Healing Childhood Trauma
Trigger warning: This blog contains accounts of childhood sexual abuse, suicidal ideation, and a suicide attempt. If these topics are greatly upsetting or triggering to you, you may want to stop reading this blog. You can still learn how to heal from childhood trauma here:
What is trauma?
Trauma refers to any negative event or experience that is emotionally painful and overwhelming. Examples of trauma include natural disasters, car accidents, physical or sexual assault, and various forms of child abuse .
After a frantic summer of college entrance essays, interviews, and exhausting financial aid deadlines, I found myself on campus, officially registered as a psychology major. I had been captivated by the bald, spectacled man that taught Psychology 101 my senior year of high school and I felt a calling. This was my passion, to understand the human experience through the science of how people think, feel, and interpret the world around them. Alongside a new fervor for writing poetry, I began immersing myself in the concepts, theories, and studies I was learning about. Little by little, the material I was immersed in started to trigger certain memories and feelings. I identified feelings of anxiety, fear, and poor self-esteem. I started to recall prior suicidal ideations.
"I think people who are drawn towards professions such as psychology, usually their interest comes from something very personal," says Russell Federman, PhD, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. "It's not because they've had a simple, gilded, wonderfully supported life." 
My trauma symptoms
A nagging feeling had loomed over me since childhood. I always felt like “something” was wrong with me because
- I was uneasy with eye contact.
- I was pretty sure I was depressed — even though I had good days.
- I was kind of jumpy when touched.
- I was insecure about my sexuality.
- I always felt like I was “bad” or cursed.
Everything came crashing down the summer after my freshman year of college. My depression worsened. I slept more, struggled with motivation, and had a negative self-image. I considered seeking counseling for my fear and anxiety, but I didn’t. I was supposed to become the therapist, right?
Note: Trauma symptoms may appear soon after a trauma or they may not appear for months or years after. Symptoms may also come and go. Common trauma symptoms include
- Reexperiencing or reliving the event (flashbacks, nightmares)
- Avoiding places, people, or situations that remind you of your trauma (crowds, movie theaters)
- Having negative emotions (numbness, distrust of others, guilt, shame)
- Feeling “on edge” or “keyed up” (trouble sleeping, easily startled)
If these symptoms occur for several weeks or longer and cause you a great deal of distress, we encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional who specializes in trauma.
Late one night that summer, I was telling my best friend how depressed I was. As I shared childhood memories, something clicked. Thoughts and memories that had always seemed incoherent, abstract, or intangible suddenly made sense. Then I remembered a childhood sexual assault.
As I recalled the details about the trauma, I drew connections between my fears and anxieties and what had happened to me. The unease with eye contact, the depression, the insecurity around my sexuality? I was reckoning with the fact that I was a boy, a man, that had been molested by an older girl, a woman.
Note: While most people recognize the high percentage of females that are sexually assaulted, few people realize that 18% of juvenile sexual assault victims are male . Millions of men in the U.S. have been raped or sexually assaulted and 1 in 10 rape victims are male . Further, 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18 , and 34% of people who sexually abuse a child are a family member . The distress experienced after a rape or sexual assault is more distressing than that experienced after any other violent crime . Despite the pain and trauma that it causes, only 12% of child sexual abuse cases are reported to authorities .
Effects of childhood trauma
At the end of that summer, after sharing my experience with friends and family members (I had not told my parents — yet), certain themes arose.
- Everyone was hurt and deeply sorry about what happened.
- People let me know that they still accepted me.
- They all reassured me that I wasn’t a monster and that I wasn’t ruined.
But I didn’t believe them.
After a night of partying with friends, and some heart-to-heart conversations, I went home. I couldn’t reconcile the guilt and shame I felt. How had I not remembered this for so long? They said I wasn’t a monster but I didn’t believe them.
Carrying such heavy pain, I closed my eyes and attempted to end my life by walking into a five-lane road.
When I opened my eyes, I was on the other side of the road, unscathed and defeated.
I was forced to reckon with a few things. After I told my mother everything, she and my aunt took me to the hospital. I finally admitted that I was struggling. It was hard to accept that those memories were real and this had happened to me. To be honest, I felt very sick. Yet two things stuck out to me.
First, I felt truly loved by my mother and family who shared so much warmth with me in my desperation.
Second, the first thing a nurse said to me after I told her why I was coming in was that I am not alone. This is common, and survivors of childhood trauma can achieve great happiness and success in life.
We are so blessed to have nurses.
Note: Childhood sexual abuse is a strong predictor of suicidal ideation . If you are having suicidal thoughts or high anxiety following a childhood trauma, help is available. Both trauma-focused therapies (counseling) and medication are proven to help people who are experiencing distress following childhood trauma.
I returned to school the next semester. Looking back, this may not have been the best decision for me. Now I understand that it’s okay to take time off from school or work to focus on one’s health and to get proper treatment, but I didn’t know that at the time. Instead, I pushed myself to keep going as usual. This led to me sleeping most of the day, struggling with school, and feeling irritable or sad most of the time. By mid-semester, I decided that I should have more faith in the field I was so passionate about, so I went to see the campus psychologist. This decision, arguably and ultimately, may have saved my life — and put me on the path to recovery.
Note: No matter how much time has passed since your trauma occurred, you can learn how to stop having flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and other challenging symptoms. With evidence-based, proven treatments like cognitive processing therapy, exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), you can learn how to fully recover from emotional distress following a traumatic event.
In the first stages of recovery and treatment, I struggled with the stigma that surrounds mental health treatment regarding
- Seeing a mental health professional
- Having a mental illness and having to take medications for it
- Struggling with suicidal ideations
While I was in school learning how to become a mental health professional, I still was insecure about it. After I graduated and joined the workforce, I believed that I wouldn’t be able to afford mental health care so I stopped going to therapy.
Time passed. I struggled with many symptoms of depression for 10 years after graduation: irritability, anxiety, and low self-esteem. And then the pandemic hit. Like many other people, I spiraled. I remember eating a burrito, ugly-crying and thinking to myself that this was the saddest I’d ever felt eating a burrito. And that was the last straw. I wasn’t going to give into my depression or suicidal ideations. I had been laid off from my job, but I was still going to talk to a therapist. A friend helped me find a local primary care physician and a psychiatrist, and I decided to call a therapist myself.
It’s been 15 years since my initial revelation and episode, and I have made more progress in my recovery in the past 3 years than ever. I’ve been taking prescription medication for 3 years now, which took some time to dial in, but I’ve been locked into this dosage for quite a while and it feels right. I attribute a large portion of my health to finding a great and supportive therapist. Also, I leaned into cultivating my support group and confided in my family and friends. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And that feels a little strange. I feel healthier and I know that I’m continually growing. I can see and envision a life where I live past 40 -- not depressed, not struggling, but content and peaceful.
“Addressing these issues during childhood or adolescence can reduce the risk of developing mental health issues like anxiety and depression or chronic conditions. However, seeking treatment as an adult is also beneficial, helping you identify trauma and deal with its effects.” 
Trauma treatment works
Why am I sharing my story? Because I thoroughly and whole-heartedly want you to know that there is hope if you are suffering. I’m so sorry if you experienced a trauma when you were young. Your experiences are valid and you are still loved. I promise that you are not a monster or ruined because of your experiences.
Just as modern medicine and other scientific endeavors have advanced, so have therapy and mental health treatment options. Please don’t give up on yourself or on finding the support you need and deserve. There are obstacles to treatment, such as availability, affordability, and systemic hurdles, but I want you to know there is hope and tangible growth in healing.
I want you to know that it gets better. A traumatic experience in childhood or adulthood does not mean you are doomed to a bad life. There is help and there is hope. You’re not alone, and you can still be happy and successful.
 International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Childhood trauma. Accessed July 21, 2022
 American Psychological Association. Need to heal thyself? Accessed July 21, 2022
 Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement (2000)
 Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female victims of sexual violence, 1994-2010 (2013)
 Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., Lewis, I. A., & Smith, C. (1990). Sexual abuse in a national survey of adult men and women: Prevalence, characteristics and risk factors. Child Abuse and Neglect 14, 19-28. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(90)90077-7
 National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2011). Child sexual abuse prevention: Overview. Retrieved from https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/2012-03/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_Child-sexual-abuse-prevention_0.pdf
 Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Socio-emotional impact of violent crime (2014)
 Hanson, R. F., Resnick, H. S., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., & Best, C. (1999). Factors related to the reporting of childhood rape. Child Abuse and Neglect, 23, 559–569. doi:10.1016/S0145-2134(99)00028-9
 Bahk, Y., Jang, S., Choi, K., & Lee, S. (2017). The relationship between childhood trauma and suicidal ideation: Role of maltreatment and potential mediators. Psychiatry Investigation, 14(1): 37-43
 Healthline. How therapy for childhood trauma can help. Accessed July 22, 2022