Happy Spring! The ground is fully thawed where I live, though the color is drab and gray. Flowers will be here soon, evidenced by the rabbit that has emerged from its winter hiding place into our backyard landscape. Despite the state of the world, the natural world perseveres to its cycle like a hopeful promise.
The beginning of a warm season reminds me of what it is like to enter into the beginning stages of trauma healing. Like frostbite, the thaw is more painful than the freeze. It can take decades before frozen emotions are provided a safe and warm place to melt, and when it finds a safe environment, it oozes wounded parts of ourselves from a permafrost of fear into consciousness. For me, this was a period of uncertainty, waiting for each day to end, hoping to put a capstone on the anguish of knowing, truly knowing, danger chose me as a target.
Part of trauma healing is making the story real. A tragic and severe grief abounds in departing from the period of innocence (in adulthood, this is coping with denial), when attitudes often reflect a nothing-can-hurt-me mindset. The thaw into conscious truth often requires the support of a tribe, a community, a family, a church or spiritual practice, and an art form to manifest the loss of one worldview into a present-day identity. Speaking aloud this new identity, and scary comprehension of the world and its violence, explains why professional help is so important. Giving voice to the experience sews fractured selves into a cohesive whole, replacing fear with courage, growing beyond denial, and centering one’s new sense of worth around vulnerability rather than false stories.
I’ve been honored to be on the receiving end of multiple friends who’ve transcended from numbness and denial to a phase of vulnerability. This is an impressive feat for anyone, no matter where they are on the leg of the post-freeze journey. Because I’ve also experienced my own transcendence, it would be untrue to say everyone met me with empathy and encouragement. I was bitter and troubled, and often, a pain in the ass. Few knew what to say to me, a perceived ‘over sharer’ of my trauma story. Making it real for myself had an adverse reaction by many, which became the impetus of this blog and my longing to create a bridge for victims and their loved ones. Frequently, I observed the fumbling attempts of good men and women who fell short of sensitive responses to my confession of traumatic experiences. Can’t you figure it out? It was a long time ago. I should feel lucky that my mother, father, sisters, were still alive.
Though these suggestions were meant to be helpful, it made me want to avoid the world. Anger serves to justify the reality of violence and oppression in our world. The blowback I received shocked me—and it opened my eyes to our American default of victim-blaming. No matter how well-dressed, how laid back and cool, how smart, how much money one had, I felt semi’d by apathy. Not even rock star status can compensate for negligence. Like an insidious war, passive violence didn’t disappear with the passage of time. I was let down again and again.
When we are not equipped with trauma-informed tools, we unconsciously remain stuck in a censorship (or shaming) of the most educational human stories. We present ourselves as childlike in emotional scope. This is no longer OK. We are at a time in history when we all must approach softer ground of victim-advocacy. What we say reflects our capacity to be trusted by courageous victims speaking out to make a difference in the world. Trauma is no longer a taboo subject, but a theme of humanity in which our studies have taken adjacent flight into knowledge and preparedness. With all good intentions, and with my vastly limited understanding of all things trauma, I hope to spread helpful options to bridge the divide from ostracized to united.
It happens to everyone. An acquaintance or colleague makes a vague confessional of a personal traumatic experience, and you’re standing there, unsure of what to say. Below is a list to discern what is helpful and unhelpful when others unexpectedly disclose a personal trauma story. When in doubt, think of trauma as if your mother had been murdered. What would you want to hear? These examples are not everything I experienced, but they represent the imprint left by societal attitudes. I hope you find these lists beneficial, and if you have anything to add, please let me know by leaving a comment.
No-Good Responses To a Trauma Confessional: (Tones will vary in real life, but the message repeats an outdated societal attitude toward victims.)
- You have to forgive people.
- You act like… the world is ending…a bitch… a spoiled little brat…a liar.
- Calm down.
- That was a long time ago.
- What is your problem?
- You should be thankful… for everything you have…God is in control.
- At least you’re… healthy…beautiful…
- It’s always about you.
- Can’t you get over it?
- Wah, boohoo.
You’d be surprised at the various ways this tone leaks from well-intentioned people. As you can tell, getting out of the gig as fast as possible is contrary to our dominant need for connection. Of course, trauma has many sources and situations vary. It’s wise to aim for better, not perfection.
Good Enough Trauma-Informed Responses:
- You’ve been dealt a shitty hand in life. I’m so sorry.
- That’s a lot to overcome and process. Do you… need company, want to talk, need to be alone?
- Can I give you a hug?
- That motherfucker. Those motherfuckers.
- What do you think triggered this right now? Let’s figure things out.
- I don’t blame you.
- You’re a hero.
- Tell me more when you’re ready. I want to hear how you coped.
- Damn. This is shitty news.
- What the actual fuck is wrong with people?
- I’m here for you. I’m on your side.
Empathy is spread from internal awareness to external evidence. We all deserve to live in a world where we feel safe and understood. Being truly honest about the bad habits of a societal attitude is to grow from conformity into the stability of a united and empathic root system.
RELATED NEWS: This Washington Post article delves into the future health issues of infant trauma and how, just because one can’t remember trauma, it has disastrous consequences to the mind and body.
WHAT I’M READING:
All I Ever Wanted by Kathy Valentine. As a songwriter and bassist for the all-women band, the Go-Go’s, this autobiography illustrates a girl’s rise from childhood negligence to stardom, proving that trauma victims have the potential to be wildly successful in life.
I published a blog post on PACES Connection, a community of advocates and researchers to accelerate PACES science (Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences Scores) in our communities and world.
Meanwhile, I am embarking on a new draft of my manuscript as if it were a sinking ship. It feels like a huge weight to tow to shore. I’m looking forward to May when I will rejoin my memoir writing group after a winter hiatus. A good book is never written alone.
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Without readers like you, this would not be a growing community. Thank you!