Magical Thinking as Trauma Response: How I Created Safety through Imagination
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
It’s difficult for me to root myself in reality when that reality has twisted into things beyond my imagination, beyond dream. Thus, I will start this essay with a dream itself. It is a simple one, this is a dream in which there is someone there to rescue me from a violence I cannot understand. It’s like I’m underwater but I can tell that something is happening to my body, however, there’s a barrier. A barrier between myself and a violence that’s happened too quickly. That barrier I later discover is my trauma response. I became lost in action and confusion emerges. It’s like all my senses are dulled, I can’t tell what is happening around me. While lost in uncertainty, I abandon myself and my value system. I no longer can understand that what is happening is wrong. You (whoever you are in this dream, it always changes) come to my rescue. It is only then that I acknowledge what has happened was wrong, bad, violent. I couldn’t tell what was happening until I am finally rescued from it. This dream does not wake me from my sleep but deepens the quality of my rest. I now have a sense of understanding, I can sleep now.
This has been an ongoing recurring dream I’ve had since the age of nineteen, when I was assaulted by men I had previously considered to be my friends. The problem within the dream is the reliance on someone to rescue me, someone to make me understand. It’s interesting because before everything happened, I was wildly independent. Of course, as a child, I relied on the care of my family, for which I recognize and have gratitude for the privilege within that type of care. And of course, I also rely on the farmers that harvest my food, the people who stitch my clothes, who build the buildings (and the heating systems) that keep me warm. In this way, you could say I’ve never been independent but as I grew older, I found myself wanting to be alone, needing to be alone to restore. I also found myself not needing people for my emotional regulation. I found myself alone often, mostly because I wanted to be but sometimes because it felt as though it was my only option. I was constantly tending to my internal world as a way to preserve it. This was work I did alone.
As a child, I was often lost in daydream, perhaps at times in a way that one could represent as maladaptive. The worlds I created guided me and created meaning in my quiet life. I learned things through the places I dreamed up from my small home in a quiet town. I spent time alone with my toys but I didn’t even need them to guide the narrative. I could sit alone with my thoughts and that was enough to entertain me. I invited characters into my living space, they became a part of my day to day life, almost like magical realism. These invented characters affected my reality. It became an issue at times at school, in class. Teachers thought I had a hearing issue because, lost in my imagination, I did not always respond when called upon in class.
As I grew older, the importance of imagination stayed within me. I imagined things that I wanted, bringing me warmth and hope. I relied on my imagination to regulate my pain, my longing. I did not rely on others.
Magical thinking has always felt relevant to me in trauma work and thinking of trauma responses. As I’ve moved through the world as a therapist, a writer, an artist, and a person with repeated traumas, I’ve begun to explore this concept. The core issue with trauma is one’s reality. First trauma occurs, then a rupture of reality, which can be followed by a degradation of perception into the zone of mag. And yes, trauma did create a new landscape I had to move through, in the past my ways of moving through had all been rooted in imagination, magical thinking. As a child, I dreamed up worlds I wanted to live in, often lost in my imaginary worlds. This was my first learned coping mechanism as a child.
In trauma, my sense of reality altered when I realized safety was not guaranteed to me. I’ve learned this lesson before through sudden deaths of loved ones, and within this grief, my sense of reality shifted from what I thought I knew to something else entirely. A world with someone, to the sudden world without them, and where was it that they went to? Because I experienced death in early childhood, it prepared me for re-organizing and re-thinking the way I knew the world to be. This is perhaps a lesson of growing up, the realization of nothing as permanent. The process of finding ourselves through pain and then finding our way outside of our pain. Within my pain and grief, I had to find a way to make meaning. For me, this became living with intentionality around what was lost, and carrying that person with me, remembering what they had given me.
As I grew older and I experienced pain in new ways, I experienced loss in new ways. Trauma ruptures reality, people I had once trusted became people I now lost, but for different reasons than the losses I had previously experienced. My trauma was a grief process, an angry one at that. These new lessons felt difficult to face and the need for magical thinking as a way to make meaning felt more pressing in my world. When trauma became a repeated pattern in my life, my brain did not know how to process this ongoing experience of loss around what I had once known. I believed that people were good, my trauma made me realize this was not always the case. I learned this lesson again and again in my early twenties, as I muddled through new and unfamiliar territory. I felt lost, confused, uncertain how to go on.
8 Tips for Telling Your Own Story
Do you have a story to tell? Chances are, you do. This free guide will walk you through our Editor in Chief's top suggestions.
I almost got lost in my pain because my imagination ran wild. I invented other worlds that were safer to exist in, but that was not my reality. It all started to blur into one another. During this time, after multiple experiences of sexual violence and abuse, my brain began to go back to my earliest learned coping mechanism, world building and imagination. Magical thinking is defined as “the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world,” and also “the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them, particularly as a result of supernatural effects.”
My brain created a world that was safe for me to live in, since my repeated traumas had ruptured my sense of safety. These worlds were magical and that magic created safety. I dreamed up a world in which our small daily gestures and exchanges could create larger political shifts and changes. This world promoted a deeper sense of safety, I could again move with ease. But this world that I dreamed of was not real. The world I dreamed of was connected to an election and grander political change I dreamed of. This all felt connected to the sense of utopia.
In the past several years, I had experienced a lot of direct harm at the hands of others, this in many ways made me fearful of strangers, of others, even at times of friends. I had allowed fear to become a dictator for so many experiences and now I wanted to turn away from fear and love with a deeper intention and less conditions. I wanted to be a person who could love through pain and not move through the world as traumatized and sorrowful. This was a new realization and in part because the election resurfaced both old and recent traumas that made me want to be mean, made me want to turn away from the world. How could I do the opposite? This is in part why I began to obsess over the small daily gestures of life, with my server, the man on the street, a passerby, the train conductor. All of these small moments held within them someone on the receiving end moving through their own world of trauma and turbulence, some of which felt shared and activated by the current political moment. I began to attach to the idea that my small daily gestures could impact political change. This put power into my hands, after years of feeling powerless.
I had clarity in the what, the secret politicians that were everywhere. I just had to find them. I had to learn how to talk to them. I had to figure out the ways in which I could use my abilities, my sensitivities, my power, to give to a collective need. I had the capacity, I could feel it, as if my whole body was transforming. I moved differently, with greater speed and certainty. I did not fear death. My body felt more powerful than before, because it moved with a greater purpose.
In a society that is completely built around the concept of oppression, there is no real freedom. This shift, this moment, could be an access point to a greater freedom, previously unknown. The ways in which I had been oppressed, abused, hurt by those I thought were my own, made me aware of this in a deeper sense. It was not until I became specific about ways in which I was oppressed that these thoughts began to actualize. It was not until my trauma bubbled up and exploded through me, that I saw a newness, an opportunity. This is also how I tapped into the world of politics. It was a world of the many oppressed, the many affected, seeking a new kind of freedom we had once been promised. American freedom was always about oppression. This moment could be about something else, and gaining access to the voices of secret politicians, working on the subway or in the grocery store, or that I passed on the street created greater access to a deeper and realer reality, one of change.
Looking at history, I realize that when revolutions happen, when the lower class takes power from the higher class, they often perpetuate a similar system of abuse and oppression because that is all they know. This is in part why this moment is so secret, underground.
I moved with deeper clarity, believing in a collective consciousness that could promote actual, real, political change tied to an election. The problem was, that my newfound world and thoughts and imagination was not actually real but what I dreamed began to blur with what was reality. To write the specifics of the world I created would take much greater space as there was much to what I learned, what I imagined as true, what could shift and what could change. But the reality was, this was not true. Systems were built to oppress, not enlighten me.
Could there be a space of both? I believed this to be true but when I was hospitalized in what did appear as a manic episode during this time, my imagined world crumbled around me. Lost, retraumatized, and in a psychiatric ward, I began to recognize the world was not magical.
Through time and space I have learned to re-invite magic into my world through a continued practice of healing. Even if I cannot change the entire world I can change myself and others through the practice of healing. This does feel like magic to me.