Trauma Does Not Define You

In Greek, trauma means “wound”. Originally trauma referred to physical wounds, but nowadays trauma also refers to emotional wounds. The psychological reaction to emotional trauma also has a name.  It is more often referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  I am very familiar with PTSD.  I was diagnosed with it about 14 years ago. This original diagnosis arose from a horrible medical trauma that I endured and also from the behavior of those closest to me at the time.  Since then, my diagnosis has changed to Complex-PTSD due to what I have come to realize were years of emotional and mental abuse at the hands of my ex-husband and what I endured as a child growing up.  I married what I knew. 

Growing up in a household where verbal and emotional abuses were tolerated really confused my autistic brain. I was told I was loved, and I believed it, but the behavior was not what you do to people you love. As a teacher, I learned the phrase, “at least he is not hitting me”, is a red flag that something is very wrong.  I heard that phrase over and over again growing up.  I was taught to comply, to make excuses.  I was conditioned to be a codependent.  Talking about any of this outside and inside the family was and still is discouraged.  I knew something was off with my family, but I didn’t know what it was.  It just felt uncomfortable.  Yet, I still married what I knew.   

Emotional abuse is insidious. It starts slow and under the radar.  You have no idea what is really happening, only that something doesn’t feel quite right.  The perpetrator may even pull back and be charming again when you call them out on something.  Everything might seem perfectly fine again, but over time that uncomfortable feeling starts up again and it gets worse and worse each time.  It is incredibly confusing.  Before you know it, you find yourself trapped telling yourself that you just have to wait for him to cycle back to being the man you married.  This is what is called the cycle of abuse.  You find yourself holding out for the good times to come back, and that is the perpetrator’s biggest weapon, playing on your hope. You find yourself holding on for something that will never come, real peace and real love.   

As a child, I would wait out the aggressive verbal outbursts and the passive aggressive manipulation until we could feel like a family again.  While growing up, I had no idea I was in this perpetual state of fight or flight. I was always on edge and preferred to be in my bedroom.  Now I understand why I did isolated myself, but back then, that was my “normal” and it was exhausting and frightening.  As a spouse, I did the same thing. I waited out the passive aggressive emotional abuse until the good times returned.  I married what I knew.

According to SAMHSA, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. These experiences may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders. Having your ACEs score is like having your cholesterol score.  The score is a guideline to help you learn your risk factors for particular things. 

How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris (TEDtalk – video)

Childhood trauma isn’t something you just get over as you grow up. Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain. This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who’ve experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer. An impassioned plea for pediatric medicine to confront the prevention and treatment of trauma, head-on.ACEs Impact

The Impact

ACEs scores are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person’s lifespan, including those associated with substance abuse.

ACEs include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance misuse within household
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

The ACEs study used the top ten reported adverse childhood experiences when designing the questionnaire, which consists of ten questions and involves your life prior to 18 years old.  Five questions are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five questions are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as one.

I went through the questionnaire  and had a score of 3/10. I had both my children take the questionnaire as well.  Their scores varied.  My daughter had a score of 8/10.  My son first had a score of 4/10, but then he adjusted some of the questions to reflect one parent, his father, and he ended up with a score of 6/10.  I knew their scored would be higher than mine.  They have dealt with a divorce and a father who emotionally neglected them and emotionally abused their mother.  Even with that, learning their scores punched me in the gut. 

I reminded them that their trauma does not define them. Trauma can affect yourself-definition either consciously or unconsciously. Trauma hurts, and as hard as it is to grieve, trauma is not who you are. Your ACEs score is not what is wrong with you; rather it reflects what has happened to you. Just as trauma does not define you, your ACEs score does not define you.  What makes the difference is getting help and developing resilience. 

Prevent ACEs

We Can Prevent ACEs – Video by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are an important public health issue. Learn how everyone can help prevent ACEs by using strategies to create safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children.

Part of healing from trauma is stating what happened. It is important to share your story in whatever way you are able to, but being able to takes time.

A few days ago in the car, one of my children stated, “Dad committed acts of domestic violence.”

This was the first time either one of them has used the term “domestic violence” in connection with their father. My marriage ended six years ago.

Finally being able to share this information out loud with me meant one step farther away from the trauma and one step closer to healing.

Where do we go from here?

  • There is no time limit on grief.
  • Everyone grieves differently.
  • Don’t let trauma consume you. Don’t live there.
  • No wallowing!
  • Get help!
  • Strive to heal.
  • Obtain and utilize healthy coping skills.
  • Do what makes you feel good in a healthy way.
  • Reduce risk factors.
  • Increase protective factors
  • Get involved in community.
  • Talk to someone.
  • Educate yourself.
  • Find what makes you feel your true self.
  • Most of all – Be gentle to yourself!!!

 

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