By Esraa Saleh
Experiences of sexual and physical violence can leave markers of trauma on the survivor of the violence. Traumatic reactions are established during times when resistance, escape or self-defense is not possible. Trauma results from being in situations where one has zero power and no control. Trauma terrorizes you by overwhelming the ordinary neurological systems that give you a sense of control, meaning, and personal security.
But an individual with post-traumatic stress disorder or sustained trauma in his or her past is still capable of attaining happiness. Embracing one’s vulnerability, employing self-acceptance and detaching self-blame are important steps towards living a manageable life.
All trauma survivors share a common denominator: they feel a sense of intense fear, loss of control and threat of annihilation. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been deconstructed into three overarching cardinal symptoms, referred to as hyperarousal, intrusion and constriction.
Hyperarousal is the chronic arousal of the autonomic nervous system. It causes the individual to be startled easily, to be irritable to any provocation and to develop abnormal sleeping habits. A person in a state of hyperarousal attempts to be on constant guard to not ever have to feel powerless again.
Apart from constantly walking on eggshells, traumatized people suffer intrusion. They re-live the event as if it were currently reproducing itself. They have difficulty resuming their daily lives because their trauma repeatedly interrupts. The traumatic experience becomes encoded in their memory, which translates into consciousness – both as flashbacks during waking states and as nightmares during sleeping states. Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative but are rather expressed in forms of vivid sensation and imagery which may have the emotional force of the original traumatic experience.
Traumatized people not only reproduce their moments of terror in their thoughts, but also in their actions, either in literal or disguised form. Some people may desire to reenact the traumatic event with a fantasy of changing the outcome and make conscious decisions to do so. A rape survivor, Sohaila Abdulali describes her determination to return to the scene of her trauma:
“I’ve always hated feeling like something’s got the better of me. When this thing happened, I was at such a vulnerable age – I was seventeen – I had to prove they weren’t going to get me down. The guy who raped me told me ‘If we ever find you out here alone again we’re going to get you’. And I believed them. So its always a bit of a terror walking up that lane, because I’m always afraid I’ll see them…Yet a part of me feels that if I don’t walk there, then they’ll have gotten me. And so, even more than other people, I will walk up that lane.”
Some may unconsciously reproduce an aspect of their terror in a disguised form. An incest survivor Sharon Simone shares her experiences in relating her actions with her history of abuse:
“…I was involved in an auto accident. A male driver was trying to cut me off, and I said to myself in the crudest of language, there is no f-ing way you’re going to push your penis into my lane. Like right out of the blue! Boom! Like that! It was really strange.”
The third cardinal symptom of PTSD, constriction, is a numbing or constricted state of consciousness. It is the result of the survivor’s feelings of powerlessness as she subdues herself to a state of surrender. Sometimes traumatic experiences cause anger and resentment, but also paradoxically a state of detachment and calmness. These changes include feelings of indifference, emotional detachment and profound passivity – essentially disassociation from any struggle. These changes in consciousness resemble hypnotic trace states. Dissociations may be adaptive at the moment, because they allow for traumatic experience to be walled off, therefore preventing proper healing.
Victims of traumatic events often fear vulnerability. Brene Brown’s “Power of Vulnerability” speech breaks down the “culture of scarcity” – the culture of never having enough. This entails that think we are not good enough and are always seeking to revert the blame, particularly to ourselves. When we learn to embrace our vulnerability and put down the armor we use to protect ourselves, we will finally realize we are worthy of love, belonging, and intimacy. Although we think that vulnerability makes us weak, it is actually the opposite. We can only accept the great things about ourselves and the world around us if we are willing to be vulnerable.
It is often difficult for trauma survivors to remain happy given the shame and self-blame woven into their post-trauma state of mind. But the first step to healing is understanding that you are worth the time and effort it takes to heal.
As power comes in vulnerability, it also comes in understanding that you may never get the justice you deserve. In Stacey May Fowles’ “The Truth is Embarrassing: Olivia Benson and the Timeline of Trauma”, she says:
“In rape recovery you quickly learn that no one will ever provide you with justice. Even if you decide to pursue it legally, there is no result that will act as a salve on the violation you’ve felt, that will repair how the incident has upended your life. Proving someone’s guilt will not give you back the years of your life destroyed by that endless fear and mistrust, how you were forced to reconstruct your life in order to survive what others do with ease.”
And this is perhaps the most difficult hump to overcome in healing: letting go.
Understanding trauma and post-traumatic characteristics is complex, but understanding healing is ever more complicated. Healing processes are not easy. Being vulnerable and accepting your fate are the first steps towards a happier, more fulfilling life. The power lost in traumatic experiences can be regained in knowing that each individual decides his or her capacity to be happy.
It’s possible to be a happy person. I promise. You deserve it.
To learn more about trauma and recovery, check out Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman.