One Trauma Many Stories – Wim Kuit
Terms such as trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological debriefing have become an integral part of the South African vocabulary. With hijackings, armed robberies and other violent crimes being a part of our everyday reality (directly or indirectly), it becomes of crucial importance to understand, respond to and ameliorate the effects of crime-related psychological trauma on our communities. I’d like to propose that the stories we tell about the trauma we experience (especially in counselling), the way we position ourselves in those stories, and the meaning we ascribe to our lives in the face of trauma, are important resources in helping us respond to our South African context with hope and resilience.
So what exactly is psychological trauma? A psychologically traumatic event is considered an event where we witness or experience an injury or a threat of injury that compromises (or has the potential to compromise) our own and/or others’ physical safety and survival. Importantly, a traumatic event involves a sense of helplessness and intense fear. Therefore, not every dangerous experience is psychologically traumatic. For example, a rugby tackle may qualify as a threat to your physical survival, but is not associated with the helplessness and horror of a hijacking or an armed robbery. The “meaning” of the event and your “role” in the experience (how you are positioned in and by it) is consequently of great significance (see implications of this below).
The expected and “normal” response to such a traumatic event includes a range of experiences such as a sense of emotional numbness or detachment, recurring thoughts and images associated with the traumatic event, anxiety, poor concentration, sleep disturbance, irritability, and avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma. Many people are disturbed by these reactions, often feeling like they are “going crazy” or “losing it”. It is important to realize that these reactions are “normal” neurobiological responses to “abnormal” circumstances of threat. Our bodies are “hardwired” to respond in certain automatic ways to danger. We have a kind of “alarm system” in our brains known as the limbic system that stimulates the release of adrenaline and stress hormones into our bodies and causes our nervous systems to produce either a fight, flight or freeze response. So when you freeze up, panic and want to run, or aggressively lash out at others after a traumatic event you are not going crazy! Your body has literally been readied for action to protect you from the threat at hand. As a consequence, however, you may be left physically and mentally “hyped up” and drenched in your own “body-chemicals”. Without psychological intervention this state of physical and psychological arousal can lead to later complications including depression, anxiety problems and PTSD.
It is therefore important that we find helpful ways to “respond to our natural responses” so that we can ameliorate the potential long-term negative effects of a traumatic event. Part of this proactive response includes psychological counselling or “debriefing” as it is commonly known. Although medical intervention, such as the use of sedatives and anti-depressants, can be useful and sometimes essential in managing the acute response stage of the traumatic experience, this line of action should not be the only intervention used to assist people. As mentioned earlier, the meaning of the threatening event and your role in the trauma are of key importance and need to be addressed. This is where talking about what happened becomes imperative and it is where trained psychologists and trauma counsellors can play an important role. In essence the psychologist or counsellor’s role is to encourage you to tell the story of the trauma as you experienced it, while finding ways to make meaning of what happened. Talking through what happened is in itself a cathartic and empowering experience in that it allows us to separate somewhat from events and describe them as an observer. What is of crucial importance though is the kind of story you are encouraged to tell in the counselling conversation. What does your trauma story imply about the role you played in the experience, how you think about yourself in relation to what happened, what conclusions you’ve reached about yourself and the world, and what is still possible for you in life? These may sound like abstract questions, but these are some of the questions that are raised by the experience of trauma, especially when it has been the consequence of crime.
So what would helpful and empowering “trauma story tellings” in trauma counselling look like? The first trauma story you will probably need to tell is often the story of helplessness and anger. In crime-related trauma the anger story is often about the experience of having your boundaries violated by situations and people that have not treated you with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves. The helplessness story is often an acknowledgement that the threatening crime situation happens unexpectedly and quickly, leaving us with little room to respond with careful consideration and preparation. Stories of helplessness and anger are stories that deserve to be heard as we honour and respect our emotions – emotions that are often protests against the injustice of what we were subjected to.
We may however be left very disempowered and fearful if we are left with only the anger and helplessness trauma stories with us defined as the angry helpless victims. Is this really the only story there is to tell about what happened? Or are there other events and overlooked responses in ourselves that don’t fit neatly into a victim story? I am not suggesting that being subjected to trauma is a non-victim experience. That would be an absurd statement. We are in many ways the victims of the perpetrators of violent crimes or abuses that have traumatized us. I am, however, interested in the overlooked stories of survival, self-protection, dignity, forgiveness and courage that I believe can be uncovered amongst the experiences of powerlessness and dehumanization that characterise crime-related trauma. I have often spoken to clients who could describe how they made conscious decisions during robberies, hijackings or attacks that protected them and others from what might’ve been far worse outcomes. In other instances people may not have changed the course of events, but refused to allow the trauma to inform them about their dignity and value as human beings. I have witnessed stories of people reclaiming their sense of dignity and self-respect by refusing to allow the trauma and perpetrator to define them in their dealings with life. Still others have allowed the trauma to help them re-evaluate their lives and focus on what really matters to them. In certain cases I have seen people let go of anger and unforgiveness to free themselves of the resentment and bitterness that had dominated their lives. This courage and dignity to carry on living, these skills, values and abilities that people discover in themselves are the experiences that could not be dominated by the trauma. Why then should the story we tell about the experiences of trauma deny these golden story threads? Why not honour those experiences and allow them to inform us about who we are and what life can still be for us? This is what trauma counselling should be aimed at achieving.
I want to clearly state that this more than one story approach to trauma counselling does not try to minimize the real and frightening experiences that people endure. Those stories must be respected and told. It is however important for South Africans to be allowed to tell the stories of hope, dignity, forgiveness and survival that I believe exist (or potentially exist) alongside every story of anger, victimhood and fear.
If you have experienced trauma of any kind and feel it is important for you to tell and re-tell your trauma story in a safe and supportive environment, I’d encourage you to seek professional counselling from a psychologist or trained trauma counsellor.