Context 2: Trauma: Experience, Effects and Recovery

[Virtually all of the information in this post is derived from Judith Herman’s seminal and powerful book, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992). ]

Traumatic events and their effects upon individual and communal life share much in common with the grievous losses that attend all human lives.  But trauma also differs from those widely-experienced losses in both definition and degree.

Traumatic events encompass a wide range of experiences from a single overwhelming event to prolonged and repeated abuse.  They are characterized by “threats to life or bodily integrity, or close personal encounter with violence or death,” either to oneself or to a loved one.  Such events “confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror” and force upon their victims “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and the threat of annihilation.”  (Trauma 3,33)

Traumatized persons lose their trust in themselves, in other people, and in God.

The experience of terrorized violence betrays and destroys a person’s fundamental assumptions regarding “the human and divine systems of protection that sustain life,” and in doing so, tears asunder the foundations of his or her world. “In situations of terror, people spontaneously seek their first source of comfort and protection.  Wounded soldiers and raped women cry for their mothers, or for God.  When this cry is not answered, the sense of basic trust — the foundation of belief in the continuity of life, the order of nature, and the transcendent order of the divine — is shattered.”  The traumatized person feels cast out of the “systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.”  (Trauma 51-52, 33)  Victims of traumatic events are thus plunged into a state of existential crisis:  they “lose their trust in themselves, in other people, and in God.” (Trauma 56)

Healthy self-love, caring and trusting relationships with others, and belief in a meaningful order of creation are all casualties of violence.  Trauma “shames and stigmatizes”; its victims are prisoners of feelings of utter disconnection, worthlessness, powerlessness and pointlessness.  (Trauma 133, 197, 214)

The path to recovery is marked by new self-esteem, restored relationships, and a sustaining faith.

Although the experience of trauma can never be erased from one’s life, those who have undergone trauma can undertake a journey of healing, and most can “regain the world they have lost.”  Recovery from trauma transforms a dehumanized victim into an empowered and reconnected survivor.  The recovery process generally follows a three-stage path: establishing safety for the person who has experienced trauma; empowering that person to tell his or her story; and reestablishing the person’s healthy and life-giving connections.   In the last stage of recovery, the survivor rebuilds the foundations of his/her life that were lost to trauma: s/he develops “a new self,” “new relationships,” and a “sustaining faith.”  Relationship and community are essential to recovery:  through renewed loving and supportive relationships with others, victims learn to shed their trauma-induced stigmatized identity and reconstruct their damaged capacities for trust, autonomy, identity and intimacy.  Through experiences of love, imagination and restorative reinterpretation, they find a new set of assumptions about “meaning, order and justice in the world.”  Recovery is achieved when (among other things) the person’s self-esteem is restored, their important relationships are reestablished, and “a coherent system of meaning and belief that encompasses the story of the trauma” is affirmed. (Trauma 3, 133, 155, 178-9, 181, 194, 196-7, 214)

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Context 1: Trauma in the Inner City

I work at Denver Inner City Parish (“The Parish”), a non-denominational human services organization that is planted in the financially impoverished, largely Latino/a West Side of Denver.

Our community at The Parish embraces those whom the rest of American society might call the “underclass” — but I know them as wonderful, worthy persons.  Our community includes the full spectrum of all of our neighbors, from five generation Latino/a families to struggling and displaced young families, from the chronically homeless to those who are working their way back to personal stability, from ex-offenders and ex-addicts to those who have never battled the law or addiction and those who are very much in the midst of that battle.

I am continually awed and moved by the richness of the personal resources that our community members bring to their own and each others’ lives.  Every day, unselfishly and unselfconsciously, they unbundle and share their life-giving humor, their hard-earned wisdom, their quiet grit and resilience amid backbreaking adversity, their patient understanding care for one another and for their families.  I learn from them and am humbled by them.

An undertow of violence tears away at the foundations of life.

I am also continually horrified and heart-broken by the trauma that haunts their lives. An undertow of violence tears away at the foundations of life on Denver’s West Side. Its occurrence is commonplace and its ravages widespread.

In just one day last year, community members told me of three instances of horrific violence that had dislocated their lives.  In all three conversations, the trauma was not the cause of the conversation, but simply came up as a sidebar during our talk — a testament to the numbing normality of violence in their lives.

  • Luis apologized for not attending worship the night before, and sheepishly confessed that he was uncomfortable walking down his street alone because he didn’t want to pass by the crime scene tape that wrapped the house next door. Asked what had happened, Luis explained that his neighbor, a young woman, had been murdered in her home. But, he added, thank goodness!, her little child who was with her had not been hurt. A mother murdered; her child, orphaned and traumatized. All right next door.
  • I was helping Delores fill out some SSI forms when she asked, with some agitation, what it took to be charged with murder.  Why?  What’s happened?  I asked.  Delores replied that her niece had gone to court to seek a restraining order against her abusive boyfriend.  Unable to find any other childcare, she left her two year old daughter with her boyfriend, the child’s father.  When she returned from court, the child was dead, killed by head injuries; the boyfriend claimed that his daughter “had fallen.”  Delores was consumed with anxiety that her niece, and not the boyfriend, would be charged with murder.
  • I was driving Carlina, a young woman gripped by alcoholism, to detox, and as we chatted in the course of the ride, she began to talk about the counseling that she had (finally!) agreed to undertake.  Carlina revealed that she had been diagnosed with PTSD.  Glad for the conversational opening, I asked her the nature of her trauma — expecting to hear about the sexual abuse I knew from other sources that she had suffered as a child.  Instead, Carlina rocked me by recalling how, as a teenager, she had been sitting next to her favorite cousin when he suddenly killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head.

These life-shattering experiences are individually tragic —  but they are also heart-rendingly commonplace in our community.  Domestic abuse (physical, psychological and sexual) is widespread; and hidden beneath a shroud of shame and secrecy, its contagion spreads from generation to generation.  Gang violence, drug violence, the violence that erupts daily from the pressures of living in poverty and oppression; addiction, abandonment, imprisonment, dysfunction — all of these rend the fabric of life in the community and unravel the threads of connection, control and meaning that weave individuals into coherence.

The effects are magnified because trauma is unacknowledged and untreated.

The effects of trauma are magnified within the community because traumatic events are often unacknowledged and untreated.  Incidents of violence are often experienced by individuals and regarded by the community as part of the expected course of life’s hardships; as such, they are submerged beneath the surface of life, unaddressed and hardly spoken.  Episodes of domestic abuse and sexual abuse generally go unnamed and unreported, silenced and denied because of shame, fear and familial pressures.  And even when traumatic events are reported and help is sought, legal redress and clinical treatment are rarely available: our community members, like most poor, inner city residents, do not have access to good medical help, clinical or personal counseling or effective police protection.   As a result, the effects of traumatic incidents spread beyond the immediate victim. The effects of unacknowledged and untreated trauma are transmitted to others and are often re-enacted generationally. As a result, pervasive and unacknowledged trauma infects the entire community, so that the community itself has become traumatized.