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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

How Trauma Works

Few of us can hope to get through life unscathed. The threats to us are so numerous and so stubborn that it is beyond all reasonable expectations that we should avoid repeated encounters with suffering, terror, agony and despair. We face awkward parents, treacherous friends, chaotic societies, disturbed exes, sterile workplaces, errant lovers, unreliable bodies and ungrateful children. The chances of making it through the obstacle course unharmed are almost comically small. It’s why we can find the sight of delicate newborns at once tear-inducing and quietly frightening: we appreciate only too well some of what life will have planned for them.

But though blows may be written into the contract of existence, not all are forms of suffering are alike in the way they arise or will work their way through our psyches. We might characterise a majority of them as ‘visible’. By this we mean that we’re able to see what problems have befallen us — and why. Motives are traceable, origins and consequences are evident. As a result, we have the freedom to reflect on our difficulties and to air our feelings of hurt and sadness to those we trust and, as importantly, to ourselves. We can bemoan the workings of fate, we may be tempted to scream, bang a table or sob late into the night. And, eventually, through a process of catharsis, our surprise, horror and distress will have the opportunity to pass. We may acquire lines on our brow, we may still shudder at certain memories, an element of regret may be permanent, but we will one day be over the worst, the pain will have travelled through us, it will have wounded us but we will be on the other side of sorrow. 

Yet there is another variety of suffering to which we are susceptible which is far more potent and far more harmful, far less well known and a lot harder to treat — and is best captured by the word ‘trauma’. What we call a trauma is a difficulty made up of three interrelated ingredients: it is a pain of whose true identity and nature we are not properly conscious; it is a pain which expresses itself indirectly, via disconnected and often random-seeming symptoms, and it is a pain that (unless we take careful averting action) will continue to disturb us over the very long term. A trauma is a blow that has not been fully understood, or even fully felt and therefore has an especially long and persistent tail. It cannot be forgotten because it has not adequately been known — or remembered. It cannot be mourned because it has not lived. We are under the influence of an ill that we don’t properly appreciate has struck us. We grasp only that matters are not quite right with us, but not what has unfolded, and why, and therefore how we might best respond to, or dissipate, our grief. A trauma commits us to a repetitive loop of muffled or mysterious torment which time cannot heal; we are committed to a permanent uncomfortable symptom-laden present. It is one of the cruellest kinds of pain.

A lot of — though by no means all — traumas occur to us in childhood, because children are especially susceptible to the factors that underpin traumatising incidents. They have a weak ability to understand the world, they cannot discern motives, they miss a lot in themselves and in the people around them — and they have a limited power to control their routines and their environments and thereby to set up structures that could help them to interpret and neutralise events. They are wholly at the mercy of their adult caregivers, who have a decisive power both to spare their charges trauma — and, too often tragically, also to inflict it.

The word trauma tends to suggest a very large incident but we can also observe trauma’s essential features in small moments. Imagine a toddler who has been left alone in a room while their parent attends to something next door. Driven by curiosity, they may clamber onto a chair, stand up and lean across to a bookshelf to pick up a newly gifted stuffed animal. But as they press their weight forward, the chair slips, topples over onto the wooden floor and throws the child powerfully to the ground, generating a horrifying cry of pain and shock. The child has no clue what has happened or why. They’re only aware of noise, clatter and a searing sensation in their chin, which took a lot of the force. For what feels like a very long time, they lie prostate on the ground uttering cries that can be heard across the street. 

Fortunately, the parent rushes in at once from the adjoining laundry room. ‘What’s happened to my precious Poppet,’ comes a soothing responsible unfrightened voice. Poppet is scooped into gigantic strong arms that smell of reassurance and kindness. ‘There, there, it’s nothing bad, you just had a little tumble, that floor is terribly slippery and the chair badly designed.’ The parent untangles the confusion: ‘I can see it would have been a bit of a shock,’ they say, wiping the child’s brow, and giving them a language in which to start to know what has befallen them. The parent rights the furniture with one hand and takes the upset child onto the sofa. 

There won’t be much of a physical injury; a lot of the tears will simply be symptoms of surprise and psychological offence. How on earth was everything fine one minute and then suddenly not fine at all another? The child is granted plentiful licence to express surprise. There is space to wail and let all the requisite tears out. ‘Yes, yes,’ says the parent, ‘it felt terrible, didn’t it? I know how it is.’

The parent does their best to set events into perspective. It was a tumble, these things happen all the time. One has to be a bit careful on chairs. And because it’s important to clear up some primitive terrors that might be lingering, the parent extends the comfort into issues of causation. It wasn’t anything they did, they gently imply. It could happen to anyone. There is — so the implication runs — no link between pain and wrongness. The universe, though it can deliver the odd jolt, is essentially predictable and more or less benevolent. There isn’t any sort of vengeance at stake. The chair wasn’t out to get Poppet and it definitely won’t bite in future. A few more minutes of such careful processing and the traumatic incident will be resolved and Poppet will be free to resume their open-hearted exploration of the world and its many fascinating buttons, pencils, balls of string — and bookshelves.

We can imagine other such occasions, perhaps when a motorbike with a broken muffler accelerates in the street outside and lets out a horrifying sound akin to gunfire. A young child might scream and rush to hide behind a curtain. But the attentive parent will, once more, right matters swiftly: it isn’t anything awful, it’s just one of those silly bikers again, they do it to get attention and it’s so normal to get a shock.

In such ministrations, we start to see what active ingredients have the power dissipate traumas. First and foremost, we need understanding. We are rescued from distress by a sense of what exactly has happened to us and why. Explanations remove the threat of paranoia, catastrophic thinking and self-recrimination. We are calmed by guidance as to how external events operate and by a deft appreciation of how our wayward minds might otherwise be tempted to interpret them in overly persecutory or self-focused ways. We need in addition to be given permission to fully feel as we do: it can help enormously for someone else to imply to us that our urge to cry is legitimate and honourable and that we can give way to it as vigorously as we want. There need be no dissonance between what we experience and what we can express. Finally, and most simply, we need to be given time for a difficulty to fully reverberate through us. We might require five minutes or several days or weeks. We will need to come back to a problem as often as is required: to check in on our sorrows, perhaps to protest, to feel sad all over again and to circle a difficult event until it is finally ready to cede way and leave us in peace.

Such a list serves to alert us to what can so easily be missing when a child (or an adult) meets a problem; we can get a sense of how easily traumas may take hold. In sub-optimal situations, there will be no explanations, there will be no licence to feel or language to interpret confusion. The unpredictability of events is never put into any sort of bearable context. We are just alone with shards of puzzlement, agony, protest and sadness — which never coalesce into anything coherent or expressible. And it is in such conditions that the full viciousness of trauma starts to make itself felt.

Few of us will be without a collection of traumatic events in our past. There might have been a parent whose moods swung mysteriously between kindness and rage. There might have been a succession of belittling comments and a subtle bias towards a sibling. There might have been a mental illness, a divorce or a death — none of which received proper explanations or interpretations, due to shame or misplaced stoicism. And there might have been yet worse: physical violence, active cruelty, neglect and, most terribly of all, inappropriate touches. The scale of the potential for harm is terrifying. Even when childhood is over, risks of traumatisation remain: we can fall in with so-called friends or colleagues who are — beneath a veneer — bullies who seek vengeance and punishment, we might form a relationship with someone beset by a well disguised desire to harm us, there can — even in so-called peaceful societies — be ostracisation, envy, cruelty and violence. The spectre of trauma never quite leaves us alone.

We need to understand the dangers and, with patience and modesty, to try to untie them. It is bad enough that we should suffer. It is even worse that we should ever do so in perpetuity, while afflicted by symptoms, and without the right to explanations. The task is — at last — to remember the difficulties of the past so as to be able properly to forget them.

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