According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Edition Five (DSM-V), trauma, now referred to by clinicians as post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), can result from exposure to stressors such as:
- Death or serious injury; threat to or the witnessing of the death or injury to someone else.
- Impending threats of serious injury to oneself or others. Violation of personal and/or physical integrity such as sexual or physical violence.
These experiences typically result in feelings of terror, horror or helplessness that are too overwhelming to be felt in the moment and thus cannot be articulated or processed. Children exposed to this often feel as though their life is at risk or that they are dying. This is so in the cases of physical and sexual abuse depicted in the adult survivor of childhood complex trauma coming of age story I have written, Warrior, as well as other novels written by adult survivors of childhood trauma such as In Perfect Light by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and Push by Sapphire. In each of these examples, the protagonists’ child bodies are treated as objects for their perpetrators’ pleasure and/or as the recipient of their rage. The examples given throughout are of complex childhood trauma, meaning that the trauma is sustained over an extended period of time.
Adult survivors of this are susceptible to acute fear; insecure attachment styles; emotional dysregulation; maladaptive behaviour; inability to trust; difficulty cultivating and protecting personal safety and boundaries. They carry an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt over what they were physically, mentally, and emotionally too young to understand, protect themselves against, or do anything about. Primary caretakers failed these children and, in the case of Lumina, Precious and Bone, the protagonists of Warrior, Push and Bastard Out of Carolina, it is family members who betray them and act against them. Like many adult survivors, these characters, including Andrés Segovia in In Perfect Light, assume a responsibility that logically and factually is not, and cannot be theirs.
A child’s inability to cope with substantial trauma is the logical result of their not having had the chance to sufficiently develop into adults capable of dealing with age-appropriate experience. Instead they are children exposed to illegal and adult experiences. The problematic consequences of this can be seen in the previously mentioned protagonists and are as follows: disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating, rage, withdrawal, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, dissociative reactions, somatisation and severe dis-ease and distress when in the presence of a triggering person, place, thing, or sensory stimulation. Complex trauma can negatively effect a child’s brain and nervous system, which consequently impairs their future ability to learn, increases susceptibility to high-risk behaviour and interferes with the capacity to engage effectively with others.
In adulthood, survivors often struggle to establish and maintain fulfilling relationships, intimacy with a partner, employment, and asserting themselves as productive members of society. Further difficulties faced can include the inability to recall critical features of the trauma; persistent (and often distorted) negative beliefs and expectations about oneself, others or the world; markedly diminished interest in significant (pre-traumatic) activities; inability to experience positive emotions; irritability or aggressive behaviour; depersonalisation and derealisation.
Trauma is the Greek word for ‘wound’, which is an apt metaphor for what the protagonists in the featured trauma fiction mentioned are: wounded. In Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, the ‘Introduction: The Wound and the Voice’ (1995) acknowledges the symbolic richness of imaging an invisible psychic state as a wound. Unlike physical wounds, the psychic wound is unknown and unable to heal and so compelled to repeat itself. Caruth, a leading pioneer in theorising trauma fiction by combining trauma and literary theory, in critical readings of primarily Holocaust literature, suggests that the re-enactment a survivor is compelled to do is the sound or voice of the wound. She poignantly reminds us that Sigmund Freud’s writing on trauma expresses this constant state of being as ‘…always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of reality or truth that is not otherwise available’ (Caruth 1996, 4).
In Just Breathe, ‘the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available’ is present as scars along Lumina’s upper inner thighs and pelvic region, addiction and paralysis. Andrés from In Perfect Light is overcome with murderous rage when faced with his childhood abusers as an adult, acute self-hate and inability to endure being touched in any way; Precious in Push dissociates, over-eats and is hostile, and Bone from Bastard Out of Carolina steals, starts fights and masturbates to the thought of Daddy Glen belting her. Throughout each of these novels however other characters come to bear witness and listen to these survivors wounds, and each moves on from a state of post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth begins to take place for each protagonist once s/he stops hiding the truth and protecting the perpetrator through silence. Each survivor goes against a core sense of mistrust, fear and suspicion informed by a self-protective instinct to withdraw, disregard and ultimately avoid being in a relationship with others regardless of how trustworthy and congruent they seem. And yet each of these characters does risk being vulnerable to others. Through talking and spending time with those who ‘seem’ to be ‘safe people’ and in time prove to be so, unconscious, and therefore the traumatic, content is illuminated and made conscious through talking and in the case of Precious and Bone through writing. The putting of traumatic experience into words makes it possible for each survivor-protagonist to know and share their story as each starts working towards building a life they desire. The novels themselves make the wound or trauma visible, they are scar tissue left behind that illustrates the protagonist’s journey into post-traumatic growth. Simultaneously the fictional story is the product from the creative process the survivor writer engaged with through their own post-traumatic growth journey. The survivor writer envisions another journey out of trauma which becomes the means through which s/he visualises and participates in one of her/his own.
Although these stories are fiction something of the survivor writer’s emotional and psychological experience with childhood trauma has been evoked, engaged with, worked out, metabolised, symbolised and consequently made sense of and some kind of peace with through the story. Like physical injury leaves a trail of scars across the skin, traumatic experience maintains a somatic presence through physical ailments (such as digestive problems, sweating, dissociation and paralysis) as well as a shattered internal state needing to be integrated, known and put in chronological order. It is possible for a survivor to grow and move beyond traumatic experience. However, the wound cannot and does not disappear without a trace from the psyche; instead, it is actively involved in what the adult becomes. What is up to the survivor is how and in what way it is assimilated into their life, even if he or she is not conscious of the day to day choices made. Whether or not trauma continues to deny them a present, or a future of their own is something they alone are accountable for.
This is a harsh fact to swallow because undoing the damage of childhood complex trauma inflicted upon a survivor is long and hard work. There are multitudinous aspects and areas life that are typically adversely effected and compromised unless attended to. For example, old maladaptive thought processes and behaviour needs to be unlearned and effective, healthy and sustainable ways of thinking and behaviours established in their stead. Negative core beliefs need to be interrogated and re-appropriated; healthy boundary setting learned; re-parenting had; body, intimate and friendship dynamics must be identified and replaced with effective ones.
On the flip side, the fact that a survivor alone is accountable for their adult life is fantastic in that the choice is always theirs. The survivor and not the perpetrator gets to choose how the rest of their story goes. Every minute is an opportunity to change by choosing to do things differently one action, thought, hour at a time. The smallest consistent changes towards the positive culminate into a series of better experiences. In time these better experiences fundamentally increase through a domino effect and transform the way life is lived and reality inhabited to that which is desired rather than endured. A survivor can choose to realign with and live out their authentic self rather than remain a host of survival mechanisms and reactions, but it requires a survivor’s willingness to fight, learn and be vulnerable rather than stay fractured and alone in the dark that is not ours. Over a series of articles, I will take one obstacle at a time typically encountered at some point by the adult survivor and identify ways in which to overcome them.