Trauma, as it is seen in the world of psychology, has a relatively narrow definition. Considering all of the ways that we now interact, are tuned in and shut out; the mass amounts of trauma that is shoved in our faces through social media in the news everyday. I’m not the first person to say this, but humans as we are now are not developed to handle stress and tragedy on this level.
Even without all of these piled on emotional challenges that we all face, often without even realizing it, still the definition of trauma is small.
PTSD was a diagnoses from war-times. The kind of trauma that the people who were originally diagnosed with this were exposed to is often far off from the kind of trauma that, societally, we now face on a day-to-day basis.
When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I was confused. What I considered trauma and had learned trauma was, was different from the way I am now learning that our brain processes trauma, and therefore changes the way that it is defined.
I did not grow up in an innately violent household. But I did grow up with what is considered a broken family. I was surrounded by highly emotional people who didn’t understand their feelings or how to handle them.
At a young age I learned that violence is a reaction that cannot be ignored. I saw my mother use it when we weren’t listening or when she ran out of words. I saw my brother use it when he couldn’t convey the mass of emotions coursing through him. Consequently, it was something I turned to as well. Violent fights between siblings were common in my house. As a teenager, violence also became my last resort as a call for help. Words become harder to believe when they’re the same method that the wolf cries in.
I don’t want to give the impression that I was surrounded by violence on a daily basis, but I was surrounded by it in a way that keeps people ungrounded. I started to learn to live in a state of panic and distrust, knowing that when things were going well was likely when the shoe would drop. There was a consistent cycle in our weeks, months, and years. Christmas and Birthday’s were always the hardest peaks.
As we grew older and stronger, episodes became less frequent but more violent. I was victim, but also to blame in many parts of this as well. In my teenage years, emotional violence was used more than physical. We all knew how to push each others buttons. We all understood that winning wasn’t about a conclusion or a fair fight. Winning was knowing that you would be the one to receive an apology. That was the psychology of my family.
The last time I violently laid a hand upon anyone, I was angry and scared to the point of disassociation. When my fight or flight instinct finally collapsed, and the impact of my actions reverberated in my mind, I realized that I had to unlearn myself and these behaviours. I had to start understanding the implications of everything I had been through.
I had normalized visits at home by the police; calling the police. I was accustomed to telling my teachers I didn’t finish my homework because I was fighting with my family. As a child, even at the age of 9, I would stay up all night reading and spend the whole day sleeping. I desperately wanted to escape. I ran away from school, the guidance counsellors did check ups on my family, and I routinely expressed symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is all before the age of 10.
Trauma, and how it affects the psyche, is severely different in children and adults. There are even more variants, like a child’s own innate ability to be resilient. If you are less resilient, you are more prone to violence, depression, anxiety, addiction; abusive and dependant qualities that can reveal themselves as early as childhood or prolong themselves until adulthood. If you are more resilient, it can trigger something in you that eventually turns into problem solving, awareness, observance. You learn to adapt, hopefully – but not before struggling with these hardships. Particularly alongside developing hormones.
There is almost always a stunt in emotional maturity when trauma has been a long term part of life, particularly in developmental stages. This can be anywhere in the range of simply not being able to convey emotions, to not being able to actually analyze and understand them, to being manipulative and reactive.
Trauma for children, in terms with how resilient they are, can range from parents fighting; sexual, emotional, and mental manipulations and abuse; addictions; poverty; war; certain household rules and restrictions like “you must eat everything on your plate or you don’t get dinner”. Generally, it is extremities, but these are more common place than you would expect.
My parents divorced when I was young. My brother took it poorly, and spent a majority of his life being raised in a female dominant household with me and my mother. He didn’t understand and couldn’t process his emotions behind the divorce and also our parents feelings about it. Our mother seemed happy. Our father left our lives a couple of years later. I don’t know if it was guilt, fear, confusion, blame, or maybe a combination of all these things that triggered something in him, or if this was something that was going to happen regardless of circumstances.
Violent episodes became more regular. We went to group therapy, where my brother and mother would talk. I would get asked my obligatory opinion, but it seemed whenever I felt like I had something I wanted to say that it wasn’t welcome. Everyone was selfish in their need to understand, but also been understood. I was always a good student, and mostly I stayed out of trouble in my younger years. But something flipped a switch.
I was going through trauma as well. I was calling home with stomach aches, I was staying up all night, I was becoming more reactive myself. I was starting to participate and instigate violence instead of being a victim or bystander of it. I was learning, in my quiet solitude of need, that being loud was the way to get noticed.
I was 15 when I was diagnosed with Depression. I was 20 when I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder and PTSD. I was 21 when I started actively researching trauma, specifically in children and the long term affects. I was pissed off to learn that I had been battling anxiety my entire life (and didn’t even know what it was until my second decade in) and was never loud enough to be heard.
As I learned, anxiety isn’t always small and quiet. It is often reactive, angry, confused, scared, reluctant, controlling, persuasive, and manipulative. It showed me ways to be safe when I was young – like escaping to written worlds, but as other needs like positive affirmations still went neglected it showed me how to gain attention as well. How to give into the fight or flight instinct on the other side of the spectrum.
Do you know what it is like to be 11 and to come out of a panic attack, alone on the bottom of a trailer with broken windows while your principal runs down an alleyway calling your name? What does it say about someone who makes a scene about not wanting to be found?
It took me 3 years from the turning point of my last personally instigated violent encounter to even be able to process who I was in all of this. It took another 2 on top of that to begin to de-assemble the parts.
Why was my mother violent?
What was her nature, her trauma, her teachings?
What was our role in her own anxieties and depression?
What was my responsibility?
What was I missing?
Why did I react that way?
Why did my brother react that way?
What did he need?
Why did my anxiety go unnoticed?
What am I still affected by?
What do I still not understand?
What do I not want to understand?
How was I affected?
How did I affect others?
What is my role now?
How do I reconcile?
What do I want from this?
What is the fucking point of it all?
I’ve lived on my own (or, at least not with family) for 3 years. The first year was one of the hardest of my life. I had 4 different roommates, was having panic and anxiety attacks regularly, diagnosed with Panic Disorder, had a milieu of problematic romantic relationships, was stressed about money and bouncing around jobs because I was always in such a rooted, permanent state of anxiety that eventually when the stress bottled up to be too much my fight or flight would kick in full force. I didn’t have bad days. I had explosive ones. I was scared to be happy and comfortable.
I acknowledged this information before I accepted it. It applied to me, but I refused to try it on. To see how it would unravel my understanding or build me up. The acceptance was a slow march, and it happened progressively. It is still happening.
My mother called me the other day to tell me her and my brother had gotten into a fight.
He was violent with me, she said.
He assaulted me, she said.
I don’t know what to do, she said.
You’re right that is assault, I said.
I didn’t say :
Well, you taught him that. But someone else taught you that, so it’s not really your fault. Except for that it is because you know it’s wrong enough to not want it done to you. You know it’s wrong enough to feel guilty about having done it yourself. And I can’t talk to you about this because, hey I’m your daughter and you’ve both laid hands on my too. I can’t be the mediator because I don’t care that it’s happening anymore, because I can’t inflict this situation on myself anymore. I am dealing with the past, how can you expect me to be here in your present?
What do we do when we become desensitized to the people we love going through trauma? When we can’t help because it will perpetuate our own?
For me, things have become simple. Things either stay, or they go.
Your relationship isn’t fulfilling? Leave it. Find yourself.
And so on.
Do not use your empathy on the same people and the same situations. I can no longer sympathize with my mother in any capacity if she is hurting or burdened by something. I no longer believe she hasn’t perpetuated it. I can’t empathize with my brother when he is scared or needs help because I do not trust that it isn’t manipulative. I have had to “forgive” these people more times than I can remember (literally, our human brains do not have the capacity to handle that amount of trauma without suppressing it) and even though I still love them, I love them in the same way that I inhale air. It is a part of who I am. But I do not trust them, that rope that bound us uniquely together as a family was worn too thin and we have all fallen through it, relying on it to help us bend backwards.
Awareness and knowledge doesn’t undo that which we have learned through experience. My understanding and insight into my own situation doesn’t help that I still have panic attacks, I still can’t connect meaningfully with my family, and also that I haven’t felt real happiness for them in a long time because truthfully, it is still wired into me that the shoe is going to drop. Healing takes time, and sometimes the best form of healing is acceptance.