Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is There Anyone Who Isn't a Trauma Survivor?

In recent years, I've noticed that we tend to divide the world up into "trauma survivors" and everybody else. But I'm not sure this distinction is entirely real; I think what we're actually dealing with is people who know they've been traumatized and people who have forgotten. Or maybe the division is between people who are visibly shaken by their trauma and those who look solid; after all, we live in a society that places an extraordinarily high value on appearances, where people get a lot of credit for acting as if everything is fine, and a lot of criticism (or pity) for letting their pain show.

Sometimes I wish that for each person that walks by me on the street, I had a way to know what has been done to that person over the course of his or her lifetime, the injustices and betrayals that have tied weights around that person's heart. It's true that people are traumatized by floods and earthquakes, but not nearly as often as their hearts are broken by cruelty or violence from other human beings, most commonly by people they loved or trusted -- their parents, their lovers and spouses, their neighbors, their mentors.

One of the messages I give to professionals in my trainings is that they need to stop thinking that they are different from abused women. Professionals, both male and female, often look down on abused women, thinking things to themselves like, "I'd never let someone treat me that way," and, "If she stays there, she's part of the problem," and many other disrespectful attitudes that dismiss the hard realities that a woman faces -- the hard realities that anyone faces who is in a situation where another person can get away with abusing power.

I ask therapists and police officers and child protective workers and judges to stop having that superior attitude. Everyone has been abused, if they are part of our twisted modern societies. If you haven't been abused by a partner, then you've been abused by a parent, or by an adult relative when you were a child, or by a tyrannical boss, or by a superior officer in the military, or by a dangerous bully.

But people often block out these kinds of experiences that they've had and forget what it felt like, which is part of why they can sometimes be so judgmental and impatient with an abused woman.

If we did better at recognizing and admitting that we've all been traumatized, that each of us has experienced betrayals and abuses of power, then we'd pull together behind abused women and stop letting the society blame them for what abusers do, and we'd stop letting abusers get off the hook. We're all in this together, and the sooner we realize it, the better for everyone.