How do we begin to make sense of our trauma?

Welcome back! This blog is a continuation of what i wrote on Monday. Feel free to read that one first if you have not already done so. 🙂

One issue that pops up time after time when I speak to people who have been traumatized , is often the feeling of not being believed or really heard. Much of this issue is created due to the way a trauma survivor recalls the event(s) that traumatized them. Many people assume that if something really huge happens to you, that you will recall it with almost perfect detail because it will “stand out” in your memory. This belief is almost completely untrue. A trauma victim has memories that do not seem to make sense to the person whom is listening or to the survivor themselves. There seems to be no order. No comprehensible time-line.  Just these fragments.
Not remembering details or the order to which the events happened is often used as a gauge to tell if a person is lying or not. This cross-checking a person who has not been traumatized works very well unless they have perfected their story. The same tools used to cross-check a trauma survivors story is almost completely guaranteed to fail. The victim will look like a liar and another layer of trauma will be added to their situation. This causes a great deal of pain and it is something I have dealt with personally many times in the past and this made me pull in to myself and shut myself off even more than I already was.

As I mentioned in Mondays blog, a trauma survivor tends to recall the event or events in a fragmented yet intense way. These memories do not follow any pattern and the story may start at the end, jump to the beginning and end in the middle. The memories will also tend to be very sensory in fashion. A certain smell can be recalled with stunning precision, a sound can still be heard and recalled in an exceptionally detailed way. The same is true for certain sights, the touch or feel or a certain item, or a taste. These memories might make no sense at all to you or the survivor but they can offer very valuable clues to any puzzle.

Due to this stark contrast in the way memories get stored during a trauma, it is VERY important for therapists, law enforcement, and advocates to treat questioning a trauma survivor very differently. If questions such as “What happened first?” “What happened next?” What happened in the 10 minutes before the end of the experience?”, the trauma survivor will try to answer and will try to force themselves to make sense of these fragmented memories that they have. They are not trying to lie, they are trying to make it understandable to themselves and the person asking the questions. Sadly, if asked the same questions a few days later, the story will not be exactly the same because these are not real memories. They are a scattered attempt to put all the pieces together in a neat little box and it just does not work that way. This can make some people assume it is all lies.

Speaking of lies… before I go on, I’ve done a lot of research in to trauma survivors and the rate to which false allegations are made. The consensus between almost every study is that 2-3% of allegations are false but that means 97-98% are true. I think that is very important to keep in perspective when you are privileged enough for someone to share their story with you.
It also seems to be very common for false allegations to fall apart very quickly. The reasons behind it are usually fairly clear and obvious to a trained observer.

If you really want to help a trauma survivor whether it be a friend or as a professional, if you can keep the questions sensory based. You will get far more detailed and accurate information by asking questions such as “What did you smell?”, “Did you smell anything else?”, “Do you recall seeing anything?”, “Do you recall any particular items you may have touched or touched you?”. These memories will be fragmented and in no particular order but they tend to be very intense, very clear, and very correctly recalled.

The way in which you approach the survivor will also have a huge effect. It is exceptionally important to build a good rapport with the survivor. If you offer compassion and empathy, you will help the survivor relax and they will share more with you. Their details will also be clearer and they will expand on  anything they can. All of this requires trust.
If the survivor feels hostility, skepticism or disbelief? You will not be given good access to these memories or fragments.

If you are the survivor and you are reading this? Perhaps today’s blog can help you judge yourself somewhat less harshly for not being able to recall things in order or in detail. Allow yourself to understand and believe that your memories are not at all false just because you can’t make sense of them. If the only thing you recall is the smell of a fragrance or the neon sign down the road? It is okay. Your brain has effectively put walls up to help protect you. That does NOT mean you are lying.

If you are a professional? A therapist, a police officer, a nurse, doctor, advocate, or anyone else who deals with trauma victims? Try to employ this different line of questioning and allow the trauma survivor to share as much as they can in the way that trauma survivors do. Trauma is not a game of connect the dots for us. It’s more of a puzzle. Each piece is incredibly important to completing the puzzle but they don’t often get put together in order.

Fragments

15 responses to “How do we begin to make sense of our trauma?

  1. I keep a personal, daily journal of the healing journey my girls and I are on. And I’ve noticed that on the days that are particularly stressful to me, I have a harder time writing a chronological account of the events. So I will often just make some bullet points of what happened in general. So if a stressful day will do that to me, I can’t imagine what real trauma would do to someone’s ability to recount an event.

    Only one girl in my wife’s group shared many memories from the past with me. She always wanted to wrap herself completely around my body while I was walking as if she was still a 3 year old and bury her head into my shoulder while she shared what she could remember. It was never very specific; she could share a basic description of the cat her abuser killed to threaten her with, a very basic description of her abuser (in the eyes of a 2 year old) and then various lies and threats he had told her. The words seemed to be the things she remembered the most: the lies that shaped her self perception and fueled her fears of retribution if she told anyone. Maybe that’s because the abuse happened nearly 45 years ago at this point. I’ve spent the last 3 years since she joined my life, sitting on the couch for hours each day with BOTH my arms around her to make her feel safe and loved and telling her things to undo the lies her abuser told her.

    Thanks for the good post, Heather,

    Sam

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  2. It took me so many years to even believe myself because i only had shredded up, foggy, incoherent fragments of memories. And my stories never “added up” to doctors, therapists, or the police. This is probably why. Great post.

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  3. Thank you for this post. It explains a lot about how my own memories have surfaced.

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  4. Great post, Heather. I wasn’t quite sure what you meant about remembering detail and using it as a gauge to a person’s honesty. I have experienced two kinds of trauma, first as a child and then in my late 20’s. The childhood stuff is fragmented and some of it doesn’t even make sense. There are one or two flashbacks that don’t seem to have trauma based in them at all, but by the flashback nature, I can only assume there is something being stirred in psychotherapy. The adult trauma is entirely different and from the point of attack to escape, I remember it in vivid detail. Of course, there are things in there that I will never remember, but the important parts are clear.

    My dealings with police in the second trauma were excellent. We met twice within a week or two and then again many years later and the only questions they ever put to me were, “Tell us what you remember” and, if I was floundering, “And what do you remember happened next.” They gave me so much space, time and empathy, the process felt almost cathartic.

    These posts were very helpful

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    • Many (but not all I am sure) trauma survivors that I speak to have had many people not believe them. myself included. The lack of detail that we provide and the mixing up of things makes it easy to assume our story isn’t true. That’s what I meant. 🙂 I had this happen to me my whole life. It still happens.
      I am happy to hear that your experience with the police was so positive. Mine was not positive at all and ended very badly. Not really their faults. Just the system. It’s nice to hear good stories!
      As for your memories. It is great you can remember things “properly”. Every trauma is different and we all remember things differently right?
      Take care and enjoy the rest of your week.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It has never crossed my mind that maybe a professional might not believe me or that they look for signs it might not be true. I must be naïve, of course, police would need to assess a person’s story and even question the truth, but I can’t imagine why someone might want to lie about this sort of thing to a therapist type person.
        I hope you don’t mind, but I did include a link to this post on my blog post yesterday 😉

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      • Sadly Cat I had YEARS of not being believed because my stories didn’t “add up”. My parents fooled doctors, hospital workers, therapists, social services, teachers, friends… They were able to take my words and my siblings words and somehow make us look like we were lying to get them in to trouble. MUCH of my anger for my past is due to this. When a kid needs 14 surgeries to put the pieces back together, how do you even think for one second nothing happened to her??? Even as recent as 2 years ago I had a therapist that did not believe me. In her words? “Those things don’t happen like that.”
        I am super grateful to say that the people in my life now… my friends, my husband, my therapist, my psychiatrist, police officers, nurses and doctor all believe me fully and say that everything adds up. They say I have never given them a reason to think I was lying. My mixed up memories are that way because of trauma. not because of lies. The last 2 years of my life and the people in it (including my new blog “buddies”) saved my life.
        Thank you for the reblog. I really appreciate it and I am REALLY glad that you were naive about this which means it did not happen with you and for that I am so grateful.

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  5. Sorry, I just noticed this last comment. I’m not so sure people didn’t believe me, but it’s more about never giving it a thought. I understand that anger for parents covering up etc. It’s great you are now surrounded by people who are supportive and believing

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  6. Reading this left me relieved, angry, frustrated and validated all at once. I somehow feel weak physically, emotionally, and mentally. I fell asleep four times while reading this despite my best efforts, not because it bored me, but because of the emotional energy needed to grasp it.
    I remember, and I don’t remember. I remember why I don’t remember, most of all, being told it was not possibly true; young kids do not feel depressed or anxious, and their skin does not crawl and their stomachs don’t turn over and cramp up. The flashes are indeed intense, but tiny. I thought I was alone, maybe even crazy, I am just on the beginning of my journey towards healing from much trauma, at 26…. there is a lot of work to do, but also a lot of self-forgiveness to be found.
    There is also gratitude to not be alone, but I also wish for others’ sake that I was the only one. A year ago I fought the diagnosis of PTSD to the point of arguing with doctors and mental health care professionals, but am now proud of myself despite the diagnosis; that I did thrive and do well for most of my life and that my brain protected me from things I couldn’t face at the time.
    Thank you so much for writing this. I honestly did not know most of this info at all, and I am sure that letting this knowledge seep into my consciousness over time will have far-reaching positive implications.

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    • You are absolutely NOT alone. You have many others that feel and struggle exactly as you do. Myself included.
      Thank you for your incredible comments and I am so happy to know that my “learned the hard way” knowledge has helped you in any way at all.
      Your brain is an amazing thing and even though you probably can not see that right now, as you learn to accept yourself, and forgive your struggles, you will begin to really heal.
      Please do continue to read and comment. I would love to know if there is any way I can help you.

      Liked by 1 person

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