By Terrie C.
Twelve step recovery has helped to save my life. I have attended many different flavors of it and find CoDA to be the best fit. Years ago, I learned about family systems. It was very enlightening to know how my family affected what I believed and how I behaved. I began breaking those family rules to become healthy.
In the CoDA Welcome it speaks of coming from dysfunctional families, moderately and sometimes extremely. It also speaks of powerful addictions many of us have to cope with that, and names it as trauma. My family was in the “extremely” category and shame ran the show. I am a survivor of incest and was diagnosed years ago with Complex, Chronic PTSD. In 2017, I began with a new therapist who is a Ph.D. psychologist and also a neuroscientist. He began teaching me more about trauma. This knowledge has advanced my understanding of myself and my behavior radically.
One of the things that I love about 12 step work is that it gives permission to take what we like and leave the rest. It gives permission to have a Higher Power of our own understanding. For much of my life, since early education, I have been a nerd and loved science. I went into a medical field that continually changed as more knowledge was gained through rigorous research. Since working with a therapist who specializes in the science of trauma, it has been another life-changing period.
When I began in 2017, I had lived most of my life not feeling safe but wanting to and told the therapist that I wanted to get better resilience so that I would not be reacting in fear so much. His teaching was about how the body is affected by trauma and that, by certain practices, we can heal the body. Trauma is a physical dis-ease. Trauma is healed from the bottom up, and not so much from the top down, although that is also a part of healing. What is missing in 12 step recovery and CoDA is the huge wealth of trauma healing practices that have been emerging especially in the last two decades.
What I hope to do here is inspire you to learn more about trauma, as it is a way of unhooking ourselves from the shame we experienced in our early life. There is a link between shame and blame, and also shame and rage. I know many of you may already be doing trauma work. We can all benefit from talking about it more. Bessel Van der Kolk is a medical doctor, and trauma survivor who has done leading edge scientific investigation of trauma. In his book, THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE, he says that for a survivor of trauma silence = death. In my family keeping the secret was the only way to survive. When I began talking about incest and chemical abuse in my family, they disowned me. In order to save my own life, I had to follow a recovery path.
To survive, people who have been traumatized are conditioned to stay stuck in their sympathetic nervous systems. (Fight, Flight, Freeze.) Stephen Porges Ph.D. is a scientist who has done much research on healing using breathing to get ourselves out of this cycle. When we are no longer in danger our bodies are supposed to return to parasympathetic nervous system. Parasympathetic is also called the REST and RESTORE phase. When growing up in traumatic homes, our bodies develop something called “KINDLING” where it began to take less and less of a trauma for our bodies to have a large physical response. Sympathetic and parasympathetic make up the Autonomic Nervous System. They are supposed to work like a teeter totter, when one is up the other is down, but in trauma response the sympathetic is stuck on. Our breathing is a way to train our body to relax and begin to be in parasympathetic nervous system that rests and restores us.
Meditation that focuses on breathing regulation with shorter inhale and longer exhale resets our body to a calm state. What I learned about myself is that I probably never breathed right. My breathing was ragged, short, shallow breaths. Breath regulation training has really helped to calm me. It is simple but not easy. I practice it every day. And I still default often to short, shallow breathing reflexively.
When we are children in traumatic homes, it is too scary to believe our caregivers are bad and so we blame ourselves. We grow up believing at some level we were always bad. The codependent behaviors we develop are ways of surviving in this environment. Then when we carry it into our adult lives, it no longer works and destroys our relationships. A CoDA tool to help us with seeing our survival patterns are the Recovery Patterns of Codependence which gently names our survival pattern on the left side and then gives a remedy for a new behavior we can adopt on the right. For me, it has been helpful to begin naming these patterns survival patterns as it unhooks me from feeling I am at fault. Instead, I have come to respect how miraculous it is that I made it through and am now healing. I feel like my Higher Power has brought me to words that serve my growth.
Another valuable piece of recovery science that my therapist introduced was the ACE Study. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, and it is a new handle associated with a method of systematically measuring traumatic experiences and correlating them to impacts on survivors of trauma. The original study was done at Kaiser Permanente in California and had 17,000 participants. What was found was that major morbidity and mortality outcomes were associated with the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences a person has. My score is a 5. I read THE DEEPEST WELL by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D. who expanded the study and is now the Surgeon General of California. Trauma has now been proven to be associated with the formation of addictive personalities as well as many physical diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
I have been fortunate in CoDA to meet people who are finding another powerful, related path to healing with years of science behind its methodology. This is Mindful Self-Compassion work. How many of you are extremely hard on yourselves? Could it help to deeply understand that it is our traumatic experiences which led us to become both the attacker and the attacked? Mindful Self Compassion is, for me, a vital missing ingredient which is finally freeing me from the shame and blame response I learned as a child. Kristen Neff, Ph.D. is a pioneer in this research.
Just as the medical field evolves, I recognize that recovery needs to evolve. Forty years of 12 Step recovery alone did not get me there. The Steps were written in the 1930’s and were groundbreaking! Those who wrote them are the shoulders we stand on. And, we can all benefit from knowing more about trauma and how to heal from it. CoDA named it and that was a leap forward from the original 12 Steps.