By: Neena Wilcox

I remember twelve years ago when I began at The Bridge to Recovery, it was my fear for anyone to ask me in passing, “Oh, what do you do?” It is difficult to provide a short, simplistic answer to what we do. It’s compound. It’s complicated. It’s life-changing.

“We provide healing to those who are in emotional pain.”

As you can image, this simple answer opens up the door to many other questions. And, in addition, all of us understand pain – it’s a universally experienced emotion. So then, the response from the inquiring party is always an understanding, a relatable story of their own personal pain, and how wonderful it must be to do this type of work.

In truth, it is wonderful to do this type of work. I can speak for everyone at The Bridge to Recovery when I say that it is fulfilling. We all see it as an honor and privilege to have to the opportunity to be a part of the healing journey for so many amazing folks. 

In further truth, this work is hard – some of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. We have lost staff before who were honest enough to admit that this type of work “is just too heavy.” Reasoning for this is parallel to the reason it is so difficult to explain what we do. Let me introduce our trauma tree model. 

Years ago, then-Counselor Scott Whittle, who spent a lengthy career at The Bridge to Recovery, described and illustrated a trauma tree to best describe what we do. Since then, the trauma tree model has been referenced across the globe when trying to understand the effects of unresolved trauma. 

For us, you will see a tree and its parts used to symbolize our program throughout our publications, website, brochures, and more. Early models of the trauma tree (as seen in the black and white photo) have evolved to include the spectrum of healthy and unhealthy patterns of living (as seen in the color photo).

Understanding the Trauma Tree

The Trauma Tree is broken up into 3 parts:

  1. The Limbs: Representative of our behavior, actions, and identity.
  2. The Trunk: Representative of our emotional response to historically significant events (most often our childhood development).
  3. The Roots: Representative of the historically significant events in our lives (most often our childhood experiences). 

Understanding each of these parts is pertinent to understanding what we do at The Bridge to Recovery.

The Limbs of the Trauma Tree

How we act in our adult lives, the behaviors we partake in, and the identity we have as a result of our experiences are the branches of our own personal tree.  These can include:

  • Love, Sex, and Intimacy Behaviors
  • Work / Vocation Behaviors
  • Financial Behaviors
  • Coping Skills Behaviors
  • Levels of Self Esteem and Confidence
  • Interpersonal Relationship and Attachment Behaviors
  • Survival Behaviors

When we have negative, traumatic experiences in childhood, our development is interrupted. This can significantly impact our behavior and identity in adulthood. The “branches” we see sat The Bridge to Recovery often include:

  • Love and Sex Addiction
  • Control and Caretaking
  • Misery and Martyrdom
  • Anger and Rage
  • Workaholism
  • Low Self Esteem
  • Lack of or damaged Self Image
  • Shopping, Gambling, and Spending
  • Codependency
  • Relationship Problems
  • Family Enmeshment
  • Chronic Relapse

And many more.

The Roots of the Trauma Tree

As humans, we are built to survive despite what we may experience in our lifetime. Our Co-Founder, Carol Cannon, described our woundedness coming from anything less than nurturing in childhood. Trauma can certainly include physical or emotional abuse, which is most often associated with it, but just as often can include:

  • Bullying
  • Abandonment
  • Mental Anguish
  • Belittling
  • Exposure to War
  • Community Violence
  • Failure to Launch
  • Divorce or Separation of Parents
  • Death of Loved One
  • Loss of Friendship
  • Events during Puberty
  • Not Being Accepted by Peers
  • Not Having a Relatable Group of Peers and/or Adults in One’s Life

And many, MANY more.

As children, when any type of traumatic event is experience, it makes us feel unsafe. Safety is a key element for healthy development; thus, it creates fear and we begin to operate out survival, often creating negative patterns of behavior (our trauma tree branches). This operating pattern does not create a feeling of happiness, but instead pain, which we carry with us until a new, healthy pattern of behavior can be established.

The Trunk of the Tree

The trunk of our own personal trauma tree is where we sit today. It is the pain we carry with us, or the happiness we carry with us (and very often, a combination of the two). Pain is a healthy emotion, but when it is the driver of our negative behaviors, it is no longer beneficial to us. Instead, it is hurtful. 

Pain will always be present, but our ability to respond to the pain with healthy coping skills is often absent, or a least suffering. When we carry unresolved and unaddressed pain from our past, we often struggle to replace negative behavior patterns that we have learned, despite knowing they aren’t good for us.

What Part of the Trauma Tree do we help with at The Bridge?

The trauma tree was born to support the work we do at The Bridge to Recovery, where we help clients address ALL of the parts of their own personal trauma tree. When we begin to peel away the layers of the historical roots, we gain a better understanding of our pain, and learn to turn unhealthy behaviors into healthy, helpful ones. This is what we do at The Bridge.

Consider time spent in our program an emotional surgery where you will address your past wounds in a healthy, safe environment. Everyone’s journey is different; thus, we offer you the opportunity to do this work and take the amount of time you need for healing. 

Now that you understand our trauma tree model and its importance in the healing process, I hope you can understand my early aversion to the question, “What do you do at The Bridge to Recovery.” As I said, it’s complicated and layered. 

But even more so, it is truly transformational.