Brendan’s Story – The Key to Breaking Free from Trauma’s Ball & Chain

By Guest Writer Brendan O’Hara

Throughout most of my life, I’ve always had an intrinsic sense that I was capable of living a more purposeful, authentic, and joyful life. As a healthy, well-educated, athletic, single man in my late 30s with a 17-year corporate career, a modern townhouse in a hip neighborhood, a luxury SUV, and a charming dog, I seemed quite content on-paper. However, I was unknowingly tethered to an unidentifiable ball & chain that was imprisoning my joy, happiness, and inner equilibrium: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

After years of several failed attempts to treat the issues, I finally discovered the key to unlocking PTSD’s ball & chain: trauma-focused therapy, or more specifically in my case, Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. But, like many trauma-oriented stories, mine is dimly lit, originating from abuse and neglect in what was supposed to have been my incubating sanctuary.

My Trauma’s Origin

I was the third-born of four children to a working father and stay-at-home mother. During my childhood, despite excelling in school and athletics, and being socially outgoing, I was the black sheep in my family…one in which physical abuse, rage, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and general dysfunction were normalized, modeled, and repeated. Though athletic, I was also thin, frail, and the only family member without an ally. Consequently, my fight-or-flight system was on maximum overdrive in my formative years, enduring beatings and verbal assaults with little means of protection or connection within my family, putting me in a disproportionate state of fear, feeling overwhelmed and trapped, and resorting to people-pleasing, conformity, sympathy-seeking, avoidance, and isolation as my go-to defense mechanisms since I could not physically protect myself.

This tattooed me with uncontrollable physiological responses, thought patterns, personality traits, and an internal dialogue tainted with unbearable anxiety, fear, and depression. As these handicaps strengthened in severity with age, so too did my ability to camouflage them.

My adult life consisted of moving in and out of different environments, schools, corporate jobs, cities, and social groups, and adapting myself to fit into each one, but never finding a sense of belonging. A part of me always felt like an outsider, while other parts of me regretted abandoning aspects of my authentic self in order to fit in. I would learn later in IFS therapy that this was a survival behavior from my childhood tattooed on my psyche that continued manifesting into adulthood, contributing to additional traumatic experiences.

At age 30, having endured several unexplainable panic attacks, depression growing exponentially, and losing my ability to remain present and focused, the sense that something was seriously amiss precipitated various treatment attempts in an effort to correct course.

Treatment Attempts

Over the next several years, I tried various treatments, from talk therapy with copious therapists, to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, two different SSRI medications, self-help books, podcasts, Yoga at my local YMCA, support groups, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, sauna therapy, cold exposure, fitness, sleep optimization, and adopting a rescue dog.

Despite all of these treatment types yielding benefits, my physiological, mental, and emotional PTSD symptoms persisted, and were exacerbated by isolation and uncertainty during the Covid-Pandemic. This was when I stumbled onto trauma therapy.

My Introduction To Trauma-Focused Therapy

While walking my dog on a sepia-toned morning in November 2020, I listened to a Tim Ferriss podcast with guest Dr. Richard Schwartz , a trauma therapist and inventor of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. After hearing them conduct a live demo of IFS, I thought it had potential to benefit me. I later browsed the show notes to discover that the book, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, was a recommended resource, so I engaged the audio book.

“..Traumatized people become stuck, stopped in their growth because they can’t imagine new experiences into their lives…Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on. Unchanged, and immutable, as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past. After the trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives.” (1)

Hearing these words felt like discovering a master key to myriad locks on 39 years worth of trauma’s balls & chains. “That’s me! That’s what I have!” I exclaimed to myself.

One mantra that I’ve used for guidance and motivation is, “Your life is perfectly designed for the results you’re currently getting.” It allowed me to realize that I was caught in a negative feedback loop out of fear of making necessary life changes to improve my circumstances. But, how can I muster the courage to approach life differently when during each attempt, I get hijacked by debilitating PTSD symptoms? 

This explains why I have been unintentionally reliving my trauma by attempting to adapt and fit into unideal environments that don’t serve, nurture, and support my innate purpose, passions, and gifts. Subconsciously, it was easier to relive the trauma by shoving a square peg into a round hole, as I have done since childhood, rather than risk venturing into the unfamiliar territory of an environment that would accept and nurture my authentic self. As the saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. 

Also, perhaps my brain chemistry was addicted to the rush of adrenaline and other neurotransmitters that accompanied those traumatic environments, finding safe, validating, and affirming environments boring and mundane. I discovered this insight in The Body Keeps the Score.

“Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally re-lived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed…Constantly fighting unseen dangers is exhausting and leaves them fatigued, depressed, and weary. If elements of the trauma are replayed again and again, the accompanying stress hormones engrave those memories ever more deeply in the mind. Ordinary, day-to-day events become less and less compelling. Not being able to deeply take in what is going on around them makes it impossible to feel fully alive. It becomes harder to feel the joys and aggravations of ordinary life, harder to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Not being fully alive in the present keeps them more firmly imprisoned in the past.” (2)

My conclusion after reading The Body Keeps the Score was that in order to improve my life, I would need to understand who my authentic self is, what it needs to grow, and seek out environments that serve both. But, since I have neglected doing that all my life, and feared PTSD symptoms hijacking any would-be progress, I knew that I’d need guidance from a trauma-focused therapist.

My Trauma Therapy 

As luck would have it, I was able to find a trauma-focused therapist trained in IFS less than 10 miles from my house.

After explaining my trauma history to her, my new therapist explained IFS to me, which entails personifying each aspect of ourselves — thought and behavior patterns — with the understanding that each “Part” is not inherently good or bad, but instead, serves a purpose for living, growth, and survival. For example, the “Isolationist” Part of me served the vital purpose of protecting me during my formative years when I was the vulnerable, weak, black sheep, trapped and outnumbered in an abusive childhood home devoid of allies and sufficient protection. Yet, perhaps that part is needed less now that I’m a physically fit, independent, adult man who lives in a relatively safe and controlled environment.

This new perspective is a welcome shift from past therapies and support groups, which would have characterized this “Isolationist” Part as a “character defect” which made me feel as though I was broken and needed to be fixed, ultimately leading to shame and unhealthy coping mechanisms to numb said shame.

My therapist then guided me into a calm, meditative state, introduced my Adult Self to the “Isolationist” Part, who was about 13 years old, and moderated a safe interaction between us for about twenty minutes. Here are some insights I gained from this profound experience.

  • Juxtaposing the way my Adult Self treated the Isolationist with how he was treated in his childhood home allowed me to see how much guidance, support, and love were lacking in his youth
  • It allowed me to feel more like an adult, reducing my trauma-based thoughts of feeling like a child in the presence of older people
  • The Isolationist compromised his passions and interests by conforming to those common in his family as a survival mechanism, which became a pattern later in life, ultimately neutralizing joy
  • It reminded me of abandoned passions that my Adult Self can still reasonably pursue, which could open the door to joy by allowing me to reconnect with my authentic self 

The Path Forward

The Body Keeps the Score and IFS therapy have given me hope, and recalibrated my compass to pursue a North star that leads to a sense of belonging as opposed to adapting to fit into environments that do not serve my authentic self. I continue to benefit from IFS, and am curious to explore EMDR, Neurofeedback, and trauma-focused Yoga.

Today, I work as a freelance Graphic Designer and Writer and, thanks to trauma therapy, finally have the courage to pursue my innate passions, increasingly leading to senses of belonging and joy.

There are countless people in the world suffering from traumatic stress, similar to, and worse than mine, whose hopelessness is increasing due to insufficiently effective treatment. Having experienced that myself, I want to connect them with effective trauma-focused therapy, like IFS, so they too may rediscover joy and happiness.

Currently, I’m training and fundraising for the Chad 1000x Veteran’s Day Hero Workout of the Day. This workout — which consists of 1,000 step-ups on a 20″ box while wearing a 45 lb. backpack — honors Navy SEAL Chad Wilkinson, who tragically took his own life in 2018 due to the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), numerous deployments, and blast wave injuries. The goal is to honor Chad’s life and legacy, and to raise awareness for suicide prevention and PTSD. All proceeds will be evenly split between the Trauma Research Foundation and the Navy Seal Foundation. My goal is to raise $5,000 by the day of the event, Thursday, November 11th, when I will broadcast the workout live on my Instagram and Facebook pages at 9:00am EST.

I have been an avid fitness enthusiast for over twenty years, but tying this PTSD-related cause to my fitness pursuits has given my mission purpose, meaning, and a new source of motivation.

Without trauma therapy, I would not have had the courage and will to commit to this fitness challenge, train for it, manage my first fundraiser, promote it on social media, and author this blog article. Thanks to The Trauma Research Center’s initiatives, The Body Keeps the Score, and IFS, I’m eager to see what else I can do, rather than being petrified to try.

That’s progress.

References:

(1) The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. Chapter 4, PP 53: Running For Your Life: the Anatomy of Survival

(2) The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. Chapter 4, pp. 66: Running For Your Life: the Anatomy of Survival

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