Trigger warnings for family violence and sexual assault.
My new year’s resolution, declared on twitter, was to write properly about trauma. Here we are, a couple of weeks later and it’s August.
Why the delay? It was not reluctance to start but facing down the central problem of writing after trauma: finding where to begin and how to end. Trauma, by definition, resists those acts of location.
As a writer it’s problematic because it involves an emotional and experiential hyperconnectivity, where every experience connects with every other, and recollection can quickly come to resemble a nuclear chain reaction.
In the words of one of my lecturers, trauma involves experience that refuses to be a memory and must be relived in the present. The reliving may be a direct and intrusive re-experiencing — a ‘flashback’ — but it can also take indirect, compulsive, embodied and relational forms.
Two of the major therapies for trauma, apart from ‘black box’ (it works and we don’t know or care why) treatments like EMDR, are narrative therapy and relational-cultural therapy.
Narrative therapy works with the patient to transform their experience into the form of a narrative — a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Relational-cultural therapy works to re-situate the patient within a network of supportive relationships that acknowledge their experience.
A lot of our knowledge about trauma focuses on people who experience trauma first-hand, and their therapeutic needs.
There is a less well-developed literature on traumatised communities, such as Jewish people after the Holocaust and gay people after AIDS.
And there’s a growing awareness of a need to develop an understanding of intergenerational trauma.
That rather-technical introduction sets the scene: this is a really personal post about the ways in which I live with trauma every day.
Twenty odd years ago
I have some experience of first-hand trauma that I’m not going to go into here. The hardest things to live with are second-hand or intergenerational effects of my mother’s trauma from growing up with a violent alcoholic father.
This is just one example, among many others I won’t go into:
Around age ten I remember lying in bed, night after night, physically frozen with helpless rage and grief, gripped by an image of a story my mother had told me: seeing her father, drunk and enraged, holding my tiny grandmother in a headlock, ramming her head into the wall. Mum and her siblings waiting in the bushes outside the house for a car to pick them up to go sleep over at their cousins’ place.
I was a curious kid with a vivid imagination. I am highly empathic but find strong emotions overwhelming. I’m not on the autism spectrum, but I joke that I live near the on-ramps. And I only know that because, like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, my mother had me tested — so clearly there was some question.
Although early versions of the DSM tried to limit diagnoses of PTSD to events the authors considered objectively traumatising, i.e. witnessing death or experiencing the impending threat of death, we now recognise that what matters is the traumatised person is subjectively overwhelmed.
In other words, trauma always involves an interaction between the individual subject, the quality of the experience, and their relational context.
My parents separated when I was six. As a teenager, I raised myself to provide emotional support for Mum. To listen, soothe, reframe and offer practical suggestions. Her griefs were not trivial: among them, a daughter she had given up for adoption had sought a reunion, then changed her mind and froze her out.
When I came out to Mum, she didn’t say anything for about three hours. That was an eternity; part of me died in that time. I can look back now and laugh at the questions that followed. ‘You’re not a cross-dresser, are you?’ Telling me how much anal sex hurt the time she tried. Afterward, she began to question all my friendships. If I wanted a friend to sleep over, ‘you’re not having sex with a man in my house.‘
Looking back on it with what I now know about trauma, I can see a couple of things. One is that my coming out to Mum provoked fears of abandonment that are incredibly hard for someone who has been traumatised in childhood. And the other is the way that strong emotion caused her to freeze — to go completely silent and get trapped inside her own head.
My own sense about trauma is that the freeze response is a key part of it. You go numb, you stop taking action or processing the experience, you become a video recorder: you soak up everything that happens in ultra high-def slow-mo ‘to deal with later’.
But you never actually deal with it later. You revisit it with intense feelings of shame for having frozen.
You did nothing in the moment: figuratively speaking, you were as good as dead.
The past two weeks
My brother and I took Mum out for dinner a couple of Saturdays ago for her birthday.
Mum seemed distracted and she’d break into the conversation with a non-sequitur about my father or her older sister (two of the dead relationships). Like a record skipping or, more accurate: the needle getting stuck in a well-worn groove.
But she enjoyed the dinner and when I asked about it later, didn’t seem conscious of not fully being present for it.
The next night I went on a date with a boy I just adore, conscious I was a bit stretched, energetically, but gosh it felt good to connect with him.
The following night was the calm before the storm.
Tuesday night, I went for a hookup with a guy who lives nearby. He was moving around a lot and his mouth tasted sour when we kissed. It turned out later he’d smoked a small amount of crystal meth before I got there. That’s a thing, these days: asymmetrical chemsex.
He’d wanted a particular experience of dominant sex, a performance that I’m proficient at.
I unbuckle my belt and yank it out, straight-armed, sideways, with a crack.
A moment later he’s crouching, saying ‘No. No. No!’ Taking short hard breaths and shaking violently.
I know instantly what’s happened, but not why.
I feel myself ten years old again, back in that bed, frozen, and I put those feelings aside.
I get him to sit up on the bed with my arm around him. Tell him it’s okay, we’ve stopped, you had a strong emotional reaction but I’m okay with it and you’re okay now.
I ask him about before where he’s told me where he’s from.
His story tumbles out in fragments, and it’s brutal, but it’s not my story to tell here.
Over the next three hours, in the course of our conversation, sometimes sitting side by side, sometimes hugging, I check on his supports, his family and friends, access to care, alcohol and other drugs, work, study, body image, eating habits, self-harm, safe sex practices, experiences of discrimination, intimate partners and gay friends, and we also talk about how to breathe when you’re frozen up.
I have a loose framework from training I’ve done in mental health first aid and suicide prevention, but I already got the guts of that intuitively. In the moment, if you’re overwhelmed, you need someone around to help you regulate your emotions.
In the longer term, if you get stuck in rumination — in that labyrinth of experiences that all connect up with each other — you need someone who can sit you down and mount a search and rescue.
I walk out of there completely numb and begin asking around for counsellors who might be safe for him to see.
Next morning, the boy from Sunday night calls, and he’s had an awful, unfair, gut-wrenching bereavement in his family of choice.
I say the words but I’m still in that cottonwool fog of nil emotion, and I can hear how empty they sound.
I catch up for dinner that night with a friend and he’s just had an experience of unwanted sex and I’ve got nothing.
My colleague takes me out to lunch and gently asks when I have my next appointment with my counsellor.
I contact her and bring the date forward to Saturday.
I call this ‘pulling the ripcord’. I think that’s a fighter pilot metaphor? Something like: I’ve taken too much flak onboard and I’m in a dead spin; I’m hitting eject, send out that search and rescue party. Come and find me.
At the end of my appointment the counsellor asks me what help I need, and I say, I just need another person to know, so I’m not trying to carry this alone.
This is what I know now about trauma: If I can tell the story, and I’m still turning towards people who can help me, I’m okay.
I’m writing here about my own experience of things that didn’t happen to me. I’m writing within a psychoanalytic tradition about my mother. I needed to write this. Those are three good reasons right there to read this with caution. I want to note this about Mum: she parented with incredible courage and generosity from an equally great sense of personal deficit. All the things Mum didn’t have, she gave me: the sense that I am loved, believed-in, and both capable and entitled to speak and write from my own experience and about things I care about.