I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and like every child from that part of the United States, I learned about Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea in Washington State History classes. If you grew up in the United States, you may remember hearing about Lewis and Clark. But you may never have learned about Sacajawea, so allow me to introduce one of my childhood heroines to you. Her story has bearing on how we heal from betrayal trauma.
Lewis and Clark were commissioned by president Thomas Jefferson in what was called the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Their venture began in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1804, and over two years’ time they covered 8,000 meandering miles that ended on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. But brave men that they were, they knew better than to try to complete the journey without a guide. And that’s where history introduces us to Sacajawea.
A Shoshone Indian, Sacajawea was just 16 years old and living with a different tribe in what is now North Dakota, when Lewis and Clark met her. They knew they needed a guide and a cultural translator as they continued their journey west, because they would encounter many other Indians. And so it was that young Sacajawea traveled with them from the northern plains through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and back. Her skills as a translator were invaluable, as was her intimate knowledge of some difficult terrain. Perhaps most significant was her calming presence on both the expeditioners and the Native Americans they encountered, who might have otherwise been hostile to the strangers.
Sacajawea became a guide for an uncharted and difficult journey through an unexplored part of the American continent. Like Lewis and Clark, every partner of a sex addict is tasked with exploring an emotionally uncharted territory she likely didn’t even know existed in her primary relationship until her day of disclosure or discovery. And, like Lewis and Clark, it is a wise woman who finds a knowledgeable guide for this uncharted journey.
When the insanity of sex addiction and the betrayal trauma it produces crashes into your personal world, it’s as if you wake up in a foreign and unknown land. The one you trusted your heart to is suddenly a stranger, and both your past and your future are called into question. “Healing well” from this betrayal trauma requires connection and a guide; someone who has taken this journey before us, and done so free of bitterness, stored-up anger, or hostile unforgiveness. In other words, someone who becomes our own Sacajawea.
Psychiatrist and trauma specialist, Dr. Karl Lehman, diagrams “healing well” in his Pain Processing Pathway, which is included in my workbook, From Betrayal Trauma to Healing & Joy. It’s a map of sorts that, if we follow it, can take us through the unknown land of sex addiction and betrayal trauma, so we arrive at a destination of peace. Though it’s a highly-simplified image of what takes place in the brain of a trauma victim, it’s easy to follow, as well as accurate. In case this pathway is new to you, I’ve included it below:
Dr. Lehman explains that when we encounter emotional pain, our brain tries to process the painful experience. He also tells us there are some very specific processing tasks that we must complete as we move through the trauma, including what he calls, 1) organized attachment, 2) staying connected, 3) staying relational, and 4) navigating the situation in a satisfying way, so that we can correctly interpret the meaning of what we’ve experienced. He tells us that if we can do these things, we won’t be stuck with long-term trauma or PTSD.
But just what does he mean in his list of four things above? Simply put, he means we don’t allow ourselves to isolate or withdraw from connection and support, and we find a good guide; our own Sacajawea. Healing requires people who come to know us, support us, and who reflect back to us our value. And it requires a guide so we can navigate our painful situation in a satisfying way, and correctly interpret the meaning of what has happened in our primary relationship.
A guide who already has an intimate knowledge of the betrayal trauma landscape, and whose calming presence can make the difference between bitterness or peace.
So, if you still need to navigate your heartbreak “in a satisfying way,” I encourage you to take part in a support group led by a facilitator who has taken this journey before you, and has arrived at the destination of peace without anger or bitterness. As Dr. Lehman’s diagram reveals, doing so can enable you to eventually find the gifts of empathy, wisdom and the emotional maturity you could never have found without this painful experience.
 Lehman, Dr. Karl, M.D., Outsmarting Yourself: Catching Your Past Invading the Present and What to Do about it, Libertyville, IL: This JOY! Books, 2011), 5.