• Jan-Paul Van Dessel

Crêpes, Trauma and Recovery - (yes, Crêpes! read on...)

Updated: May 15

As part of our training and continual personal development we are actively encouraged as counsellors to be a 'reflective practitioner'. It's such a helpful process as we reflect on not just our relationship, journey and progress or change with and within each client (and ourselves) but on the processes at work within that. Those processes might be linked to the type of issue the client is exploring through counselling, it could also be related to the modality of counselling we feel is most appropriate to the client needs or indeed responding to particular types of experience in their lives.

In doing so, I have become very aware of the number of recent clients who were explicitly describing, or becoming aware of, trauma being a key component of the issues they were exploring. Of interest, there was something about the word trauma that was resisted, unwelcome and even stigmatic. I was hearing responses like "I don't want to think that I am actually traumatised" or "trauma is really about something more terrible than my experience". I felt a short blog might help those perhaps reading this as a way of finding out more about how I work with trauma as a counsellor, and also to dispel what might be a few myths about trauma. Before you read on, pause a moment, close your eyes, take a couple of intentional deep breaths then think or say in your head the word 'trauma' and notice what images, words or scenarios spring to mind. We will come back to this later.

Peter Levine, renowned author on the topic of trauma (including 'Waking The Tiger'), describes trauma perfectly for me. He describes it as a wound, a psychological wound. The concept of seeing trauma as a wound is very effective in a counselling context, as with all wounds there are known techniques, approaches and stages in the healing process. As with any wound, we are careful about how we might make contact with it; we don't dive in and I think 'gentle' is a word that could prefix all we do around trauma. Gentle approach, gentle exploration and gentle attending. Gentle is of course a subjective measure, and as a counsellor I would be very much guided by my client's own sense of their capacity and needs in this regard. Such an approach helps all to stay safe from the risk of becoming re-traumatised; immersed, swamped or reliving the traumatic experience itself but rather feeling safe in the here and now, sufficiently distant from the pain or danger.

As with all wounds, there is abundant evidence that we can very effectively heal and recover from trauma. It does not need to be a permanent part of our future lives. Reactions to trauma are well documented in the biological world and can be seen across the animal kingdom. If you have ever watched a David Attenborough documentary of a big cat hunting an impala or other creature, you've seen trauma in action - and possibly in super-high-definition-4K-slow-motion-panoramic-supervision-deluxe-colour-hi-fi-dolby-sound-3D-sensovision! The initial chase - FLIGHT! - adrenaline and other hormones pumping around the body as acceleration kicks in and maximum energy is dispensed to the muscles to increase chance of escape. The big cats like the cheetah can only maintain their absolute top speed of 60-70mph for 10-15 seconds, so this gives the fleeing animal a chance. Or we might see the prey simply slumping or giving up at the first point of capture - FREEZE! - also known as the immobility response. The body prepares itself for the worst, and begins to shut down key parts of the sensory system and spares itself from the full pain and terror of what may be about to happen. A secondary effect of freeze is that at times the hunter will take an eye off the ball, and a second flight response can happen, enabling ultimate escape.

As humans we seem to have a very similar response to other animals to the immediate presence of trauma, but a very different response to the aftermath. The impala, and let's say this one was lucky and escaped, recognises that once it is a safe distance away from the danger and the event, allows itself to once again relax and a trembling/shaking is frequently observed at this stage as it literally 'shakes off' the trauma and returns soon after to grazing and it's other every day needs. In humans, we have a tendency to become locked or stuck in that moment of fear, capture, terror, pain and the passage of time and the distance from the event does not always bring the return of the previous normality. A new state can be formed, and we can often experience flashbacks and other vivid reminders through dreams and intrusive thoughts, and the body remains perhaps on high-alert with hyper-vigilant behaviours or our sense of safety and security becomes eroded and many different forms of anxiety & stress appear.

Unlike the impala we do not always fully return to what was our previous 'norm' unaided, at times parts of us can and might recover to resume work, hobbies & interests, studies and relationships, but a part of us remains stuck in the grip of that moment, that event, and stays trapped there. Held in the sense of fear, powerlessness and immobility. We might be seen by others as being present, but the inner experience can be quite different as we can be present here and now but also be 'back there' - where and when it happened. A type of bilocation, in two time zones at once, and this can generate a very critical self-dialogue, where we might say to ourselves "pull yourself together", "there's nothing wrong with you, haven't you got everything you need?" and "others have it much worse than you".

What did you think about earlier when you took those intentional breaths and said the word 'trauma' in your head? It would not be unusual to have pictured or imagined scenes of violence, war, danger, accidents and other catastrophes. And yes, they can be traumatic. Trauma also is experienced in many other ways including physical and sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, bereavement, bullying - in fact anything that we perceive and experience as a threat to our person or our safe existence (in whatever way we measure that).

But how do you fix a non-physical wound that you can't actually see with your eyes, and how can counselling help? In my experience, the first step is to acknowledge (where it is the case) that trauma is what we are woking with and trying to resolve. Naming it, and understanding the signs and signals, opens the door to a way forward. There are many indicators that trauma may be an underlying cause to a person's distress or issue; hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, trouble sleeping, uncontrollable crying, eruptive temper and many many more. Recognising the time gap that exists between the then and now, and developing new resources can help us become more grounded and feel safer in our present world. Working with the metaphor of trauma as a wound, can help us focus on what it needs to heal and recover, and creates a tangible representation for the work to be done. Without that visual image, trauma has an almost ethereal characteristic, and that can make it harder to find a starting point for healing.

In preparing my thoughts for this blog, as I woke yesterday morning I was struck by my own memory and experience of trauma, which I had perhaps ignored at one level, not understood at another level and certainly not approached in any conscious therapeutic way. In 1989 I moved from Liverpool to live in Belfast. My then girlfriend (now wife of almost 30 years this coming August) was studying there, and I just had to be there with her. Nothing else mattered. All thoughts of danger and risk that Northern Ireland at that time presented were brushed aside in the quest for love. In the 4 years I lived there, there were some 'close calls' that consistently raised my levels of anxiety and brought the sense of danger and threat closer than I had ever experienced before. This included the gable wall of our end terrace house being painted in large white letters 'U.V.F. BREDA ROAD'. That felt like a very direct threat.

The memory that came back (and at last we get to the connection between Crêpes and Trauma!) was the closest I had ever been to a detonated explosive device in an actual terrorist attack. Even thinking that now (as my body becomes a little on edge, butterflies rise and adrenaline flows a little) is just not at all how I viewed that then. I worked then, and did for almost 28 years, with a large U.K. bank. Then a cashier, lunch breaks would sometimes be spent in the pedestrianised zone to the rear of Donegall Sq North. A bustling place of shops and cafés and always very busy at lunch time. A favourite haunt for a 'treat lunch', my pay at that time meant it was certainly not an everyday thing!, Café Noir made delicious crêpes and great coffee. Sitting at a table on my own that day, at the very back of the long rectangular café I was preparing to finish lunch and go back to work. Without warning there was a tremendous BANG!!. The kind you not only hear but feel the vibrations travel through your body. It felt SO close. Then SILENCE. The packed restaurant literally froze. You could hear a pin drop. 2 or 3 seconds later, another BANG!!, this time it felt even closer. The thought that ran through my head in that moment was that there will be a third, and this time it will be INSIDE the café. My body responded, it was time to run, leave, get out - no matter what was outside. Every other customer had the same reflex. As we exited, it was like the hundreds of other shoppers/diners that filled the area parted like the biblical story of the Red Sea, and running through the gap were two young men, being chased by RUC police (now known as PSNI). The seas closed in, trapping the perpetrators as many shoppers literally sat on top of them and held them down. I could see blood trickling from the ear of one of those pinned down. The two involved, had attacked a group of police which was not more than 100 metres from where I was having lunch, and threw two grenades into the walking patrol. Later that evening I heard on the news that an RUC officer lost one if not both legs that day.

I went back to work, literally minutes later serving customer. I am not even sure what I thought about it immediately then, or after. It was almost like this was 'par for the course', 'how life just is here' and it never crossed my mind that I could have been affected in any lasting way. It was only some years later, as the wheels of the aeroplane left the runway at Belfast City Airport in 1993 as I moved to live in Scotland, that I experienced what felt like a weight rising off my chest and shoulders as I realised that my next home, shopping experience, meal out or visit to a pub would not be subject to the same risks and fears that I had carried around, like a physical weight, almost unconsciously for the previous 4 years. It undoubtedly had longer lasting effects on me, not just that one incident but the many that occurred whilst living in Belfast and those when I was much younger and growing up in Dundalk, Ireland, a border town where everyday news was of death, terror and anger.

I have grown now to have a deeper understanding of trauma, and how it can become quite insidious in our lives. Peter Levine talks about how trauma 'plays out in the theatre of the body'. It can have different locations within our body and mind, be in more than one place at a time and can move around within. But I am more and more certain, through my practice and my own experience, that it can be identified, it can be approached and located and most importantly of all it can be healed.

If past trauma is potentially part of your story, and causing issues in your life today, please do make contact here and we can discuss, without obligation, how counselling might help.

Thanks for reading. Please do leave a comment, and if you found it helpful and think it could help others, please do share via the social media links provided.

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