If you’ve read a previous post of mine, about Territory, you may have concluded that I sound like a pretty fragile kind of person. And, to a certain extent, you’d be right. However, if you’ve ever seen me stand up to someone twice my size who’s screaming into my face, you might have to revise your opinion. I’m also really strong.
One of the difficult things about trauma is that it can leave you feeling so weak and powerless. To be in situations where your 100% best efforts could not stop terrible things from happening is crushing. Part of you goes dead inside. The hypervigilence part of PTSD, where you feel on ‘red alert’ all the time, just watching for the next terrible thing to happen, is incredibly exhausting. In some ways, it’s actually worse than having terrible things happen.
Let me run that past you again.
When awful things are happening I feel awful. I feel numb. I feel furious. I fight like hell. I feel strong. I feel helpless. I feel vindicated. And other people say things to me like “How are you still going?”, with respect.
When nothing awful is happening I still feel awful, numb, furious, but I have nothing to fight. I feel weak, helpless, stupid, pathetic, and full of self loathing. And other people say things to me like “What is wrong with you?”, with contempt.
There’s a really tricky effect of trauma called traumatic replay, where sometimes people keep somehow putting themselves in terrible situations. This in NO way means they are responsible for abuse! The person doing the abuse is always responsible for it! I shouldn’t have to say that, but the inclination to blame the victim is so strong that we all need reminding. Trauma can upset your mental wiring, your internal dials and alarms about safety and danger can be a bit unreliable. We try to walk straight and look out for ourselves but find ourselves listing to the left and drifting off course. This article is about some of the things that can drive that, so we can be aware of them in ourselves and override it. It’s not an excuse to blame us for accidentally drifting into dangerous territory and getting hurt.
There’s a few different things that can drive traumatic replay, and the above dynamic is one of them. To some extent, I’m ‘built’ to handle crisis, it’s the come down afterwards that kills me. I sometimes have to fight my own impulse to put myself in dangerous situations or spent time with aggressive people simply because they make me feel strong. I have all my psychological armor on, and suddenly I feel like I can handle anything. This can be pretty appealing. It’s also phenomenally dangerous, and difficult to understand if you haven’t personally experienced it! In a way, its like grief, everyone turns up in the first few weeks full of care. You’re so blasted numb with grief at that point you probably can’t even recognise most of them. Six months down the track you’re crying yourself hoarse and everyone else has moved on. People harmed by trauma are often told to move on. Terrible things can fragment you, part of you lives in the here and now, and part of you stays trapped in a dark place. Traumatised people trying frantically to move on are sometimes tearing themselves further away from a piece of themselves. Finding a way to balance that need to honour the past with the equally important need to connect to the present can be really difficult. But it can be done!
Another dynamic that feeds into traumatic replay is the refusal to accept that you were genuinely powerless to make that situation come out any better. That is really hard to accept. Blaming yourself can be easier because it preserves the illusion that if you had just done this or that, things would have been okay. So you get back into it, in one form or another, hoping that this time you will make it work out right. You can lose a lot of your life testing that theory.
You can be hurt because you’ve been so strongly conditioned to be obedient and compliant that you shut down and obey when threatened, because that’s how you’ve always survived before.
You can also seek out terrible things because waiting for them to happen – and being absolutely certain that they will, can be more distressing than having them happen. This is similar to the domestic violence cycle where the abused partner starts to trigger the violent reaction just to get out of the exhausting stage where tension is rising and violence is imminent and inevitable.
Really twisted up thinking that you deserve nasty things to happen to you can have you seeking them out. Self harm takes many forms and some of us are adept at finding other people who are more than willing to hurt us. Obviously, abusive people tend to foster this kind of self loathing in the people they hurt.
Familiarity can make you choose awful situations or relationships because sometimes it takes us a while to work out that ‘feels comfortably familiar’ actually may mean ‘is toxic’. Good environments can feel weird, we can feel out of place and awkward, it’s almost like culture shock, we don’t know the ‘rules’ here. I had an odd experience like that once, a man I was close to had some bad news suddenly and went quiet. I read the quietness and disappeared as quickly as I could. He was surprised and confused by my behaviour and later called me out on it, telling me how uncaring I’d been. That really surprised me, in my life, men getting upset and going quiet meant get out the way as quickly as possible, or they will blow up. I was applying a social norm to a different environment where it wasn’t the norm. Miscommunications such as this abound, and opportunities for the Gap to open up are everywhere. So people stick to what they know, even if it’s horrible.
Sometimes, limping around the ‘normal world’ feeling like a broken person is just too hard when we can feel like somebody significant in the trauma underworld of abusers and abused. We’d rather eat and be eaten than face innocence lost and the appalling misconceptions about how victims ‘ask for it’, ‘deserve it’, ‘let it happen’, ‘enjoy it’, or should ‘just choose not to be victims‘. Abusive people can be adept at making us feel special; we are the centre of their world even though their attentions are painful.
The last thing I’ve noticed can feed into traumatic reply is a driving need to deny that a trauma has had an impact upon us. Being victimised can be such a terrible thing to process, that we were made a victim can be so painful and overwhelming that we deny it entirely. We go out of our way to flaunt our lack of fear. We deliberately do dangerous things to prove that we’re not a victim. We ignore all our warning systems that say ‘that person feels creepy’, ‘that car park is pretty dark and deserted’, ‘I don’t like the way they touch me’, and in an attempt to prove how unaffected by trauma we are, we can put ourselves in the kinds of dangerous situations that no one else would.
It’s worth mentioning too, that some awful stuff happens in life. Just because you get a double dose doesn’t necessarily mean any of these are in play. Storms happen, sometimes we’re just unlucky.
Psychiatry used to assess these kinds of issues as masochism. Now there’s a better understanding of the kind of damage trauma can do to someone. Pain may be the result of these behaviours, but the desire for it is not usually what drives them. We’re seeking strength, a sense of undamaged identity, to feel like we control our own lives, to feel loved or powerful or right. It’s just that sometimes these desires take us to dark places.
I feel the pull of some of these. My thinking gets twisted, I want to feel strong even if it means I’m being torn apart, I want to be proved right even if it means that another horrible thing happens, I want to get it over with because I know it’s coming anyway, I want to be possessed by them even though they make me hate myself.
I fight it because I try to believe – even when I can’t feel it – that I don’t deserve this. Because I believe in a life that’s richer and deeper than the roles of abuser and abused. Because I feel such compassion for other people, and you can’t really help when you’re trapped in the underworld yourself. Because amazing people like Judith Herman have written books in which I see myself reflected without hatred or humiliation, and I find hope, and I want other people to find hope too. I try to find ways to accept the brutal lessons without letting them destroy me, and to grow beautiful things out of anguish and degradation. I know my own damaged wiring. I know the lure of self destruction. On the bad days I cry, “protect me from what I want”. And I hold on, and I hold on, until it eases.