Understand Trauma? I Didn't.
Knowingly or unknowingly, we are working with/living with/interacting with children or adults who have experienced trauma. It is important for each of us to understand the effects trauma—all traumas, but especially those endured as a child. You may not know the effects of trauma are what you are seeing, but it very well may be. It is too pervasive to not be part of your world.
Do you understand the effects of trauma? Are you knowledgeable about how trauma affects the body, brain, and mind? Despite my educational background, I wasn’t. I have been on a journey of intense learning and healing and I still feel like I am only at the very edge of what is now scientifically and medically understood about the effects of trauma.
What I do understand very well is how trauma affected my personal story. My trauma is neither the sum total of my life nor does it define who I am, but it is the foundational platform upon which I hope to help others understand the effects of trauma in their own lives and the lives of those around them. I am not a trauma expert, but I am becoming an expert in my own story. So much of what I tried to leave in the past, lived on inside me.
There was so much to learn, but emotional healing was necessary before I began to research. Even now, researching is sometimes difficult because it brings me face to face with how hard I had to work in order to live my life. I was determined to appear ‘normal’ but the brain and body of a trauma survivor are fundamentally different. Even without consciously remembering the trauma, I knew there was something wrong. Without knowing the cause of much of what I dealt with physically and emotionally, my only conclusion was I had somehow been born defective. I worked very hard to live above it. I also lived in fear of anyone else knowing.
The brain scans of trauma survivors differ in documentable ways. I wish there had been a brain scan before I entered therapy so I could compare it to one taken now. It would be very different. My brain was on constant alert for danger even in the most benign of circumstances—everything had the potential for additional trauma. There were hundreds of triggers that plunged me into subconsciously reliving past trauma experiences—which only registered as deep emotional turmoil and anxiety.
How someone remembers (or doesn’t remember) a traumatic experience, in comparison to a non-traumatic, but important life experience is very different. On a less intense level, how you remember being in a serious car accident is very different from how you remember other non-traumatic but important life events. Very different.
Our non-trauma life stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. For instance, in the memory of the birth of each of my children, I can tell you when we decided to leave for the hospital, what happened when we got there, and how it felt to hold them. Trauma is not remembered this way. It is remembered in flashes of memory pieces—mostly isolated and out of sequence, along with seemingly random visual connections, smells, and physical sensations. Anything associated with the trauma memory can potentially serve as a trigger and while the exact memory may not surface, all the sensations will—including terror. My body did not know it was no longer in danger. Anything unexpected and startling registered as imminent danger and often resulted in an apparent overreaction.
The body is designed to react during dangerous situations. I am well acquainted with my own personal fight or flight reactions (sometimes physically and sometimes inwardly). These were not choices I made. They were emotional reactions to danger that generated deep within my brain. For me, as with all traumatized children, escape was not an option. I did not have the strength or size to fight, and I froze (dissociated). Inherent in trauma is the inability to protect oneself.
Though I was eventually no longer in overpowering and traumatic situations, the memory of the trauma lived on in me and affected my life in many ways. Trauma doesn’t just go away; but life does go on, even for the traumatized. The determination of my human spirit to live beyond the trauma astounds me, but when triggered, the unprocessed memories returned with the full force of how it felt in that moment. It doesn’t fade. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t go away.
My mind created ‘cover stories’ that held truth but not the painfully incomprehensible and disorganized trauma. This was not a conscious effort, but instead a form of ‘sense making’ of the unimaginable. It was a way to survive—a way to get up and live another day. As an adult, my cover stories provided a way to tell my life story in ways that were socially and personally acceptable. It was important to believe I had a perfect childhood. The truth of the trauma was hidden in almost every story I repeatedly told about my childhood—I simply could not allow myself to see the trauma I had hidden. It is possible to know and not know. My entire system was built to protect me from the painful truth.
I slowly began to recognize these ‘flat memories’ because they should have held emotion. I was clearly in dangerous or uncomfortable situations. In every one of my ‘cover stories,’ I appeared somewhat like a superhero who escaped the danger. The memories were always emotionless. These sense-making stories prevented me from consciously remembering the trauma, but the emotions of the trauma still surfaced in seemingly unrelated ways—often in the form of overwhelming terror disguised as anxiety and panic attacks.
One of my best examples of this occurred midway through my thirty-three years as a faculty member. I was in the Dean’s office for a meeting. I have no memory of the conversation or what triggered what I am sure was a ‘shame attack,’ but my basic instinct was to flee. I was trying to control the impulse—it wasn’t my first go round with feeling trapped, so I fought through the flight response, but I was unable to remain in the conversation. I said, “I need to finish this conversation another time.” To my horror, he said, “No, we are going to finish this right now.” I was probably 45, but inside I was a child trapped in a dangerous situation. Suddenly, I was crying and stood to leave, but as I went toward the door, he stood and got to the door first and put his hand on the doorknob. I now understand this as a trigger from a terrifying and traumatic experience at twelve. A flashback of a teen boy’s hand on the doorknob that prevented me from leaving the room landed squarely in that office and engulfed me in waves of panic and nausea. I felt myself floating above the room and waited for the trauma to begin.
I have no memory of leaving the office. I don’t know what the Dean saw on my face that made him remove his hand and let me leave. I may have expressed my fear in some way, I simply don’t remember. What he did was inappropriate, but not menacing. We never talked about the incident, but at one point I told him to have a window installed in his door. He did.
Since I had no conscious memory of that tragic day at twelve, there was nothing to provide insight into this very odd episode. I am sure the Dean sat back down at his desk and thought, “Whoa, what just happened there?” He had to have known what he did was not appropriate. In hindsight, I wonder why he felt it necessary to detain me. If I had a story, then so did he. The inability for either of us to have a legitimate discussion about the incident would have a lasting effect on our work relationship and probably eventually played a part in my demise as a faculty member. Did I appear out of control or belligerent? Probably, but I have no memory of it. I only have bits and pieces of shame and fear and terror with a visual image a hand holding the doorknob and preventing me from leaving.
This adult version of living out trauma makes me think of children in the classroom who react in completely unpredictable ways. Our effort to make them stay in the room or sit in a chair may be going against their very basic survival instincts. If I had been a more aggressive person, I don’t know what I would have done. As an adult, my need to flee should have been respected. When children try to flee, it is way more complicated—we have to keep them safe—but our attempts to do so may be triggering something they don’t even consciously remember. In my situation, I can still see his hand on the door. It was not the Dean’s arm (I am sure he was wearing a suit) but the tan, hairy arm of a teenage boy. When we try to stop traumatized children from fleeing, they don’t see us as the one stopping them. They just don’t. They are trying to survive.
The most difficult of part of trauma flashbacks is that they are experienced as happening right now. Unresolved trauma never recedes to its appropriate place in the past. It is always experienced (even unconsciously) as happening right this very minute. This is foundational to PTSD. I was not in danger in the office, but my mind and body believed it was back in that room when I was twelve. Learning to understand the emotions and reactions, place them in the past where they belong, and make appropriate choices is a long, emotionally deep journey. Healing requires much more than understanding the connection. The logical part of our brain is not the part of our brain that emotionally responds to the perceived threat. It was necessary to relive the preteen memory within the safety of therapy in order to place it in the past and not experience it via triggers as happening in the present.
We wish trauma didn’t exist in our world. Thinking about it makes us uncomfortable, whether it is our own or someone else’s. The result is, we blame all sorts of behavior in our world on something other than the true cause, which is often trauma. (If this seems like an exaggeration, please read the statistics on childhood trauma.) Those around us with unresolved trauma need us to understand how traumatic memories live on in the body. This is essential for us to give them the necessary support and safety they need to seek and receive help. The more we understand and/or heal, the better we can help one another. It is complex but possible.
In the book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, author, Bessel Van Der Kolk states, “Nobody wants to remember trauma. In that regard society is no different from the victims themselves. We all want to live in a world that is safe, manageable, and predictable, and victims remind us that this is not always the case. In order to understand trauma, we have to overcome our natural reluctance to confront that reality and cultivate the courage to listen to the testimonies of survivors” (196-197).
We need to listen. I have chosen to tell my story so others have the opportunity to listen and learn. We need to understand that all inexplicable behavior has a cause, which may be consciously unknown to the child or adult. We need to pause our knee-jerk judgments about the cause and give each other the safety of caring relationships. No one can process and heal from trauma without a sense of safety.
Do you understand the effects of trauma? I lived it, but I didn’t understand it.