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.