We have all suffered from trauma. And the turbulent times we are in now create the kinds of situations that push us into taking trauma and its effects seriously. Talk of trauma is not “snowflake” talk. Trauma is a little different than saying “Into each life, a little rain must fall” because we are talking about 50-year floods. Some people get buckets and buckets of rain all at the same time: losing family members, involvement in crime, succumbing to addiction or being affected by addiction in the family, discord and divorce, the loss of jobs, and terrible accidents from car crashes to natural disasters, fires, to medical diagnoses and disabilities. None of us is immune from “life happens” at every station of life and at every age, and sometimes life comes at us head-on.
This pandemic may help us understand trauma’s effects by the disruption of our daily routines, the alteration in our daily interactions, less able to travel or visit with friends or less to call upon or comfort our isolated elders, quarrels in close quarters, and for some, the loss of jobs, months with less money for food, rent, and bills that keep coming. Many of us have experienced the loss of day care for our children, feeling stuck, feeling the ruptures in our support system. Let us not forget veterans who served nobly in every national conflict; they understand the worst stress that follows them home in peacetime.
We are more aware than ever of the stresses that the pandemic’s disruption has revealed to us, the hidden fault lines that divide us as a people and nation in a chaotic and uncertain time. This is not the talk of snowflakes versus “get real” talk — it is what we are living now. As for the trauma young people face, writing in Educational Leadership last year, Jessica Minahan notes that: “Up to two-thirds of U.S. children have experienced at least one type of serious childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, natural disaster, or experiencing or witnessing violence.” In my years as a college instructor, I know of individuals just out of adolescence who came out of poor and chaotic schools and neighborhoods. It was an adjustment working to trust adults and institutions, expecting the worst. Lack of trust is the cost of trauma.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that trauma may be “the largest public health issue facing our children today” reports Minahan. And the effects of having been traumatized are being hyper-alert to potential threat as well as actual danger, mistrust, not feeling safe, and being aggressive or being avoidant of others regarded as outsiders, all of them as potential threats. When we are faced with potential threats, we blame outsiders; we may also heap further judgment on ourselves as well as blaming others, thinking that there is something deficient in us, something “wrong,” not good enough, not strong enough, never enough. Shame can create bullies, sometimes gangs of bullies to pump each other up, find targets to blame, turn the trauma and shame outward. But instead of thinking others are wrong, we may be dealing with misunderstanding the effects of loss and disruption of genuinely traumatic events: home and community violence, sickness and addiction, abuse and chaos.
One of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve heard lately is “Don’t ask ‘what’s wrong’ with you? Ask what happened to you?” This reframing may be another way of saying of walking a mile in another’s moccasins, taking time to slow down and think about what we are all going through right now in our personal lives and in our nation. When we think of our communities breaking into warring tribes, let’s not forget that often every life brought with it losses, stresses, and the trauma of being unfairly prejudged by others, with a shame that is negatively amplified by being reactive, hyper-alert to attack. No one “deserves” ill fortune, abuse, business failures, a pandemic or drug addiction. Pre-judgment aside, these events have devastating consequences for young and old, better-off and poor, the educated and the street-smart. And sooner or later we have all walked some distance of the same mile.
S.E. Gilman, who lives in Monroe Township, has worked in social services, publishing, at booksellers, in kitchens, and academia. She has taught writing and literacy education and tutoring in universities, community settings, at a correctional institution, and on Native reservations.