A speaker told this story during the third module of my training to become a Certified Trauma Therapist. The story, which I hope to be fictitious, is one I led groups on once I did in fact become a trauma therapist. The way in which I would tell it went like this:
A client once walked into my office and requested a cup of coffee as he had a rough night with little sleep. Usually, I would have a pot brewing in preparation for my group and as a Portlander, for my own love of coffee. However, we were both out of luck as I was completely out of filters. The client looks at me with all the cunning that once helped him construct marijuana bongs out of almost anything and says, “well lets use a paper towel… we can even poke a few small holes in it.” But no luck: I was also out of paper towels. Desperate for a cup of “pick-me-up” the client then asks, “well, when was the last time you brewed a pot? Is the filter still in the trash [while looking into the waste basket]?” “Yes”, I reply, “but I had my cat here the other day because he’s been sick and I didn’t want to leave him at home alone.” You see, while the filter from yesterday rested at the top of the trash, so too did the remnants of my cats litter box from his visit to daddy’s work. Determined and relentless my client picks the filter out of the trash and despite my objections he proceeds to shake off the litter and little cat droppings. Again, despite my objections and declarations of complete “grossness” to which I would certainly not partake, he put the filter in the maker, scooped my fine organic blend upon it and let it rip. It percolated, steamed, whistled and popped and before long it was ready. My client pours a cup, takes a sip and I ask him how it tastes. He replies, “It tastes like cat shit.”
We all have a lens through which we see our world. This lens filters the information we come into contact with and ultimately shapes our experience, just as the filter in the story drastically affected the nature of the coffee. I love this story as it pertains to the survivor of trauma- keeping in mind that trauma can be any experience that leaves a negative and lingering effect on someone. This may be the individual who was sexually abused as a child, relentlessly teased and bullied in junior high, mugged walking home from work or the child who didn’t have the resources to properly cope and ultimately adjust after a tough divorce. All these experiences; these traumas, become the metaphorical cat droppings in our filters with which everything must pass through.
Not surprisingly, these polluted filters often manifest in dysfunctional thought patterns and themes that rule a survivor’s life. Thoughts like, “something is wrong with me”, “I will never get better”, and, “I cant live without a drink/drug/cutting/porn/binging/purging”, become an internal narrative. They certainly became mine. As a survivor of childhood sexual trauma myself, these were the tapes that filled my head. How could anything positive ever break through? The answer is that before I had the opportunity to work on resolving my past trauma and clearing out my filter, not much did.
Like the perfectly fine and delicious coffee in my earlier story, I had many successes in my young life and many things to live and be grateful for. However, all the good things going on around me were still heaped upon the trauma from my past and it still had to pass through that corrupted filter. And when it did it always came out tasting like “cat shit”, metaphorically speaking. By the time I found help, my filter was very dirty and my life as a drug addict, desperately trying to numb the pain, only added to it. I saw things very differently from my fellow graduate students. Much like in the story, parts of my life looked like coffee and even smelled like coffee, but something was off. The ghosts of my past haunted my present.
Before I had the chance to unravel my trauma story I had no idea this lens existed and that it permeated my entire being. Not until I could go into the darkness and walk out the other side could I create my story of recovery and begin the process of cleaning out the filter. While the cat litter/coffee filter story never had an ending that I am aware of, I like to think that my hypothetical client dumped the coffee out and we shared a laugh about how nasty that filter made the coffee taste. That they realized they never had to use that filter again and that it wasn’t an accurate reflection of reality. That was the outcome for me and that was always the outcome I hoped for with my clients.