Trauma is not what happened to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you

“Trauma is not what happened to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you,” Gabor Mate.

I met Dr. Gabor Mate in October 2012 at the Veterans Trauma Treatment workshop held at the Omega Institute. He was a presenter speaking about his experiences with people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol. Dr. Mate had left his role as a palliative medicine physician and now specializes in addictions. His research had found that all addictions were rooted in traumatic experiences. He had my full attention as I was from a family of alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, and very familiar with the 12 Steps of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).

I immediately bought his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, on sale at the bookstore on the campus.

My brother, a recovering alcoholic, had died ten years earlier, September, 2003. He was 13 months older than I, but we were not what you would say “close”. When he moved from Cincinnati to San Diego, he was in recovery. For three years living in San Diego, he was clean and sober, attending AA meetings every day, and his “Home Group” weekly. When he called our mother to share the results of a scan indicating he had pancreatic cancer, we all collaborated and came to the conclusion that it would be best for him to come back to Ohio for further testing and treatments. In the whirlwind of phone calls over the next three days, I have a “feeling in my gut” saying go to San Diego and help him navigate the next step. I pushed that aside, feeling the impossibility of leaving my home, family, work and flying out to California. At the time I was working as a hospice nurse.

Even though I had a familiarity with the Cancer Treatment Centers and the Oncologists and nurses, I was on my own, from scheduling doctors appointments, scans and biopsies, a hospitalization due to internal hemorrhaging, a transfer to hospice, and being at his bedside while he was dying six days later. The gift I received was knowing the true truth of who he was, healed from the effects of alcohol.

The last “good” day we had together we were settling in for the evening to watch the first OSU football game of the season. We had just left The James Cancer Center the previous afternoon and felt the excitement of “Game Day” on the Ohio State University campus. The next five days were a nightmare. What I did not know, nor did the hospice team of physicians, nurses, social workers, that he was suffering from undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress when the decision was made for palliative sedation. His nurse described him as a “caged animal”, with terminal agitation, restlessness, fear, confusion, and existential suffering.

Returning to work after taking some bereavement time, I just sat in the car parking lot, listening to silence. Listening to the quiet, my gut was clearly saying “I can not do this”. My head was clearly saying “But, I do not have the energy to look for another job. Quieting the messages my body was speaking, I stayed. My head and my gut were not in sync. When I tried to talk about what I was feeling, I literally could not speak. Words were stuck in my throat. I could not find my voice.

Ten years later I was with Dr. Gabor Mate in the three day workshop. I had a one-on-one Q&A, asking him a question about AA’s value since he had not mentioned AA, in his presentation on treatments for alcohol addictions. His response was exactly as he shares in the appendix of his book. The 12-steps are miraculous in bringing people into community, sponsors supporting each other in taking one day at a time, showing up and connecting, but AA does not get to the trauma. This explains the sobering statistics shared by an addiction therapist I knew at the time. 80% of women who were alcoholics had been sexually abused when they were young girls.

Now I pay very close attention to my body’s messages. I listen to my gut. I understand how my body keeps the score. My gut was trying to get my attention, to pause, and consider traveling to California to be with my brother in his home with the support and the love of his AA sponsor and “home group”.

In Glenn’s memory, I am sharing a link to Dr. Mate’s 2021 documentary, “The Wisdom of Trauma”. This documentary changes the way addictions are viewed, and creates new ways of healing, recovering from trauma.

Opportunities for discussion around the documentary will soon be available in a private Facebook group.

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