Ever been asked "where do you think you'll be in five years?"
I've never gotten that right. Not once. But today I want to talk about my favorite example of me getting it entirely wrong, and how that turned out to be a really good thing.
The truth is, I spent a decade and a half of my adult life struggling - and failing - to cope with my own mind.
In the summer of 2007, I experienced an episode so intense and terrifying that I decided I needed help. I spent the next 12 years going through an intensive series of treatments - medications, therapies, counseling, you name it. I have literally lost count of the dozens of different chemicals I was prescribed in that time, often simultaneously; I have countless stories of frustating conversations with doctors, therapists, life coaches, and more... all of whom failed to truly "fix" my problem.
It wasn't until late in 2018 that I first began to find a way out. I discovered trauma - and, more importantly, I began to learn how to heal it.
Five years later, I am - quite literally - a completely different person. This is the story of how I changed my own mind.
I won't recount the full horrors of what I endured - either the original trauma and violence that caused it, or the symptoms and struggles of the intervening years. Suffice it to say I was miserable, all the time. My brain rarely seemed to do what I wanted. I was plagued with invasive thoughts, intrusive ideas, strange bursts of powerful and overwhelming emotion. I thought about what it would take to make it all stop - often. I learned very early on to lie on "depression and suicide risk" questionnaires to avoid being involuntarily imprisoned in psychiatric "care" facilities. I learned not to let anyone know what was really going on... even the professionals I was desperately hoping could help me, but who never really did.
My sleep was a mess, and increasingly got worse over time. I spent the last few years of that saga dependent on maximum-dosage prescription sleeping medication just to get a few hours of rest at night. I concealed as much as I could; and indeed, outwardly, I seemed quite happy and successful. I had a good job, a good future, a decent life and home. All of that was, of course, a carefully maintained lie. Beneath the illusion, my existence was a living hell.
I've told the story here, on this blog, of how I began to unearth the truth of myself, in the waning days of 2018, as well as the tumultuous process of 2019 that encompassed some of the most dramatic changes I made. I've talked about how I am trans, and how that span of time played out as a major chapter in my own self-reclamation and self-actualization. But I've rarely gotten into the details of how much things have really changed.
So I wanted to set the stage, for this piece, by explaning exactly how unrecognizable I am - inside and out - since this time five years ago.
I no longer take any medication, at all (except for exogenous hormone therapy). I sleep well virtually every night. My mind is quiet, clear, calm, and peaceful. I no longer fear my own emotions, and instead will actively seek out reasons to feel things. My body is more healthy than I've ever been in my life. Every relationship I have is profoundly different, now, and healthy and supportive in ways I literally could not imagine a few years ago. There is a life in my soul that I never knew could even be missing.
But the real significance of all of this is why. Because there are plenty of stories about trans people living happier, better lives once we get a chance to be our true selves - but that's not what this is about. In fact, in the way I understand things today, my trans story was a side effect of the bigger, more important story. That's the one I want to tell here.
My real story is about what it means to overcome trauma.
In life, there's a lot we cannot control. There's a lot we can't even really substantially influence, by ourselves. This can be incredibly distressing and demoralizing, when we realize how much in this world really should change, that we feel powerless and hopeless to affect. But we can always change ourselves. Changing ourselves is hard work, and it takes commitment, but it's possible, even if the truths about how to heal are difficult.
So I want to talk about how to change our own minds, by sharing my own processes, and then conclude with some thoughts about why all this matters.
My personal starting place was the realm of thoughts. Some of this was just inevitable, given my own neurology (being autistic and prone to lots of thinking and introspection in general). Some of it was due to circumstances. When I really began confronting my own trauma in the closing days of 2018, I was medicated beyond belief. I could not feel anything, even if I wanted to; and for reasons I hadn't quite figured out yet, I had no meaningful awareness of my own body (spoilers: it was gender dysphoria!).
So my journey began in my brain.
I've encountered a lot of therapy techniques over the years. I found the popular, "standard" methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectic Behavioral Therapy to be incredibly useless and even harmful to me; they had a tendency to make me feel ignored, misunderstood, rejected, and dismissed. I would later learn that this was directly tied into my own childhood abuse and abandonment, which explained part of why those approaches never really helped me. The other part is related to being autistic; I discovered, eventually, that in order to change my mind, I really need a good reason. Just wanting to isn't enough.
Early on in my research on trauma, I found three incredibly important ideas that ended up becoming cornerstones of my own work with my unruly, rampant, chaotic, horrific thoughts.
The first of these is the concept that not everything that happens in our brains is our own. Not all of our thoughts are actually things we believe; in fact, it's quite likely that a huge portion of them come from what we've been taught, how we've been treated, and - most importantly - what traumas we might carry.
The idea of the "inner critic" neatly packages up all of these things into one grouping, to make them easier to identify and deal with. Some trauma workers talk about these collections of not-our-thoughts as "idea monsters" or leftovers of other peoples' voices and actions that have begun to mimic our own inner voices. Being a complete and total nerd, I ended up referring to these things as noise.
In electronic communication technology, the "signal to noise ratio" is a common measurement for describing how much of a communication is relevant, meaningful, intentional content ("signal") and how much is distraction, accidental corruption, interference, or otherwise not helpful ("noise"). The problem with having a lot of noise compared to our level of signal is that it becomes very tempting to start trying to interpret noise as meaningful data and information - and this is almost always a recipe for problems.
So the first step, in my own journey, was to learn to identify "noise." I learned to ask myself: are these things I'm thinking really me, or just habitual patterns that sound a lot like they might be me, but came from somewhere else? With time, and practice, I found that I could recognize discrepancies between what I actually thought, believed, and felt, and what was echoing around in my skull.
This led nicely to the second important concept, which is interruption. A lot of us are taught that it is impolite and not socially acceptable to interrupt; but it turns out, sometimes interruption is a necessary part of healthiness and doing the right thing. Some things should be interrupted... like intrusive, unhelpful, problematic thoughts... noise, masquerading as our own internal signals.
To apply this as a technique, all we really need to do is act on our awareness: when we find a thought that seems problematic, unwanted, out of place, and so on, we can cut it off. Jump in and protest. Say "nope! I don't think so" to ourselves - quietly, or aloud, whichever works best! Our protests may begin small, timid, quiet, and seemingly useless, but with time and repetition, we get bolder in challenging the critics, the negativity monsters, the noise that inhabits our minds. Interruption isn't necessarily about making the thoughts go away; that comes later. It's just a matter of intentionally responding to them, on our own terms.
Interruption, as a technique, does not need to be perfect. In fact, it won't be, especially not at first. I struggled a lot with feeling like I was failing at this whole process, until I realized that - over time - my halting, tiny, imperfect, seemingly-futile efforts were adding up and working. I was having less and less trouble with "noisy" thoughts, although the ones that remained seemed to get louder and more desperate, trying to insist to me that I was losing the battle against them.
Of course, by that time, I knew how to recognize that they were lies. Their power was already beginning to shatter.
The final piece of the puzzle is replacement. It is good to be able to recognize thoughts we want to be rid of, and it's helpful to be able to protest against them, even just to ourselves. But in order to understand how to really make those things stop, we need another element: we need to give ourselves something else to think instead. When therapists talk about things like "reframing" and exploring alternative perspectives, those are forms of thought-replacement.
The idea is that, over time, we retrain ourselves to let go of the thoughts we don't want, and instead start having thoughts we do. This is, again, a very gradual process. It has to build on top of awareness of our own thinking - and of "noise" that isn't our own! It also must built on top of a practiced ability to challenge old thoughts. Unfortunately, far too many practitioners (especially neurotypical ones) approach this as "just stop thinking the bad thing" which cannot possibly work. The reality is that we need to have another option to think, and only then can we begin eliminating the unwanted stuff in our brains.
To understand why this is so crucial, we need to know a little bit about neuro-anatomy: the biology of our brains, and the cells (primarily, but not exclusively, neurons) that they're made from. Don't worry; we don't need to become qualified brain surgeons. A little bit of understanding about how brains and neurons actually work, though, can be incredibly helpful.
We have a limited understanding of how brains really work, on a deep level, but we do know some pretty cool stuff. There is a connection between the experience of "thinking" (regardless of whether or not we experience an "inner monologue" with actual words) and certain neuron activity within the brain. The way neurons work, they like to become active in groups, like a flock of birds or a school of fish. Neurons act together. This means that a "thought" we experience is actually connected to the simultaneous actions of many, many neurons.
There is a very important property of brains that's called neuro-plasticity. In short, this means that we can re-train and even literally re-shape our brains, just by how we use our neurons. The more we think a certain set of things, the more those neurons get "practice" in acting together... and the more likely we are to easily have that thought again! It's the exact same mechanism that lets us learn how to do things like walk, talk, play musical instruments, type, cook, and so on, via repetition and intentional practice - and we can use it on our own minds!
The trick, though, is that this involves a truly staggering number of neurons. Changing all those neurons, and the connections between them, is hard work. As with most of the process of dealing with trauma, patience is almost always the hardest part. But with time, we can and do adjust our neuron-patterns.
From a purely cognitive focus, this is how we change our minds: by recognizing what thoughts we want to keep, interrupting the ones we don't want, and gradually replacing the unwanted ideas and phrases and understandings with something else.
As intriguing and promising as this brain-work is, there's a very important caveat.
Our society, of course, very much encourages us to think of our "brains" and "hearts" as being separate, distinct things. We're utterly saturated with this way of understanding. We are constantly told that "logic" is different from (and superior to) "emotion." Our cognition and our feelings are unrelated and we should only care about our thoughts. Feelings are unreliable and dangerous and useless and inferior.
If you're not already aware, I'd like to let you in on a very important secret: all of that is bullshit.
In reality, it's quite the opposite. Many of our feelings occur in response to our thoughts; and many of our thoughts occur because of what we are feeling! In point of fact, there is no clean, defined, separable line between "thinking" and "feeling." On a literal anatomical level, they both operate in much the same way, albeit we observe their effects in slightly different places in the brain.
But remember how neurons like to work in groups?
Much like birds in a flock, or fish in a school, it only takes a tiny subset of the group to kick off major movement and activity - and that can come from anyone in the group. In terms of neurons, some electrical/chemical activity in one spot in the brain can instigate related activity in very different places! So in this way, our "thoughts" and our "emotions" are inseparable from each other. They literally feed into each other and can activate each other freely, and often do.
I ran into this like a brick wall in the first days of 2019. I found that I couldn't do much with just my brain. I couldn't really get anywhere useful or meaningful by trying to just adjust my thoughts.
During that time, I worked briefly with a trauma therapist who offered one of the most important bits of advice I've ever gotten in my life. She told me that the most important thing I could do, to sort out my problems, was to learn how to recognize what felt right for me.
At the time, her advice was scary. I didn't like my feelings. Running away from my feelings is what had gotten me into psychiatrists' offices and onto therapists' couches to begin with. I didn't want to feel things! My emotions were too much, more than I could handle, too intense, too overwhelming. That time, back in 2007, I literally felt something so intensely I thought I was going to die from feeling it.
And the more I tried to change my thinking, the more I started feeling things that made me stop. Fear. Uncertainty. Confusion. Other, more difficult things, too. Shame. Guilt. Loneliness. Anger.
None of it felt "right" - but I chose to believe that if I kept looking hard enough, I'd start finding things that did. Surely all this "bad" stuff - these "negative" feelings - couldn't be all I was capable of... right?
My first experiences with things feeling good and correct for myself happened through the lens of gender. It wasn't until I figured out I wasn't a "boy" that I truly began to discover that, yes, I can feel things besides all the painful and unpleasant and difficult stuff. But exploring those things was hard. Incredibly, indescribably hard. I felt like every time my brain wanted to think about what my real gender might be, my feelings yanked me back and shut it down.
What I was encountering was a common phenomenon with traumas of all shapes and sizes.
It's important to understand that everything we feel has a reason. No matter how hard it is to understand, no matter how "illogical" or incomprehensible our feelings may seem, they're doing something on purpose. The art of facing trauma is learning to ask why we feel things, and be prepared to truly deal with the answer.
The logic and sense of our hearts does not follow the same rules as the logic of our brains. But it is very real, very dependable, and very important. Unfortunately, it can also become misshapen, twisted into unhelpful things. This is extremely common when we experience trauma at young ages, when we don't yet have better ways to deal with things.
A lot of our feelings - of fear, reluctance, shame, avoidance, even of being "too tired" to deal with things - stem from our hearts doing their absolute best to protect us. In a way, even a large number of my own "self-destructive" tendencies were not actually coming from a place of trying to hurt or harm me. They were attempts to experience a lesser form of harm than what I was already going through. One of my most profound breakthroughs involved realizing that the things I did that left scars on my body were less harmful to me overall, as a person, than the abuse and violence I'd been subjected to. As I learned to replace my old understandings of my feelings - as enemies, as things to avoid, as problems - with new thoughts, I began to be curious about what I was protecting myself from.
Learning to respect the importance of what my heart was doing - even when misguided - proved to be an essential part of addressing my own trauma.
I need to be very clear about one point. For a significant chunk of time, all of this "inner work" seemed incredibly hopeless and daunting to me. I didn't feel like I was really making any progress. I could recognize thoughts and interrupt them, maybe even think of new things from time to time. I'd started realizing my feelings were worth listening to and learning to understand. But it was all so slow, and it seemed like I was constantly "sliding back" into despair, pain, and feeling lost and overwhelmed. I was not convinced I would ever stop suffering, not in any real or meaningful way.
Much like the way our brain-changes cannot be separated from our heart-changes, there is a third component we absolutely cannot neglect, when trying to heal trauma. It is not enough to just try to change our minds and hearts. We also need to understand how those parts of us interact with our bodies.
Let's go back, once again, to the way neurons like to operate in groups.
Except neurons don't just exist in our brains. They exist in almost all of our bodies! To be sure, the biggest population of neural cells in our brains, but there are neural processing centers all over the place. Our (literal) hearts have neuron webs that help them beat reliably. Our digestive tracts have neurons and are the largest producer of certain neuro-transmitter chemicals in our entire bodies - we literally can and should "listen to our gut!"
Even the neurons in our nerves - the ones that transmit sensory data and help us move our bodies - can become part of the "groups" that impact our emotions and our thoughts.
This is a profoundly powerful connection, and in fact, it's central to the way trauma works. "Trauma" itself can actually be defined as experiences so intense we cannot fully process them mentally and emotionally. As a defensive mechanism, we may even block away parts of the memories of the experience itself, in extreme cases. But generally speaking, trauma leaves leftover neuron-patterns all over our bodies, too.
When we have trauma trapped in our bodies, even something as simple as a sensation of touch on one of our limbs can re-activate neuron groups, causing a cascading chain reaction that "turns on" experiences of pain, fear, stress, threat, and so on. However, these usually tend to be fragmented. Instead of completely "reliving" our traumatic experiences, we tend to only partially activate the neurons that were busy at the time of the trauma itself. In this way, we can be "triggered" into emotional states by something as seemingly innocuous as a light brush of contact, or even how we are holding our own posture. (The neurons involved in proprioception - our ability to percieve the positions of our body - follow the same rules as all other neurons, after all.)
In practice, this means that until we learn to address our bodies as a whole, we will be very limited in how much we can truly change our own minds! Not all of these neural clumpings are intense, obvious, or even necessarily all that "traumatic." It's actually quite common to have these hidden associations - links between our thoughts and feelings with things going on in our bodies - that we don't even realize are happening.
For some people, like me, who experience very low-resolution interoception (the ability to recognize our bodily states, like core temperature, hunger, need for the toilet, etc.) this can lead to some extremely confusing things. When we don't consciously realize the connections between our bodies and our minds, it gets really disorienting and bewildering when our bodies start affecting our thoughts! No wonder it's so easy to believe our emotions make no sense and our bodies should be told to shut up all the time!
This is why I've come to insisit that somatic awareness is a crucial part of any approach to trauma. In fact, I think somatic (meaning body-focused) work is essential for everyone who wants to live a better life. We've been systematically alienated from our own bodies, and this severely limits our own power to be who we actually want to be, inside ourselves.
There are many different ways to develop somatic awareness, and many different techniques for using that awareness to help process feelings we struggle with, or adjust thoughts we want to change. The breadth of this topic is wide enough that I can't even begin to offer a good exploration of it in this limited space. But I will echo that incredibly important advice I got, early in my own work on healing my own trauma: the most important thing each of us can do is learn to recognize what feels right and good for us, personally.
Regardless of how we specifically choose to go about working with our bodies, cultivating a positive, healthy, encouraging relationship with ourselves is paramount. Yet again, this takes time, effort, and commitment - and being patient with ourselves, and the agonizingly slow pace of change, is almost always the hardest part. But being kind, patient, compassionate, and gentle with ourselves isn't just to make the process smoother.
Combativeness and opposition can actually cause resurgence of trauma-related feelings. Being angry and disappointed with ourselves is normal and natural, especially when doing this kind of work. But we need to learn to interrupt our self-blame, and replace our willingness to be upset with ourselves with a new, deeper understanding. Separating out the things we are truly responsible for, and keeping them distinct from things we've just been blamed for, is difficult and tedious work. However, if we keep coming back to ourselves from a mindset of criticism and harshness, we're more likely to keep activating the neurons that want to drop us into defensive, protective mode. We cannot heal if we always resist our own change.
This can be immensely difficult to learn to do, especially for those of us who grew up in environments where anger, blame, shaming, and punishment were the only things we ever had modeled for us by the adults and society around us. But it's important to try - because of (you guessed it!) our own neuro-anatomy.
Neurons love to work in groups, but they also have ways to change their behavioral patterns, in response to chemistry. When people talk about things like "serotonin is the pleasure chemical" or "dopamine is the reward chemical", this is a simplistic reference to how chemicals affect our neurons. The truth is, this is another area that really just isn't all that well-understood yet, but we do know some pretty cool things - and we can apply that knowledge to healing and changing ourselves.
The trick is, in order to help neurons change their group activities faster and more smoothly, we need to be able to provide at least a little bit of chemistry. This can sound incredibly intimidating and hopeless, especially when we're in the throes of depression, or if (like me) you have ADHD and dopamine affects us a bit differently. It can seem impossible in a world that isn't making us happy. But make no mistake: the road to healing and changing ourselves doesn't necessarily feel happy or rewarding at first.
In fact, other emotions can work just fine. I myself did a huge amount of my own changing fuelled entirely on defiance and anger. I was beyond pissed off that I'd been deprived of a good life by the violent and abusive people in my past. And, as it happens, that's enough to help rewire our neurons. The happiness, satisfaction, and reward all came... in time. Patience was, as I've said repeatedly here, usually the hardest part of the process.
But the little things add up.
And in the end, sometimes the most important ingredient we can have, when trying to change our minds, is a stubborn insistence on just fighting for ourselves. It's true that loving ourselves - learning what feels right and good for us - is unimaginably powerful and transformative.
Five years ago, if you'd asked me, I would have told you that the life I have today wasn't possible for me to experience. I probably would have been an asshole about it, too. I'm glad I was wrong.
In December of 2018, I had no idea what was ahead of me. My "five year" prediction would have been comedically inaccurate. But I wanted something about myself to change... and by April 28th of 2019 I'd decided I was going to love me - the real me - no matter how much it took.
I like to think that, knowing where I started, the sheer amount of change in me, between then and now, truly speaks for itself.
I want to come back to something I alluded to at the beginning of this essay: what we have the power to change.
I think this ability to reshape our own internal experiences is incredibly important. It's not just a matter of being happier or more fulfilled or having better relationships in life. It's also a key requirement for any kind of larger change to our world as a whole.
The injustices and oppressions of kyriarchy create vast amounts of trauma. In fact, this is such a pervasive - and intentional - part of those systems that it has given rise to what I've called the anti-culture of whiteness; there is a very real purpose to keeping so many people in perpetual states of misery and trauma. There is a very real reason why we are not taught how to deal with these things, in our current day and age and society - why we're not even really supposed to acknowledge that they exist, or that they happen. We're meant to not notice what's going on. We are not supposed to understand the link between somatic trauma work and liberation. That's a very large part of how power is maintained by oppression.
But the irony of this strategy is that it is fundamentally flawed. After all, we can always change ourselves, as we've explored here; and, as it turns out, the freedom to understand our own experiences is a crucial seed for healing and escaping trauma.
The ways we understand ourselves and our reality become parts of our cultures, they inform and define our societies, and they shape the existence that we play out, every single day, in our collective existence together. Once we know how to change ourselves, we have a starting place for changing anything; and together, as we help each other learn to heal, we can truly change everything.