The past year has ushered in loss and as a society, we are collectively grieving. As a culture, we have a script for honoring big losses such as the death of a loved one. We have rituals in place that allow for the mourning process to be carried forward. This helps us honor our grief and work through it. What the pandemic has really highlighted for me, however, is the question of what do we do with small losses? How do we grieve the ambiguous loss? I think of the unattended high school graduation, the canceled concert, the postponed wedding, the break-up, and the social isolation.
When we think of trauma, we often think of extreme experiences of life or death. War, combat, sexual assault, physical abuse are the examples that come easily to mind. This definition of trauma is reflected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the book that mental health providers refer to when identifying and diagnosing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The first criteria for the diagnosis of PTSD is direct or indirect exposure to "death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence."
I have recently been immersed in the topic of childhood emotional neglect (CEN). Unlike the experiences of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, emotional neglect is harder to identify and acknowledge because it is about what didn't happen to you rather than what did happen to you. If you were abused, you were also emotionally neglected. If you were not abused, you could still have been emotionally neglected. Emotional neglect occurs when parents and caregivers were consistently not present, available, understanding, or supportive when you needed them.
I recently read this amazing piece in The New Yorker by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz. The article was "The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma." In this article, Díaz described how his early experiences of sexual abuse followed him throughout his life. He explained how they contributed to the destruction of many meaningful romantic relationships. He reflected on and owned up to his self-sabotaging behaviors as well as recognized that he was afraid of facing his trauma. Not only was he afraid that he had become broken and unlovable, but afraid to hope for something better. I felt both empathetic for his pain and validated by his naming of these experiences.
"Super ironic that I write and talk about intimacy all day long; it’s something I’ve always dreamed of and never had much luck achieving. After all, it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask."
- Junot Díaz
The recent tidal wave of individuals, mostly women, speaking up about their sexual harassment and sexual assault experiences is the culminations of years, decades, centuries of pent up fury and silence. The #MeToo movement is growing stronger and louder every day, led by courageous individuals in the public sphere and in my personal circles on social media. I have been wanting to write a blog post about this topic for awhile; it has taken me some time to digest the growing accounts of sexual violence and make sense of my own reactions.
This week I have been thinking about forgiveness. I was inspired after listening to the TED Radio Hour episode on forgiveness. I was particularly moved by the TED Talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger titled "Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation." Thordis and Tom talked about their shared experience as the perpetrator and survivor of rape. Thordis was 16 years old when her then boyfriend, Tom, raped her. He was an exchange student from Australia and he left for home shortly after the incident without recognizing what he had done. After 9 years, Thordis decided that she wanted to confront Tom and to find forgiveness. She said so powerfully in this talk, "But deep down I realized that this was my way out of my suffering. Because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over."
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In honor of this month, I spent some time exploring the impacts of trauma on our bodies. This is a topic near and dear to my heart as a trauma survivor and a therapist who works with trauma survivors. I love this definition of trauma by Dr. Gabor Maté in episode 79 of the Therapy Chat podcast:
Trauma is not what happens externally. So trauma is not the sexual abuse. Trauma is not the being hit with the belt. Trauma is not watching somebody close to you be murdered. That's not what the trauma is. Trauma is what happens inside of you as the result of that event. And what happens inside you, is that you experience all kinds of emotions, such as rage, such as terror, such as fear, such as grief, and that then changes you. They change you because in order to deal with those difficult emotions, which are responses to life events, we have to be able to feel those emotions and express them. When these events occur in an environment where a child has no capacity to express herself, to be heard, to be seen, validated, and soothed, then those emotions become frozen in the body and the brain, basically. So the trauma is the freezing of emotions.
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The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.