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I Just Can’t Believe It!
Emphasis on Elders “I just can’t believe this happened to me!” How many times have we heard someone say this or said it ourselves? Some life experiences can be so overwhelming and terrifying that we find it hard to believe, or accept that they have actually occurred. A shocking experience such as a close call, near-death experience, serious illness, or tragic loss can seem surreal, and the longer time passes, the less real it can seem until we hardly ever think of it. Perhaps we forget about the experience completely.

If you’ve had a traumatic life experience and have virtually forgotten about it, you may believe you “got over it” and that all is well…but that’s not necessarily so. Although in many cases what’s past is past, such experiences can stay buried in the backs of our minds for years, even decades, and we can find ourselves disturbed by them again later in life for no apparent reason.

Another way a past trauma can affect our present life, is that the experience gets stored in fragments in different parts of our mind—the narrative or story of what happened in one area, the emotional feelings such as terror, panic, or rage in another, the things we did and in what order in a third place, and how our body felt at the time in another. Then if we happen to think of the experience, it’s easier to handle because we aren’t recalling the entire overwhelming experience all at once. One example is telling a tragic story we may have told before but without any emotion, just rattling off the details. Another example is suddenly being overcome with sadness with no idea why, only to realize a song, a billboard or TV advertisement, or even an evocative aroma such as a special perfume or mothballs has triggered that response.
How does that occur? First, the more upsetting the experience the more likely we are to have distanced ourselves from it in order to go on with the normal rhythm of life. It recedes into a back room in the mind much like an old steamer trunk is shoved into a dusty corner of the attic and never given another thought. The trunk may sit undisturbed for years, even decades, until we need a document from the past for some financial or legal matter, or until we’re moving out of the old house and need to decide what to do with the trunk.

A memory that has been packed away and left to fade into the recesses of the mind becomes vivid again when something causes us to delve into it anew. Perhaps a story on the evening news about a lost child reminds us of a frightening experience of being lost in our own childhood. Or perhaps a violent crime reminds us of an assault from long ago that we were encouraged to “get over” and forget. Unresolved traumas get packed away like unwashed laundry, and when they’re inspected by light of day, by the light of the here and now, the old stains and rips are there for us to examine and recall.

Forgotten traumatic memories are a feature of a normal mental process we all have from time to time called dissociation, a disruption in the normally integrated functions of memory and awareness of personal experience. It’s not unlike going into another room of the house and forgetting why we’re there. Our thoughts can become distracted so we aren’t completely conscious of our actions and intent. The body goes into the kitchen acting on the mind’s decision to get a cup of coffee, but simultaneously we’re distracted by another thought, and once we get to the kitchen, we’re clueless as to why. Whole experiences of a distressing nature can become disconnected from our daily awareness, and yet they still have the power to disturb our calm.

You may have grown up believing, as many of us have, that therapy or counseling was only for “crazy people” and therefore have never gone to anyone to talk about your problems dealing with the past or the present. Not true. Back in the old days there was usually someone we could seek out for wisdom or guidance, perhaps a village elder, a priest, pastor or rabbi, or a grandparent. Maybe we even spoke with the friendly family doctor who came to the house, and who knew us all by name and had time to listen.

How times have changed! We Americans move around so much that seldom do we live as adults in the town where we were born, or die where our ancestors did. If we do live all our lives in the same town, chances are our childhood friends and even our children and grandchildren have moved away. By the time old issues have begun to disturb us in our later years, our own wise ancestors have gone on and our friends may be too focused on their own problems to hear ours.
Getting help
When we need to sort out some feelings, we may not know who might help us work it all out. This kind of help is what psychotherapy—sometimes called “talk therapy” or counseling—is for, among other things. It’s your opportunity to unpack that virtual steamer trunk with someone able to help you go through it and figure out what it all means. You can start by asking your family doctor to recommend a psychotherapist who accepts your insurance. If you have Medicare and a supplemental “Medigap” policy, you may not have to pay anything at all to see a psychologist or clinical social worker. You call for an appointment and go in to meet with the therapist who will ask some questions in order to best learn how to help you. Sometimes an urgent need is revealed in the first session or two indicating a referral to a medical doctor or other specialist before talk therapy is appropriate. Once the initial process is complete and therapy has been deemed appropriate, a regular appointment is set up. Then begins a potentially healing conversation over a period of weeks or months, and sometimes longer, where you and your therapist explore together the things that have troubled your sleep or disturbed your waking hours. You don’t have to struggle alone.

So if a news story or sudden memory troubles your sleep, causes you to mull over your own life experiences, or fills your mind and heart with disturbing thoughts, feelings, or even vivid memories, talk therapy may help you begin to “believe it really happened,” so the experience can assume its rightful place in your life—in the past. Your life experiences are valuable chapters in your life story, each contributing to who you are. In the process of claiming those chapters as your own, you might come away with new knowledge about your strengths and abilities, and a new respect for who you have become.

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"I Just Can’t Believe It!"
   authored by:
Shielagh Shusta-Hochberg is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan. Dr. Shusta-Hochberg received her doctorate from the Adelphi University Derner Institute for Advanced Psychological Studies. She treats a variety of psychological is...

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