How My 'House of Stone' Helped Me Cope With Childhood Trauma in Revolutionary Iran
Trauma is widespread, and many people experience some form of trauma in the course of their lives. I myself am a survivor of complex trauma and can attest to its tenacity and destructiveness. I’m also a therapist who has seen, time and again, that healing trauma really is possible: through talking, writing, transparency and sharing stories. This is why I have decided to share some of the things I have learned, both personally and professionally, for Mental Health Awareness Month in May.
My childhood began in revolutionary Iran, where the chaos of political events created a rise in violence, fear and childhood sexual abuse. I was never safe outside or inside my home and always in a state of panic and high alert. As a result, I learned to lock away my pain — quite literally — in different “rooms” within my own mind. Later on, in graduate school, I would learn that this process is called compartmentalization, but back then, I just thought of my different experiences as different rooms in an imaginary place I called “The House of Stone.”
The House of Stone was my sanctuary, and I would spend long hours picturing my life there, where I was loved and cared for by magical creatures. When you’re a child and left unprotected by those who are supposed to protect you, the only way to bear life is to flee it. This process, called dissociation, exists in all of us to some extent.
My inner world made me feel safe, but it came at a cost: the more attached I became to my House, the more lost I felt in the outer world of gunshots, bombs and the usual pain of growing up. I couldn’t connect to kids at school, and nobody wanted to be friends with someone who talked to herself and stared off into space. I tried to explain to a few schoolmates what I saw in my mind, but no one could relate. I had no choice but to retreat deeper, in order to avoid shame, confusion and despair.
The word trauma comes from the Greek word for “wound,” but I’ve always thought that trauma is less of a wound and more of a set of compartments we develop to normalize life and avoid feeling pain. As a therapist, I’m endlessly fascinated by the wisdom of a child in crisis and the lengths they will go to meet their need for safety.
We all do this. All people, whether or not they function “normally” in the world, have developed some habits of dissociation and compartmentalization. You might ask yourself where in your life you feel lost, conflicted and/or disconnected from yourself, and where some of these “walls” between your inner parts might be.
Take a simple example. Every time I’m in an elevator, I notice people dissociating. They stare at the walls, and their eyes tell me they aren’t in their bodies — they’re somewhere else. If you asked these people where they went, they probably wouldn’t know. They’re unconsciously dealing with the discomfort of a tight space with strangers by creating another “room” within their minds. But of course, no one thinks this is odd, since everyone does it.
In fact, if someone else in the elevator tried to ask questions or talk about the weather, the first person might feel annoyed, although he wouldn’t actually say, “Hey, let me dissociate till the doors open.” It’s a small moment of flight we all agree on. But for a child in crisis, there’s no moment when the elevator doors open, and so children have to go to great lengths to build thicker and thicker walls, often in ways that adults can’t understand, and in ways that continue on into later life.
For most of us, our walls have ears. In other words, though our experience is compartmentalized, there’s also some clue about what’s happening on the other side of the barrier. For example, you might notice that you self-sabotage in some area of your life: you really want a job or relationship, but you are aware that you keep doing things that stand in the way of that goal. Healthy adults can sense — as though hearing a muffled sound from across a wall — that there is more to their experience than they are currently aware of. They can then go to therapy or talk with friends to overcome this division.
But for people with complex trauma, their walls don’t have ears. Those ears were cut off, by design, long ago, because hearing what was on the other side of the wall would have been too painful. For these people, whole chunks of experiences or memories might be locked away without the person knowing they ever existed. For such people, it might seem absurd to think that another part of them remembers or feels completely differently. But it is precisely this admission that allows them to heal, slowly, and find their inner listening again.
I am a person with complex trauma. As such, I know how disorienting it can be to admit that there exists within me different parts, different wishes, different identities — and even different ages and genders! What enabled me to accept this truth and to flourish was learning to be open to the idea of an “inner democracy:” to think of myself as having not just one self, but rather, a whole society of selves that must learn to coexist. I have also had the good fortune to meet wise and open-minded people who have encouraged and respected this process rather than shaming me.
And so I’ve made it my life’s mission to destigmatize complex trauma and dissociation in my work as a therapist, writer and advocate for the youth. I can honestly say now that my walls have ears again, and that I even enjoy listening to my different (though still sometimes conflicting) parts. When we learn to listen within, we can learn to listen more deeply to others. We can honor each other’s parts and promote true healing. I wish this for all of you, and for a Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!
Image via contributor