Passive Trauma • How Every Human Has Some PTSD
But I'm not a war veteran...
During my The Daring Way™ certification with Brené Brown, I never imagined it would unravel threads, bound so tight within the memory of cells that I didn't even know of their existence. I mean, I just wanted to meet Brené, that's all.
Then came the supervision portion of the certification. Unlike all my previous coaches and mentors who came from a peak performance, positive psychology and/or leadership training backgrounds, my senior supervisor was a well seasoned, trauma-informed therapist.
On our first call, I talked, she listened, I talked some more, and she mentioned signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). On our second call, I talked, she listened, I talked some more, and she mentioned symptoms of PTSD. On our third call, I talked, she listened, I talked some more, and she mentioned traits of PTSD. And so on...
Symptoms of PTSD
Finally, on our sixth call, I clued in and asked, "What do you mean PTSD? What are you talking about? I'm not a war veteran. I haven't lost a child." She lovingly explained that I was exhibiting classic signs of PTSD:
- knowing what and how to do something, but completely paralyzed to do so,
- living in a constant hyper-vigilent state, not waiting for the shoe to drop, but pinned under the fallen shoe,
- deflated hopelessness and lack of drive, especially when I was a very purposeful, ambitious, and motivated overachiever,
- repeat suicide ideation and pull toward annihilation when I was a positive, optimistic and happy person,
- chronic fatigue plus insomnia when I was a champion sleeper who can sleep anytime, anywhere, car, bus, plane, sitting, or standing, and
- impenetrable numbness between me and the things I used to enjoy (dissociation).
She added that in therapy circles, there's a lot of talk about trauma symptoms of fight or flight. They are more obvious. You can't not see someone fight or lash-out their trauma in the form of aggression, rage, or violence. You can even see someone flight, turn a blind eye, avoid or run away. But freeze is more subtle. You could be in trauma-freeze in a room of hundreds, and no one would know.
Trauma is Trauma
My stubborn as f*ck ego spent many more calls with my senior supervisor, claiming that I don't have PTSD. In my ego-construct, PTSD is exclusively reserved for war veterans and refugees, victims of sexual assault, car crash or blunt physical injuries, abused / abandoned children, and kids / parents who have lost their parents / kids too young, gnarly and prolonged divorces.
I spent months uneasy with the diagnosis of PTSD. So I hit the books. I did my research.
I was so surprised to learn that the body doesn't differentiate between a physical trauma from a car crash or an emotional trauma from a betrayal. Trauma is trauma.
Around the same time, I went to Courage Camp where Brené Brown gifted us a signed copy of Rising Strong. When I read that trauma can also result from chronic under-support, my heart sank to my knees. The entire second half of that book became unreadable: my tears soaked the ink and welded the pages shut together.
Beyond her work and book, Brené gifted me full permission to accept that trauma is trauma. Trauma doesn't discriminate. It doesn't matter how you got it, trauma is trauma.
Passive trauma is very tricky to identify. It results from chronic "non-action," such as chronic neglect, chronic lack of support and/or never being seen, heard, validated, acknowledged, cherished, championed and/or loved.
Unlike active trauma, such as a bruised body, broken bones or divorce, how do you walk into the ER or court room and expect help for, "They never once said they were proud of me" or "My existence was never acknowledged"? (Thank all that is holy for therapists!)
Illumined Definition of Trauma
Now, 5 years plus 100k/10/98 later, I can define trauma as: the nervous system locked in a state of fight, flight, freeze or fawn, for a prolonged period after the original threat has passed. It could be caused by one blunt shock (eg. rape, car crash, death of loved one), cumulative incidents (eg. work harassment, decades of emotional and/or financial insecurity, daily chronic under-support) or a combo along that spectrum.
To compassionately normalize trauma even more, think of trauma as: too much overwhelm, too soon, for too long. The keywords are: for too long.
Imagine this: a lion is chasing a zebra. The zebra gets caught. In one final attempt to survive, the zebra plays dead. Meaning, its nervous system freezes, in order to rev up one last massive burst of energy for escape.
If successful, the zebra darts away to find safety. Then, it thrashes in the grasslands to discharge the freeze, the rev, the burst. It's shaking off the threat, the traumatic event, literally.
But humans don't instinctively know to do this. Those who are more in touch with their bodies may feel the urge to run / dance / hike / sweat it out. But most of us were far too young to know how to discharge trauma when it appeared in our childhood.
Trauma is Healable
Having one symptom of PTSD does not constitute PTSD. Even a cluster of symptoms after a stressful season of our lives may not constitute PTSD. But the chronic presence of such symptoms... and it's time to seek professional help.
Fortunately, trauma is healable (thank f*ck!).
From almost a year of therapy, beyond my supervision calls, I finally realized that my ego-mind had me believe that I wasn't worthy of the PTSD diagnosis, therefore of its healing, because PTSD was reserved for true victims and sufferers!
How f*cked up is that, the patriarchal and filial piety indoctrinated ego-mind?!?!? I didn't think all those decades of emotional neglect and car crash heartbreaks were worthy of PTSD naming and healing.
When I finally allowed myself to have PTSD (<-- what a strange phrase to say out loud), my senior supervisor connected me with a Somatic Experiencing Facilitator in my city. Her roster was full, but fortunately her husband was available. And his office was two streets and half a block from my home. I could see his building from my window! What were the chances?!?
I was raised, by a doormat mom, to be a doormat. So of course guys abused me, girls too! I was praised for being invisible. So of course my needs, as a highly sensitive gifted child were not met.
Yes, my dad had suddenly passed away six months prior, but that one shock can't give me PTSD, can it?
It turns out, trauma is cumulative. My PTSD came from decades and decades and decades of:
- Being born by C-section (<-- Had no clue this was even qualified as a trauma until a body worker healed it for me, who knew?!?)
- Losing childhood and all sense of safety at 3 years old
- Being left alone at a YWCA at 4 years old
- Being locked out of the house and completely forgotten at 5 years old
- Starting the first grade in a French school when I didn't understand a single word of French
- Watching dad came home drunk and punch holes in the wall with a giant metallic hammer (that mom covered up with a giant world map... maybe that's why I love world maps... they cover up broken holes... 😢)
- Being invisible, since children were meant to be not seen, not heard, the more non-existent you were the better
- Parents fighting and screaming at the top of their lungs on the big boulevard
- Being chronically shut down as a kid, for being too much
- Being chronically shut down as a teenager, for being not enough
- Unrelentingly bullying and smart shaming in school, having toilet water poured on me while I peed, because I was too smart, hiked up the class average too high, and made the gap between the average and the bullies' low grades too wide.
- Being forgotten to be picked up from school
- Having my camera stolen and losing all my precious Around-the-World photos
- Raising my parents and younger siblings since age of 14
- Losing all my "friends" because I won too many awards at graduation
- Chronic under-support from family, school, work, society because I was the skyholder
- Almost not graduating on time due to missing a critical exam because my granddad died that day
- Royally tanking a new business venture because my grandma died that morning
- Halting my 16-country-in-16 weeks Freedom Tour because dad suddenly died 3 countries in
- Paying exorbitant amounts of money on funeral, flights and bureaucracy to reclaim dad's estate back from the government
- Witnessing a dear friend die from breast cancer, leaving 2 very young kids behind
- Witnessing a friend’s son die after his still birth
- Buying my parents a catalogue worthy townhouse and single-handedly moving them across the country, with zero thanks
- Being handed back that same townhouse as a black-mold infested, pack rat shit hole, that I had to pay out of pocket to clean up for sale, with zero thanks
- Harassed, molested, gaslighted, betrayed and abused by entitled assholes, narcissists, sociopaths, and energy vampires (How can there possibly be this many male assholes on one planet?)
- Launching a new business venture / event and not a single soul attended (not a single one!)
- Being hired by my teacher to redesign her web presence and being ripped to shreds by her for a microscopic mistake
- Secondary PTSD (<-- dude, it's a real thing!) from years of working in humanitarian aid (oh, all the constant deaths, famine, deaths, starvation, and deaths, oh my!)
- Not knowing I am an empath who by default absorbs everyone else's emotions, energies and traumas, even from TV / movies
- Cumulative traumas from chronic loud noise, obnoxious perfumes, scratchy fabrics, strobe lights, and anger and grief on the planet
- And skipping nervous system developmental milestones when I went straight from sitting to walking, bypassing crawling (<-- seriously, who even know that was a thing?!?)
When I shared this list traumas from my Somatic Experiencing intake form, my inbox ballooned! You shared that:
"I realized from taking a trauma 101 course that I actually had PTSD. Like you I associated that with war veterans. It explains a lot why I can initiate things in my life yet have an almost impossible time finishing them. Due to any significant increase in stress and my body shuts down and I freeze."
"My parents sound like your parents. I appreciate them, but they didn't know how to support a gifted child who is also very sensitive."
"I struggle with that myself all the time and it's comforting to know there is someone who would understand. I often feel like I'm incapable of feeling love or be loved."
"I experienced a ton of trauma as a kid... I am amazingly/ against all odds successful... You really struck a cord."
The Great Big Thaw
I will share with you my private journal entires on Somatic Experiencing and PTSD healing next week.
You probably have Some PTSD
I don't know anyone who doesn't have some form of PTSD stored in the memory of their cells. The body keeps score.
The tricky thing with trauma is that the "biggest" trauma could befall a person and they're not traumatized by it on iota. And the "littlest" trauma could befall another and they are traumatized for decades. Trauma is trauma.
Who are we to define what is "big" or "small" trauma for another person or for ourselves?
Live fierce and free,
(First Published Nov 9, 2016)