The author working on her own renovation project of turning a shed into a writing room.
As a young girl, I learned to use my imagination to escape childhood neglect and abuse. This well-honed coping skill allowed me to succeed in adulthood. I formed solid relationships, excelled in my career and was respected for my engaging leadership style. Outwardly, I appeared emotionally strong, capable and happy.
But if you build a beautiful house on a cracked foundation, eventually, critical problems will arise that cannot be ignored. That’s what happened to me when my mother died late in 2019.
Her death unlocked a flood of past recollections and clarified her responsibility for the trauma I’d endured. Memories that had long been dormant screamed for attention, causing me to slip into a murky depression that felt incapable. Images of my childhood trauma felt all-consuming, and I wasn’t emotionally prepared to begin dealing with it.
So instead, I distracted myself by watching HGTV.
The extremely popular HGTV network largely features shows that put a unique spin on home renovations, from flipping dilapidated homes for profit to creating dream homes in which families can grow and thrive. Episodes of popular HGTV shows like “Home Town,” “Unsellable Houses” and “Love It or List It” became my go-to panacea for dealing with the escalating anxiety I was experiencing.
I felt drawn to the renovation process. I was mesmerized by the makeovers that were magically completed under an hour. I became emotionally invested in the design plan and marveled at the beautiful transformations as the homes were revealed to the owners at the end of each episode.
Watching HGTV was a balm to my hurt and anger. From demo day to the big reveal, I was transfixed by something old and broken being transformed into something new and magnificent.
After a while, I started to feel embarrassed by the hours I spent watching HGTV shows. I feel like an addict who constantly needs a fix. I’d try to limit myself to a few episodes, but denying myself rarely worked. Keeping my mind occupied seemed the only way to avoid dealing with the images of my past trauma.
Then, one afternoon, I had a revelation as I watched the show “Tough Love with Hilary Farr.” In this new series, the designer didn’t just address the problems in the house she was renovating, she also addressed the emotional issues plaguing her clients.
In one episode, Hilary was working with a family who had recently moved back to the US, and she noticed a lot of clutter in their home. As she probed her clients, she realized their ambivalence about moving back had caused them to become disengaged. Once they realized what was going on under the surface, they could work with Hilary as she designed an inviting and restorative space for them.
As Hilary turned chaos and dysfunction into beauty, personally and spatially, I felt a renewed hope that I could utilize the skills I’d learned during past therapy sessions to tackle the fractures in my foundation that had been exposed by my mother’s death.
From demo day to the big reveal, I was transfixed by something old and broken being transformed into something new and magnificent.
Watching HGTV began as a way to distract myself from the childhood memories flooding my consciousness. But eventually, I saw a pattern emerge within the shows that allowed me to visualize a way to process my trauma and experience genuine healing.
As unusual as it sounds, binge-watching home renovation shows gave me a beautiful metaphor that helped me demolish harmful thought patterns and created a blueprint for the future I wanted. These popular shows helped me go from “fixer to fabulous.”
When a contractor inspects a home’s foundation and finds damage, they must first assess the cause of the damage before developing solutions to repair it. The same is true when healing from trauma. Understanding what caused our trauma is essential to protecting ourselves from being further traumatized.
However, it’s also true that we can get bogged down in examining the cause of our trauma and allow it to define us. Holding too tightly to our identity as a victim can handcuff us to the past and hinder us from moving forward.
In my case, I became emotionally stuck by focusing on the why behind what had happened to me. Why did my mother neglect me? Why did I experience abuse? Why wasn’t I loved in a way that was meaningful to me?
Narrating my trauma story to a trusted therapist was invaluable. While the process I used to work through childhood trauma was effective for me, everyone responds differently to trauma. A therapist can guide you in techniques and tools that will help you cope, heal and move forward.
I spoke with Dr. Justin Puder, a licensed clinical psychologist and social media influencer, about why it’s hard for trauma survivors to let go of a victim mindset, and his response was informative.
He said that repeated trauma can negatively alter the brain’s neural connections, leading to PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, flashbacks, panic attacks, memory issues and emotional dysregulation. These skewed neural connections can also give trauma to victims the sense that they are permanently broken.
After my mom died, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had been permanently damaged. It felt like the neglect and abuse I experienced as a child altered or rewired my brain in an irrevocable way. The abuse and neglect caused me to believe I needed to earn love, and I was plagued with thoughts of being harmed or abandoned by the people who loved me.
After my mom died, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had been permanently damaged.
Luckily, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Dr. Justin further explained that neuroplasticity in our brains, over time and through repetition, allows us to change our neural connections, and thus, our thought patterns.
When I was asked about the best way to do this, he said that mindfulness techniques, such as cultivating a gratitude practice or repeating a positive mantra, can strengthen new neural pathways and rewire our brains to help reverse the effects of trauma.
One such approach that empowered me was repeating the mantra that I was a victor rather than a victims. The shame of being neglected as a child caused me to feel powerless and without value. But when I reframed how I viewed myself, I experienced a significant emotional shift. Once this shift occurred, it felt like the burden I’d been carrying lifted, allowing me to move forward. My mind stopped playing reruns of painful childhood memories, and my anger toward my mother lessened significantly.
I also spoke with Dr. Jackie Hrzich, a licensed clinical psychologist in South Florida, about the benefits of therapy for those who’ve experienced trauma. She said that therapy provides a safe environment for exploring and understanding trauma. A skilled therapist will help reinforce adaptive and rational thinking patterns, which further help trauma survivors separate their trauma from their identity.
Just as in home renovation, by dismantling the faulty foundational beliefs that were formed due to my childhood trauma, I could begin building my future.
I no longer believe that my trauma experiences define me. I now have the freedom to pick up my pen and finish writing my story the way I want it to be told.
Adopting this new mindset hasn’t been easy. I work at speaking the truth to myself, especially when something triggers me and my thoughts spiral into what I call “trauma talk.”
I encountered trauma talking with statements of truth. When my thoughts crystallize around a feeling of powerlessness or of being devalued, I take a moment to breathe deeply and repeat the mantras I’ve chosen to ground myself.
I’m no longer in the kind of pain that requires constant distraction, so when I watch HGTV these days, I simply enjoy the creativity of the designers. Watching home renovation shows on HGTV alone didn’t heal me, but it did help me to move forward in the process of healing at a time when I felt stuck. And while I watch a lot less frequently these days, I’ll forever be grateful for the role they played when I needed them most.
Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.