My Mental Health Toolkit: Reimagining Traumatic and Non-Traumatic Memories
When I first read about renegotiating trauma, I thought it sounded ridiculous.
PLEASE NOTE: This is an essay about my own personal experiences and the tools and strategies I used to heal my unresolved trauma and maintain my mental health. It is not meant to take the place of the advice and guidance of a licensed mental health practitioner.
In my memoir, Shop Class Hall Pass: Facing the Buried Trauma of Sexual assault, I write about how, for thirty-four years I unconsciously suppressed memories of being repeatedly groped by a boy in ninth grade. I pushed them deep under the water of my recollections along with all the other ephemera of my teenage years. Sure, every now and then the memories came bubbling up. Briefly piercing the surface of my consciousness. Maybe even making a few shaky concentric ripples before being sucked back down into the depths of my brain. Finally, at the age of forty-eight and for reasons I can only guess at, the memories fully breached the surface.
Once released, the memories repeatedly boomeranged back out of nowhere, for no reason. I’d be washing my face, checking my phone for messages, eating dinner with my family when all of a sudden, I’d be seized by the memory. Unlike flashbacks I’d seen portrayed in movies in which a veteran soldier is completely transported back and immersed in the memory of the traumatic event, my memories were too brief for complete immersion and lasted only seconds. Yet that was still enough time to catapult my body into its automatic threat response and overwhelm it with stress hormones, sweat, and a racing heart; leaving me feeling physically exhausted and mentally defeated. It also left me desperate to try anything that might help.
At the time, I was reading Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine. In his book, Levine explains the causes and symptoms of unresolved trauma and provides a series of exercises he developed to help heal it which he calls Somatic Experiencing. Somatic Experiencing, in extremely simple terms, involves working with the mind and physical sensations of the body to heal unresolved trauma. One of those exercises is gradated negotiation or as I’ll refer to it, renegotiating or reimagining trauma or the memory of the traumatic event.
My understanding of renegotiating trauma is it is the reimagining of a traumatic event as a felt experience. Meaning, not just thinking about the details but trying to embody the physical feelings of what is being imagined. The idea isn’t to relive the moment as it actually occurred but to renegotiate or reimagine it. During the process, any part of the story can be changed, even the outcome. Like a choose your own adventure novel.
When I first read about renegotiating trauma, I thought it sounded ridiculous. How can making up a story about what I wish would have happened possibly change anything? But like I said, I was desperate enough to try anything. Even Levine’s fairy tale thought experiment.
Levine suggests renegotiating trauma be done with the help of a trained therapist who can thoroughly explain the process and help guide and keep a client safe in case the reimagining of the traumatic event becomes overwhelming and the client needs intervention and guidance. I’m sure he is saying that because it is the best and safest way to do it. If I were to recommend this exercise to anyone, I would strongly advise them to talk to a licensed mental health professional before trying it themselves. That being said, the thought of closing my eyes, getting lost in my imagination and play acting what I wished would have happened in front of anyone, even a therapist I’ve trusted with extremely personal disclosures, was, in a phrase, just not going to happen. So, having read very little about trauma and even less about renegotiating trauma, I decided to try it anyway.
Even though I was home alone, I closed and locked my bedroom door and lay on my bed. I imagined myself in shop class with the boy. But unlike the first time it happened, this time I was wearing a cape. This time I had superhero boots and superhero powers. This time I had foreknowledge of what was going to happen. So, before the boy could grab and grope me, I used my super hero strength and supersonic voice to push him away then run out of the school. My super-hero boots helped me run through the states, into Canada and into adulthood where he could never touch me again. While renegotiating the memory, I physically mimicked my imagined actions by pushing my arms out, yelling no, and then pumping my arms and legs as if I were really running. During the process, a part of me was completely in the story. I felt the triggering of my body’s threat response, then the force of my arms as I pushed, the power of my voice as I yelled no, the exertion of my arms and legs as I ran, and the relief and release that I escaped, not just the first time, but all of the times after. And while I was in the story, re-living my fairy-tale ending, another part of me stood to the side, observed with arms crossed, eyebrow cocked, shaking her head at the futility of this ridiculous exercise.
But despite her pessimism, that part of me couldn’t deny that after I came out of my story, I felt different. Like I had pushed the boy, like I had run, like I had escaped, like something had been unlocked and released. A few nights later I had one of the four reoccurring nightmares I’d had since high school. But this time, instead of the usual script, the nightmare had changed. It was as if it had reimagined itself into a non-threatening dream. Instead of waking up terrified and soaked in sweat like I usually did, I woke up calm and curious about what I’d dreamt. I also woke up with the ability to take a deep breath without the feeling of constriction around my ribcage for the first time in over thirty years. When I realized what had happened, that pessimistic side of me thought, “Holy shit, it worked!”
How did it work? I have no idea. Even though Levine explains how renegotiating trauma works, I don’t understand it and can’t explain it. It’s like when financial people talk about derivatives. It seems to make sense when they are talking but upon reflection seems like a lot of made up argle-bargle. All I can say is that I believe for me, it somehow unlocked that traumatic memory so that the part of me that had stayed stuck in the classroom, in the arms of the boy, was able to move on and move through the experience. Because the truth is, in my actual life I had moved on, but for some reason, before renegotiating the trauma, a part of me felt like I hadn’t. I don’t know how that works either. But that is the best way I can explain it.
And just like there are two parts of me that exist: the part that believes renegotiating trauma works and the part that is loath to tell people about it because it doesn’t seem scientific enough, there are two parts of me that have different versions of what happened in ninth grade. All of me knows which story is the real history, but also, all of me uses the reimagined story to mitigate the traumatic feelings of the memory.
Now, when the memory of the boy creeps into my consciousness, I turn and push or yell or punch or run or do all of those things to keep me from being pulled back into the feelings of panic and helplessness. The memory is no longer distressing. I don’t have to try to avoid it or worry about it sneaking up on me because I now have an effective tool to deal with it. While I did a few sessions of reimagining my trauma lying in bed like my first one, I started doing it whenever I had a flashback. It wasn’t very long before I could do it with my eyes open, at work or at the dinner table. Sorry, what was that you were just saying? I didn’t catch it because I was back in ninth grade beating up an asshole.
The beauty of reimagining a traumatic or non-traumatic memory is I can make anything happen in the story. It’s my story. No one else can see my thoughts or read my mind. There’s no one to judge me or tell me it’s ridiculous or a waste of time or stupid, or fill in the blank with all those other things I think other people might think about it. It doesn’t matter if others might think it’s just a placebo or fooling myself or tricking myself. Even if it is, who cares? If it eases my symptoms, what does it matter? It doesn’t actually replace my memories. It doesn’t hurt me or anyone else when I’m doing it. Just like the original memory isn't really happening to me right now, what does it matter if I keep it truthful or real or not?
Reimagining the memories of ninth grade was not a cure all for all of the resulting symptoms of my sexual assaults. Because when it comes to mental health, I don’t believe anything is. It’s just like physical health. It takes a myriad of habits and practices to heal mental health injuries and build and maintain mental health. I can’t scientifically prove what reimagining my traumatic memories did for me but since then, along with managing the intrusive memories, all of my re-occurring nightmares transformed into non-threatening dreams and eventually disappeared entirely and my chest constriction never came back. I attribute these mental health gains to renegotiating my traumatic memories.
After having some success with renegotiating difficult memories, I decided to try them on my paper cut memories. What do I mean by a paper cut memory? It’s that memory of something someone did or said that really and truly should be inconsequential but every now and then for some reason or other gets splashed with lemon juice and stings like hell. Want an example? Sure. Here goes:
Sometime in high school, I was clothes shopping with two girls I had known and been friends with since elementary school. One of them came over to me holding a shirt on a hanger and asked if I liked it. Me, having no real opinion on fashion but thinking my friend liked it, told her I did. She smirked, looked at the other friend and said, “We don’t.” Then they both turned their backs on me and walked away.
This memory is decades old. And I am both embarrassed and irritated to no end that whenever it worms itself into my brain I’m left with emotional and physical feelings of shame and humiliation. It makes me feel simultaneously small and suspicious of others.
I don’t know why this particular memory stuck to my psyche like a persistent piece of toilet paper on the bottom of one’s shoe. I don’t know why I’ve never been able to shake it off. I’ve told myself over and over it doesn’t matter what they said and I shouldn’t care, shouldn’t have a reaction. But telling myself that never seemed to work. A few years after I reimagined my more distressing memories, I decided what’s the harm in reimagining the minor ones. So, I gave it a shot and used renegotiation along with some of the other therapeutic tools in my arsenal. I imagined the scenario as it played out, but this time, instead of being left alone while my friends walked away, my adult-self showed up for me, put an arm around my teenage self, offered her some compassion, a little perspective, told her things she needed to hear about herself like she is loved, she is worthy. And while I was telling my teenage self this, I tried to physically, mentally and emotionally receive the feelings of love, compassion and worthiness. Then my adult self gave her friends the finger and trash-talked them until they slinked away. The whole process took 5-10 minutes out of my day. Did it help? Was it worth doing?
Because while this memory is, in the big scheme of thing, an incredibly small matter it still shaved a little something off of me, my worth, my self-confidence, my self-image. Taking the time to reimagine the scenario and show up for myself as a supportive friend, tell myself things I needed to hear, and give myself the words or actions I wish I would have said or did, helped rebuild some of those uncertain places within myself. It’s like getting a vaccination. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever get exposed to that memory again, it just means I’ve strengthened my mental immune system to challenge it instead of letting it take over my mind and hurl me down a negative thought spiral.
I worry that in writing about this example I come across as over-sensitive, weak. Someone who micro-examines every past interaction for possible wrong doing and hurt. A mental hypochondriac if you will. But a part of me suspects I’m not the only one who has a few unresolved hurtful memories that they just can’t shake and get over. And if so, what’s the harm in addressing them? Taking a little time to examine them and give myself what I need? After all, the majority of us do the same thing for minor physical discomforts. We take aspirin for headaches, we clean small cuts and put bandages on them, we suck on lozenges for sore throats. All very reasonable and socially acceptable reactions to physical discomfort. I believe the small mental hurts deserve the same kind of attention. Because just like we don’t choose to get headaches, cuts or sore throats, we also don’t choose to have these memories bubble up. And just like we have the right to treat physical hurts, no matter where on the scale of severity they land, we also have the right to treat mental hurts no matter how perceivably big or small.
Peter A. Levine PhD with Ann Frederick. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition (July 7 1997)
Waking the Tiger was the first book I read about trauma. It helped me understand what the effects of trauma are on a person’s body and mind without focusing on whether or not the event that caused it meets a defined threshold to be called a traumatic experience. It also gave me hope that as dooming as the word trauma sounds, that not only is trauma treatable, but it is also possible to come out more resilient than before which is how I now feel. I believe practicing Levine’s exercises outlined in this book as well as the ones in his online course which I mention below, were instrumental in helping unlock my unresolved trauma.
This is an online course by Peter Levine, the author of Waking the Tiger as mentioned above. There is some overlap in information between the book and the course, but the course provides a step-by-step guide in learning about and practicing Somatic Experiencing including graded negotiation.
This links to a description and examples of Imagery Rescripting which is a similar process to Levine’s Gradated Negotiation.
Rick Hanson PhD. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. Harmony (Oct. 8 2013)
I read and used the practices described in Hardwiring Happiness about two years after my memoir ends. When I write about trying to embody or feel emotions like worthiness, love and compassion, this is the book that taught me how to do that. In the book Hanson describes the brain’s negativity bias and offers suggestions and practices to counter balance it. The practices are simple, short and in my experience, very effective. While the title suggests it will make a person happier, the subtitle: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, in my opinion, is a more accurate description of what a person can expect from practicing the exercises. I use the exercises on a semi-regular basis when I need to challenge my negativity bias, build up positive feelings about myself and could use a dose of contentment, calm or confidence. I highly recommend this book.