Q: A question was raised recently by a thoughtful partner of a male survivor. She wrote:
May I seek your advice in helping my boyfriend to overcome his emotional numb feeling arising from domestic violence trauma. Our relationship seems stuck & can’t move forward in marriage. May I know what are the practicals that can help us to bring the relationship higher? What are the “do’s and don’t’s” for me?
How did you respond?
Here is what I said:
Thank you for writing and for helping. The numb feeling that comes with post-traumatic stress is one of the more difficult responses to overcome and to treat. There are pills for depression, but not for “anhedonia.” Anhedonia is a lack of pleasurable sensation. Sometimes this loss of the capacity for positive emotion returns, on its own, as the other features of PTSD improve. Your boyfriend could have full-blown or partial PTSD from terrifying encounters in childhood. He may have learned, over time, to suppress emotion in order to avoid setting off an explosive parent. Or he may have shut down in response to abuse and ridicule. Children are very vulnerable to feelings of helplessness when a father beats a mother or a mother beats a sibling. A good therapist can create a safe place in which these early experiences are revisited. Little by little, the feelings that stem from childhood — feelings that may arise from situations that trigger a return to unconscious situations from long ago — are re-experienced, explored, comforted and laid to rest.
But that may take a long time and considerable expense. I have found, through trial and error, that the best route to overcoming the numbing of PTSD is through use of The Color Wheel. This is an invention of mine, described in several places on the Gift From Within website. Go here for a preliminary explanation:
Read it through carefully and see if your boyfriend, perhaps with your help, is willing to give it a whirl. Are any of his colors already “high”? Perhaps he has some Orange. He enjoys the taste of a good meal, the sight and smells of a spring day. Was there a time when these sensations were vivid and pleasurable? Can he raise his Orange by remembering? If he can learn to raise one color he can learn to raise another. Some people find one color easier to elevate than another. Work with that color. Begin where it is easiest to achieve some success.
The Color Wheel isn’t for everyone. See if it works for you, since you are not numbed by the hidden wound of trauma. If you can raise the volume of positive emotion, one color at a time, you may be able to coach and encourage and succeed with your boyfriend.
I’m rooting for you both!
Best, Dr. Frank Ochberg