Trauma and Repurposing Defenses

“Repurposing is the process by which an object with one use value is transformed or redeployed as an object with an alternative use value” – Wikipedia

My history with therapy began some 25 years ago when I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Through those previous decades of therapy, I blindly went through the process. That is not to say I didn’t put in the work. I did. I simply didn’t pay close attention to the type of therapy.

The pandemic was life altering for me, as it was for everyone. During a global worst case scenario, I was afforded the opportunity of time. I was able to pursue a new form of therapy that worked for me and landed in the type of therapy I was missing all along. In February 2020, I began my journey with a trauma therapist.

To say I immediately took to the format would be disingenuous. Not only did I find her personality a bit “over the top” and jarring to my quiet exterior, it was nearly impossible to accept that the word “trauma” applied to my life. I never had it that bad. It took about six months to accept the notion of “little t” trauma. Death by a thousand little cuts. That understanding was a game changer.

Traumatic experiences alter neural landscapes. They do even more damage when not afforded the space for healthy processing. Many of my traumas distill down to not receiving the type of nurturing I needed as a sensitive soul. After a thousand little cuts that I could make no sense of, I concluded that my essence was wrong. In an attempt to visually convey how my inner child had created defense mechanisms against all emotions, I sent my therapist a meme captioned “Me Holding it Together” above a telephone pole strapped upright by a vast amount of duct tape.

Over the past few weeks, I have experienced a series of depression triggering events. Outside of therapy, I have been incorporating mindfulness meditation, which provided a body awareness in how often I experience depression as exhaustion. I noticed it deeply on a day where I was meant to be going to book club after work. By 3:00 pm that day, I knew I didn’t have it in me to go. Prior to trauma therapy, I would have followed my old pattern and gone anyway. I dislike canceling at the last minute so, regardless of my needs, I put others first. That day, I chose to email my friend to tell her I needed to cancel and why. I trusted she knew my character well enough to understand that I as not making the decision to cancel lightly. She understood and I went home to take a two hour nap.

In talking to my therapist about the decision, I had an epiphany. I had repurposed my duct tape. It was still there in my mental health tool kit, but instead of slapping on five entire rolls so as to not experience emotions, I used it to create a boundary. Boundary success!

We all create methods to survive childhood circumstances we could not understand. They were our protection; our inner child often wants to use them still. Go ahead. Use them. Just don’t use them the same way. Old patterns of survival are not necessarily effective now. Repurposing our defenses to better reflect our adult self’s needs honors our inner child while encouraging growth. It is a glorious moment of transformation, pride, and power. 

Written by Lisa Wessner an asexual-spectrum she/they lesbian and molecular biologist working on her retirement career as a mental health advocate