What do we mean by trauma?
Much of today’s forum has focused on childhood sexual abuse (CSA) as trauma. It is, of course, an appalling and tragic experience, and worthy of much more focus than we tend to give it. I, myself, am a survivor of CSA, so it is of deep personal interest.
Nevertheless, sitting here as a consumer/survivor, I am mindful of those many peers who have told me how excluded they feel from narratives that focus primarily on childhood sexual abuse.
During my years as a peer worker and consumer advocate, I’ve heard countless stories of trauma. Like Helen Milroy, I have found every person’s story to be unique. But two things have stood out to me, and each of these has been missing from today’s discussions. The first is that there are many different types of traumatic events, and lots of these are rarely spoken about. The second is that trauma is rarely the sole consequence of traumatic events alone, but rather it is about our experience of those events, and the complex contexts that surround trauma.
Different types of traumatic events
During my five years working at Voices Vic, a peer support program for voice hearers, most people using our service shared experiences of traumatic events. The most common experience that I heard about was childhood bullying, although there were many other types of experiences, including attachment trauma, CSA, physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, family violence, war trauma, refugee trauma, sexual assault in adulthood, and different types of witnessing trauma.
Sometimes we don’t even think of our own experiences as trauma. I will never forget one person telling me that he had never experienced trauma himself, but one of his parents had lived with a lot of trauma. He went on to describe growing up and being exposed to particular things that this person did. It sounded like an astonishingly traumatic childhood, yet that was not how this person saw it. If you had asked this person if they ever experienced trauma, he would have said ‘no’, and I don’t know of any screening tools that would pick up his experience, aside from an empathic, trauma-informed series of face-to-face sessions.
The other thing I frequently hear from trauma survivors, is people saying that their trauma is ‘not as serious’ as someone else’s. I have even done this myself, while feeling guilty that I was weak to be so dramatically affected by something that was nowhere near as terrible as other people’s lives. It’s almost like we imagine a continuum of terrible things that happen, and we put our own experience at the lowest end. So, people who have survived horrific bullying may judge or exclude their experience if the only kind of trauma they hear about is sexual abuse. This is important to understand – it goes to how we can create trauma-informed practice in a way that is inclusive and non-judgemental.
I want to acknowledge those many people who have experienced trauma, regardless of the kind of thing that happened.
Different experiences and contexts of trauma
Something that has struck me today is the drive to ‘widgetise’ trauma. To make it something that is clearly definable, so that we can measure it, research it, easily assess it.
And yet, as someone who has spent my life living with complex trauma impacts, and working with other trauma survivors, I have to tell you that trauma is not a widget. Trauma is complicated, changeable, wobbly, individual and varied. I have yet to see any assessment tool that would not exclude some people’s experiences. I have yet to see any trauma research that does not fail to miss a whole lot of highly relevant factors.
This is not easy. Trauma does not fit neatly into the ways we’ve traditionally done things in mental health systems.
In particular, I have often been struck by the ways that the context, or events surrounding core trauma events, contribute to our madness. I have sat with many women who were sexually abused by their father, but who describe the most maddening experience being when they finally told their mother and were not believed. My own experience of trauma includes keeping it secret for 27 years. Things like not being believed, keeping secrets, not being able to access justice, and much more, influence how trauma affects our lives. If we only ask traumatic events, without understanding the context, we will fail to understand key elements in how and why trauma has affected people’s lives. Sometimes it is these surrounding contexts that we most need to support to make sense of.
As services think about implementing trauma-informed practice, it is critical to think about the diversity of trauma events, experiences and contextual factors in people’s lives. This creates major challenges for research, for screening processes, and practice guidelines – but they are essential if we want to provide genuinely healing services.