Why Coping With Trauma Is Different Than Dwelling On The Past
By Inés (Paris and Canada), Interviewed by Shazeen (UK)
What makes Inés who she is? Tell me a bit about yourself.
I am me, foremost. Oh, don’t think it’s just a tongue-in-cheek answer. So many, too many people are someone other than themselves, at least partially. A person will always embody aspects of others – but when those aspects turn out to be limiting, that’s a threat to growth. And growing is what I’m interested in. That says little about who am I though, doesn’t it? For now, I’m a French 18-year old studying politics in a small town in Canada. That’s quite far from where I’ve lived my life. Maybe I’m bold. I try to practice self care and gratefulness. I paint emotions with words. I have this silly dream of wanting to save the world to save my friend. I tend to either overthink or think deeply. I can be quite serious but also quite child-like.
What motivated you to move countries, and what do you hope to achieve?
Right now I’m living in Sherbrooke and going back and forth between Canada and my dear Paris. I was ready to leave my parents at 16. I was patient and quietly waited two years. I wanted to get away from my life which was looking too comforting to be healthy.
What is your long term vision and what do you hope to achieve in 5 years’ time?
Okay, I don’t have a long term vision. In 4 years, hopefully, I’ll be graduating. That’s all I know and for me it’s enough.
Why is the topic of the poor comparison between trauma and dwelling in the past important for you to talk about?
It’s important because any issue that hinders communication with others due to trauma is important. Trauma is not just a bad or sad or even overwhelming event. Trauma changes you deeply and you will never recover the person you were. Trauma is like a blot of ink in the diary of your life that messes up the next chapter. You can’t comprehend what happened and so you can’t move on. Everything you thought made sense suddenly doesn’t. What tells you that the world is not going to end, that the ground will not collapse, that your hand will obey you? Nothing, because what we take for granted is just that- taken for granted. In a sense, trauma requires dwelling because you’re trying to understand. That’s also a symptom of PTSD. It becomes wired in you, much like many depressed people cannot help being depressed. You don’t really have a choice; that’s why I don’t particularly like being told to “stop dwelling”. How can I ever heal if I don’t reframe my experiences in a way that makes sense to me? So the message I want to give is: Don’t assume and don’t think you understand. You can certainly understand the pain and the suffering that a traumatized person goes through. But you need to accept that there are some things you can empathize with but will never know. This is why listening is the best gift you can give to a survivor of any trauma.
What triggers your traumatic episodes?
My triggers change often. Recurrent ones are being touched by strangers, feeling helpless, hurting people, blood.
How have you coped?
I have my emotional toolbox. I have a safe where I lock up the disturbing until I can come back to it. I have my happy memories, my poetry and my music. I have trustworthy friends. But I’ve been relying more and more on thankfulness.
More specifically, I like to make myself a cup of tea when I’m in a flashback because it wakes all my senses to the present moment.
Did you get a diagnosis for your condition?
Yes. Depression, C-PTSD and severe dissociation.
What keeps you going?
My will keeps me going. I firmly believe that I need to be my greatest friend because I’m the only person I’ll stick around with all my life. So I try to work out compromises instead of feeding intolerance towards myself.
The past is always linked to the future, we are our past, so how is trauma not having problems with “dwelling” in the past? Maybe your not really “dwelling” but you’re having problems with your past?
Here’s the thing. I have a difficult relationship with time. I am cut off from my past. I do not perceive time in a linear fashion but in bits and pieces. I am not my past, I am my present because it’s hard to remember. So my emotional states often feel like they’re coming out of nowhere, like they’re assaulting me and I cannot be on top of them. I do not have problems with the word “dwelling” but with what people imply when they use it. If you think a traumatized person is dwelling on their past, you’re mistaking a traumatic event for a normal one. Trauma makes “dwelling on the past” invaluable because it’s the only way out of it. You need to think it, face it, reframe the trauma until it’s integrated into the story of yourself, back into its linear path. Like a jigsaw puzzle.
Could you exactly describe what happens in your head, when every thing is going okay, and then it starts to fall apart and uncomfortable feelings set in?
When I feel okay, I feel calm and thankful for my life. I have the ability to cope with silence. When I’m not okay, it’s impossible to stand the silence of my mind. I need white noise constantly – TV or music- even if I’m not really watching or listening. Silence can be pretty chaotic for me. I feel like I’m caught in a tornado of overwhelming emotions of helplessness and despair. My chest starts to burn and hurt as though I’m being stabbed over and over, my head becomes dizzy and I start to sleep a lot. What happens in between? I actually don’t remember.
Do you have the feeling that it will go away one day, and has this influenced the process of overcoming it?
To be honest, no. I don’t feel like I’ll ever get better. I move forward thanks to my will. And for me, will is the determination to go on even when I don’t believe in the outcome.
What’s the thing you’d need most to help yourself?
Time. Or rather, the feeling of time. The ability to stop once in a while, freeze and say: hey, what the hell am I doing?
What would you advise others for helping you?
Be patient. Don’t hesitate to distance yourself. Be honest but not brutally honest. Reassure me that it’ll be okay and I’ll be okay. And if I know you, hugs are wonderful.
Which one allows for more growth, coping with trauma or overcoming the past?
Coping is not a goal, it’s a bandaid to shelter the process of therapy. Coping is an expectation and I allocate time to building more resources. But it’s not something that’s sustainable in itself. You need to work through the mud. That’s where much needed growth happens.
Trauma is often spoken of as if it’s something you should deal with. Do you think this is a good way of approaching it?
You always “deal” with trauma. Dissociating is dealing. Amnesia is dealing. Denying is dealing. Is it healthy? No-ope. Any way that helps you get on with your life is the “good” way. I’d lie if I say you have to be in therapy and face your trauma. I don’t know. All I know is what I chose and that it helps me.
Has acceptance of trauma been difficult to reach and if you reached it did it help?
Acceptance is, again, not linear. At times I’ll be in denial and at others I’ll be accepting. The knowledge fluctuates. It is difficult. You have to build your life around and in spite of it.
Did other symptoms happen because of long term trauma? Such as physical symptoms and relationship problems? Can you describe this?
Yes. Well for one, I can be terribly insecure. That has hurt relationships in the past. I suspect I’ve been suffering from depression since I was 8-10 years old and, from what I read on the subject, I probably displayed symptoms of PTSD as a young child. Since I was 14, I also had panic attacks and some kinds of fainting spells that left me unable to walk.
How has social media helped your journey to face and overcome trauma? What are the limits of social media in this regard?
I only use Facebook. I know that walls can be showcases of perfect so I try to be truthful. I’ve been told that I was inspiring, which is balm to my heart. If my pain can help one person, then I am not in pain… in vain.
Do you think something holds you back from expression? Have you had any negative experiences and encounters on social media that prevented expression? How can it be changed?
I’ve been very lucky. The one thing you can’t change are people, especially on social media. I’ve had negative experiences like anyone, but that doesn’t take away the beautiful encounters I’ve made.
What’s something about trauma that you feel society doesn’t understand and what can be done to understand it better?
That if you haven’t been through it, there is no way you can understand. Even among survivors circles, I don’t pretend I understand everyone’s experiences, because I don’t.
Have you read stories of people suffering PTSD and was there any story that caught your attention the most?
Yes. In November, a journalist named Amanda Lindhout gave a conference at my uni. She had been kidnapped in Somalia. Believe it or not, I could relate to some aspects of her trauma. She gave me the proof that my path could lead me to a place of peace. We both believe in empathy and gratefulness, even towards our own perpetrators.
What advice and approach from people haven’t worked to help you?
“Stop thinking about it.”
“Stop letting it affect your life.”
“Get over it.”
Oh. Okay. And how exactly am I supposed to this?
“You want to be a victim.”
“You are weak-willed.”
“You like being in pain.”
If this is what you believe about me, I’ve got nothing to say to you.
Do you feel stigmatized for your past trauma?
I am ashamed about this answer, but yes. I’m lucky because I’ve been surrounded by supportive and loving friends. This is a chance many don’t have. It’s rare and precious. (Thank you!) But I feel stigmatized because without giving details, people cannot imagine the degree of horror a person “like them” can go through. It’s impossible. It makes me feel invisible.
Do people just tell you to let it go and move on?
It has happened.
Do you find yourself dwelling on the events with no direction to move forward?
Not really. I think therapy is a big help for that. I either come to some conclusion or write about it and then put the event aside.
Do you feel more empathetic towards others who suffer trauma?
Actually, no. I tend to feel empathetic towards everyone. I feel both empathy and pity towards people with a traumatic past. The pity is for myself; I see myself reflected in them. It’s one of the only circumstance where that emotion comes up.
Do you feel weak or defective because this trauma happened to you?
Have you felt betrayed by people who have limited understanding and think that traumatic people should just move on?
I only feel betrayed by people that I love. Sometimes it’s quite difficult. But to answer the question, yes, in the sense that my friends won’t always understand of course and will respond to me with their own wounds and histories. It’s actually a hallmark of connection – when wounds meet.