Sunday, June 2, 2013

Trauma: Big "T's" and Little "T's"

In my professional life I deal with victims of trauma so understand a bit about the lasting impact a traumatic event has on an individual.  In a nutshell, a traumatic experience occurs when something/someone threatens your sense of safety and well-being.  As such, it is a very subjective experience; that is what is felt as trauma by one individual may not be so for another.  Big "T" traumas are easily recognizable:  childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, acts of violence, natural disasters, rape, profound betrayal by a loved one, etc.  Little "t" traumas are not any less significant but generally occur repeatedly over time and build on each other.  Examples would be name-calling on the playground, ongoing emotional abuse, shaming, deception, etc.

Dr. Judith Hermann authored what many consider the bible of trauma and asserts that "Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless" (Hermann, 1997, p 33).  Healing from trauma, according to Hermann, involves three important steps:
  1. Establishing safety
  2. Remembering and mourning
  3. Reconnection
Healing from traumatic experiences takes time, often a lifetime.  It is possible for the intensity of the experience to diminish but some research suggests that trauma makes permanent changes in the brain. For the fortunate, big "T" traumas are rare but little "t" traumas are more widespread for a greater percentage of people.  However, past traumas are hooked by new traumatic experiences so the cumulative effect can be overwhelming.

Fifteen months ago, I experienced a big "T" trauma when my front door was broken down by the police and I awakened to officers with drawn guns ordering me to "Come out with my hands up!"  My sense of powerlessness was profound and quite accurate.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent the devastating events that were unfolding around me.  It has only been in recent months that I have felt myself relaxing into safety once more.  Until three weeks ago when my bank account was drained by criminals who counterfeited my personal checks, forged my signature and got away with it.

Initially, I was more irritated and frustrated by the experience than traumatized, although I felt incredibly violated.  I worked with the bank to close the impacted account, order new checks, process the fraud claims and wait for justice.  The bank opted to not file criminal charges even though they had surveillance video, thumb prints and identification from the thieves.  But they returned the stolen money and while I was cautious, felt that the danger had passed.  Until I woke up to an email from my bank yesterday, informing me that my account had gone into overdraft protection.

Someone walked into one of my bank's branches and presented a check for several thousand dollars.  It was the same counterfeited check drawn on my closed account and the bank honored it!  They then went into my savings account to cover what was not in my checking account.  I spent the day at the police station filing a report and at the bank, closing my account.  Basically, in my state, this is a crime that is not prosecuted, which is incredible to me.  The officer who took my police report was very empathetic but also very realistic in what would happen with the report--it would be buried somewhere with the many thousands of others.

After doing all I could to protect my money, I came home and crashed in a very big way.  Emotionally, I went back in time to the instant my door came crashing down.  I knew that I was safe in my new home but I didn't feel safe.  Someone had crashed down the door to my bank account and robbed me and my sense of personal safety vanished.  I felt violated and powerless to prevent further violation and I thrashed around emotionally trying to find a safe place to land--a refuge from danger.  This world is not a safe place and my sense of that was overwhelming.

So what did I do?  I took a nap (good self-care), cried and cried and cried and cried and then cried some more (and drank lots of water to replenish my depleted body).  I talked to a friend who as a survivor of interpersonal partner violence was smart enough to just listen emphatically--to be present with me in my grief and fear.  She didn't give me platitudes or tell me to "buck up," or "stay strong."  She was just present, even though physically she was several thousand miles away.  According to Dr. Hermann, "Recovery [from trauma] can only take place in the context of relationships, it cannot occur in isolation" (p. 133).  So reaching out to a trusted friend was a recovery step that was incredibly helpful.

So, while my banking experience probably can be considered a little "t" trauma, it drew its energy from a big "T" trauma as well as other little "t" traumas from the past fifteen months.  I have been very powerless over the fall-out from my ex-husband's criminal activity but have to remind myself that in this episode of little "t" trauma, I advocated for myself, took positive action to change my situation and sought help from a trusted friend.  And I know that this too will pass.  This season of re-opened grief and fear has an expiration date and I am surviving.

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