I have read many articles, both distantly and recently, about trauma. Every one postulates a negative outcome for the survivor that presents in terms of inevitable ongoing abuse, unhealthy relationships, addiction, and failure. The problem with these writings is that they deny agency. A trauma survivor becomes a bumbling mass of feelings incapable of rational decision making. A survivor is reduced to a walking limbic system doomed to interpersonal failure. What is inevitable is that trauma affects us. What is not inevitable is how we respond to its effects.
These concepts of inevitable failure hurt me as a trauma survivor. I was a prostituted child. My mother was a master of gaslighting. I witnessed the systematic executions of animals in my home as a teen. I am also a highly rational person. I partially attribute my hyper-rationality to my awesome second grade gifted ed teacher, who introduced me to logic puzzles. I have been fascinated by logic ever since. I pursued a degree in Philosophy so that I could study logic formally. If I was motivated by passion, it was a passion for set theory and symbolic logic.
As a traumatized adolescent, I also was exposed to Buddhist thought. I first read about Buddhism around age 12. That opened the door to me for more agency. I became aware through Buddhist texts that I had control over how I interpreted and reacted to stimuli and events in my life. From ages 12 to 17, the traumatic events and exploitation continued. I responded with analysis and reflection. I planned for a future. I planned for a life free of abusers. I evaluated the choices made by my abusers and took efforts to make different choices.
When I was in college in my early twenties, I was very aware that the interpersonal relationships I had observed and been forced to participate in for the majority of my life had been unhealthy. I made the decision to seek out people who appeared more healthy and functional and emulate their behaviors. I grew enormously from this experience of electing my own mentors. However, I still experienced certain visceral feelings that I knew were not beneficial. I would become confused in large groups of people and feel inclined to completely remove myself from the situation rather than think through other solutions to the situation. I had lots of difficulty with communication in professional settings. It turns out a large part of that was due to my persistent undiagnosed auditory processing disorder, but it was also due in part to my trauma history. Myself ignorant of my APD, I postulated the trauma as the sole reason for my professional interpersonal challenges and I sought out therapists to help me.
That is where I ran into an enormous problem.
The therapists looked at me and saw my well dressed presentation. They remarked on how well spoken I was. They asked about academics and found I was a high performer. They asked about relationships with boyfriends and found them to be affectionate and not abusive. They then dismissed me promptly from therapy, stating I was functioning just fine and telling me my childhood could not possibly have been all that bad. They never asked anything about my childhood. Time and again I would timidly assert that I thought some of the experiences I had undergone in my youth were holding me back. One therapist gave me a hard look after I said that and replied, “You look like the daughter of an attorney and an accountant, your childhood was fine!” She then dismissed me from her practice.
The only thing that is inevitable about surviving trauma is that you will be affected. How you are affected does not present in a single “inevitable” fashion.
The therapists I sought help from had one image of a trauma survivor. Their trauma survivor engaged in abusive practices as an adult. Their trauma survivor had substance abuse problems. Their trauma survivor had several children and a history of failed intimate relationships.
My survivorship didn’t look like that. Neither does the survivorship of many others who float well enough beyond stereotypes to be able to pass as “normal”. There are outwardly functional survivors all around you. You just can’t see them.
I had healthy personal relationships and high academic performance. But I struggled with asserting myself and speaking on my own behalf. I had night terrors and nightmares for over 20 years. I had very low self esteem that I hid behind false confidence. I knew these problems resulted from trauma. Time and time again I sought assistance, but I could get no professional help. I was dismissed from therapy over and over on the basis of my superior functioning being incongruent with a trauma history.
As long as there is only one story of trauma told, one narrative or one presentation of the trauma survivor, we are no closer healing as a society. As long as we are told of “inevitable” relationship problems and stories elsewhere about mythological “cycles of abuse” we continue to deny agency to survivors. Trauma is processed differently by different people, and diverse worldviews play a huge role in that processing.
We need empowering stories of trauma survival. While it is true our bodies and minds are affected by events, it must be told that we have agency in our response. We are not doomed to one set of behaviors because of what we have experienced. All survivors need a time and place to heal, but we should not all need to exhibit the same stereotyped behavior in order to access that place of healing.