Facing Past Trauma, Part IX - Timing is Everything

Patient Expert

This is the ninth and final installment in our conversation on past trauma. Trust me, you will be hearing a lot more on the topic. In our last piece, we left off with the critical question, namely:

When is it the right time to engage in the process of facing our trauma issues - in effect, to lift the lid to our early life and start poking around with a stick?

Part of this has to do with the fact that our bipolar may not be sufficiently stabilized for us to grapple with potentially unsettling issues. The other part has to do with the fact that even if we have our bipolar well under control, the time may simply not be right. Often, it's more productive to focus on the here and now. Perhaps I can best explain with reference to this Buddhist parable:

Imagine a warrior wounded with a poisoned arrow refusing medical attention on the basis that first he must know who shot the arrow, whether he "was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker," what family he was from, how tall, and so on. Not to mention the weapon the arrow came from, long bow, crossbow, whether the bowstring was fiber or hemp or something else, the kind of wood the arrow shaft was made of, not to mention the species of bird that gave up its feathers. On and on and on ...

No, just pull out the damned arrow, attend to the wound, and work at getting back on your feet again.

That was my mindset after being diagnosed with bipolar 13 years ago. My new label gave me a sense of absolution. I could blame my sorry state of existence on my biology, fix the problem, attend to my here-and-now issues, and win back my life. The last thing I needed was to foster a sense of victim-hood. What was done was done. It was time to move forward. It turned out to be the correct decision.

But that was then. Three years ago, I paid my mother a visit. She happened to say something to me - something totally thoughtless and mean - that changed my whole way of looking at her. Insignificant throw-away comment, huge effect.

Of all things, during that same visit, my brother and I went out together for a ten-mile walk. This was the first time since we were kids we were not talking with some other family member in the immediate vicinity. The conversation was candid and totally mind-boggling. We talked about family stuff, about growing up under the same roof. Suddenly, I was through with making excuses for my parents.

A year later, my brother resettled in southern CA, not far from where I live. The conversations continued, often very late into the evenings.These conversations, it turned out, were my trauma therapy. Every form of trauma therapy has an element of exposure and desensitization built into it. Namely you relive past events in a safe setting, to the point where you start feeling comfortable inside your own skin. So it was that over numerous conversations - over my home cooking and a beer, listening to good music - both of us felt driven to repeat the same talking points, over and over. With each repetition, our past lost some of its strange dominion.

Then one day my brother came over, and we talked about sports and music and politics without even mentioning family. We had both turned a corner.

But timing was everything. Three years ago, I was ready. Prior to that, I may have knocked a few bricks loose, but the wall would have remained standing. This raises the obvious question: When is it the right time? Based on my experience, you will feel it in your bones. You will know. Have faith. Healing is possible.

Many thanks to the bipolar community here at HealthCentral in guiding me through this series. As always, you are the true experts, the true teachers. Next week: The beginning of a new series, this time exploring the overlap between bipolar and ADD.