What happened can never be forgotten and can never be changed. But over time I learned that I can choose how to respond to the past. I can be miserable, or I can be hopeful, I can be depressed or I can be happy. We always have that choice, that opportunity for control.
Freedom lies in learning to embrace what happened. Freedom means we muster the courage to dismantle the prison, brick by brick.
Bad things, I am afraid, happen to everyone. This we can’t change. If you look at your birth certificate, does it say life will be easy? It does not. But so many of us remain stuck in a trauma or grief, unable to experience our lives fully. This we can change.
My own search for freedom and my years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist have taught me that suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional. There is a difference between victimization and victimhood. We are all likely to be victimized in some way in the course of our lives. At some point we will suffer some kind of affliction or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control. This is life. And this is victimization. It comes from the outside. It’s the neighborhood bully, the boss who rages, the spouse who hits, the lover who cheats, the discriminatory law, the accident that lands you in the hospital. In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization. We develop a victim’s mind—a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors when we choose the confines of the victim’s mind.
Whether you’re in the dawn or noon or late evening of your life, whether you’ve seen deep suffering or are only just beginning to encounter struggle, whether you’re falling in love for the first time or losing your life partner to old age, whether you’re healing from a life-altering event or in search of some little adjustments that could bring more joy to your life, I would love to help you discover how to escape the concentration camp of your own mind and become the person you were meant to be. I would love to help you experience freedom from the past, freedom from failures and fears, freedom from anger and mistakes, freedom from regret and unresolved grief—and the freedom to enjoy the full, rich feast of life.
What follows is the story of the choices, big and small, that can lead us from trauma to triumph, from darkness to light, from imprisonment to freedom.
Memory is sacred ground. But it’s haunted too. It’s the place where my rage and guilt and grief go circling like hungry birds scavenging the same old bones. It’s the place where I go searching for the answer to the unanswerable question: Why did I survive?
First the high kick. Then the pirouette and turn. The splits. And up. As I step and bend and twirl, I can hear Mengele talking to his assistant. He never takes his eyes off me, but he attends to his duties as he watches. I can hear his voice over the music. He discusses with the other officer which ones of the hundred girls present will be killed next. If I miss a step, if I do anything to displease him, it could be me. I dance. I dance. I am dancing in hell. I can’t bear to see the executioner as he decides our fates. I close my eyes.
We were sent to the showers every day at Auschwitz, and every shower was fraught with uncertainty. We never knew whether water or gas would stream out of the tap.
Our skin hardly covers our bones. We are an anatomy lesson. Elbows, knees, ankles, cheeks, knuckles, ribs jut out like questions. What are we now? Our bones look obscene, our eyes are caverns, blank, dark, empty. Hollow faces. Blue-black fingernails. We are trauma in motion. We are a slow-moving parade of ghouls. We stagger as we walk, our carts roll over the cobblestones. Row on row, we fill the square in Wels, Austria. Townspeople stare at us from windows. We are frightening. No one speaks. We choke the square with our silence. Townspeople run into their homes. Children cover their eyes. We have lived through hell only to become someone else’s nightmare.
All of the survivors I met had one thing in common with me and with each other: We had no control over the most consuming facts of our lives, but we had the power to determine how we experienced life after trauma. Survivors could continue to be victims long after the oppression had ended, or they could learn to thrive. In my dissertation research, I discovered and articulated my personal conviction and my clinical touchstone: We can choose to be our own jailors, or we can choose to be free.
“My mama told me something I will never forget,” I began. “She said, ‘We don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but no one can take away from you what you put in your own mind.’ ”
I have said these words countless times, to Navy SEALs and crisis first responders, to POWs and their advocates at the Department of Veterans Affairs, to oncologists and people living with cancer, to Righteous Gentiles, to parents and children, to Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Jews, to law students and at-risk youth, to people grieving the loss of a loved one, to people preparing to die, and sometimes I spin when I say them, with gratitude, with sorrow.