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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

McMusing: My Life in a Hot Air Balloon after Healing Childhood Trauma

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Ten years ago, my life felt more like a jet plane coming in for a crash landing than a hot air balloon gently floating in the air. I was flying at full speed and headed for catastrophic engine failure. Everything looked fine, but the trauma that had impacted me since I was a small child was getting ready to take me down. I knew that none of the ways I had attempted to heal what I didn't even understand had been effective. And I crashed.

hot air balloon in flight

Fortunately, I did not die. That sounds a bit dramatic, but it isn't. Many in the same situation die from suicide. That thought was ever-present at a subconscious level and showed up in random statements about falling off a cliff, which I had tried once before. Yet, I smiled, performed well at the college where I taught, loved and cared for others, and worked hard to become a healthier version of myself. And though not visible to others, I was going to crash. I called it retirement.

It was living through one very long, miserable year that finally convinced me to walk into therapy. Realizing i needed help was the first step in healing. I was not going to seek spiritual help because that had never worked. I knew all the spiritual answers and on a good day, I might even be able to quote some verses. What I needed was trauma-informed therapy, but what that was and where I would find it were completely outside of my church-bound world. It feels like a miracle that I found the help I needed.

Three years later, I determined that if I could do anything about it, no one else would be as clueless or lonely in their pain. I published BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma and climbed out of the wreckage of the jet plane and into a hot air balloon. I didn't gently lift off the ground, it was more like when you hold a beach ball underwater and then release it. Every opportunity, book, or podcast took me higher. It was glorious.

I would not trade the past five years for anything! I have no regrets! I was able to live the professional life that should have always been mine--without the devastating undercurrent of the impact of childhood trauma. They were not easy years--there was an unexpected move, a pandemic, and family health problems. Yet the balloon just kept flying!

At some point last year, I realized I had gathered too much "wonderfulness" in my balloon basket. I was living a life I could no longer sustain. Maybe turning seventy had something to do with it? There was grief in not being able to heal sooner so I would have longer to stay up in that balloon, but honestly, I had done enough. I was enough. And I needed some space to rest.

There were signs that my balloon could crash much like the jet so I began to jettison some of the "wonderfulness" over the side of the basket. I needed to make a softer landing! I stepped down from some of my volunteer work, pushed the publication of book #5 out to next spring, blocked off my calendar, finished promised projects, and set some boundaries for myself. And by mid-September, the balloon came in for a very soft landing. I was proud and my husband, friends, and therapist were cheering.

balloon glow

Right now I am resting in that basket that sits solidly on the ground--much like a balloon glow!. I don't want to stay there forever, but there are some important balloon-flying lessons that I am probably not alone in needing. Healing from the impact of trauma is prone to flights of freedom and we usually take off before receiving flying lessons. Not that they would have helped--sometimes you must find out what you need to learn before you can learn it. It is tricky.

While resting, I am also reflecting on those lessons. Here are a few:

  • Listen to your body and trust your gut feelings. (This is difficult when you have spent most of your life ignoring both, but it is the only way to recognize when your balloon has gone too high or needs to refuel.)

  • Learn how to keep the balloon afloat with self-regulation skills. (These are new skills and require practice while building a life of self-care/compassion.)

  • Don't pile every wonderful opportunity into the basket because when you begin to run low on fuel, you will crash. (This is difficult when healing brings so many opportunities and you can more easily accomplish when not being assaulted by the effects of trauma.)

  • Set boundaries for what others might try to add to your basket. (This is both for those who might harm you and for those dear hurting souls you encourage. Absorbing other's tears into your basket makes staying afloat difficult!)

  • Be willing to land the balloon when it is time. (This is not giving up--or failure--and it doesn't mean you won't go up again, but be willing to accept if you cannot.)

While I prepare for my hot-air balloon to once again take flight, I now know how to approach this very differently--without regret for any of that wild and wonderful first flight. I was lonely when I took off the first time, but now I am surrounded by so many others who understand both the impact of trauma and the work required for healing. I dare not go as high or far as before, but I will certainly fly again.

hot air balloons in flight

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