How To Navigate the River Of Trauma Recovery
By Michele Rosenthal
John and I love doing things outdoors. On Saturdays we pack up Baylee and have a family day at the beach. Every Sunday we bike 15-20 miles taking different scenic routes, sometimes along the ocean, other times more inland. We’re a physical get-up-and-go sort of pair. If we’re not dancing we’re off on some kind of outdoor adventure.
Last weekend we decided to go kayaking on the Loxahatchee (that’s Native American for ‘river of turtles) River that runs through Palm Beach County. In the past we’ve kayaked on the river north of where we live. It’s a nice, calm, serene, lazy and scenic route with wide swaths of river to glide through. We did, in fact, see tons of turtles – and some gators, too.
For this new excursion we decided to go south on the river where we heard there were more rapids, plus a waterfall. Early on Sunday morning we threw our bikes in the truck (for a post-kayak ride) and headed off to a state park with an entrance to the river. With our lunches and bottles of water packed up and ready to go, we shoved off in our respective kayaks and began to make our way down the river. This is where things went from a lazy Sunday morning ride to…. well, work!
The shallowness of the river meant we got stuck on logs that had fallen across the river itself. The narrowness of the river meant we had to maneuver around several obstacles (including other kayakers!) without getting beached up on shore. The steep edge of the waterfall meant we had to go over it without capsizing. The plethora of growth reaching out from the banks meant we had to make sure we didn’t get hitched up. (Full disclosure: I did get hooked on a branch and sat for a while with the rear end of my kayak hanging up out of the water suspended by a tree.)
Isn’t that so often what happens in trauma recovery? We head out into unknown territory in our little kayak with a map that is sketchy at best. We learn to paddle on both sides depending on how we want to steer, we bump into things, we get stuck on things, not only is the path not straight but there are things hidden beneath the surface that surprise us, and there are places when we have to go over the edge of an idea, memory or feeling and hope we don’t capsize.
As I was paddling along during the whole trip I started thinking about what makes you strong enough to navigate the river of trauma recovery. I think it comes down to these things:
Knowing the only way to your destination of healing is getting in the kayak. There’s simply no way to go from point A to point B without covering some distance. Making the decision to get going can be a moment that puts you on the path to releasing yourself from hell. When the going is tough, we keep reminding ourselves we’re on the river for a reason.
Learning to effectively and creatively use your paddle. Every single one of us learns to develop tools, coping mechanisms, and strategies to keep us upright on the journey. Sure, there will still be capsizes – those are inevitable! But the more you work the things that help you navigate the more adept you become at steering around obstacles, avoiding mishaps and moving in a straight(er) line.
Focusing on what needs to be done to get over the waterfall. It’s easy to let fear jump in and get in the way of forward progress. Worrying about getting stuck or unstuck, fearing the drop over the edge and anticipating the disaster of flipping over can really put the brakes on forward motion. When you put on a pair of blinders, however, staying solely focused on the task versus the possible catastrophes you gain strength, momentum and success.
Trusting that you have the courage, strength and bravery to reach base camp. Trust in yourself is the hardest thing to develop and yet the most important. There will be things that challenge you and situations that make you so uncomfortable you just don’t think you can go on. Finding a way to tap into, grow and feel that courage, strength and bravery in daily life will help you develop processes that translate into your healing journey.
Believing you do have what it takes to have a successful ride. When things don’t go as planned, when you’re alone and there’s no one to help or a crowd to cheer at the tough spot, the only thing to rely on is your belief in yourself. You have already survived something so much more dangerous than recovery. Surely, you can survive recovery itself.
Back at base camp John and I returned our kayaks, wrang the water of our bathing suits, hopped into our cycle clothes, hauled our bikes out of the truck and set off on our next adventure: a fifteen mile ride west into Florida farmland. Much easier to navigate a flat, straight road. Finally, some Sunday afternoon relaxation!