Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On continuous trauma

on 2015 August 6

I’m working out how to talk about trauma when it is continuous in a person’s life. The vocabulary we have is misleading: the typical definition of trauma states that it is the emotional response to an “event”, and so we have this image that we’re going along in life, and something bad happens, like an accident, rape, combat, or a natural disaster, and then for some time afterwards we have flashbacks and other stresses caused by the original event. But what if it was a continuous condition rather than an event, or it didn’t appear to be horrific – at least as seen from the outside? What if the things that trigger (awaken) the original trauma are not just specific things (like a gunshot for example) but are composed of the whole environment, the culture, the way we are treated all the time, or the wind blowing?

I feel like a lot of people have “continuous trauma” like this – the trauma that a person’s life is made of, rather than a trauma that is an interruption of life. Some of us (like me) can’t really clearly identify what the “original” trauma is. We supposedly had a nice childhood with no dark secrets or anything that we know of, but yet we’re living in a state of high stress all the time, defending against attacks that we can’t see, or being ineffective at moving on in life from the emotional blocks.

I’m guessing the consciousness of continuous trauma is expanding, as I see more writing that brushes on it or acknowledges it, more trigger warnings in writing, and feminist circles making it more central. So much is being painted by its language, but still the language is incomplete, if you think there had to be a identified causative “event” for a person to be in “real” trauma.

 

Continuous trauma appears to often be connected to:

  • Disability: Disabled people are sometimes co-labeled with PTSD, and it could be misleading to suggest that the PTSD is something separate from the disability. Being disabled is being powerless and that is what is continuously traumatic.
  • Minority status: Being or a member of a minority is possibly in itself a reason why we live in continuous trauma, although maybe not all minorities do. It could come from being consistently devalued or marginalized, hiding, thinking of ourselves as not normal.
  • Objectification: Growing up thinking about ourselves too much as objects (how we appear and whether we fulfill the needs of others) rather than subjects (what we want for ourselves) can lead us to be so out of balance that it becomes a powerless state, and is continuous trauma. (“Who am I if he doesn’t love me?”)

 

Most people are minorities in some way, and most of us are not represented by the tiny slice of highly privileged people who control public discourse. So perhaps most people have this condition, the same people who are relatively powerless, and those people are not getting their needs met very well for safety and healing. It’s hard to imagine someone not having a significant continuous trauma if they are in all three of those categories.

For any individual, it is a matter of how your life actually is now, not just what happened to you before. As an example I know someone who, for a long time, could barely confront the shame that one adult, once when she was a teenager, had been sort of creepy and touched her. It was an event that might seem mild from the outside but for her was central and traumatic. Someone else might have brushed it off and not been burdened by it. I wonder if the reason it got so heavy for her is that she was living in a state of continuous trauma from life in general (for other reasons), and that incident assumed extra large proportions because of those other things. Maybe if we accept that there is continuous trauma, we might not feel we have to find an “event” to pin things on.

The basis of continuous trauma might not even be something “bad” or illegal. Maybe someone did something that was even considered normal and nice, and it still contributed to trauma. Or maybe no one did anything at all, and the trauma comes from not getting the attention that you hoped for or some other twisting of the ego. No one can fix it if nothing was really ever done wrong, but I think that is the point too: continuous trauma isn’t about what happened in any specific way. It’s not something that can be prevented by policy.

 

Despite it being unlinked to a causative event, I still think what I’m talking about is still a kind of trauma because it has triggers. We talk about being “triggered” which means going on high alert or high stress, while also being (possibly) aware that the trigger is not a real threat. Unlike event-trauma which theoretically has specific triggers that interrupt life, continuous trauma can have more continuous triggers. And I don’t think there is a clear line between what’s a trigger (something mentally associated with a threat that isn’t a real threat) and the actual threat. Being triggered puts us in stress, and if we’re constantly in chronic stress, then the triggers are unhealthy for us to be exposed to. In that sense the triggers are a real threat.

So are triggers “bad”? If a person happens to trigger you and they didn’t do anything wrong – like, they happened to be wearing a triggery shirt, or whatever – they are not guilty of anything, and it is not about them, in the same way that it is often not about any original “bad” event. Going after the triggers is missing the point in a way; we can’t make the world safe by being free of triggers for the same reason we can’t prevent trauma that isn’t caused by illegal events.

On the other hand, triggers continue to fuel ongoing trauma when you’re in those categories of disability, marginalization, or objectification. So the triggers are re-traumatizing in a way that triggers for event-trauma might not be. I’m just hypothesizing here but I wonder if you were hurt with a weapon that had blue stripes and blue striped things became triggers (in the classic definition of trauma), then you might be able to gradually expose yourself to blue stripes and neutralize it (exposure therapy). On the other hand if you’re a woman and you’re triggered by men who look at you a certain way, then could you (or would you even want to) expose yourself to it to neutralize it? I think it is different because the trigger reminds you that the condition of being marginalized is still present, and is not just triggering but is also reinforcing that condition, unlike the blue stripes example where you are no longer in any actual danger of a blue-striped weapon.

 

I feel like traumatized people are everywhere, maybe even most of us, and yet we (society) have too little recognition of it and hardly any answers. Our society is so phenomenally bad at safety, even within groups of people who are ostensibly safe to be with. We have no socially recognized reliable way to actively shelter each other. We seem to know at some level that so many of us need safe spaces – places free of mysogynist or racist remarks, free of the other -isms that are continuously re-triggering, and free from fear of being victimized. There’s so many of us that know that, but even so, we can’t seem to make the safety happen on any scale beyond small groups of friends. It feels like some people can only associate with others who are equally traumatized, because everyone else feels “dangerous” in their inability to sense the needs of others, but for some reason that association can’t be shown in a public way. So when we’re in public, we just have to assume everyone is a danger, even though mentally we know most of them are probably safe. It’s the feeling that “even though probably most of these other people are safe, someone will probably take advantage of me if I’m not vigilant, and no one will stand up for me.”

Can we make places safer for the continuously traumatized? Imagine going places and being confident that there will be people standing up against dergatory and insensitive language, who recognize and protect us. Imagine being allowed to be unguarded, admitting weakness, and not being taken advantage of for it. Imagine an uprising of care.

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One response to “On continuous trauma

  1. starlys says:

    ooh I just found that what I was writing about has a name already, and it’s “Complex PTSD”, described here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_post-traumatic_stress_disorder

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