Looking forward

I watched this.

It’s a talk given to Rwandan counselors following the genocide. I found it very helpful. She repeated the element of healing which she has mentioned in other videos: talking, tears, and time. By this she means something I might put into a longer sentence, which is that we need to be able to feel our emotions while processing the trauma in a conscious way. And it doesn’t happen quickly. How long it takes depends on the support you have in the rest of your life, how much other stress you are facing, the severity and complexity of the trauma itself, and probably the internal resources and resilience you had before the trauma occurred.

It was helpful to be reminded.

She also says that healing requires three other elements: relationship, purpose and faith. Now, she is a Christian, so she speaks from that perspective, but I think generally she is talking about an ability to rebuild one’s meaning structures of the world. She’s talking here of moving more into the future, because she makes this point that trauma does not go away. You have to live alongside it. We would like to be able to forget the trauma, but our brains were designed to remember.

Well, I don’t know that I have all three, but I have been working like crazy at purpose. I was thinking about this, and also about what she says about how we experience the trauma when it is happening: we are helpless, we are devalued, we are humiliated, we are powerless and we are afraid.

I don’t know how to say this exactly, but I feel like integrating the trauma means integrating those feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, humiliation, powerlessness and fear. Which ought to mean understanding that we felt that way during the trauma, but I think it can feel like it means those feelings are permanently who we are and the thing to do is really to try to get rid of the trauma, so that we don’t need to experience those feelings again.

The thing about purpose is that it needs to take into account the trauma. It can’t ignore it. It doesn’t need to center on the trauma, but I don’t think it can be some attempt to reconstruct life exactly as it was before.

The problem with this is that it can feel that acknowledging the trauma means the badness that seems to be a part of the trauma is permanently with us. That sense of defectiveness can surface and interfere with our ability to re-engage with life again.

I think I am struggling with that. If I move forward with the life that I am working at–teaching in Country X again and supporting C, in particular–then I am acknowledging that the trauma happened and that life with the trauma is different from what my life might have been if it hadn’t.

She says also that speaking about the trauma is the opposite of what happened during the trauma. It reaffirms our value. We become subjects rather than objects. That makes a lot of sense to me, and it helps me. If I acknowledge that I felt worthless when I was trafficked, then it reaffirms that I am human being who can have feelings about things. If I had been an object, I would not remember what happened. I would not have had any feelings about it. I would not have a story to tell later. You can damage an object, but it does not feel pain. You can discard a paper cup, and it does not feel betrayed. Speaking says, “This happened to me and I matter.”

I am starting to see what was so damaging about various approaches to trauma I have been exposed to. I might have encountered them because those were my own notions to begin with or because those were the coping methods my family already used to cope with the trauma that had been passed down to them.

I did not feel I had control over the story: I did not understand it was my story to tell. I believed it needed to be the correct story and my problems were due, at least in part, due to errors in my story. In therapy, I became powerless to tell my own story in the same way I was powerless when I was traumatized to begin with. When I was victimized, I was told in one way or another: You have no value, not even enough value to feel distress about how I am treating you. In therapy, I heard (and it might have been my filter) you don’t have sufficient value to define your own experiences. I didn’t know any better. I thought this is how it was supposed to be. I had never been given the right to think or to feel or to make meaning of my own before. I assumed the therapist would look at my experiences and tell me what to think.






6 thoughts on “Looking forward

  1. Alexandra Roth August 3, 2017 / 12:01 pm

    As as therapist who rarely deals with trauma at this level, I can say that when I encounter it, I feel overwhelmed. I wonder if your therapists felt this way and so were not attuned enough to you. There are trauma therapists who just treat these kinds of stories, and I think that must be because it takes special training and maybe a special personality to do it successfully. Just a thought, wondering why your experiences with therapy were so bad.

    • Ashana M August 3, 2017 / 12:25 pm

      I always saw therapists who claimed to be experts in trauma, specifically sexual abuse. I don’t really know what happened. There were two in particular that I saw for a longish period of time (the first retired). They were both extremely vague in their styles, which is something I hadn’t thought about being something that doesn’t work for me. I remember a lot of points when I really didn’t know what they were talking about and didn’t know why they were responding the way they were. They were white women working in West LA. I am white, but I am from a working class background. I grew up in intimate situations with immigrants and non-English speakers. My experience teaching in a white-dominated/middle or upper-middle class school reminds me this is a world I enter and exit. Psychologically, it’s not where I live and it feels foreign and unsafe to me. It might be that they assumed we had points of commonality that we don’t have, and because of my background, I couldn’t point them out. I couldn’t say, “I’m trying really hard, but I can’t understand what you are talking about.” I also think I did not have realistic ideas (and they didn’t tell me) of what you need to do outside of therapy to heal. Once it was on my shoulders, I knew.

  2. hothead August 4, 2017 / 10:57 am

    “The problem with this is that it can feel that acknowledging the trauma means the badness that seems to be a part of the trauma is permanently with us. That sense of defectiveness can surface and interfere with our ability to re-engage with life again.”

    Personally, I have done a lot of work with shame (or sense of defectiveness) and I have largely healed this. Once in a rare while attacks can happen — maybe twice in the last five years, and lasting only a day or a few each time. This is a long way from the constant sense of shame that I used to always have just under the surface, and that would flair anytime I was in pain.

    My shame and worth issues are largely healed, but this issue of living with the badness is one I struggle with in a daily way. In therapy, my sense of how bad the world and people can be is treated as a cognitive distortion, a part of PTSD to be fixed/ healed.

    This is one of the reasons I’ve stopped pursuing therapy… What happened to me was real. The knowledge I gained from it is real. What I want is help learning how to live with that, how to live in a world where people can be that terrible–not to discount my experience and pretend that all the shitty things have been some kind of bizarre struck-by-lightning one offs that I can write off. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, and I think the task is to live with the truth, not deny it. I suppose I believe this fundamentally, but I also think mental health requires authenticity.

    I think of this as “traumatic knowledge”. Maybe this is an issue that is more pertinent to C-PTSD versus PTSD. I think I am getting a bit rambly so let me try to sum up: to my mind, trauma causes emotional and physical and relational harm, but it also leaves you with the problem of traumatic knowledge, and how to live with it. I think of “trauma” as “that which rends your narrative”. How do I sew the knowledge back into a story I can live with?

    I don’t know, and so mostly I just get better and better at living with despair.

    • Ashana M August 4, 2017 / 12:42 pm

      I think a therapist who is truly skilled with trauma also knows that. You can’t meet people who have been deliberately, intentionally harmed by other human beings and not also come to terms with the existence of that kind of evil. I think there are many trauma therapists who would like to see evil as a one-off, because it’s painful to learn to live with it.

      • hothead August 6, 2017 / 10:11 am

        I guess I just have yet to find someone who is truly skilled in that way. Sigh.

      • Ashana M August 6, 2017 / 10:35 am

        I think it is out there, but I don’t know how easy it is to find.

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