The Trauma Narrative

CW: Childhood abuse
This is a post about my journey through and healing from trauma. I’m going to describe some things I’ve experienced that have induced trauma. Most of this is in Stage 1, so skip that section if you are sensitive to descriptions of childhood abuse.

Stage 1. Initial Pain

When I was a child, my parents spanked me a lot. The spankings I experienced were not the common idea of spanking – they were significantly worse, done with a strip of rough leather (the ‘wisdom whacker’) designed for this purpose and to not leave permanent marks, and usually sustained a 8-9/10 on the pain scale for 10-30 seconds.

Spankings began when I was a toddler (as an infant they slapped my arms) and were warranted for any number of things, such as not saying “Yes mom” or “Yes dad” when spoken to, for interrupting an adult, for screaming loud enough to worry the neighbors during a spanking, for delays of even a few seconds when responding to being called to receive a spanking. They happened often; I distinctly remember setting goals for myself to obey so well and so quickly that I wouldn’t get any spankings for one whole day.

My father worked from home, and I was homeschooled for all my educational years (minus a 3-month stint in public highschool, from which I was removed because I had access to computers without parental supervision), and so his power over me was absolute.

He had narcissistic personality disorder and was emotionally abusive. When I was a teenager, he secretly installed recording software on my computer. He would often force me to stand still in front of him for ~15-60 minutes as he berated me and made me admit that I was lazy, rebellious, disobedient. He would pinch the skin under my chin and pull my face close to his as he yelled at me. He told me often that he would break my will by taking everything I loved. At one point when he took everything I loved, I was so distraught I became depressed and stopped showering, combing my hair, or smiling, and he forbid me from being unhappy, that my ‘pouting’ was a display of rebellion towards him, that if I continued he would force me to clean the house morning to night, every day, until he broke me of it. Everything he did was driven by the goal of breaking my will so that I would obey him regardless of how much it hurt me. He succeeded – he eventually destroyed me so thoroughly that I voluntarily cut contact with my best friend and only source of emotional support (who did not break any rules in himself; he was Christian, and all our discussions were pg rated, it was just that our conversations were unsupervised) out of desire to be obedient to him.

He was abusive to the rest of my family, particularly my mother, who was submissive, gentle, kind, terrified of him, and believed divorce was a sin. He used to trap her in rooms when she tried to escape and pushed her, until one day he pushed her in front of us kids and she called the cops. He stopped the physical violence after that, but he was no less rageful or skilled at twisting her words and convincing her that she was wrong.

At the time, I thought most of this was normal. I felt huge amounts of pain, but I thought this amount of pain was normal.

Stage 2. The Symptoms

Once I left home (and refused to see or speak to him), I started noticing effects from my childhood. A partner roleplayed ‘angry’ during sex and I had a violent panic attack. I was uncomfortable being touched or hugged. I absolutely refused to let anybody else touch my computer, ever. I was emotionally shut down, unaware of my feelings. I was deeply, cripplingly insecure. Obedience towards rules and authority was a compulsion for me; I obeyed confident strangers quietly and without question and physically could not force my body to do things like hop a deserted turnstyle even when I was going to miss the train and my friends were upset with me because they wanted to catch the train and why couldn’t I just walk past the stupid imaginary line?

But I did not view myself as having been traumatized. I did not view myself as a victim, and I did not view my father as abusive. Abusive was a weird word. He’d done some things that made me very upset, sure – but that? He didn’t starve me or slap me in the face or anything. I generally felt okay inside, besides being angry. I was a fine, normal human being, I liked hanging out with friends and I was pretty happy overall.

I also didn’t recognize that what he’d done was abnormal. I vaguely thought most people’s fathers were kind of equally as shitty, and if they didn’t appear to be so – well, mine didn’t either, to the outside world. People loved him – my father sometimes would hand me the phone where a fan of his would tell me how lucky I was to have him as a father and how I should trust and obey him more – and so when I saw other people admiring the qualities of fatherness in other fathers, it didn’t disrupt my worldview.

This stage lasted about a year.

Stage 3. Trauma

It started with little things – casually mentioning an aspect of my childhood to a new friend and seeing them recoil in horror, or reading essays about people going through things milder than I had and calling it abuse. I started to pick it up from TV shows, from discussions around consent, from seeing people nonviolently communicate difficult things with each other.

I started to realize that what I had been through was considered “very bad” by society (although of course by no means the worst – many kids have had way worse childhoods; we knew a family who chained her daughter to the bed all day, my parents were lenient by comparison) – that I could tell people honestly about my life and they would be disgusted, because it was abnormal.

Before I had just been in pain, with symptoms like scars – but now I began to feel that I had been deeply violated, that a great injustice had been done, that I was a true victim of an abuser. I took on the narrative that I had been deprived of some fundamental human right by an evil man. I started having semiregular nightmares of my father coming to kill me, or me killing him.

This is what everybody else believed. It was easy to agree with them, because it put me in a position of authority and power – I was an authority on suffering, now, because I had gone through the thing stamped by society as “bad.” I had power because I adopted a frame where I could explicitly label what I had gone through and pull it out when needed in conversations, as a piece of my identity, and a shortcut for gaining sympathy and support from people around me.

The way I say that sounds a bit like I’m dismissing it, but I don’t mean to. I think those things were very useful and I’m glad I had them.

But – I was in pain all the time, much more than Stage 2. I called in sick to work on father’s day because all the celebrations and cards and advertisements were too triggering. I would often go to bed and fantasize about saying everything I’d ever wanted to say to him, with him unable to shut me up. “You should have loved me,” I would scream at my image of him – a false image, because it wasn’t shouting over me to drown me out – “You were my father, you should have loved me,” and I would cry myself to sleep.  I was full of a constant rage towards him so intense it made me sick, insane. I could feel it in my chest, hot and tight, every waking moment of the day.

This stage lasted about five years.

Stage 4. Healing

It was probably around my 20th acid trip. I was alone and I took maybe 200ug or so, and listened to the soundtrack of the Fountain.
I relived my past, played in detail every single memory I had held on to so tightly, in as chronological order as I could. It was agonizing, and I sat there and sobbed.
It was different here, though – on acid, narrative was dissolved. I was not a victim, I was in pain. I just hurt, and hurt and hurt, and it passed through me and sliced me open over and over again and it was so exhausting and it wouldn’t let me go.

I was on a timeline, and eventually my memories rolled one into the other into my leaving home. Here my agony abruptly turned into sheer ecstasy. I remembered how good it felt to be free – to be able to run to the store at 2 am if I wanted, to talk to anybody I wanted, to have the friends I had, to contact all my old friends I’d lost, to watch any movie, listen to any song, make any facial expression, to be upset – visibly upset! I’ve never been able to talk or write about this without crying.

I remember looking around the room and feeling myself fill it – all the possible sets of actions I could take without fear, and I was so grateful I thought I might fall apart. What was there to be afraid of, anymore, now that I wasn’t locked in a box with a monster? This was the deepest joy I’d ever felt, and I thought – if I could give this experience to anybody else, I would do whatever it took. Any amount of suffering would be worth this.

And then I realized that that’s what my father had done to me – he’d given me the ability to experience life with such ongoing lightness, and what he’d done had been worth it. All I’d been through had been worth it. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change my life at all. This pain was mine, now, chosen by me, held by me deliberately, and nothing about it was wrong.

This experience permanently and completely cured my hatred of my father and eliminated my daily suffering and rage (It also, incidentally, destroyed most of my motivation, which I had to rebuild from other sources later on).

This experience did not cure my symptoms – some of my anxieties listed in stage 2 were eventually cured by MDMA use, some of them faded with time, and some I still experience today.


 

Some popular cultural rejections of victimhood aren’t really rejections, and they redefine victimhood – for example, “I refuse to be a victim – I will not let this stop me, I’ll keep going and make my own business/marry johnny/work out all the time/experience happiness”. This views victimhood as helplessness, which is kind of a socially embarrassing state and it’s pretty safe and easy to say “No, I’m not in that embarrassing state.” I don’t mean victimhood in this sense.

What I mean by victim is the idea of being transgressed against; that some ‘rightness’ in the universe has been violated, like a sin has been committed.

I wouldn’t have been able to find healing under the narrative that I was a victim. Part of the victim narrative is an injustice so fundamental that there’s nothing that can balance the scales. It is an absolute state, and more importantly it’s a state of suffering. Suffering is when you believe something ought not be, and victims ought not be, and the nature of being a victim is suffering.

In this sense, the people around me who reacted with horror to my stories of my childhood were actively increasing my trauma and suffering.


 

Some tribes have nasty coming of age rituals for children. I have a belief that some cultures had ritualized sexual assault of children, but I’m on a plane and can’t check to see how true that is. Young girls are genitally mutilated. Did all the children of these cultures grow up with deep traumas? In a sense, probably not – if all the adults act like it’s no big deal, then you as a kid don’t think it’s a big deal either, and will probably never think it’s a big deal, and you’ll grow up and mutilate your own daughter the same way you were mutilated, because tradition. These people would probably strongly deny being traumatized, much like I didn’t believe I was traumatized – at least in the narrative sense – in stage 2. They also probably don’t experience the suffering that I did in stage 3, and in that sense have better lives.

Of course there are still symptoms, though – maybe these cultures end up with lower rates of trust and higher rates of PTSD or something.

The cultural narrative of trauma seems to me to be a very slow process of identifying a symptom like compulsively wearing very large brimmed hats, realizing “Hey, this is caused by forcing our children into the desert to build character!” and then saying “Forcing children into the desert is bad, if you’ve been forced into the desert you probably will have these symptoms, which are bad, and you’ve been subject to a bad thing.”

This progression does good things! It helps the society collectively shorthand agree what is wrong and right, and makes standards known. It creates a default ‘support the desert children more than usual’ mode. It makes people who shove children into deserts less likely to do that.

It also gives people who’ve gone through pain space to reevaluate how they interpret their pain, instead of ignoring or suppressing it – society won’t judge them now, or call them weak for reacting to it. This can often give people space to/encourage people to feel pain they wouldn’t have otherwise, because ‘being hurt when you are forced into a desert’ is now the socially expected thing, and to feel otherwise would be abnormal.

To be clear, I think that society-induced feelings are often just as real/valid/whatever as … not-as-obviously-socially-induced feelings. I don’t think there’s a such thing as a “natural reaction” or a “true, organic feeling”.

I know I said that people who told me my childhood was bad increased my suffering, but I don’t think they were wrong to do so. It gave me new feelings of suffering that fit the new society mold, and those feelings were real and valid.

Where I got trapped was in letting the narrative rest in a ‘true’ place inside of me. I didn’t view the new set of laws as a useful thing to set general standards of behavior, I viewed them as touching on some truth, as setting upon my head a victimed crown, long may it reign.


 

I know I just went from shitting on narrative to supporting it, but I’m about to shit on it again.

I don’t like how the trauma narrative is presented with so little self awareness. I feel a bit weird now, when someone comes to me and tells me about something bad that happened to them, and then I’m supposed to say I’m sorry, or how terrible. I don’t want to do the trauma-narrative rain dance, to perform society’s horror-judgement upon them.

But – doing things! Achieving change! Keeping children out of the desert! if we accept pain, then do we just accept children in the desert?
I think we can do a lot of ‘saving children from deserts’ through action that doesn’t reinforce a trauma narrative. If someone is in pain, getting them mint tea or making public the facts about what hurt the person is not propagating the trauma narrative, it’s an attempt to reduce total harm and can be done gently, without judgement, like you might put safety foam on sharp edges of furniture.
And of course, introducing the trauma narrative would probably be useful in times where there’s sufficient meta-awareness – “What’s it like, to feel like a victim?” or “What X is doing to you is very abnormal in society. People will react with shock to this information.”

Besides the practical things, of course there’s emotional support. What do you say when someone comes to you, hurting, if you can’t call upon the great Badness Designators as platitudes? There’s probably a lot of options, but personally I just want to sit down and hurt with them. In a way, In a way I feel this is another purpose of enduring large amounts of pain – it allows for joining others in their pain, a place that is often the loneliest. I want to endure the greatest agony so that I can reach others in their farthest places. This was a part of the reason why I did so much LSD – it could make me hurt like nothing else could. Pain is sacred to me, because it allows for this facet of love.

The trauma narrative feels like a rejection of the pain, because it’s a belief that the pain is somehow not supposed to be there, like it’s a foreign invader. I feel uncomfortable treating it like an invader (although I still do it sometimes because of social pressure).

There can be a lot of healing in surrendering the narrative and all the power and authority it gives you. I don’t mean that you have to abandon it entirely, it’s useful, after all – but evicting it from a place of identity inside yourself is necessary. If your wound is held open by a sense of wrongness, it will never have space to heal.

PS: Unwelcome comments include anything that frames me as a victim. Please no “I’m so sorry, that’s terrible.”

15 thoughts on “The Trauma Narrative

  1. Coming from a family where my mother intentionally isolated and drove permanent wedges between my three older sibling and my self, I get where you are coming from. My mother had a bad temper and an even worse case of Adult ADD, so beating would come out of nowhere, and often without any clue. I remember when I was about five or so and the EBS came on with a sever wind warning (its not unusual to have 70-80 MPH winds in the desert. My mother thought I had changed the channel and hit me a few times before my sister’s first husband came to my defense and told her that I didn’t change the channel, and it was a severe weather warning. My mother just blinked, saw that “her” show was still on and just went back in the kitchen, no apologizes, no words of comfort, not nothing to a child she almost beat to unconscious.

    My mother also got other people in on the abuse. She broke a few fingers in her hand and blamed me. We lived 35-40 miles from the nearest town and she told people that I missed the bus and ran away. Truth is that I DID go to school that day, because school was a safe place for me. The bus dropped me off and I walked the 1/3 mile to the house, only to be met by an angry group of “neighbors” who wanted to “teach” me a lesson for breaking my mother’s fingers. After feeling a few ribs crack, losing sight in one eye, and one arm broken, someone FINALLY realized the bus dropped me off, which meant my mother told them a lie about me breaking her fingers and running of. I’m guessing that after that I passed out and someone took me to a near by military hospital where the story was that I got stomped on by a horse.

    These are a few of the highlights growing up, so I understand the long term effects it has on you , the anger at the totally unnecessary suffering, the walking on eggshells, not knowing what will set the parent off, the flashbacks at night.

    My respect to you

  2. “To be clear, I think that society-induced feelings are often just as real/valid/whatever as … not-as-obviously-socially-induced feelings. I don’t think there’s a such thing as a “natural reaction” or a “true, organic feeling”.”

    This reminds me of a perspective put forward in The Courage To Be Disliked – this idea that all problems are inter-personal problems. After all, if any one of us were the only person in the world, hypothetically speaking, ignoring things like social needs etc, there would be no problems. You could be too loud, too soft, too tall, too short, whatever – all of those things are completely irrelevant if there’s nobody else to measure up against. None of those things would even occur to you, you wouldn’t even have an identity.

    Ie, in a certain sense, apart from ultra-primal things like a fear of falling, and strong feelings of hunger, and tiredness, it’s interesting to consider that maybe all feelings are society-induced feelings. It’s not a perfect model, obviously… but an interesting one.

    1. I’ve done LSD around… 50 times? I was alone for maybe half of those, I’m not sure. I’ve done MDMA 4 times and have been around other people each time.

  3. I think the trauma narrative is particularly damaging when it comes to sexual victimization. My related anecdote is this: I was molested as a child, before I was old enough to understand how “bad” that was. The incidents themselves were extremely uncomfortable for me, but the worst of the suffering came well afterwards as I learned more about society’s norms and values surrounding sex. In time I felt healed, but when I was raped for the first time (as an adult), I was mostly worried about the psychological damage that might be in store. I thought to myself, “Getting molested messed me up for years, but this was rape, and that’s even worse, right?” In the following days I didn’t feel all that terrible, but I kept bracing myself for the force of the trauma to descend and consume me. It never did, though. I was okay. I’d had a run-in with a disrespectful asshole, but I was okay. I reasoned that because I had already processed having been molested, I already had the thought patterns to accept having been raped.

    These thought patterns include things along the lines of: sex is regarded as a Big Deal because it can have big consequences like pregnancy and disease, but in the absence of that there’s nothing intrinsically sacred about genitalia. People are likely to think differently of you based on if and how you’ve been going around bumping uglies, but that in itself doesn’t have anything to do with your moral worth. If you separately consider the big consequences and social ramifications associated with sex, it’s reasonable to think of having been touched or penetrated as No Big Deal.

    I think some people would look at this and think, “Clearly you’ve been numbed and warped by your traumatic experiences. It isn’t normal to think that way, so you must be very damaged.” But I agree with you here; if I don’t feel compelled to adopt that descriptor as part of my identity, I can choose not to, and that’s probably for the better.

    1. How central a traumatic experience is viewed to someones sense of identity is significantly correlated with how likely they are to experience symptoms of PTSD : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3974102/

      Much more strongly correlated than the underlying severity of the trauma itself, which is surprisingly very weakly correlated : https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0887618517301846

      This is backed up by what is referred to in the literature as the “vulnerability paradox” – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27445357 – nations with more traumatic events appear to have less PTSD, even when accounting for reporting differences.

      For example a nation like South Africa has 10-20x more rape and violence than a nation like Canada, yet Canada has much higher rates of PTSD (9.2% lifetime prevalence vs 2.3%). A nation with one of the lowest rape and violence rates in the world has 4x more PTSD than a nation that has one of the highest rape and violence rates.

      This suggests the majority of mental anguish in developed nations is being caused not by events themselves, but by the culture surrounding them, and that the better societies are getting at protecting people from physical harm, the greater the unintentional infliction of psychological harm is becoming.

      A reified trauma theory that says psychological “damage” is caused by external events should mean that the fewer traumatic events, the fewer people should be suffering, yet the opposite is taking place.

      There seems to be a combination effect of increasing popularity of reified trauma theory (i.e. certain experiences inherently cause objective psychic “damage”, that is often suggested to be lifelong, permanent and irreversible, and the only way to have any degree of recovery is to accept how damaged you are), and the fact that the rarer violence and distressing experiences become in society, the more credible and powerful this belief becomes that certain extreme experiences are fundamentally damaging and are beyond the limits of the human mind to withstand.

      CBT is still one of the most effective treatments for PTSD, yet it works against all the reifying and catastrophizing beliefs inherent to trauma theory. That the best treatment contradicts the most popular theory should be a crisis for psychiatry, but its not politically or economically feasible to reform at present, and there is still high social utility from the theory that could not be easily replaced (i.e. insurers, hospitals, courts, governments want an official medical conditon before resources are put to use in helping people)

      1. It seems like ideally we would want a society where everyone publicly talks in a way that reifies trauma (to reduce the incidence of bad acts), but also where everyone privately believes that it’s no big deal and trauma ain’t a thang (so they’re not traumatized). I guess the way for that to happen is for mass media to push the trauma narrative (which they do), and for private blogs and friendly conversations to push the opposite narrative (which Aella did here).

        Will this actually work? Will the cognitive dissonance be better than going one way or the other fully? It’s probably worth a try.

        Here’s a famous case of a research paper that showed that childhood sex abuse rarely causes lasting psychological harm: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rind_et_al._controversy For their brave research, the scientists earned the distinction of being condemned by *both* houses of Congress. So share this study with your friends, but not with your senator!

  4. Thank you for unpacking all of that for us to read. I’m also at a point in my life where I am unpacking all of my traumas, and I have felt uneasy about the victim narrative. I appreciate how you have described your pain and how it is a part of who you are. Long comment short, you have described the Yin and Yang of life in modern terms that has helped me find a new way of looking at the traumas of my life and the path I am taking to integrate them and move forward. Thank you.

  5. I am having by far the strongest emotional reaction to this that I’ve ever had to any piece of writing and I am in a restaurant right now so I’m going to go somewhere where I can have it properly.

  6. Is it surrendering the narrative, or is it continuing to a different point in a longer narrative? (Or are those just two ways of looking at the same thing?)

    The experiences you describe rhyme with my own, although the details differ. (I wasn’t homeschooled; my mother was the strict disciplinarian.) After a power struggle that took place my first semester of college and ended with my stealing the car to go take a midterm, I didn’t speak to my parents for several years. The symptomatic and trauma phases are awfully familiar as well.

    I can’t point to any particular, singular healing event the way you can, though I can identify high-water marks in the process. For one thing, sometime during that period of no contact, it was as if a switch flipped in my mother’s head that changed her perspective of me from “child” to “adult”. This was necessary, insofar as it was a prerequisite for being able to relate to her in an adult fashion, though not sufficient. What *was* sufficient turned out to be actually having those interactions, over a period of several years, culminating in an I Love You And I’m Glad We Have A Good Relationship Now, But If You Ever Lay A Hand On Any Child Of Mine In Anger I Am Calling The Cops conversation that turned out far better than I would have ever expected.

    Perhaps another way of putting what I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure that moving past something inherently entails *rejecting* it. I can empathise with your experience of childhood in large part because I *can* vividly remember what it was like to be a terrified child with a violent parent — but that memory also comes with a conscious awareness that the “I” doing the remembering is an adult with a much richer base of experiences to draw on, simply by virtue of having more past selves than her childhood self did. This sort of touches on what you said about self-awareness, I guess? But also, like, not all of those past selves were all that great at handling trauma either — in fact, thinking back on it, there was a lot of “two steps forward, one step back” going on. You could almost say that there was some interleaving between symptoms and trauma, during my twenties, as I discovered which social skills I’d overfitted to my family, unlearned them, and learned more generally adaptive ones.

    This is really good food for thought. Thank you for writing it.

  7. I like this perspective; I’m curious to what extent it applies to other identities and mental states. For instance, the thing that we’d typically classify as depression in the US in 2018 can be conceived of and manifest very differently in other cultures (I’m pretty sure this was mentioned on SSC somewhere, but I’m not finding it right now) – perhaps there are cultural frames under which one could turn the experience of whatever factors manifest as depression in most Western countries into something with a more positive subjective experience? On the other hand, this probably comes with a cost of the culture not putting anywhere near as much effort into intervening to improve said experiences, so even if this worked it’s not clear it would be a net benefit.

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