I have heard that at the edge of some medieval maps there were warning signs alerting sailors to the risk of travelling beyond the reach of the map (and potentially falling off the presumed edge of the world!) “Here be Monsters!” the signs stated. A graphic marker of the fear induced by the unknown that characterises many if not most of us.
Similarly when our internal worlds are overwhelmed by threat-inducing trauma, terror, pain or distress, approaching these sensations and experiences to see if we can understand what is going on, or even perchance make peace with it, can feel as terrifying as going into a monster’s lair. Often we would rather avoid this at all costs, tiptoeing around the disturbing reminders, walling off or blotting out parts of our lives that seem out of control or threaten to overwhelm us completely. Thus we narrow or dampen our emotional lives, or compulsively fill them with distractions to protect us from the pain, grief and fear we do not want to face. Unseen, the monsters may even seem to hibernate, but rear their heads with the least approach towards their territory, tending to grow even more horrendous and fearsome in imagination than they may be in real life.
The image of the “monstrous” we humans have created to encapsulate our huge fears became the stuff of fairy-tale and folk-lore: ravaging lands and communities, requiring vanquishing by courageous and unlikely heroes (and heroines!) and sometimes even being unmasked to reveal a loving but trapped soul beneath a fearsome appearance. In contemplating the challenge of facing the monsters in our internal worlds, I found myself remembering a favourite picture book for pre-school children Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper Collins, 1963). You can listen to it being read and see the illustrations here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FsBaRYRPnU
This book delightfully captures for this age group, the scary but possibly thrill inducing paradox of daring to approach and maybe befriend (or at least manage) their personal monsters in the form of overwhelming feelings, monsters who
“roar their terrible roars, and gnash their terrible teeth,
and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws”.
For the reflective adult reader, it also beautifully illustrates many (though not all) aspects of finding ways to process emotionally overwhelming sensations that can take over our bodies, bringing huge fear with them. Notice Max’s imaginative reverie that opens into the story, the space created by his instinctive journeying towards the wild things, and his command in the face of fear “Be Still!”. His monsters and he then recognise that they have a lot in common and express and release their energy and big feelings (in this case- but not always- with combined delight). Max then notices his tiredness and resolves having made peace with these creatures that are part of him, to return home to love and connection. This imaginative journey mirrors the 3 overlapping stages of trauma recovery outlined by Judith Hermann Lewis in her classic book, Trauma and Recovery: safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection with community/relationships.
I am not implying that the healing of traumatic memory can be equated with a child’s processing of huge feelings brought on by the consequences of his out of control behaviour. Nevertheless, this classic book, and our cultural tales of quests from all lands do provide pointers in facing the monstrous in our own lives. Trauma therapy does not necessarily require the revisiting of traumatic memory in detail, but it does involve the building of our capacity and courage to face the fear inducing sensations of our own bodies (bodies which have simply sought to protect us in the midst of trauma), and making space for these sensations to build and then resolve, finding ourselves again, changed but still present on the other side of it all. Unlike Max’s journey, to find the way across the seas he sailed upon, it is often useful to be accompanied. Approaching our left over body sensations from what has terrified or threatened us deeply in the safe presence of a steady, non-judgmental companion or therapist, and in a safe, non-frightening setting (which in itself is so different from the original trauma experience) shifts our experience. It enables awareness of care and connection to sit alongside what has overwhelmed and scared us, providing space and agency for our bodies to gradually settle, contain and resolve these sensations over time.
Robyn Duckworth, Psychotherapist, Adelaide Trauma Centre