Whenever I get the opportunity to run workshops about trauma, I’ll generally start with a group activity asking learners to inspect what they already know about this most destructive condition. I’ll usually ask one key question – what IS trauma?
I love listening to the discussions delegates have, and the perspectives they bring, and there’s always a buzz as they begin to get to grips with a subject that many feel passionate about, and yet don’t fully understand.
Most delegates easily make the connection between the ‘traumatic event’ and the debilitating after-effects such as flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of extreme anger or sadness etc., and for many people, this loose concept of causality is enough for them to conceive an idea of what’s going on.
I like to congratulate delegates on their observations, and then I like to tell them that often, it’s not what you think it is…
Having supported many people in the traumatic aftermath of critical incidents, and having real-world experience of facilitating trauma recovery for many clients who’ve endured horrendous experiences such as disasters, terror attacks, historic childhood abuse and a range of other difficult event types, I know that the nature of the actual incident/event/situation is largely not casual in terms of trauma.
You see, we humans are strange creatures – one person’s trauma is another’s war story – how then, does the concept of the ‘traumatic event’ stand up to logic and critical thought? the simple answer is that it doesn’t.
When we apply a more critical logic to the concept of the ‘traumatic event’, it provides us with a more coherent perspective, in that what we see (as Hume would say) is actually ‘constant conjunction’, and as we know, correlation does not imply causation. Yet for some inextricable reason, this misplaced concept been allowed to cascade and perfuse every aspect of our societal view of trauma, with flawed trauma risk management systems developed upon that very basis.
What would I say to the survivor of childhood sexual abuse that realises her Grandfather’s false teeth reminded her of an earlier infantile experience of seeing her Grandmother without her teeth in – her candlelit and contorted face frightening the little girl almost to death?
Should I invalidate her new-found understanding, relief and recovery on the basis that I, as her facilitator, know better than she?. After all, being abused by Grandad must surely be the root cause of her traumatic life?
I should say, just as I did at the time – ‘Ok’.
Nothing more and nothing less than a short acknowledgement, and validation of her reality.
When I get to tell the story of the false teeth, and my client’s ‘traumatic event’, and how in a split-second of insight it became nothing more than a re-activation (or trigger) for an earlier ‘root’ trauma, It’s usually the beginning of a different understanding of trauma, and how a simple incomplete learning activity bears responsibility for such a destructive and often life-limiting condition.