I have never been assaulted, raped, witness or victim to a violent crime, been in a natural disaster, been in a major accident, or gone to war.
But still, I am a trauma survivor.
I have a master’s degree, hundreds of hours in trauma-informed clinical training, over 15 years of mindful self-study practice, and 8 years of experience in working as a therapist for some of the most traumatized people in Phoenix, and it has taken me until now to completely understand and be able to vocalize that I AM A TRAUMA SURVIVOR.
The nature of the trauma beast is that, in those moments when your trauma is triggered, you are kicked into a world that you perceive to be threatening and unsafe. People and situations cannot be trusted, and you yourself cannot be trusted to make sound decisions or to have good judgment. You perceive yourself as a bad person, as unloveable, as not good enough, or as if there is something inherently wrong with you. These beliefs can be called Negative Cognitions. When you are triggered by your trauma, you believe with 100% certainty that your Negative Cognition is true, and so therefore operate in the world as such. Later, after you have calmed down, you might be able to look back on the event and wonder why you did what you did, and understand logically that your thought process in that moment did not make sense, and make a vow to never respond in that way again.
But trauma is not logical. Trauma is emotional.
So it will happen again.
We see this pattern played out all the time. This pattern is the heroin addict who has been cut off from his family because he continues to promise to change with no follow through. What we don’t always know is that this heroin addict learned to use as a means to escape the unbearable pain he felt after his girlfriend was killed. Every time he makes a promise to quit, he fully intends to do so. But every time he is triggered by something or someone that in some way reminds him of pain, his girlfriend, or her death, his sympathetic nervous system goes into fight or flight, which means that he perceives that he is unsafe or is being threatened, and his body is doing what all of our bodies do when we are faced with a threat. For his own survival, his body is telling him he needs to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get away from that threat. At this point, all logic goes out the window, and the only thing he knows how to do to escape the threat is to get high. So that’s what he does.
This pattern is also that guy with road rage. What we don’t always know is that this guy grew up as a little boy with a physically abusive father. His dad beat him daily for years. Eventually, when the boy got big enough, he learned that he could stop his father’s beatings by yelling and hitting him back. So every time he is triggered by something that feels like an attack on him, his sympathetic nervous system goes into fight or flight, which means he perceives that he is unsafe or is being threatened, and his body is doing what all of our bodies do when we are faced with a threat. For his own survival, his body is telling him that he needs to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get away from that threat. At this point, all logic goes out the window, and the only thing he knows how to do to escape the threat of someone cutting him off in traffic is to become extremely aggressive, aka road rage. So that’s what he does.
This pattern is also that person who makes fun of people or puts other people down. What we don’t always know is that this person is insecure. This person’s parents never praised him and always demanded more. He has gone through his entire life with the perception that there is something wrong with, or lacking in, him. The only way he has learned how to relieve some of these feelings of insecurity is to point out someone else’s weakness. So every time he is triggered by something that feels like his weakness is being revealed, his sympathetic nervous system goes into fight or flight, which means he perceives that he is unsafe or is being threatened, and his body is doing what all of our bodies do when we are faced with a threat. For his own survival, his body is telling him that he needs to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to get away from that threat. At this point, all logic goes out the window, and the only thing he knows how to do is to make fun of someone else. So that’s what he does.
This pattern is also me. And maybe you.
Because I work professionally with people who have experienced some sort of trauma, and because part of the effectiveness of their treatment depends on their ability to be vulnerable in examining the nature of their trauma, I have had the idea of discussing my own vulnerability in a public format for some time. My thought is that it is inauthentic and ultimately ineffective of me to be asking my clients to be vulnerable, if I am not also willing to be vulnerable. However, because my guess is that most people who know me would not necessarily look at me and think “trauma”, I have been afraid to share my traumas, for fear of the legitimacy of my traumas being called in to question. On the exterior, my traumas might not look like a big deal. They might look like something that I should just “get over”. And to family members or friends who knew me since I was a child, they may have witnessed some of my traumas, and to them, these things might not be traumas.
But trauma is subjective. And I have learned that my traumas ARE traumas to me, because for my entire life, they have heavily negatively impacted how I view and operate in the world. And they are not rooted in fact.
I have two distinctive events that I view as my traumas. Both played out for many years of my childhood, and thus hugely impacted me during the most important developmental years of my life. The first and longest lasting trauma is my dad. My dad’s life ended in 2001, when he committed suicide. His death is not my trauma. His life with me is my trauma.
I want to first be clear that I loved, and still love, my dad very much. For much of my life, he was a very good dad, and he taught me some of the most important lessons and skills of my life. But my dad suffered from mental illness. He did not believe in doctors, or mental health. He never had any diagnosis, but I do believe that he suffered. I think the most traumatizing part of him, for me, was that he was so unpredictable. Sometimes he would be the fun, involved, big teddy bear of a dad. But sometimes he would isolate himself or my family, criticize me, and break promises. I never knew who I was going to get. At least in part, this was traumatic to me because kids are naturally self-centered. I believed that my dad’s behaviors were a result of my actions, or inactions. Thus, I believed that when my dad did not respond in a positive way, it was because of me. It was because I was not good enough.
To add fuel to this fire, from about age 4 through age 11, I was extremely overweight and wore embarrassingly thick bifocals. I was made fun of at school, no one let me sit next to them on the school bus, and I was always the one chosen dead last for games or sports. I can distinctly remember the first time that another kid called me fat. This was the first time I realized that I was different. Different felt bad. I was different, and differentwas not good enough.
This Negative Cognition was “proven” to me so many times throughout my childhood, that the world that I lived in became one in which I was “not good enough” for the world. I needed to learn how to protect myself in what I perceived to be an unsafe and unpredictable world.
It really wasn’t until many years later that I truly realized just HOW I had learned how to protect myself. Spoiler: I learned how to protect myself by pretending that I did not care.
I started to get clues to this in my late teens, when my friends started joking about my “death stare”. Somewhere over the years, apparently I had developed a way of wiping all emotion from my face. Some years later, “Resting Bitch Face” became a thing, and also my unofficial diagnosis. It wasn’t a conscious move, but I also developed a way of playing “too cool for school” as a means of keeping myself protected. This means that I kept conversations short, I didn’t let many people get close to me, and I tried to give off the impression that nothing bothered me. The reason for this was pure survival – I didn’t trust the world and I viewed everyone as a potential threat with the ability to hurt me, emotionally. I learned that I was doing this when people started to tell me that they either thought I was 1)extremely shy, or 2)a total bitch. I’m neither.
Over the years, I have done a lot of work on myself. I have been able to identify habits that aren’t working for me, and to make my own choice for the change I want to see in my life. I regret that there have been many people in my life with whom the connection could have been deeper, but I kept them at an arm’s length. Although I understand it, it still hurts my feelings when someone misunderstands me or my actions. It breaks my heart that I still struggle with the scars of an innocent little girl’s wounds.
But this is trauma. I am doing the trauma work. And I am a trauma survivor.
And I know there are more people like me out there.
Trauma is not exclusive. Trauma is not objective. Trauma doesn’t feel like it makes sense.
But trauma is real. I believe trauma is affecting all of us more than we know. Let’s talk about it.