I Experienced Childhood Trauma and Didn't Even Know itAug 12, 2021
I remember this day as if it was yesterday. It was a cold winter morning, and I was sitting at the kitchen table reading a book on addiction by Dr. Gabor Maté.
I had originally picked up this book to research the topic of addiction so I could help my clients better. Up until this point, I’d never considered myself truly addicted to anything. Sure, my relationship with food wasn’t always the best, and I’d had a few party weekends in my twenties… but ‘addicted’ was a bit of a strong word.
I didn’t really think I had any trauma either, after all ‘I’d had a great childhood’. This next sentence was about to change all that.
I read and re-read it at least seven times.
“Children who continue to suck their thumbs past infancy are attempting to soothe themselves; it’s always a sign of emotional distress.”
“Holy crap,” I thought, as I remembered I used to suck my thumb until I was 12 years old. Eagerly, I read on.
“Except in rare cases of physical disease, the more excess weight a person has, the more emotionally starved they have been at some crucial period in their life.”
Having struggled with weight my entire life, reading this set off alarm bells in my head. The more pages I devoured, the more obvious it all became to me: I had been soothing myself orally from a very young age.
First, there was the thumb-sucking. Then food, of course. Nailbiting. Later in life, cigarettes and booze.
All these years I thought my issue was that I couldn’t stick to a diet. That I had too many ‘bad’ habits. That I needed more self-control. But seeing it all in front of me there, written in black and white, I could no longer ignore it: I had been in pain. A lot of pain. For many years. And food had been the morphine that kept me numb.
It was that day, sitting at that kitchen table, that for the first time in my life I realised that I had experienced childhood trauma. And I didn’t even know it.
The Truth about Trauma
Fast forward several years and a few therapy certifications later, I realise now that trauma isn’t just the big, scary stuff. It can be the little stuff too.
When we normally think of trauma, we think of physical and sexual abuse. Domestic violence. Emotional gaslighting and manipulation. And those experiences will definitely leave a mark. But for little kids who come into this world expecting unlimited and unconditional love, any experience in which they feel unloved, unworthy, helpless or powerless can feel intensely traumatic to them.
I once worked with a woman who struggled to open herself up to relationships because of a deeply rooted belief that she wasn’t worthy of love. We uncovered she’d held this belief ever since she was two years old when she, as a tiny toddler who had just wet her diaper, was crying out for her father’s help. When dad didn’t instantly come to her rescue even though he was only a few feet away, it led her to conclude that he didn’t love her — because if he did, he would have hurried to meet her needs. This led to the worst realisation of all: “If even my own father doesn’t love me, that must mean I’m not worthy of love at all”.
Without knowing, she’d carried this belief her entire life, all because of a tiny diaper incident that took place over 30 years ago. Nothing about this incident was violently traumatic. If this happened with our own kids, we wouldn’t even think twice about it — just because we’re in the middle of something when they need us doesn’t mean we don’t love them, right? Yet this seemingly insignificant experience set my client up for a lifetime of suffering as a result of feeling unworthy of love.
It affirmed to me that trauma isn’t so much about what happened to us as it is about what we made it mean about ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many forms of abuse that are intensely traumatic. But even more painful than the trauma of the event itself, is the realisation that if someone can hurt us like that, there must be something significantly wrong with us. And when there’s no one around in that moment to help us correct this misunderstanding, we’ll carry it with us our entire lives.
Stuffing it all Down
My own personal version of this story set me up to never feel quite good enough, no matter how hard I tried.
I knew I had potential and was capable of achieving incredible things, but someone always seemed to have suggestions about how I could do things just a little bit better. Despite their comments being well-intentioned, I had a tendency to interpret them as criticism and failure. More proof that I was just not quite good enough.
These perfectionistic traits combined with a household in which we didn’t really discuss or show too many negative feelings, forced me to get creative with finding ways of soothing the pain of my perceived shortcomings.
I turned to food.
Seeing the weight pile on as a result landed me in my own personal version of hell. The part of me that was striving for perfection deemed I was only worthy of love if I fit the thin female beauty standard so often portrayed in the media. The part of me that felt starved as a result of not feeling loved could only be consoled through food. It was a vicious cycle that took me more than 20 years to overcome.
In addition to making me aware of the connection between childhood trauma and my struggles with food, Dr. Maté’s insights helped me understand that what I had truly been craving all these years was a deep sense of unconditional love. Not just from others, but from myself.
I finally realised that the answer wasn’t to strive for perfection at all costs, but instead to learn to love and accept myself exactly as I am.
That’s ultimately what brought an end to my lifelong struggle with food and weight once and for all. Because as family psychologist Ashleigh Warner once said: “Beneath every behaviour there is a feeling, and beneath every feeling is a need. And when we meet that need rather than focus on the behaviour, we begin to deal with the cause, not the symptom.”
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