About Trauma

The topic is Trauma. To define it, we have to ask an essential question: Why do some people develop PTSD or symptoms after a traumatic event and others do not? While there is no complete explanation for this, psychologists and therapists since Freud began writing on the subject, suggest that everyone's psyche is made up a little differently by some combination of nature and nurture. The psyche develops over time, like the craft of weaving together a piece of fabric. Perhaps the warp or substructure of the fabric is the “nature” and the weft, overlaying and interacting with the substructure, is the “nurture.” The intersections between biology and life events constitute the integrity of the fabric, it's strengths and weaknesses. If an event causes a breach or tear in the psychic fabric, the event is experienced as trauma. Everyone's fabric is different in what it can and cannot contain. While many therapists may corroborate this hypothesis, it is at best an incomplete explanation for why one person's fender bender is another person's catastrophe and why some veterans develop PTSD and others don't. I can only hope that biology and psychology will in time, provide a more complete answer to this question.

Trauma is more prevalent than one might think. We tend to think of trauma in extremes such as war, abuse, disasters, major accidents etc. These are often talked about as “big T traumas.” Lower case “t” trauma is often harder to identify and isn't often validated or even acknowledged as trauma by the person who experienced it, yet ultimately it has defining influence over personality, relationships, and everyday choices.

So what is “little t trauma” and why is it so impactful? To answer this question we need to start at the beginning. Perhaps the most difficult moment of life is birth itself (there's a reason no one remembers it). From that point onward, everything in theory becomes easier to deal with as we become less helpless by accruing resources from our environment to help us cope with the harsh realities of the world. A mother coddles her baby, speaks softly to it, gives it milk, warmth, nurturance. Eventually language is learned, equipping the toddler to request more specifically, with words, what it needs. Dolls, stuffed animals, toys are imbued with meaning and coveted as belonging to the individual and are felt as part of the individual, enabling them to play in a world which they create and simultaneously inhabit. This is both a real and imaginary world that can be returned to and played in after a day at school. These real and imaginary objects are the threads that comprise the fabric of the psyche, giving it integrity to support experiences.

In time, the child matures into an adult, toys of childhood become hobbies and hopefully, if all goes well, they make appropriate use of relationships and “play” in conversation to make sense of the dealings of daily life. Events are incorporated as experiences to be logged as memories, conscious and unconscious. This is the work of dreaming while awake and asleep. It allows us enough safety to fall asleep each night, dream, return to work and return home the next day and every day after. But what if an event happens that interrupts this process? The person who lived the event cannot comprehend the event by giving it a role in the narrative of the play of their life. If it cannot be discussed in conversation, with another person or dreamed on one's own, it cannot become a character. It remains in the realm of the unthinkable for which there is no language. The event remains an obtuse object, lodged in the fabric of the psyche. It's an intrusion that blocks the ongoingness of daily life and the ability to process stimuli, dream while awake or asleep. This is a definition of trauma. A traumatic event remains an event until it can be experienced and incorporated as a thread into the fabric of the self. If it can't be felt, the event isn't transformed into an experience. It remains "unfelt," as trauma.

We cannot control what is encountered in our lives. Experiences of terror, the unexpected, the unfortunate and the unthinkable are ineluctable aspects of reality. When traumatic events take place however, the moment itself seems to stand apart from the ongoingness of daily life. Some say that time “stands still.” These moments are beyond comprehension. Emotions and the words that represent them such as terror, anger, and fear may be present in these moments but are not consciously felt or experienced. While the experience itself cannot be symbolized, that is nature of trauma, to illustrate the point I'd like to attempt naming the feeling when the trauma is happening. One of the most influential psychoanalysts of the century, also a World War One veteran, Wilfred Bion, called it “nameless dread.”

Nameless dread is simply a placeholder for an indescribable feeling that takes place during a traumatic event and plays a critical role in the development of a person. If an event cannot be woven into the fabric of the psyche, something harmful happens. Unconsciously, a promise is made with the self. You will never have to feel nameless dread ever again but in return you will give up part of yourself. This promise however, comes at a great cost. The edges of spontaneity, vulnerability, creativity, openness to explore, learn, and take in what is new will be compromised. With clipped wings, he who cannot fly, cannot fall. It's as if the unconscious says to the self, clip my wings, I never want to fall again. For some, life on the ground is worth the safety it provides although it has it's limits. Often a person might not be aware they are living a confined life, they just know the current situation is displeasing to them. One could suspect that something is missing in themselves. A nearby world that others seem to seamlessly navigate is sensed but cannot be accessed. To regain access to this world would risk going back on the deal and possibly encountering nameless dread. Even taking a glimpse into that world strikes terror in the core of one's being, as if reliving the trauma all over again. It is felt to be off limits which presents a conflict. The person cannot go back on the promise but cannot continue living under restriction.

Psychodynamic therapy has something to offer a person in this position. A consistent time, place, and relationship presents the possibility of touching into the nameless dread that could not otherwise be felt. Yet it would be completely understandable and common to reject therapy and this process. Why would any sane person willingly enter into a psychic space that has been forbidden? With great sensitivity, parts of the self that were lost in the deal are recovered when trauma is given back in bite sized portions so that the person can experience what could not previously be felt. A precocious therapy patient may consciously and willingly want to enter these waters but this is not the only way. Slowly over time, the well trained psychotherapist can help the individual restore their own ability to process or dream their lived experience both consciously and unconsciously so that past, present, and future events can more easily be integrated into the fabric of one's psyche. With the capacity to transform events into experiences, traumatic events take a form that can be related to by the individual instead of intrusively lodged within the individual. They can be survived and allowed to constitute the character of a self that has lived, contacted, and felt the tragedies, horrors, misfortunes and disappointments encountered within a lifetime.