In 1970, I left New Jersey for California. This was not a decision freely made. I was forced to leave because my life was at risk.
When I arrived in San Jose, I felt like a fish out of water. Seeking some kind of familiar territory, I started working in prisons and juvenile detention facilities. These were definitely not places where freedom “reigned”.
I had wanted to make a new life for myself in California, but the “New Jersey” in me wouldn’t go away. I walked around with an armored exterior, always ready for battle even when there was nothing and no one to fight. I couldn’t turn off my anger and defensiveness. The fear and anger of my former life were in charge of me despite the fact that there was no need for them in my new environment.
Today, on Independence Day, I want to talk about the loss of freedom on the inside: the freedom to choose how to react or respond to events and people; the freedom to live in the present; the freedom to grow and change; the freedom to live without debilitating fear or destructive rage.
Do you ever feel trapped in your own skin? That’s what I’m talking about.
I want to introduce a concept you may never have heard about that relates directly to a loss of internal freedom—reenactment. I explain reenactment from several perspectives in my new book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic. Reenactment is part of what I call the stress response, otherwise known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response to trauma. Here’s a definition from my chapter, “Emotional Blueprints and Developmental Trauma”:
“Reenactment occurs when traumatized individuals try to recreate or relive their traumatic experience. They seek out or even create scenarios similar to their traumatizing event in an unconscious attempt to complete the stress response that was interrupted so that they can resolve their post-traumatic disorder. Similar experiences re-engage the stress response, the unfinished biological process that left them traumatized in the first place. Victims seek opportunities to engage the stress response in order to complete it, most often unaware of why they are doing so. The trapped energy [from fight, flight, or freeze] causes so much emotional and physical pain that the unconscious aspect of trauma victims’ brains will go to any lengths to release that energy. Unaware of the process, they may even feel puzzled as to why the same painful events happen to them over and over again” [emphasis added].
Not knowing why we keep doing the same things over and over again, particularly if they are unsatisfying, dangerous, or destined for failure can leave us feeling more than “puzzled”. Being trapped in the reenactment cycle can lead to feelings of rage, panic, discouragement and despair.
Freedom—to make new choices, to grow and change, to become the person we long to be—requires tackling our unresolved trauma and breaking the reenactment chain. It is possible. My life today, as a husband, father, and psychotherapist, is infinitely freer now than it was in 1970. I urge you to read Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic to discover how my life changed, and how yours can change as well.