Trauma

Trauma has a profound effect on human beings. Human beings are not machines. They are not robots. They are vulnerable assemblages of skin, blood, organs and bone. Violence is done not only to our bodies but to our psyches. I have seen trauma in my own life but I have also seen tremendous trauma in other people. I have seen the burden this takes on people. We live in a sado-society where violence, cruelty and degradation are the norm. It is frightening when I think of how many people I know who have trauma and how many people I know who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. Contrary to popular belief, it is not only veterans who get PTSD. Some of us are soldiers of other kinds of battles and wars. I have many battle scars and I don’t even know the extent to which they have impacted me.

The death of a dog and two of my best friends have been incredibly traumatic. Severe bullying through most of K-12 has been extremely traumatic. I will go into these traumas in future posts. But right now I want to talk about how these make me feel.

Obviously, they contribute greatly to depression. I can’t tell you how sad I feel about the loss of innocence in my youth and the loss of stability in my adulthood. Fuck people who say this makes you stronger. In a better world, these things would not happen. This is not some kind of revolutionary utopianism. It is basic dignity and decency. I would give anything to not have to go through the mental torture that my multiple traumas have brought me.

I am triggered on a regular basis. Triggered by bullying, triggered by suicide, triggered by hospitalizations, triggered by transphobia. I never know when it is going to hit. I never know how severe it is going to be. I never know if a Klonopin or two is going to be enough to walk me off the ledge. What does triggering cause?

For me at least it causes anxiety. I become anxious when triggered, sometimes to the level of a full-on panic attack. These episodes of anxiety are terrifying. And of course there are the nightmares. Waking up from horrible dreams and feeling like you have lived the trauma all over again.

For me, trauma also causes dissociation. I rarely talk about this because it is so incredibly stigmatized. It is stigmatizing enough to have depression, anxiety and PTSD, but when you add dissociation to the mix people really think you are full-on “crazy.” I worry about the added stigma I will face from my multiple psych diagnoses. I worry about the added stigma I will face from my multiple targeted/oppressed identities intersecting with the mental illnesses. Trauma is a key element that binds the different diagnoses together and also affects my multiple identities like being trans, fat, crip, queer and low income.

Trauma can also cause problems with relationships and self-esteem. Loved ones in the circle of the trauma sufferer may not know how to react. They may not have the tools to help the trauma victim/survivor. This could cause misunderstandings and strained relationships. I think trauma hurts self-esteem. This is particularly true for childhood trauma. We are undermined at the very time in our life when our personhood is in development. I know that the bullies made me feel like shit. They still make me feel like shit, despite years of therapy. It is easy to say: “Don’t let them rob you of your happiness.” How about: they should not have abused you in the first place. My self-esteem has suffered dire consequences from my trauma. With the suicide of my best friend, it made me more susceptible to suicide. With the death of my other best friend from medical transphobia, it made me terrified of encounters with medical “professionals.”

According to the APA, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.”

The main point or take-away from this blog entry is that trauma is horrendous. The treatments for it are often limited and ineffective, at least the mainstream ones. I have suffered horribly as have many of my friends. Compassion is key, as is understanding. Realize that people with trauma will go through a range of physical, psychological and emotional symptoms. There is no cure and people should not be told to “just get over it.” It is a long-term struggle and people need to understand the impact. While emotions can be managed, they cannot be fully controlled. Patience, endurance, perseverance and strength are required to deal with trauma, and usually for a lifetime.

Empowerment

When I entered my undergrad, I entered as a traumatized young person. I had just come off of 12 years of severe bullying in elementary school, junior high and high school. I knew I was transgender by this time and in fact had come out to a therapist in Grade 12. I knew that I was in rough shape and that the bullying had an effect, but had no idea just how big of an effect it was. I had zero self-confidence and very little self-esteem. I was in a deep depression and immediately started therapy and went on medication my first year of college.

In 1993, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I decided to take a couple of Women’s Studies courses. I later went on to declare a major. Women’s Studies not only changed my life, it saved my life. I needed a shot of self-esteem and Women’s Studies provided that. It also coincided with my coming out as transgender. I learned that I was a member of a minority group and that I basically had two choices. I could be a victim of my oppression and internalize it, or I could become an empowered minority-group person.

I chose to become empowered and it has made all the difference in the world for my life and my journey. Empowerment is when targeted group members refuse to accept the dominant ideology about their group, reject their subordinate status and take actions to redistribute social power more equitably, i.e. to work for social justice and liberation. Empowerment is the opposite of internalized oppression, which is when targeted group members internalize dominant messages and hegemonic ideologies about their social group and suffer the consequences of this insidious internalization. Empowerment is thus an A-mazing concept [meaning without a maze] in that we are able to make our way through the maze of lies and web of deception to see the truth about our own worth and value. Empowerment dovetails with the concept of self-actualization, a term from Psychology which is the drive present in all people to realize or fulfill their talents and full potential. To self-actualize, we must become empowered. We cannot be dragged down by internalized oppression.

Being empowered is not a one-time event. It is not a destination but a journey. It is not something you simply and totally acquire but something you are constantly in the process of obtaining. There have many ebbs and flows in my own journey of empowerment. The discrimination of the society is unrelenting. We are flooded with negative images and messages about transgender people. I am affected by these ideologies. Other than living under a rock, there is no way to not be impacted by these forces. So it is not being unaffected by these messages, it is what you do with them. When you are trying to become empowered, you need a tool kit for critical thinking skills and critical literacy. Empowered is partially about social justice activism but it also very much about active thinking and quiet reflection. The colonization of minds is just as real as the colonization of bodies. We must de-colonize our minds in order to be on the journey of empowerment.

I am so thankful that Women’s Studies provided me with the critical tool kit and activist instruction to resist my own oppression. It has provided the theory and the praxis I need to challenge the many negative things said about the targeted social groups that I belong to. Whatever the source, it is my hope that all oppressed people will find a way to sharpen their critical consciousness and that that will lead to working for social justice, which is a vision of society in which there is a radical distribution of resources that leads to a time when everyone in society is physically and psychologically safe and secure.