Peace Partnership

Understanding Trauma

Posted by on Jun 1, 2020

Imagine Anna, a tall, thin, young woman in her mid 20’s, raised in the rural countryside of the Midwest. She has long hair and pale skin. Her voice has a meek tone to it and she talks with a mild Southern accent. Like her past, it’s something she’s worked hard to be rid of. One of 7 children, she was raised on a hobby farm and referred to her upbringing as a “bad Hallmark movie.” It was only later that I learned the depth of what she really meant: a violent, disorganized, chaotic dumpster fire filled with screaming, fighting, and every conceivable form of abuse imaginable trying to pass as a family.

She told me crazy things in our sessions.

On several occasions I remember thinking, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” only to be shocked into thinking the very same thing in our next session. No matter how many times I hear stories of atrocities it always rocks me. It blows my mind what one human being will do to another. Worse yet, what a parent will do to their own child.

Her mother had a revolving door of men she would bring home and that everyone was expected to call “dad.” This went on until she was 11. Of her 6 siblings, five had different fathers. The man that eventually stuck around ended up sexually abusing Anna and two of her younger sisters. In one session, she told me how she worked up the courage to tell her mom about the abuse:

“As soon as the words left my mouth, she slapped me so hard across the face it knocked me down.”

I shook my head, “I’m so sorry. What happened then?”

“Oh, she blew up!! Mom started screaming at me, ‘YOU LITTLE WHORE! HOW DARE YOU! I WOULDN’T MARRY A MAN LIKE THAT, YOU LIAR!’”[1]

She went on to describe the merciless beating she received for accusing her “stepfather” of such an impropriety. Days later she ran away, realizing if she wanted to be free from the abuse that she would have to take matters into her own hands. One summer night when she was 15, she did exactly that, never to return.

“I waited until everyone was asleep before sneaking out of the house. It was so hot that night. I remember the grass and weeds sticking to my sweaty legs as I ran across the field and down the road to my friend’s house.”[2]

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before she found the promise of safety in the arms of an abusive older boyfriend.

As you might imagine, Anna and I have had to work to correct several unhealthy ways of thinking brought on by the trauma she’d suffered.[3] Some underlying belief systems from her childhood that we had to work through were:

  • Screaming and yelling is the only way to get your point across.
  • If a fight gets too intense it’s okay for a man to hit you. You might end up in the hospital, but that’s just what happens in fights.
  • Running away from problems is the best form of starting over. Just pretend like they don’t exist and hope for the best.
  • People will love you more if you are always selfless. So, if you have to quit a good job because your man says he doesn’t like it, you’re doing the right thing.
  • Today’s behaviors have no bearing on the consequences of tomorrow.
  • All men get drunk and cheat on their girlfriends. It’s just part of relationships.
  • Most men cheat on their wives, and this is a little more serious, but expected.

Defeating Learned Helplessness

In the complex world of therapy, these types of abusive situations often produce a phenomenon known as learned helplessness: the idea that a person’s choices have no effect on the outcomes of their life. Learned helplessness is exactly that: it’s learned. Learned helplessness is also notoriously hard to defeat. Counselors call that treatment resistant. People naturally see that certain choices produce certain consequences. In order to get to a place of learned helplessness, some person in a position of power has had to do a lot of work to convince the other person that what they see regarding the choice/consequence relationship is a lie.

I begin to help her get a handle on what’s going on inside her head. It’s been my experience that most trauma survivors think they’re weird in some way – because what they’ve been through is abnormal. “No one will understand,” they say. “My past freaks people out, so I better not talk about it,” they think.

For the trauma survivor, helping them accurately understand what’s happened to them is of utmost importance because it facilitates something very powerful: empowerment.

“For people who grew up in households like yours, Anna, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is stuck in the “switched on” position. You’re constantly ready to fight or run, because you think you’re always in harm’s way. You’ve become hardwired toward trauma and conflict. And that wiring remains intact, even after the hint of conflict has long since been gone. But you can learn to recognize it so that you can effectively manage it.”

I went on to explain some various dynamics of trauma. Specifically, I shared that in abusive homes, it’s next to impossible to tell friend from foe, which is the basis for why she’s always “switched on.”

That rang true for her. “That makes so much sense. I can totally see that. Even now when something good happens to me, I think, ‘Great, what bad thing is about to happen now?’”

“Exactly,” I said. “You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it never does, you most likely invent one. You’d have to redefine how you make sense of life and its problems if you didn’t.”

“That’s exactly what I do!” She exclaimed. “After my boyfriend sent me to the hospital, I remember feeling this weird sense of calm. Like, ahhh, finally the bad thing has happened and now I can just relax for a few days.”[4] 

I smile, “Imagine living in a world where good things happen and bad things can be avoided because you recognize them before they happen. How would your life change?”

She sat quiet for a long time. Her mood became somber. I could see that she was thinking hard about my question. I introduced a powerful concept that could defeat an aspect of her learned helplessness: the possibility of stability. The possibility of having a choice to forgo the screaming, the abuse, and the beatings. The possibility of having a life without the chaos had never occurred to her. Tears began to well in her eyes. She looks up at me,

“Is that really possible?” she asked very quietly.[5]

My tone changes with her. I’m very serious, “Do you have the mind to change? I want to be clear with you: I’m not promising you anything easy, I’m promising you better.”

She nods, “yes.”

“As soon as you decide to stop looking for answers in everything you have been, and start looking for answers that exist outside of yourself it can be your new normal right now.‘So as a person thinks in their heart, so are they.’[6] Until you correct your thinking every ounce of work you put in will be for nothing because you get what you look for in life – you’re looking for the other shoe to drop, so that’s what you’ll get.”

By now she’s crying. I’m going at her pretty hard, but there’s a method to my madness: you don’t become a professional athlete by never going to practice. You have to put in the work. I want my clients to be professionals at living. All the other men in her life were hard on her to destroy her. She doesn’t know the difference between abuse and correction. I’m asking her to discipline herself by correcting her thinking. I’m teaching her that some people are hard on her because they care for her.

“How do I stop? How do I change? What do I need to look for?” she asked.

My answer is slow and careful, “I know one thing to be true of you over all else: you’re a survivor. Once you decide on something it’s as good as done. I want you to decide. Right now… today… this afternoon. I want you to decide that you’ll find a new way to think about what’s been done to you – ‘this is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.’[7] You have to decide to rejoice, to be blessed. If you want better, be better.

She’s wavering, “That sounds so hard. I –.”

I interrupt her. Today isn’t the day for insipid excuses. She’s trying to run. It’s what she’s always done and I’m having none of it. She needs to prove to herself she can do this. I turn up the heat,

“Hard?? HARD?!?
True or false: Your whole life’s been hard.
True or false: What you’re doing now is hard.
True or false: You’ve survived the worst life has to offer.
Since when have you backed away from anything hard?!?”

Something changes. I can see it on her face. I’ve seen it on many other faces: belief. She smiles slightly, “That’s true… that’s all true.”

My tone softens, “Anna, look at me. You can do this. I believe in you. Let the past go and commit to a better future.”

She’s looking at me, thinking hard. I’ve opened the door – she has to walk through it. After a while she starts to nod, “Okay, okay… I get it. I need to start looking for the blessings, instead of the curses.”

I smile and stand up, sticking out my hand to greet her, “There’s the real you. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

_________________
[1] What type of a parent would say that to their teenage daughter you ask? A seriously mentally ill one. As our sessions progressed, I learned that several of the children were later removed from the home by Division of Family Services under serious allegations of abuse, neglect, and unfit living conditions.
[2] Anna’s tendency to run was her go-to behavior; a perennial theme throughout our time together.
[3] You might think these beliefs sound crazy, and you’d be right, but remember: children raised in traumatic environments don’t have a frame of reference for what healthy family looks like, and they often think their living situations are never as bad as they really are. When they become aware how terrible their family environments were, they often sink into depression.
[4] To be more accurate, he almost beat her to death. He fractured her skull, gave her a concussion, broke three of her ribs, and collapsed one of her lungs.
[5] To ask a question – to really ask a question – is no simple thing. It means that you want to know the truth no matter where it leads you. A true questioner doesn’t care what the truth is; they just want to know it. Over many years of counseling I’ve developed the skill to discern whether or not the other person really wants their question answered, or they’re just mouthing words.
[6] A reference to Proverbs 23:7.
[7] A reference to Psalm 118:24. Emphasis added.


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