Knowledge is empowering.
I thought I mostly understood PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) when I picked up a book from the Chicago Public Library. I figured I'd at least skim through it, because I have an interest in bibliotherapy--having done a little bit of research in the field for my library degree. I ended up reading it. Actually reading it. Well, actually the first few chapters, and then skimming the rest because my mind was overloaded.
Not in a bad way, though. It was more like lots of mini-lightbulb moments. Connecting the dots. Moments of insight. Some of this stuff I already knew, but the way it was explained was beneficial without coming across as condescending. I'm starting the book over from the beginning, taking notes and applying it to bits and pieces of my memory.
Because knowledge is power, I am in no way connected to the author, nor am I getting paid for this. Instead, this is just going to be a summary of my notes. Or rather, this series of posts is going to be my notes, because I want to share some of the insights with others who might also appreciate.
The book is Healing from trauma: A survivor's guide to understanding your symptoms and reclaiming your life by Jasmin Lee Cori.
Chapter 1: Shit happens
I love the title of this chapter. Shit happens. That's what I tell people when, well, shit happens. It's partially me trying to convince myself not to worry about things--and partially me trying to keep others from becoming hysterical. Some key points:
1. People have different responses to trauma because we're not the same.
We are wired differently, and we have different family, cultural, and life circumstances that all affects how traumatizing something can be. So, even though some people can totally overcome adversity and go on motivational speaking tours, don't beat yourself up if you are still working through YOUR trauma. I just wish that some people who wonder why I haven't "moved on" yet would recognize this. It always makes me feel wholly inadequate or like I'm a disappointment or a failure. I'm working on it. I've come a long way, and I have a long way to go.
2. If you were able to do something during the traumatizing moment(s), that is less traumatizing than if you couldn't do anything at all. And 3. If you were very young at the time of the trauma(s), you were more vulnerable and had fewer resources to help you cope and recover. This leads to more psychological scars.
That would explain some things. I was young, and grew up with this. I was homeschooled, and didn't have very many friends or opportunities to develop close relationships. Any attempt to protect myself in the trauma only made it worse. Harder spankings, longer and more vitriolic yelling, rages that put the whole house on edge. I learned early on that it was better to be passive and let him yell.
I couldn't protect myself by disassociating, either. I sometimes could zone out, but dad expected responses. "Yes dad." "No sir." "I don't know, dad." This was to make sure we were receiving the full brunt of his rage. It also made it more likely for us to break down and start crying. It was only when we broke down did he finish up his rages. At least in my case. His anger was far more threatening because of that.
4. Repeated trauma is worse. Unpredictable trauma is worse. Interpersonal trauma is worse. If someone you know, especially someone you love, as the causer of the trauma, it's more traumatizing. Trauma is lessened if loved ones supported you. Trauma is worsened if the abuser was a parent, because of the dependency of children.
This relates to points 2 and 3 above. It is/was my father, and my mother is/was an enabler. Relatives didn't know, because we put on such a good public face, so I didn't have that help. Nor did I have the help of people at school, since, well, it was homeschool. Every day was always tense. Every night, I had nightmares about dad. Sometimes I had other cataclysmic nightmares or nightmares about being in a cult if it wasn't about dad. Sometimes he was a good father. Sometimes he raged. It was hard to know whether he was in a good or bad mood. He forgave me when I broke a ceramic tiny basketball while dusting the knick-knack shelves. He raged if the counters were sloppily wiped down, if there were still crumbs on it. It was entirely unpredictable.
5. Having help, support, and access to resources mitigate the effects of trauma. Healthy bonding with caregivers also mitigates the effects. These bonds may be weaker if a parent was sick or mentally ill, a sibling needed extra attention, parents were unavailable or lacked parenting skills, if the traumatized person had physiological issues like a early head injury or if s/he was a colicky baby. Healthy bonds help us keep a stronger sense of the self, while weak or unhealthy bonds makes the self ambiguous.
This one is really interesting because it touches on developmental psychology, relating back to point 1. Our familial bonds were not healthy. My resources, growing up, was a little bit my little brother, and a little bit my mom. And books. When more siblings came along, that complicated things. When my mom read that one book and "gave up," that also took away the tiny bit of help I got from her. My little brother and I grew apart as I became more independent. Well, we both did.
It wasn't until I started going to college and becoming more independent (dang, looking back, I was still extraordinarily dependent, but it felt like a lot, then) that I started realizing that I could get resources and help. Antidepressants. Books from the library where I worked--that I kept in the employee locker and read during my breaks. Sometimes I snuck them home and hid them in my mounds of college textbooks. Counseling at school. But before...I was dependent. Perhaps that was complicated by my deafness, which would count as a physiological issue. I don't know how well I bonded, not having gotten my hearing aids until 2 years old. Maybe the early bonds was good enough. Maybe not. I just don't know.
6. Hidden traumas are worse. This links to the whole bonds and resources thing above. Even a supportive community can't help if they don't know of problems, of abuse going on behind closed doors.
7. Repressed traumas still controls our nervous system. Even if we don't remember, the body remembers. Our reactions may seem irrational to ourselves and others, but it's because our body is reacting as if we were actively being attacked. That's what PTSD is--when we're reacting as if we were still living during the traumatic events.
8. For traumatized people, life doesn't simply "go on." We can't just "get over it" or "put on our big girl panties." To us, the event still seems as if it happened this morning. We're reacting as if the trauma happened recently. It takes time to reset the nervous system.
This is what therapy is for. And a support network. It's not as big of a problem as it used to be, but I used to get panicky and afraid around men. Father type figures. I was expecting them to act as my dad acted, and I was reacting accordingly. The danger still seemed immediate and present.
9. Healing can be painful, but when we can allow ourselves to express grief, it helps us to move on. It's part of the process of putting the past trauma in its proper place...in the past.
I've noticed that I repeat the same stories--on here, to friends, my husband, my therapist. I suspect that I keep having to reprocess some things to put them firmly in the past. Each time I tell the story, it's less painful. It's more like "Here's where I got this scar" instead of "Here's my wounds." I still find myself expressing grief. I suspect it's also part of the process. It's also partly because my littlest siblings are still at home, in the same trapped situation I was.
Filed under: Abuse