[CW: child abuse, trauma]
There's gonna come a day when you feel better
You will rise up free and easy on that day
And float from branch to branch, lighter than the air
Just when that day is coming, who can say, who can say?
-- the Mountain Goats, "Up the Wolves"
I came across an extended excerpt from Catherine Woodiwiss, "A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma"
on Facebook. I was struck by how much of it made the assumption that "trauma" doesn't refer to complex trauma; that when you address trauma survivors, you're necessarily addressing people who survived a single traumatic event (or a few discrete events) rather than an extended period during which we were repeatedly traumatized and could not escape. Like being held prisoner, which usually means being a child, since all children are held prisoner, though some prisoners are treated better than others.
So, point-by-point, I want to ask whether each of these ten statements applies to people like me who survived complex trauma."1. Trauma permanently changes us."
This is true, and this is even harder to reckon with when you have
no "old me." The desire to go back to the "old me" is still there when your trauma began before you can consciously remember it, but the difference is that you have no idea who that "old me" is. Is there even an old me when the only "you" before trauma is a less-than-three-month-old baby?
I don't think the idea of "recovery" makes sense for complex trauma that begins in early childhood. You don't heal. You learn to live with what you have; to work around your limitations. If surviving trauma is like recovering from an illness, surviving complex trauma is like managing a chronic illness; it's more like a disability, which must be recognized and accommodated. Searching for a cure isn't useful.
And how do you know what is "you" and what is "only a result of the trauma", anyway? I imagine that people who have survived a single traumatic event as an adult have an easier time sorting that out, since after all, they remember the baseline of who they were before and can compare. We don't get that. So I think we might as well accept that our traumatic experiences are an inextricably part of who we are -- beyond "trauma permanently changes us", and into "trauma is us." People, usually those who are not survivors, tell us "don't let your trauma define you", but the alternative is to have no self at all.2. Presence is always better than distance
I suppose that in some abstract sense, it is. But surviving childhood with no reliable caretaker teaches you that other people are dangerous; that it's not safe to be close to anybody, that all expressions of love are Trojan horses. And when people who do show up ask questions like, "So what did your mother do that was all that bad, anyway?" it seems better to avoid them; and to, when you have to be around people, put in the huge amount of energy required to fake normal.3. Healing is seasonal, not linear.
Can't argue with that, with the caveat about healing.4. Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.
What does this look like when you had a fire burning for 16 years and everybody refused to see the flames, pretended they didn't smell the smoke, because parents are considered all-knowing when it comes to what's best for their children and so if they're setting the house on fire, it must be because it was cold? If nobody helped then, why would they help now, especially when survivors of childhood abuse constantly hear the message that we should just get over it, when adult survivors who exact revenge on their parents -- or even just talk about their experiences -- get labeled as whiny spoiled kids?
The author says "trauma is a lonely experience", and I agree -- but even more so when you can't describe what happened and if you try, few people hear you and then you have to experience the trauma of being unheard or unseen again. The risk of being unseen and unheard is so much more pernicious when your trauma centers around an extended experience of being unseen and unheard than when it's a one-time blip in a life where the people around you were mostly good enough. Who's going to show up for you when you look
fine? And if someone does show up, how can you trust them?5. Grieving is social, and so is healing.
The problem with grief about complex trauma is that the change that precipitates the grief is not
trauma, but the achievement of consciousness that trauma occurred. And, possibly, the realization that it's not occurring now
, despite what all of our bodily and emotional reactions tell us. These realizations are their own kind of trauma. By means of awareness that it is better, we feel worse. And sometimes we "get worse" -- we become less functional -- once we're no longer dissociating or numb all the time. We feel that other people might prefer us in our dissociated state, during the time when we weren't so "sensitive" and didn't ask for accommodations, when we didn't defend our boundaries.
So grief looks completely different for those of us who have survived complex trauma -- perhaps unrecognizable as grief to those who have only grieved the loss of a loving person in their life. How can grieving something you never had be social? Not very many people want to confront the reality that many people who raise children aren't competent to be parents, and that resilience is mostly the product of environment rather than character. How can you show your grief to others when you're not even sure what it is you lost? And when it's not so much "lost" as "never had"? Does that even meet the definition of grief? Are you entitled to ask for help if that's what your grief looks like?6. Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not.
I agree with this: "What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us, and just let it be terrible for a while."7. Allow those suffering to tell their own stories.
Also agreed.8. Love shows up in unexpected ways.
I suppose. But again, if you've had no practice dealing with love that wasn't the kind of love that puts your needs ahead of its own need to express itself, love may not be recognizable at all when it does show up.9. Whatever doesn’t kill you …
Again, I suppose. But again, how can there be an "after" if there never was a "before"? "insatiable anxiety in places that used to bring you joy" implies there were places that used to bring you joy "before it happened". If everything that did really bring you a little bit of joy while it was happening
was a coping mechanism, it's hard to figure out which of those could be set aside once you're in relative safety, and which ones can still bring you life.10. … Doesn’t kill you.
"In the end, the hope of life after trauma is simply that you have life after trauma." Except that -- again -- when there was no "before", "after" is complicated. I take a few moments most days to appreciate that I'm now free to go where I want (except in those dreams where I'm somehow living with my mother again, despite being an adult and am trying desperately to find a way to move out), free to choose who to be with and who to reject. I appreciate the magic of that in a way that people who aren't survivors of complex trauma probably never will. I remember the deliciousness of moving into my dorm room at Wellesley when I was 16, having a space that was shared only with a roommate close to my own age who had no desire to control my life, and feeling that from now on, I got to make the rules. It wasn't that simple, but on that day, it was. I think most people get a rush from the sense of freedom of moving out of their parents' house, whenever that happens, but it's that much of a sweeter memory for me. So yes, this part of the advice isn't wrong. But I still wish there was more written for those of us who can't partition life easily into "before" and "after".
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