Just how many traumatic events can a person survive?

Since my son’s suicide in 2018, I experienced a horrible rafting incident in which I thought I was going to die.

I was on a river rafting day trip when the waters were at their peak. I intentionally chose this time of year to experience the big rapids and be physically challenged. I was not disappointed. Just before the large sinkhole, my fellow rafters along with my guide and I went to shore to set a strategy on how to make it through this rapid. The guide told us how the rapid worked, where it would be dangerous if we got pulled in and what would happen if we did flip. After studying the rapid and watching other rafts go through, including one that flipped. we got back in our raft to navigate the large sinkhole.

As we approached the rapid, our guide shouted his commands, left! right! right! Then it happened, we got pulled into the sinkhole, weren’t able to pull out and flipped our raft. I’ve been on rafts that flipped before, but this time was very different. I compare my experience to what you see in movies. There were leaves, small stickers and bubbles all around me. Everything was swirling. I did not know which was up. I was under the water for a long time. I started to run out of air and was afraid I was going to die. I was in a movie which was my own, without a stunt double.  I finally came to the surface, disoriented and looking for the shore, and my raft.

Out of nowhere, I was pulled into a raft from our group. I was shaking, cold and confused. The rest of the trip I was unable to speak and threw up several times. When we got back to the rafting office, I made it to the locker room and sat down. I sat there for at least an hour, unable to move, incapable of expressing my needs, and did not know what to do.

Eventually, I made it to the car, back to our campsite and my tent. I slept for several hours and when roused, did not want to get up. My family thought I had a concussion. I knew I didn’t hit my head. It wasn’t a concussion. I was in shock. The fear of dying had scared me. This was a traumatic experience.

After a good night’s sleep and assurances that I would be okay, that I felt safe again. My life was no longer in danger.

Trauma has been defined as a stressful event that causes severe disability in daily functioning. It can occur as early as infancy by the manner in which a mother care and interacts with their new-born child.

Events such as physical assault, emotional or verbal abuse, an act of terror or the loss of life through illness, accident or self-harm (suicide) can also be traumatic.

Trauma impacts a person’s sense of safety, sense of self and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. It may seem that the trauma, whatever your experience, rafting accidents, a loved one’s unexpected death or suicide of your son, will control your life into the hereafter. It does not have to.

When life is upset with loss and grief and your world is disrupted it is difficult to feel safe. Someone has been taken from you. Your life has changed. It has been flipped upside down, much like my raft was.  You may feel that you have a hole in your heart, you can’t sleep and cry uncontrollably. Nothing is normal.

Clients ask me how do they start to work through their trauma? I tell them it is about feeling safe again. How safe you feel in your new circumstances is a large determining factor in your ability to move forward.

Telling your story in an environment that you feel comfortable, without judgment and fear is one place to start. You can write your story in a journal. There is no one to judge. In that story, you can include the finite details of what happened, your reactions, and how you felt. There is magic in getting your traumatic experience out of your head and onto paper. When you step back and read what you have written, it seems less daunting because you see it from a different perspective.

You can also verbally share your story with someone who you trust, who will not judge and who will simply listen. This may be a family member, a close friend, someone from church or in a grief support group.

Recognizing and accepting that you have been through a traumatic experience gives you the ability to feel. Without feeling, there is no healing. Start with feeling safe in your new life. Once you have established a level of safety, expand who you share your story with.

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