By Lisa Curtis
My first full time gig out of graduate school was working for a small agency with fewer than 70 employees.
Each summer we’d gather for two weeks to participate in dull mandatory training, usually in one of the large conference rooms with our chairs in rows. It was always hot and the days started early. One morning, having arrived at the crack of dawn for fear of getting lost en route, I settled in, sipped on some tea from home and slowly, as peers arrived, was shifted to the middle of a row.
The moment the speaker stepped up to the podium to begin, my cup of tea hit the button that said, “Wonder where that bathroom is?” I waited as long as I could, but knew that a break wouldn’t be for at least two hours so slowly I exited the row, went to the ladies room, and then stood quietly at the back of the room for the balance of the presentation.
What happened next can only be described as typical for the agency at the time:
I was publicly called out at the end of the morning, told in no uncertain terms that my tardiness was grossly unacceptable, and threatened with termination. It wasn’t until several of my peers and supervisors spoke up, clearly stating that I had not been late, that the dressing-down stopped. No apology was offered, not even a hint of “Whoops, sorry about that…”
I was left shaken, angry, and uncertain as to my future in a place that seemed—and turned out to be—wildly unpredictable. The feeling never left me while I was there, and I carried it over into my next position for many years. It wasn’t until I was well away from the agency that I was able to view what had happened as being a traumatic encounter, and one that had left its mark in numerous subtle ways.
We all face situations at some time or other that are deeply upsetting, and while not all of them may seem to meet the typical benchmarks of a “traumatic event,” that doesn’t mean they don’t qualify. What makes these traumas especially difficult to discern is that even the more obvious experiences, whether to save face or out of denial, are often swept under the rug and borne in silence. And there they lie, unacknowledged and unresolved.
What sets one incident apart from another?
It may be the timing, or the circumstances, or where we are in our own lives which tips the scale one way or another. It may be our upbringing, our emotions, or any number of personal factors. But regardless of what defines it as traumatic for each individual, what’s important to note is that trauma doesn’t always show up as a singular explosive stereotype.
It can also present as a series of episodes—the emotional equivalent of “death by a thousand cuts”—which ultimately leads to a sense of dread, anger, and fear, to name of the most commonly seen reactions. In retrospect, it’s easy for me to see the restroom incident as being but one of many such acts of hostility that marked my years at the agency.
It is not uncommon to hear “It was no big deal, but…” followed by all manner of uncomfortable (read: traumatic) scenarios.
The list of such scenarios is remarkable for not only its breadth but also its depth. Some of these types of events are easier to identify, for example the miscarriage of a pregnancy, or a sexual encounter that is not consensual in nature. But others, such as being repeatedly let down by an institution you believed in, or betrayed by an intimate partner through their affairs, are harder to spot.
Such betrayal can also re-traumatize an individual when a system, such as the criminal justice system, breaks down and/or blames them for the incident that brought the situation to their attention to begin with.
Military personnel often report the deep disappointment they experience when bureaucracy does not allow them to follow through on their stated goal or commitment. A sad example of this is what military service members are reporting currently as they try desperately to help Afghan citizens who were once instrumental in helping them complete their missions while the service members were deployed.
There are so many forms that trauma can take:
- Individuals and families who live through bedbug, mice, or other infestations often report feeling traumatized and shamed.
- Major medical crises have the force to wash through a family and reshape it much the way a hurricane can wipe clean the geography of a shoreline, leaving one to wonder how and what to rebuild.
- Victims of scamming rings feel embarrassed, ashamed, and angry with themselves for “allowing” themselves to be swept away in what is, in hindsight, clearly a foolish endeavor meant to scare them out of their financial resources.
- The violent ending of a beloved pet’s life has a place in more than one person’s trauma history.
Because so many of these types of events are kept hidden or are not initially identified as being so impactful, the support one needs to heal is simply not offered. It isn’t that anyone is withholding the information, but rather that in not knowing the event took place, it’s impossible to know the help is needed.
And that’s where the work begins: in speaking up and sharing, and applying a good dose of light onto what transpired, it’s possible to begin the process of healing, growing and moving forward.
Step One: Name It
Although it sounds less than profound, the road to moving through trauma toward the growth on the other side begins with the choice to name it, state it out loud, and allow all the fresh air of acknowledgement to jumpstart the process. The simple act of naming a painful thing has powerful restorative qualities. What happens next is often nothing short of an opening of floodgates.
Step Two: Reach Out
There is a 99.9% likelihood that what has happened to one has happened to others; even the most horrific wounds have been experienced, in their own way, by many before us. My time at the agency, for instance, was made immensely more manageable when I finally spoke up to my peers who not only validated my experiences, but also taught me how to navigate the personalities those tasked with guiding us and encouraged me to learn from the encounters.
For all the negative effects that can be said of social media, it can also paradoxically be quite helpful in bringing together those of us who have been traumatized in similar ways. These platforms can provide a way to connect, learn, and grow in a safe and distant environment that allows us to disengage when needed.
Having the courage to be seen and heard, allowing others to help you, and giving yourself the space and grace to begin recovery are all difficult to navigate… but critical. The desire to transform the experience into another part of the tapestry that is our life and history is strong. No one willingly holds onto traumatic events once we reach an understanding of how damaging they are.
Step Three: Honor the Loss
Once named and brought to light, it is generally helpful to honor the loss—loss of innocence, loss of a sense of safety, loss of a life, etc—in some fashion. For many this is a private ritual they may create for themselves, while others may find it helpful to participate in more public events such as walkathons to raise awareness, or by sharing their experiences so that others may benefit from knowing they aren’t alone.
There is a Japanese Buddhist practice that is found not only in Japan but also in Thailand and China to mark the pregnancies that were never brought to term called mizuko kuyo. Many pet owners have small areas where they bury their devoted companion, or small collections of things like a collar or dog tags that they keep at hand for comfort. Such rituals might sound grim but their power to offer solace is great.
Step Four: Advocate for Yourself and Others
While others may view your experience differently, as they have a different background and different perception, the only one who gets to define its impact on you is you. And once you have taken the first three steps, I hope you will find yourself in a unique position to see more clearly and act more confidently.
One of the most helpful skills I took from my first experience with workplace trauma is the drive to help others stand up for themselves in situations where they may feel intimidated, put down, or threatened. For them, you can be the person you needed—or the person you wished you were—when something similar happened to you.
I’m sure you resonate, in some way, with my story.
You probably weren’t berated by your boss for using the restroom during a conference, but someone somewhere down the line has likely spoken harshly to you or made incorrect assumptions about you and your actions. It may or may not have had as powerful an impact on you as my experience had on me, but there is a connection between us here. There is a resonance. Something that can only be created by my sharing of this experience.
I hope it serves you.
I hope you heal and grow.
And whatever your own story may be, I hope you always find the light on the other side of darkness.
Lisa Curtis is a social worker and credentialed substance abuse counselor who has worked in the field of change, trauma and addiction for over 32 years. With a passion for helping her clients understand and create a change process that works for them, she believes in bearing witness, being authentic and cheering on progress at every step. Outside of the office Lisa enjoys gardening, an early morning walk on a beach and baking for those she encounters on her journeys. Check out her website here.
Editor: Dana Gornall