Suffering and Trauma

A few days ago I picked up Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman a book that has been recommended by various people I’ve met in the field of trauma.  Herman uses a feminist narrative to understand the history of trauma, responses to trauma, and recovery.  Right now I’m entrenched into the gory details of human suffering.  As I read the descriptives of what people have suffered in concentration camps, through rape, kidnapping, and child abuse I begin to feel that I cannot bear taking in any more stories of such pain.  It is at these moments that I feel the weight of working in the profession that I do.

In reading this book and hearing the reams of horrible nightmare-like events that people survive I’m drawn back to Job.  How in the world did he manage to cling to his faith in God during that time?  Herman in her book claims that only the smallest minority can survive intense war/kidnapping/abuse without experiencing symptoms of trauma.  She develops a hypothesis that for all there is a breaking point although that is different for some than others.

I was speaking to a colleague today and I challenged her to find a client with a significant persistent mental health issue who has not suffered family neglect/abuse or some sort of trauma inflicted by others.

It is interesting that the line of treatment for mental health issues is cognitive behavioral therapy something which is aimed at understanding and restructuring thoughts and negative core beliefs, but does not centre on pain and suffering as a central part of its framework.  However, for the severely traumatized/mentally ill most clinicians likely agree that this is rarely adequate or enough.  Many cases we file away as hopeless, at least within the bounds of a brief therapy/managed care setting.

I tend to hope that even a short-term therapy interaction that can provide a person a sense of safety, a holding place to process their emotions and begin to understand their thoughts and feelings could be helpful.  I believe this because I have faith that most of the change in people’s life happens outside of the therapy session, through the community, extended family, and social engagement.  However this change may not be initiated or engaged when a person continues to be captive to the negative and false beliefs about themselves that were necessitated by an oppressor (especially one who they loved).  How can we give the fit of beginning on the path to change and healing without falling off that path all together?

For many we do not do enough and some will leave the opposite feeling disappointed and abandonned again, by us as mental health professionals.

Some, however, I hope (with God’s grace and care) are carried onward by a significant experience of care and understanding in therapy.  For this these individual are able to begin to acknowledge their pain, sit with it, process it, and then through re-imagine the world based on new experiences  and then regain a realistic trust in the world and see themselves as worthy and lovable human beings.

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2 thoughts on “Suffering and Trauma

  1. I read Trauma and Recovery a few years ago when the ‘ground zero’ of my one pain became apparent to me. I had always thought something was very wrong with me…but as I present as an intelligent, reasonably healthy and bright person, it was a invisible disability. Reading the book , it felt like a godsend and I realised that all my life unbeknownst to me, God had been leading me on a recovery journey from complex trauma. My main source of guidance was my longing to know Christ…in a real and personal way. The travail of forgiveness made a big difference too. And it is a travail as you have to wrestle with being able to forgive those who truly harmed you. But along the way were counselors and therapists that met me where I was at. Some for a few weeks, some for many weeks, some once or twice..and each made a difference. Recovery from trauma , especially complex trauma is a marathon. ( something I was so glad to read in in Herman’s book) and these people who met me when I was in pain (and who still meet me after I read the book I got myself a long term counselor, whom I still see ) each were a presence a mentor, a solace along the way…they were the ones who handed water and sustenance on the journey. No-one’s input was wasted, whether for a short time or long.
    One thing though.. I am forever grateful that I was never drawn to drugs…I am not sure I could have recovered or still recover if that had been the case. But I know the sort of pain that would cause one to want relief through that means..and if you are in that sort of pain and someone came along and offered you any way out…..
    my heart cries out for those who have to kick drugs and then, still face the pain…..it makes me wonder if it has to actually first be a little of facing pain a bit at a time in order to let go of drugs…but that is your department…

    • Thank you for this reflection and sharing you own journey. I am in awe of people who journey through complex trauma and persevere in healing, despite the difficulty of this. I am glad to hear that knowing Christ and forgiveness along with therapists along the way helped. Meeting a woman today with incredibly complex trauma I wonder what if any difference I’m making – such short-term responses such a deep and enduring thing trauma is that it hides within the self. Your words give some hope.

      Drugs, yes that is a hard department for me to understand at times as well- and within the drug cycle there is so much pain experienced tempered by relief that it can be hard to get out the cycle- and often what for? there has to be both pain and a glimpse of hope.

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