“Working Through” Instead of Pushing Past the Past

by Kassandra Lamb

row of flagsBelieve it or not, this is a Veterans’ Day post. I’ll get back to that.

As is the case with everything from clothing to baby names to the size of one’s car, mental health is affected by trends in our society. During most of my career as a psychotherapist, the trend was to explore one’s past for explanations of one’s neuroses, so that one could heal whatever trauma lurked back there and then move on. (Key words: Move On!)

This trend was fortunate for me, since I discovered that I had a real talent for trauma recovery. It became my specialty, and I walked the path with hundreds of people, over the twenty years of my career, who’d been abused in a variety of ways as kids. I was honored to be a part of helping them heal and blossom into the people they were meant to be. As hard as it was to face the past, it was what they needed to do in order to truly “work through” that past, rather than ignoring it and have it continue to affect their behavior, moods, parenting, relationships, etc. And most of them came out the other end of the process far, far healthier and happier than they had ever been in their lives.

In my parents’ day, the WW II era, the trend was to “buck up” and push past the past. Best I can tell, this had been the attitude, off and on, for generations, until the more recent trend to go through one’s “recovery process.” As a result of this buck-up attitude, the damage done by trauma in people’s pasts continued to not only affect them but their children.

PTSD existed during WW II—it has always existed—but back then it was called shell shock or battle fatigue, and soldiers who suffered from it were at best pitied and at worst scorned as cowards. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War era that the concept of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder developed and new and better treatments were discovered.

WW II era submarine

My husband’s uncle was a Navy seaman in WW II, on a submarine in the Pacific. For decades, the only impact from that experience he would admit to was ringing in his ears, a residual symptom from all the depth charges that went off in the water around his sub. It wasn’t until his sixties that he started talking about his experiences during the war. It became obvious to my husband and myself that he had suffered from PTSD his entire life. But he’d never dealt with it. He didn’t have permission to deal with it. Instead he drank too much and smoked too much (even after he had emphysema) and took his anger at the world out on his sons.

At the time that I was a practicing therapist, I didn’t realize that the shift away from that buck-up attitude was just a trend. I thought our society had actually turned the corner and was beginning to understand what was involved in obtaining and maintaining good mental health.

In the 1990s, sadly, the pendulum swung back toward the old-fashioned attitudes (not all the way back, but dangerously close for a while). Exploring and working through the harmful mistakes one’s parents may have made so that one could forgive those parents for being human—and then most likely have a better relationship with them thereafter—became “parent bashing” and “whining about the past.” Those going through their recovery process were sometimes viewed as “looking for excuses” for their own behavior and choices. (Nothing could be further from the truth; the process, when done right, is all about taking responsibility for oneself and one’s life.)

The pendulum has now swung more toward the middle ground, but I still see or hear statements on social media, pretty much on a weekly basis, along the lines of “stop whining about the past” or “you are not your past, move on” or “stop blaming your parents” (I repeat, recovery from the past is not and never was about parent-bashing).

inside of submarine

Inside of a submarine (photo by by Eteil CC-BY-SA 4.0 International, Wkimedia Commons)

Once Uncle Pete opened the door to the past, a lot came pouring out. Fifty years later, he was finally talking about how terrified that nineteen-year-old seaman and his buddies were, as those depth charges exploded in the water around their submarine, how they feared that sub would become their coffin and perhaps their bodies would never be recovered from the depths of the sea.

Show me a combat veteran and I’ll show you a man or woman who has at least some psychological scar tissue (whether they admit it or not) due to what they have experienced protecting us and our country. One of the best ways we can honor our veterans is to continue to acknowledge what they have gone through emotionally, continue to give them permission to seek help so they can heal those wounds, and to continue to fight for and support funding for mental health services for them.

service dog

(DoD photo by EJ Hersom, CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons))

If you see a veteran sweating and shaking in public from an anxiety attack, know that they came by those anxieties while fighting for your freedoms. Having never been in such a veteran’s shoes, I can’t tell you what would be most helpful to them right then, but turning away and denying that their internal wounds are real is definitely not helpful.

And if you see a healthy-looking woman or a big strapping man with no obvious physical disability being accompanied by a service dog, don’t make assumptions. You have no idea what they are dealing with inside.

Speaking of service dogs (and to lighten the mood!), I have a new novella coming out in the Marcia Banks and Buddy series, a Christmas story.

Here’s the cover! Isn’t it awesome?

A Mayfair Christmas Carol book cover

A Mayfair Christmas Carol, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Christmas Novella

A Christmas extravaganza in Mayfair, Florida, complete with an ice skating rink. What could go wrong?

When excavation for the skating rink uncovers a decades-old skeleton, its secrets threaten more than the town’s Christmas plans. Worried about her friends in her adopted town and feeling responsible since the let’s-attract-more-tourists idea was hers initially, dog trainer Marcia Banks is determined to help her police detective boyfriend solve the mystery—whether he wants her help or not. Perhaps she can wheedle more out of the townspeople than he can.

But will she and her Black Lab, Buddy, be able to keep the ghost of Christmas past from destroying what is left of Mayfair’s founding family, or will her meddling make matters worse?

A Mayfair Christmas Carol will be available for preorder on November 27th (Cyber Monday) and will be released on December 2nd. So stay tuned!

Your thoughts on the trends in mental health? Have you or someone you love ever been on the receiving end of the “buck”up” attitude?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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8 thoughts on ““Working Through” Instead of Pushing Past the Past

  1. Vinnie

    I wouldn’t make a very good psychotherapist. I definitely get impatient with people who continue to blame their parents for their problems, even when it’s clear their parents were pretty horrible.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Sadly, Vinnie. there will be some people always who don’t want to take responsibility, who just want to complain. They are the noisy exception, not the rule. The vast majority of people going through trauma recovery, you’ll never know it. It’s too personal and painful. They’re only talking about it to their therapists and their closest friends.

      During the twenty years I was a therapist, I can count on my fingers, with one or two left over, the number of clients who got “stuck” in blaming their parents. The vast majority of my clients were able to move through their anger (that all of us feel when we are hurt physically or emotionally), once they acknowledged it, and they came to a better, more forgiving and more healthy place.

      Most people are reticent about acknowledging anger at their parents, and veterans feel reticent about acknowledging their anger about their physical and psychological injuries. But they are human. They feel this anger, even if it is irrational. And without help, that anger can turn inward and turn ugly. It can take forms far worse than whining, such as addiction, depression, domestic violence, etc.

      Reply
    2. K.B. Owen

      I would imagine being a psychotherapist takes a lot of patience, Vinnie, though probably not for the reason you note. My impression is that the folks you’ve heard complain about their parents are doing so INSTEAD of going into therapy and doing something about it. I’ve known folks who complain about that kind of stuff, too, but never do anything to help themselves. They sink into the perpetual spiral of victimhood. It’s so frustrating.

      I don’t know for a fact, of course, but I’m thinking that folks who are actually in therapy for the trauma done by their “horrible” parents can eventually move beyond “blame” (not crazy about that word…a lot of times the “horrible” parents have suffered even worse stuff when they were kids that contributed to their bad parenting, so then how far back would the blame go?).

      I’ll bet Kassandra can give us an idea of the “success” rate, if you will. I hope it’s high. We can all use some good news these days!

      Reply
      1. Kassandra Lamb

        My success rate was pretty high, but I worked with people who were already fairly functional, who had done a decent job of “pushing past,” at least well enough that they could afford a private therapist. Unfortunately most health insurance policies still do a crappy job of providing for mental health services.

        Those who have to rely on what their insurance will cover, or worse yet, on public mental health clinics, are far less likely to successfully come out the other end of the recovery process.

        And yes, the “blame” would have to go back many, many generations in most cases. Sorry, not such great news. Our society needs to get its priorities straight and focus much more energy and funding on mental health.

        Reply
  2. K.B. Owen

    Fab post, Kassandra! I’m excited to read your Christmas novella! An ice-rink in Florida? You guys have everything down there. Wowzers.

    As far as the more serious aspects of your post, I really appreciate the insights your specific background as a psychotherapist can provide, especially in looking at it over the arc of time. Poor Uncle Pete. There are so many Uncle Petes out there.

    Wow, the pendulum can swing in some crazy ways (kind of like dieting advice), which makes it tough on the most vulnerable. But it makes total sense to me that one must air out and examine the trauma you’ve undergone (if you’re sitting in a therapist’s office, you’re there for a reason, right?) – whether it is from battle, being the victim of a crime, or a traumatic childhood experience(s). As you say, that is the FIRST step, and then the next few after that are about moving on in some way and owning what you must do in order to make that happen. I would imagine you’ve encountered clients who could never get past that first step.

    There’s a more spiritual term for this (can’t remember it it’s specific to any particular philosophy): a “core wound.” For some of us, the wound is severe and affects every aspect of our lives. Others are more fortunate.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      LOL Actually I don’t think we have any ice skating rinks down here, and the one in Mayfair never quite happens, thanks to the skeleton.

      Yes, it’s sad that people’s attitudes toward mental health follow fads just like dieting advice (good analogy). And “core wound” is an all too on-target description of the impact of trauma for too many people. The depth and pain of that wound doesn’t change with the fads, only the person’s ability to deal with the wounds is impacted, sometimes horribly so, by those fads.

      It was very hard for me to watch society swing back the other way and see cases of traumatized people shutting down, no longer feeling like it was okay to deal with their wounds.

      Reply

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