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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Helping Jeannie Release Trauma

Way deep into the healing process, I found three-year-old Jeannie sitting on her bedroom floor trying to stack blocks into a tower. I could sense the distress deep inside of me. Stacking the blocks into the tallest tower possible was a life and death situation; but she was shaking and kept knocking the tower over.

For months, it had been clear that play was an issue for my small abused self. I had worked through the depression which prevented me from engaging in life, but this was different. I wondered at her desperate repetitive actions. I sensed this type of repetitive play was my reality after the abuse. I went on the hunt for characteristics of play after trauma and found the Trauma Play Scale (Jennifer Finding), which was an observation scale in which the following were monitored: Intense Play, Repetitive Play, Play Disruption; Avoidant Play, and Expression of Negative Affect.

I watched little Jeannie stack the blocks and heard her desperately crying for someone to help her, but felt her not wanting anyone to come at the same time. She was driven to stack the block tower. When I began to process the memory, I said, “I thought if I could stack the blocks by myself the man who played blocks with me wouldn’t abuse me.”

Though all the elements were present, my stacking of the blocks was a textbook case of Intense Play: “Behavior has an intense, compulsive, and driven character, lacking joy or spontaneity. The child’s play is extremely focused and absorbed and seems to hold specific meaning.”

Finally, after the blocks fell again and again, I exploded, knocking the blocks across the room and then picking up and throwing the ones that fell close to me. I heard my mother’s heels clip clopping across the wooden floor and began to desperately gather the blocks and place them in the container. I knew my angry outburst had been heard and it was not going to go well for me. It didn’t. There were too many elements in what happened to fully develop in this blog, but suffice it to say, what occurred convinced me to bury my pain for more than 60 years.

In BRAVE, I inadvertently included a teenage PTSD reenactment to this traumatic three-year-old memory. At three, my mother bent over to take my blocks from the room. As a teenager, she walked into the room and bent over to pick up a wastebasket she had decided she wanted in another room. In both cases, I flew into a rage and attacked her, knocking her off balance while wrestling the object from her hands.

Peter Levine, in his book, Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, states, “After working for more than twenty-five years with people suffering from trauma, I can say that at least half of my clients have had traumatic symptoms that remained dormant for a significant period of time before surfacing. For many people, the interval between the event and the onset of symptoms is between six weeks and eighteen months. However, the latency period can last for years or even decades. In both instances, the reactions are often triggered by seemingly insignificant events.” [1]

Well, I can’t imagine anything that could seem any more insignificant than a wastebasket. One day at the end of therapy, Dr. Sue walked over and picked up the wastebasket to help me deposit my huge pile of Kleenex. Upon returning the wastebasket to its place, it hit the edge of the chair and tipped upside down. We both laughed, but my laugh was one of releasing something deep inside. I wasn’t sure what. I had never understood why I had attacked my mother over a wastebasket until I found small Jeannie trying to keep her mother from taking her blocks. The bending over motion in all three cases was exactly the same—it was the trigger.

This block stacking memory was embedded in my body just days after the abuse. My explosion with the blocks was physical and was the very best way for my three-year-old self to release the trauma. The shaking was also a way to release the trauma.

Toward the end of Levine’s book, he discusses how to help children, specifically after an accident or fall, but the information is pertinent to all trauma. My mother simply did not have the capacity to help me, but even functional parents (and all other adults who work with children) often find the child’s expression and release of trauma (or any emotion) disconcerting. It is easy to circumvent the only means a child has at his or her disposal to work the trauma out of his or her body. I highly suggest this book and particularly the information on helping these children which includes the following:

Validate the child’s physical responses throughout this period of time. Children often begin to cry or tremble as they come out of shock. If you have a desire to stop this natural process, resist it. The physical expression of distress needs to continue until it stops or levels out on its own. The completion of this process usually takes a few minutes. Studies show that children who take this opportunity after an accident have fewer problems recovering.

When I began to heal trauma during therapy, my body would shake uncontrollably. At first, I tried to stop it (which was what I had done my entire life); but I learned to allow my body to release the trauma by curling up in a blanket (or under piles of blankets) as I shook and shook and shook—sometimes so violently that my entire small home shook. Often when I talk to others who begin to share their stories, they start to shake and immediately apologize. It is a wonderful opportunity to share what Dr. Sue taught me about allowing my body to release trauma.

We often stop ourselves and the children in our lives from doing everything necessary for the body to heal from trauma. We stop our tears, we stop our physical outbursts, we stop our shaking, and we stop our voices from ever telling our truth. We bury our pain so deeply that it affects us for a lifetime.

When I processed the pain from the day I threw the blocks, I found the pelvic pain my small body held. Jeannie screamed for someone to take the pain away, but would have to deal with it throughout her life because no one knew how to help her. It wasn’t in my head; it was in my body and it plagued me for a lifetime. The research connection between childhood sexual abuse and chronic pelvic pain and other disorders (of unknown cause) is clear and will be discussed in BRAVE #3. Some damage may be structural, but most it is internalized trauma which could have been released with appropriate, informed, and compassionate care.

[1] Levine, Peter A.. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (p. 248). North Atlantic Books.

#trauma #Classroom #Parenting

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