Frequently I meet with people whose partners or family members are survivors of trauma. This often has a tremendous impact on how they, and their loved ones, relate to and treat their bodies, thus having a direct impact on their health. In mental health this is called the contagion of secondary trauma. Yes, trauma can be contagious. As a functional medicine coach I have learned that health and enjoyment are also.
What do I tell someone whose partner or loved one is a survivor of violence, childhood sexual abuse, severe health problems or other forms of trauma? Loving someone who flinches from emotional and physical intimacy has a direct impact on our own health. Loving someone who is a shape shifter when it comes to connection, or need, or open emotion can raise cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies and cause a myriad of problems for our health.
The answer, as tricky as it might sound, is extreme gentleness for yourself, and building a fulfilling and meaningful life apart from your loved one.
This does not mean abandoning or walking away from the one you love. Instead it means also listening to your own body’s voice. Take time to hear your body and know what it’s saying.
This looks like being extra gentle with yourself and your reality. You can stay soft in the face of trauma, but it’s tricky. It’s tricky to be gentle and resolute about not treating yourself the way you feel or see others feel.
What do you need? Try to provide that for yourself. Hold to the boundaries of what you can handle, not what you wish you could.
When this is isolating build a community, seek out a compassionate group of friends, create a career that you enjoy, and stay connected, if not fully comprehended.
Where you feel unknown or misunderstood remember that no one, no matter how close, or what they have witnessed and known, no expert can even know what this experience is for you.
Count the gifts you do have daily. Don’t pursue the ideals you’re missing, no matter how valid they might be. Celebrate the joy that is yours. Let go of the story that isn’t.
Write a new story that is yours. It will not be what you thought it would but really no one’s story is. Inhabit your body and be present to the beauty that is around you, while honestly grieving what you miss.
And be okay with those tears because they will keep coming. When loving a survivor of extreme trauma the sadness may never leave but it does carve deep ravines for joy. (See here for more about this.)
And just so you know, for many people making peace with their own body is the hardest part - for both those who are survivors of trauma and those who experience secondary trauma. A body your partner might not be able to connect with because of PTSD is hard to enjoy, but you can and you will enjoy your own health and heart. It just takes time. Don’t let a perpetrator of a crime or a life-altering trauma take that away from you.
Build routines of enjoyment into your daily life and protect them fiercely and confidently. That will be everything. Everything will come down to the routines you hold dear.
What can you do every morning that puts you in touch with your body and heart?
Do that. Savor those things. They are your survival methods. That is your new story.
Healing doesn’t always mean completely. Sometimes it’s in increments of one tart-sweet tangerine enjoyed (nature’s sour patch kids!), one bite of sharp crystally cheese on toast, one mug of creamy dark coffee cradled close to your heart, one arched neck craning up at tall trees. Healing is a glimpse of an owl in spring. It’s floating in sunshiny heat on greenish blue waves. Healing will come in how free you feel to be pierced by the human experience of aching. That’s healing and home and surviving deep pain.
I am here if you need a companion in navigating this pain and this living. Please feel free to reach out. You aren't alone in this journey.