pain anymore.

It is possible to heal. It has been my experience that the more I heal my trauma, the less depressed I am. The darkness has lifted. I feel happy. I feel like I don’t experience the world through my wounds any longer (most of the time). I take things much less personally. I am more giving, more loving, more thoughtful. I choose better relationships, I set better boundaries, and I have more serenity. I feel less edgy, less prickly, less defensive. I am less concerned with what everyone else is doing and more interested in my own dreams. I feel more trusting of myself and my decision making. I feel much closer to a God of my understanding. As a result, every single area of my life has improved. When your inside circumstances change, your outside circumstances do too.

An intuitive part of me knew that things could get better. Feel better. I have pursued that intuitive thought, that hopeful belief, with everything I have. I went down the rabbit hole; my guiding light being the intent to make my life as intrinsically beautiful as possible.

Like Persephone, I’ve journeyed down into the Underworld and back up again. I used to think I would only have to do this once. Now I see I will continue to do it throughout my life, returning from each adventure with more healing and more love.

I will always be willing to travel down and back up one more time, if only to show that what threatens to break us only serves to strengthen us.

Posted by

Dreamer. Adventurer. Proponent of well-being. Full of grit and faith.

14 thoughts on “on complex trauma

  1. Sarah, You’re amazing, and I am so happy that you not only got your personal life back, but that your professional career has really taken off. I enjoyed working with you many years ago, and I’d be happy to “sing at your wedding” or help you (in a fatherly way) any way I can.

    As always, great introspection and writing. You’re a star!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Michael! I always appreciate your support and how much you reach your hand out to help others.

      It’s funny because often survivors of complex trauma and even active substance abusers are the high achievers! Masters of secrets and masks. I think you’ve just given me inspiration for a future blog post!


  2. Sarah you are amazing and your strength goes beyond words! Thanks for sharing your story and how you overcame. Trauma is alot for anyone to deal with and cope with. It creates a narrative that the person traumatized is to be blame and this give is room to deep and detrimental negative thoughts about one’s self.

    But as you pointed out, this is not the case and i know you’re story will tough so many others!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Sarah my story is very similar to yours only I’m 44 with 15 yrs sober. I still struggle. More so becuase I’m at this like mid-life weird thing that keeps pulling at me but I’m still here one day at a time. Thank you for sharing your story. It was like reading my up until a certain point. It’s nice to remember we are not alone in this struggle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment warms my heart. So glad it resonated with you and that’s what I love about recovery- the feeling of sharing in this common journey and that we aren’t alone. No matter what. Your feedback inspires me to keep going and writing, so thank you!


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