Rose and I were unfortunate enough to recently have to exercise all our ‘how to support someone after trauma‘ skills. We’ve talked about it and decided that it may be a useful story to share, in the hopes of helping other people better support their friends and family.
My lovely girlfriend Rose accompanied me to Melbourne recently for the International Hearing Voices Congress. I was given a full three day subsidized access to the congress, but we could only afford to pay for one day for Rose. So, on the Wednesday while I was having my mind blown in amazing talks, Rose was off roaming the city and seeing the attractions.
Rose and I are both passionate about social justice. Neither of us have had easy lives, we’ve both experienced abuse, homelessness, and poverty. We’ve both had PTSD. Rose was first homeless as a 13 year kid, and we both have a particular place in our hearts for other people who find themselves in that place. So, when she came across a guy who was living rough, she bought him a cup of coffee. She sat nearby to share a drink and a chat. And then things went bad. He grabbed her, manhandled her, and tried to kiss her as she struggled and then froze. It seemed like a long time before she was able to break out of being frozen and run away. She was alone in a city she doesn’t know very well, with almost no phone battery left, having a major trauma reaction as many other far more horrific memories and experiences suddenly flooded her.
This is not a nice story to tell, because it touches on prejudices and misconceptions. I want to name some of them. Firstly, the idea that homeless people are dangerous. Like people with mental illnesses (and the two populations have a massive overlap), people who are homeless, and especially those who are roofless are often treated with fear and revulsion. They become invisible, and can go days or weeks without another human being making eye contact, smiling at them, or touching them kindly, even when they live in crowded cities. This fear reaction can trigger exactly what people want to avoid – because being dehumanised alienates people. And alienated people often feel little empathy and a great deal of anger at communities that have rejected them. Homeless people are not more likely to be violent. It could have been the well dressed guy waiting at a bus stop, it could have been someone Rose thought of as friend. The latter is harder to imagine but statistically far more likely. Rose was doing exactly the right thing – treating a guy who was down on his luck like a person, and sharing a little of her good fortune with him. Things going wrong does not always mean you have done something wrong. And sadly, doing the right thing does not shield you from things going bad at times.
The other misconception people often have about an incident like this is around the freeze response. There’s a lot of complex science, neurology, psychology, and outright conjecture about the freeze response that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, it’s pretty common in both animals and people. If you want to read some more about it, try the blog Understanding Dissociation by Paul F. Dell and look for the term ‘tonic immobility’. I’d also suggest the works of Peter A. Levine. Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve found useful – there are (at least) five basic responses people have to a major life threatening event – Fight or Flight, Freeze, Fold, and the Tend-and-Befriend. Fight we all understand and usually people who fight in the face of something like an assault are applauded and appreciated. Sometimes if their fight response is intense or seen as disproportionate, they are instead lynched. The flight response is also pretty self explanatory and again, there’s usually a pretty warm reception to people who have been able to escape something awful by running – and even those who tried but didn’t make it. After that, things get less clear. Tend and Befriend is about the intense bonding and banding together for survival that people can do when faced with severe threat. It’s often an overlooked response to threat, and not often framed in the more ‘heroic’ light of the fight or flight.
Lastly, we come to freeze and fold. These are the two responses that culturally carry the most baggage. People are rarely applauded for having these reactions, and sometimes the reaction itself is viewed as evidence the trauma was not particularly bad, or even the fault of the victim. Freeze is an extremely common response to threat. It’s difficult to predict, and even people who have previously never frozen in response to a threat can be surprised to find themselves doing so. Freezing often predicts a much rougher time after a trauma (by which I mean a higher incidence of PTSD), which personally I suspect is at least partly the result of the cultural shaming around the freeze response. Freezing can be life saving in some situations. Some animals escape predators that leave them unattended, thinking they are dead. Animals who have frozen are often numb; unafraid and unresponsive to pain. If an animal cannot escape, this is a merciful state. For some people in some terrible situations, the same dynamics apply. Freezing is a powerful, involuntary response of intense immobility. For some people it may be triggered when no other threat response seems like it will work. For others, freezing may be the result of both the fight and flight responses being triggered at the same time.
Where the freeze response immobilises, the fold response is a complete collapse of independent will. This threat response is about extreme submission and compliance. In the short term it can be life saving. It can also (like all of these threat responses) be catastrophic if used in the wrong situation. In the long term it may unfold as stockholm syndrome.
So, in response to a threat, Rose froze. At some point, she then ran. Fortunately, she was able to then stop and think about where would be safest to go. She decided to find the conference. When I found her in a quiet room at the conference, she told me what had happened. She was reluctant to tell me and already feeling a deep sense of shame about the assault. She was also highly stressed and dissociative and in a very traumatised state.
The conference was about an hour by public transport away from where we were staying in Melbourne. We also had bought tickets that night for a ‘Mad Hatter’s Party’ which was being held at a hotel across the city. My first impulse was to cancel the party and get us both home. When I suggested this, Rose was extremely distressed. To buy ourselves time to settle and talk about the evening’s plans, we instead walked to a nearby restaurant. This was a plan she liked. I knew that if I could help Rose to eat and drink, this would reduce her dissociation and help her to communicate what she needed.
We were fortunate in that a nearby restaurant had a fire lit. Rose was extremely cold, which is a common trauma reaction – basically she was in shock. The nearest table to the fire already had people sitting at it, the lovely Lewis Mehl-Madrona and his gracious wife, resting after a big day at the conference. In an unusual step for me, I asked if we could join them so I could sit Rose as close as possible to the fire. We found a risotto on the menu she felt she could stomach in her upset state (digestion shuts down when you are very anxious), and ordered drinks with bitters in them so the strong flavour would help to ground us. I sat next to Rose and kept an eye behind her to make sure that no one came up to her without her seeing them approach. Literally having someone’s back like this is very important at this point. New tiny shocks after a big trauma can embed the sense of terror more deeply, because the reaction to the little shocks is overblown and involuntary. Where people start off distressed and feeling helpless due to the trauma, they move on to feeling distressed and helpless to prevent the ongoing trauma reaction they are having. We both knew this, and as much as possible made it normal that Rose was agitated and hypervigilent. Rose did not wish for the others sharing the table to know what was going on so we did not disclose it.
Food, warmth, company, and drink all helped to ease some of Rose’s dissociation and distress. We started to talk about our plans for that evening. Rose was adamant about not missing the Mad Hatter’s Party, and also very concerned about not being able to cope with it. It was tempting for me to overrule her and refuse to attend. I was very mindful of her need to be heard and to restore some control over events so I tried to work with her instead. She was anxious about the assault making me miss out on something important I had been looking forward to. The thought of this was increasing her shame, guilt, and self loathing where she was blaming herself for the assault, blaming herself for freezing, blaming herself for telling me about it (and ‘ruining my time at the conference’) and blaming herself for having a trauma reaction to it afterwards. I could see that doing the ‘right’ thing and cancelling was actually going to make her distress much worse. So instead I attempted to reduce the intensity of the dilemma. I agreed to go to the party, on a relaxed, let’s-see-how-it-goes approach, with no shame or blame if either of us decided it was a stressful kind of event and wanted to go home early. I made the call that we would catch a private taxi instead of public transport to get home. Rose agreed to leave the party if it was intolerably stressful, and accepted the offer of a taxi with only a token protest about expense. I had no desire to deal with buses myself at that point either.
So, we trekked across Melbourne and found our way to the party. It was loud, cramped, and possibly the least trauma-friendly environment we could have gone to! But Rose was determined, so we found a good seat – from the point of view of not too far from the exit, back to the wall, able to see everyone. Rose ate nibbles as they came around. I bought a jug of lemonade. We shared half an alcoholic drink to take the edge off. (one drink can help, more is generally not a good idea) I couldn’t eat much as my adrenaline was too high.
I put all my own feelings about the assault in a mental box and ignored them. This is a pretty important skill when you’re trying to support someone else. I had a genuinely good time, made some friends, gave out some business cards, danced, had a laugh. I checked back in with Rose frequently. She was happy we had made it but stressed about the crowding and the really loud music. Eventually we decided to call it a night. We held hands tightly as we walked into the night and found a taxi. I didn’t let her hand go until we were both in the car, and then I held it all through the drive ‘home’.
Home that night we gently piled into bed and unpacked our feelings a bit more. I held her hand as Rose bravely opened up about a number of fears and areas of shame that were turning up for her about the assault. We discussed and countered them together. Was it her fault? No. Had she asked for it? No. Could she have seen it coming? Well – maybe, that’s a hard call. If on reflection she thinks she could have been more alert, that’s okay. It still doesn’t mean she didn’t anything wrong and certainly doesn’t make it her fault. Do I still find her attractive? Hell yes! Will I be upset or angry if she doesn’t want to be touched? Not at all. What about if she doesn’t want to be touched again ever? It will be okay. We’ll still be friends, even if we are never romantic partners again. Touch will only happen if and when and how she wants it.
We keep talking and crying. I share how sad I am for her, how angry I feel about it – but not with a lot of emotional intensity. The crucial thing is to be present but allow how Rose is feeling to be paramount. She should know I feel things too, but not be comforting me. My voice and words are sad and gentle but also express quiet confidence that she knows she needs to manage this and will get through it okay. She shares a little about some of the other memories that have been stirred up for her. I listen. She talks about the freeze response, and talks about other responses she’s had to threat. I emphasize that a freeze reaction is involuntary and does not mean she ‘asked for it’ or ‘wanted it’. She finds this helpful and the sense of shame diminishes. We turn the memories over together, the upsides and downsides of different reactions in different situations. It’s always tempting to bury everything in platitudes and reassurance, but this questioning is necessary. Rose, like most of us, needs someone to gently engage with her about the complex moral questions these kind of situations raise.
After a while she asks me to touch her back. I run my hands over her t-shirt. She asks me to go under her shirt and touch her skin. I stroke her back gently, checking that the pressure, pace, and type of touch are what she wants. She shakes and cries a little. I want to hold her tightly but restrain myself. I cry a little too. We lay close and hold hands. After a while she cuddles up under my arm and lays her head on my chest. I can feel my heart beating, like a big sad drum. I hold her close, we tell each other how much we love each other. We go to sleep.
If you’re reading this hoping for suggestions on how to manage with your own partner, I’d suggest reading Intimacy After Abuse, and my series about emotionally safer sex which starts with Safe Sex 1: Checking in.