By Sara Newhard, MA, LPC.

Disorientation. I’ve been contemplating this word lately. It’s a word that inherently denotes an experience of fear, anxiety, and survival.

Several years ago I experienced this state of disorientation on a hiking trip. I was hiking alone (not a great idea, I know, but I admit I did it) and had enjoyed a peaceful afternoon of delighting in nature, basking in sunshine and fresh air, and getting exercise. I knew the park had a specific closing time and I’d planned accordingly for my day hike. I had mapped out when and where I should head back so as to make it to my car in time to leave by closing time. As it came time for me to reverse directions and hike back to my car, I realized the trail markers weren’t as clear as I’d anticipated. Nevertheless, I felt fairly confident in my assessment of the trail to follow for my return trek, so I set out. After some time, I discovered I had taken the wrong trail and it was clear I was headed in the wrong direction. I doubled back and took the other option which, by process of elimination, seemingly had to be correct. However, after hiking a little longer, I found myself passing by natural landmarks that I knew were even further out in the park which meant I was not getting closer to my car. I felt perplexed. I pulled out the map and the trails listed did not match up with my present reality. I glanced at the time and I noticed the sun quickly approaching the horizon. I’m not one to easily panic and logically I knew I’d be ok, but my body was giving indications of stress as I noticed my clammy hands, tightening chest, and increasing heart rate. I didn’t know where I was and I didn’t know how to find my way out. I was lost. I was disoriented. I felt fear. As you likely assumed, things did turn out ok: I was able to eventually connect up with a road within the park and this road provided a circuitous route back to my car. This experience continues to remind me of the unbearable nature of disorientation.
In Gabor Mate’s book, Hold on to Your Kids, orientation is described in this way: “Orientation, the drive to get one’s bearing and become acquainted with one’s surroundings, is a fundamental human instinct and need. Disorientation is one of the least bearable of all psychological experiences” (p. 7). Within the same chapter, he later describes:

“…the orienting instinct is basic to our nature, even if we rarely become conscious of it. In its most concrete and physical form, orienting involves locating oneself in space and time. When we have difficulty doing this, we become anxious. If on waking, we are not sure where we are or whether we are still dreaming, locating ourselves in space and time gets top priority. If we get lost while on a hike, we will not pause to think about supper. Getting our bearings will command all of our attention and consume most of our energy” (Neufeld & Mate, 2006, p. 18).

Orientation is a human need. If we go long periods without it, we quickly become depleted, exhausted, and struggle to function in daily life. And yet, too many children who experience developmental trauma and/or disrupted attachment know all too well this frenetic internal experience of disorientation and they perpetually experience life in survival mode and exhaustion. In my clinical experience and as I conduct family intensives through Vive Family Intensive, I see entire families experience disorientation and the associated exhaustion. I’ve heard countless stories from families who enter our treatment facility only after having tried a plethora of unsuccessful treatment options. They’ve discussed concerns with well-intentioned professionals ad nauseam, and have experienced the disheartening grief of multiple placements for their beloved child who engages in harmful behaviors symptomatic of their trauma and insecure attachment history. These families come to us disoriented. They often feel lost, at times hopeless, and many have depleted their precious resources in their quest to address the concerns plaguing their child/teen and their family.

Families often need a skilled guide who is able to help them navigate the treacherous cliffs and lonely valleys associated with raising a child struggling with the effects of developmental trauma and/or attachment. A guide doesn’t mean the trek isn’t without difficulty, pain, exhaustion, or even some missteps. But a guide does provide the orientation associated with the comprehensive knowledge, awareness, and insight of the landscape so you don’t have to wander in the wilderness alone, lost, without hope, and in the terror and chaos of disorientation.

Neufeld, G., & Mate, G. (2006). Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. New York: Ballantine Books.