Why “picturing out” makes fiction a safe and enabling space to constructively engage with trauma and raise it to conscious awareness.
Trauma is experienced when an event, encounter or happening is so overwhelming that it cannot be consciously or emotionally contained or known by the person who survives it. Humans are designed to protect their chances of survival at all costs; in times of crisis and threat automatic reactions, and instincts are motivated to facilitate this. Therefore, when a child whose physical safety or life seems threatened and the degree of pain felt is that of dying or breaking, all of the limited resources a child has are drawn on to protect the self from complete annihilation. To survive what is traumatic experience to the individual, in this case the child, is to cease being fully present during the experience. This dissociative reaction as well as other adverse responses is what identifies an experience as traumatic. The event or encounter is itself neutral or indifferent like the weather and much like the setting it takes place in.
For example, in cases of child molestation, a perpetrator is not traumatized by what takes place however he or she may indeed be mindlessly “acting out” or repeating his or her own childhood trauma but this time occupying the role of the abuser and replacing another for the previously held victim position. The perpetrator has a positive experience, deriving pleasure and having his or her needs met from exerting power and control over another that is not their physical or intellectual equal. The child however is traumatised and irreversibly changed. Unless given the assistance needed to process, assimilate and overcome being used as a gratuitous sex object threatened never to tell, the abuse continues to have multiple negative effects throughout future phases of life. The horror or terror experienced by the child reigns over unconscious life which is a psychic state without the concept of time or its passing and therefore the means with which to chronologically organise one’s life narrative and where or how the trauma fits within it. Traumatic experience, which is always stored in the unconscious, is literally unspeakable and without words because conscious life is structured by language, words (constituting the symbolic order), grammar and time, not the unconscious.
The conscious mind does not know what happened exactly throughout the traumatic experience; the unconscious records it through the body, senses and it has an archetypal impact at the level of human development the individual is at when this trauma takes place. All future transitions into the stages of human development are cognitively and emotionally compromised as the survivor remains developmentally arrested in parts, stuck at the age of their traumatic experience. Consequently, the trauma continues to be unknown, undigested and yet to be assimilated by conscious awareness.
The psychic wound or brokenness remains as raw chunks of highly charged emotion, chaotic and ever-present in the unconscious which again has no concept of time, language, grammar or coherent voice through which to know and organise experience. Instead the unconscious expresses its injured state through physical pain, digestive issues, shortness of breath, sweating, paralysis, hyperventilation, anxiety, depression, dissociation and an aversion to triggering sights, places, people, sounds and smells. There are also situations in which the survivor will be triggered emotionally and react to people, places and circumstances with seemingly inappropriate anger, sadness, fear, mistrust and disgust. All of these unconscious ways of remembering send the survivor into an indirect re-experiencing of the past as if still at the age they were when the original trauma took place.
Psychoanalyst, Carl Gustave Jung astutely points out in the illustrated quote above, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life.” The same sentiment is raised in Sigmund Freud’s “repetition compulsion.” Freud’s approach to effectively treating trauma survivors is far less optimistic than Jung and contemporary mental health professionals for he considered the trauma survivor to be compelled to unconsciously repeat the traumatic experience until death. This assertion stems from the understanding that the unconscious re-members by re-experiencing trauma through mindless and symptomatic ways such as ‘acting out’, impulsive self-sabotaging behaviour and fits of rage that indirectly repeat the trauma.