Many wounds heal by themselves, with little intervention: a scraped knee, a papercut, a strained muscle. Some emotional wounds (a slight by a stranger, a break with the past) are like this too—healed, as the adage goes, by time.
But other forms of emotional harm are more like broken bones or appendicitis, requiring treatment, rest, and care in order to make their way to recovery. Trauma like sexual and domestic violence often needs this kind of support.
[Image: A photo of a hand with a blue cast wrapped around 2 middle fingers.]
According to The Self-Help Guide to Healing and Understanding, “although spontaneous healing is possible given enough time and the right circumstances, it is more likely that you will need to engage in a long period of healing and self-care, thoroughly grounded in compassion for yourself and the facts of biology.”
In other words, healing is an intentional act.
Transgender survivors may especially need this intentionality in their process. They may be more likely to develop PTSD because they experience everyday discrimination in addition to acute trauma like domestic and sexual violence.
So knowing that, how do trans survivors engage in intentional healing?
According to the landmark book, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and more recent research verifying it, recovering from trauma takes place in three phases. For many survivors, these phases take place in therapy, but that’s not always possible, so the list here incorporates other ways to heal.
- Create safety. Find a way to feel safe in your body. For trans survivors, that will probably include finding an environment where it is safe to explore or live as your gender.
It may not be possible to have this safety all the time. Perhaps you live with someone who does not respect your gender, or you live with economic precarity that makes it impossible to relax long enough to fully feel safe. We are not all afforded the gift of emotional and physical safety even though we are all entitled to it.
But maybe you can carve out, from that block of anxiety, a few minutes in your car to
breathe deeply. Or maybe you can find a support group or a night club where you feel fully seen as you are. Maybe you can remind yourself what it means to feel safe, even if you can’t live
there all the time.
- Remembrance and Mourning. This step involves “processing the trauma, putting words and emotions to it and making meaning of it.” For trans survivors, making meaning may entail retelling the story you’ve told yourself about the connection between your trauma and your gender or sexuality. While experts tend to agree that reframing the story is an important part of trauma recovery,
there is less consensus about whether it’s necessary to fully feel the original pain of trauma. The goal is not necessarily to relive the traumatic event, nor is it to escape uncomfortable emotions. It is to feel the trauma while grounded in safety, to grieve, to give it words.
- Reconnection and reintegration. In this stage, you redefine and recreate your life, shifting patterns in spheres of life like work and relationships. For trans survivors, this could also involve living as your authentic self and drawing boundaries with those who do not respect this identity.
Although healing can be intentional, it is not linear. Nightmares can arrive with the sudden darkness of a thunderstorm no matter how much you have overcome, and you can rebuild your life even as you are still making sense of your trauma.
It is clear then, that this framework does not give us a model of perfection. Rather, it reminds us of that in order to heal, we have to create room in our lives and ourselves for this deep and important work to take place.