We’ve been talking in Bridges about this concept so I wanted to share it here. For those of us who’ve come through trauma, our experiences can make it difficult at times to connect with people who haven’t. I call this the Gap. Let me explain.
A few years ago I was undertaking one of my ill-fated attempts to get through university, and was keen to make some new friends. I joined the local French society, being in love with French movies and culture myself. One day myself and the group went out to see a French movie and caught up for coffee afterwards. As the group was chatting, the talk turned to nightmares. I quietly dropped out of the conversation.
I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was diagnosed at 15. The reality is I’ve suffered from severe nightmares for all of my life. This is a common symptom of this disorder, and it can be difficult to explain just how distressing and crippling it can be to people who don’t experience it. So, none of my experiences in this area are the stuff of coffee table conversation with new friends.
One young woman was sharing how she enjoyed her nightmares, that to her they were like horror movies, scary in a fun kind of way. She said that if she ever became too scared, she’d discovered that all she had to do was die in the dream to end it and wake up immediately. So she’d jump out of a window or in front of a car and the nightmare would be over.
The Gap that opened between me and the rest of that group at this point was so big I couldn’t bridge it. I felt sick to my stomach and had to leave early. I crept home and went to bed feeling badly shaken.
Because people like me often get through our day by pretending that we’re basically the same as all the people around us. In fact we may put a lot of effort into blending in and trying to look normal. We don’t want people to know we have a terrible history that has left marks on us. We don’t want to be different. You can do this by pretending that the things that make you different – trauma history or mental illness, aren’t real. Or, by forgetting that they aren’t universal, that not everyone has experienced these things. I tend to lean to the latter. I muddle through my days in an imaginary brotherhood where we’ve all come through what I have.
So, for this young woman to tell us that she has a had a life where she has been so secure and so stable, that even in her nightmares she retains control, shatters my illusions. It forces me to confront that my experiences aren’t universal. And that brings me face to face with the rage and anguish I work so hard to bury, about what has been done to me. About the monstrous unfairness. About the things other people can take so for granted, like feeling safe, like feeling in control. I become instantly and painfully aware of everything that I have lost.
The Gap opens between me and the rest of this laughing group. In my mouth burn stories of my nightmares, of experiences where I have screamed for hours in my dreams, trying to wake and unable to. Of the sense of being tortured that re-experiencing the worst moments of my life night after night creates. I felt like I was suddenly watching these laughing people from a very long distance away. I felt that they lived in an entirely different world to mine. I felt profoundly alone.
There are many ways this Gap opens up. It can create deep and complex feelings of grief, fury, and alienation. It’s often set off not just by an awareness of difference, but by the way the un-traumatised misunderstand and misrepresent the challenges we face. I feel it whenever someone asks in a dismissive way “Why don’t abused women just leave?”. I feel it when I sit in a pub hearing a loud conversation from another table about how “those schizophrenics” are a danger to society and should be locked up. I feel it when a television program comes on getting hostile about all the dole bludgers on disability support and how we shouldn’t have a welfare system at all. For me, part of the Gap is an awareness of how hard I work just to break even in my life. Just to stay alive, let alone to make progress. And how painful it is when the progress I make is measured against people who haven’t come from where I have, through what I have. Context is everything.
From a trauma perspective, part of this Gap is living in a society that is often hung up on the superficial, chasing happiness, and reluctant to talk about big issues. Silence and being silenced opens the Gap. It becomes difficult to be patient with friends complaining about utterly trivial matters, painful when you try to share your thoughts or feelings about a traumatic experience only to be told to move on and get over it, humiliating to feel judged if you let slip some sign of your wounded-ness like have a panic attack in a crowd.
Some of the work in healing from trauma is becoming aware of this Gap and learning how to live with it. Part of this is forming relationships with people who are on your side of it, who live in your world. Part of this is learning how to bridge this Gap and connect with people on the other side of it. That involves a certain amount of translation, learning how to present yourself and your experiences in a way that can be accepted and understood by people who don’t share them. For trauma, this means learning how to talk a little about experiences and reactions that are visceral in nature. This isn’t easy. Other people who have come through similar trauma will usually instantly understand what you don’t like about that crowded lift. People who haven’t, need you to explain. Trauma reactions are not intuitive if you haven’t personally experienced them. Many people on the other side of the Gap are good folks, some are brilliant even, incredibly sensitive and thoughtful and wonderfully safe people. Some, of course, are awful. The same goes for your side of the Gap for that matter. You can become an ambassador, helping to make that Gap smaller for other people like yourself by educating and raising awareness in general society.
Having said all that, Gaps are tricky things. You can see them even when they’re not there, just because you become used to having them there. It’s easy for us to take each other at face value and conclude that we are the only ones who are struggling, who are anxious, overwhelmed, deeply conflicted, or grief stricken. There is much common ground despite Gaps. Try not to get so focused on the differences that you lose the ability to notice the similarities, that which unites us as human beings. It is often these things that help us to bridge Gaps.
A last important point. There is more than one Gap.
There are many Gaps. People in wheelchairs feel the Gap when the only disabled toilet at the train station is out of order for six months. People who’ve experienced poverty feel it when they hear middle class people sneer at the ‘white trash’ who live in caravan parks. Gay teenagers feel it when they’re forbidden to take their partners to prom. Gaps make us feel alone, irrelevant, unvalued. Gaps make us feel like we don’t count, like we’re not even people. And the thing that nearly everyone craves is to feel human. To have a sense of belonging and value. And for the differences between us not to define us to the exclusion of all else.
So, Shane has a mental illness. Did you know he loves to fish? Jess has cystic fibrosis. Did you know she’s passionate about children’s charities? Damien survived severe burns from a car accident that killed his brother. He loves comics, is an avid football fan, has read all the Harry Potter books six times, and his favourite food is Mexican. Gaps define us by a single characteristic. Reclaiming our humanity is about seeing ourselves and being seen by others, as human beings.