Two kinds of trauma: trauma therapy and the problem of denial
We might say there are two sorts of trauma that present themselves in trauma therapy: trauma that is acknowledged, overtly expressed, laid bare; and trauma that is unacknowledged or ignored. In either instance, the pain of the trauma–the traumatic effect–is damaging. It leaves a sort of scar on the nervous system of the person experiencing it. In the first instance, where the trauma is acknowledged, there is a visible path forward. Even if trauma therapy is needed, the fact of the trauma being known, named and accounted for functions as a sort of road map, as kind of tag attached to the scar left from the trauma indicating to the future trauma therapist and patient how the scarring came to be.
“The first rule of fight club…”
You know the rest of that sentence, of course. “The first rule of Fight Club you do not talk about Fight Club.” It’s funny because it’s a contradiction expressed within a sentence, and yet that very contradiction is what demonstrates the point the Brad Pitt’s character is intending to make: Keep it quiet.
So, all too often, is the case with abuse. In a sense, in many instances, the first rule of abuse is there is no abuse.
What makes abuse, abuse? Is all abuse trauma?
Several months ago I was at a dinner party where each of the guests was asked to answer this question. (Odd as that may seem–there were more than a few trauma therapists in the group.) My answer (and, mind you, I had the benefit of hearing some of the other trauma therapists’ answers first) is one I wouldn’t change much upon reflection:
Abuse is trauma caused with the intention of causing trauma. All abuse is traumatic, though not all trauma is abuse.
The abuse that children and vulnerable adults experience isn’t the only sort of trauma or even physical or emotional violence we experience. What makes abuse stand out is that the harm it causes–the trauma–is directly intended to cause harm. Someone in power is aware, at least to some degree, that he or she is causing hurt, and does it anyway. That’s its intent.
It’s hard to wrap one’s head around, how anyone could intend to cause harm, especially to children, who are so vulnerable to abuse.
Abuse is more common than most of us care to realize. As a therapist who deals with trauma I am reminded of its prevalence almost daily. What strikes me nearly as often is the great volume of denial we can have about that abuse. Here there is a grave risk of victim-blaming and we must be careful in how we speak of this denial. (Isn’t “It was really my fault, though” the most caustic form of denial?) Abuse, like Fight Club, nearly always comes packaged with its own denial.
The first rule of abuse is you do not talk about abuse.
This is sadly all too common. Those who abuse rarely take responsibility for that abuse. It’s a scary thing to own, that one is capable of intending to hard another. It’s also difficult to own that someone would do such a thing to us–that we were vulnerable in the ways that produced this result, that someone we perhaps loved or admired, or who was in a position to take care of us, chose to hurt us.
Too often victim and abuser become co-conspirators. But that doesn’t mean it is a conspiracy of equal fault. The very power imbalance (strength, authority, age, status) that allows abuse to take place is nearly always available to be put to use to deny that abuse. An abuser may suggest something wasn’t really so bad, that it was the victims fault, that it was accidental or even that it just simply didn’t happen.
Which leaves us with an extra challenge in trauma therapy
Often we begin trauma therapy with a set of symptoms, though we don’t necessarily understand them right away as symptoms at all, much less symptoms of trauma. In this sense, as I’ve said before, all therapists are trauma therapists (unfortunately some just don’t realize it). We’re left with a peculiar sort of scavenger hunt–one where we are perhaps not even at first aware that we’re looking for something. We have the scar but no sense of how it got there–a limited sense of history to help guide us in our project of healing.
If not abuse, then what?
I spend no small amount of time pondering this question: If one carries scars from abuse, but is not aware that they are caused by abuse, what stories must one be telling to explain where they do come from?
Likely stories of blame and shame.
There is, in a sense, the trauma of the abuse, but also the compounding of that trauma that comes from the cover-up so often associated with it.
We need to talk about abuse.