Q: My father shot and killed my mother and then himself when I was 7. Now, 15 years later I’m still struggling. Therapy hasn’t helped. What do I do? 

Wow. I have the biggest respect for the load you are carrying, and for the courage you have in reaching out to share it. By “courage” I mean you are willing to try something new, to share something personal, and to trust. I want to start by affirming that I can tell just from your question that there are a lot of good things happening with you right now.

After trauma that severe, just waking up every day is profoundly courageous. The two people who were supposed to create the most safety and care in your life instead created the most violence. This is not something that will simply wash away.

But you are conscious of what is going on in your life. You are acknowledging it. You are asking for help. Those are critical actions that keep traumatized people from getting into really bad situations.

When you say therapy hasn’t helped, I want to explore your definition of “help.” For example, if you are expecting talk therapy to help you forget that your father killed your mother, that’s magical thinking. You’ll never find a therapist who can do that – and if they say they can, run from them as fast as you can.

So, what is your goal? What’s a realistic outcome for you? And have you shared those goals with your therapist? If you name your goals then you can better manage them. For example, say you want to have less anxiety when you start a new relationship – your therapist can explore concrete treatments for anxiety. You may get a therapy dog, or enter a treatment center for a week.

Therapy is about living with reality, and the reality is you have had a significant trauma that the vast majority of the population has never experienced. You know all too well what evil, anger and hate can look like. And if you’ve managed to grow up without being violent and aggressive yourself, then I would say you’re a remarkably resilient human being, and therapy is working at some level.

There’s this misconception that you feel better, or even comfortably numb, after therapy. But therapy is more like the gym. The reason everyone hates going to the gym is that it’s hard. It hurts. So leaving therapy and going, “Ugh” means you’ve surfaced some stuff.

My wife and I went to therapy after our second child. We had hit a low point. At first it felt like the therapy sessions were just inciting fights, but we realized that to deal with something you first have to get it to the surface and identify it. Our relationship is stronger now, but we keep going, and not because therapy has gotten any easier. It’s still hard. But we go because we know that even when we hit a calm spot in our relationship, we want to prepare for any storms headed our way.

Trust me, if you aren’t allowed to unload these things, it’s worse.

Now, if you feel you have realistic goals, you’ve shared those with your therapist and you still don’t feel helped, then look closely at how you are participating, and perhaps find someone else.

Are you being completely transparent in sharing your thoughts? Do you trust your therapist enough to be open? If not, you may not have a great connection. Don’t be afraid to go to a few different ones. Look for a vibe you can trust and let yourself be vulnerable. Your history has probably taught you to be very cautious and protective. So establishing the right relationship is going to be critical for your progress.

The alternative is slipping into depression, self-harming thoughts, fear-based living, isolation, anger, bitterness at life. Part of the issue with a violent past is it can create doubt in your head that you can ever be “normal.” But the reality is that nobody is at that ideal level of “normal,” or peace and harmony.

For someone with your background it’s easy to say something like, “I wouldn’t be in a bad relationship if my father hadn’t killed my mother.” But guess what, lots of people get into bad relationships, for all sorts of reasons. When you get stuck in those thoughts, you need an objective person who can say, “Maybe these things aren’t connected.” There is tremendous value in that objective opinion.

Now, you’ll certainly have times in your life when you’ll want to run from this trauma, and just not deal with it for a little while. It’s okay to feel that, but it can’t be your main coping mechanism. You can take breaks. But I would recommend having a therapist around who you can take a break from – and leave the door open to going back.

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