For years I’ve worked with people who have experienced trauma. It never ceases to amaze me how often in the beginning they ‘downplay’ their trauma or minimise it as they don’t believe they ‘deserve‘ to be taking up my time as ‘it wasn’t that bad’. Or they don’t want to be seen as ‘weak’ or to feel ‘vulnerable’.
This saddens me, it really does.
Being traumatised does NOT mean you had to witness someone die or see or experience something so horrific you could never repeat it to anyone….NO….
Psychological distress following exposure to a traumatic or stressful event is quite variable.
Thankfully progress has even been made from a clinically diagnostic perspective in that in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the ‘bible’ for diagnosing disorders) – the DSM-V – disorders relating to trauma have now been grouped under a separate category “Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders”, which recognises that whilst some people will exhibit anxiety and fear-based symptoms, others will demonstrate prominent anhedonic and dysphoric symptoms, externalizing their anger and aggressive symptoms or even dissociative symptoms.
What that simply means is that trauma won’t just show itself as anxiety and fear, but instead it can also present itself as an inability to feel anything much at all, or a general dissatisfaction with life right through to anger and aggressive behaviours.
I have worked in the trauma field for over 25 years and unfortunately there honestly is not much I haven’t seen or heard by now.
One of the greatest unspoken things in our industry for many of those years was around the impact hearing about the trauma has on us as professionals. We were meant to just ‘suck it up’ and hear the stories days in and day out and brush it off….if we were lucky we had supervision and could ‘debrief’ about things and the impact they had on us. However, many of us tended to ‘just get on with things’ for fear of being seen as weak, and I for one certainly didn’t feel that I could expose my vulnerability in case people thought we were ‘no longer able to do our job’. (thankfully that field of thought has changed considerably now).
There was ego involved and a hell of a lot of pride….but it certainly came at a cost, I know that now.
Let me tell you a story that demonstrates how trauma and hearing about people’s stories can impact on you and how it might show itself in several ways that don’t necessarily mean we suffer severe anxiety or fear responses.
Some of you may know, but many of you won’t as I don’t tend to talk about it much, that I worked at Port Arthur for one year after the massacre that occurred there in 1996. I worked with the employees of the site and also with many of the people who were there on the day who suffered untold trauma as part of what they experienced and witnessed.
I worked ridiculously long hours, generally doing 16 hour days and working 7 days per week for the majority of that year. I threw myself into my work, desperate to do the best job possible in a very challenging situation. I kept myself as busy as I could and tried to be ‘all things to all people’. I did manage to build a small network of support people with some other allied health professionals who worked in varying capacities in the nearby communities.
We used to speak a bit and we spent short bursts of time together and occasionally had dinner together, however we really never spoke about what we saw or heard, we simply ‘got on with it’ as we felt that was what was required of us all.
I didn’t notice major anxiety (except on one occasion where I heard some strange and loud noises outside my shack and on its roof one night – which turned out to be a rogue possum lol) and I didn’t feel depressed, but I do recall looking back now one specific event partway through my time there that really should have been an indicator that I probably should have asked for help.
It was during the time of the trial and just prior to its commencement, that many of the people who had been at Port Arthur on the day were brought back down to the actual site of the traumatic event. It was a well co-ordinated visit with considerable support services available to anyone who wished to attend. Of significant note was that the area was deemed a ‘no-fly’ zone (due to the significant trauma attached to the sound of the helicopters from the day and also due to privacy reasons).
I clearly recall that we were walking through the old café with some of the people who bravely chose to return there and we were dealing with the significant trauma responses that this brought with it. This was an extremely emotional time and the distress involved in that day is still very clear to me now.
All of a sudden I realised that the no fly zone restriction had been breached and there were high profile media people there. Of note was one particular very high profile reporter (RM) who had arrived by helicopter close by (despite the no-fly zone !) and was then sitting in a van with the cameras directly on the highly distressed and traumatised people who were being taken through the café area.
That was it….
I saw RED….
And I ensured that the people we were with were back in a safe area and being taken care of and I stormed down to the van that was sitting on the open area (like an oval) and I absolutely lost it verbally and very clearly recall telling RM to ‘shove his camera up his f***ing arse’. Thankfully, the cameras actually went back in the van and they sat there for a long period of time, no longer recording what was happening right then. I was absolutely LIVID and ‘went off’ at RM and his crew.
Certainly NOT my proudest moment looking back, however, at the time I felt it was my job to protect these people from the intrusiveness and additional distress this would bring upon them. I was so angry and wanted to minimise the significant distress for these people as much as possible.
In the big picture of things what I did probably didn’t make much difference, but it was important to me and looking back that was a clear indicator that I really had been impacted by the significance of the work I was doing and I just hadn’t admitted it to myself (or anyone else). Interestingly I still cannot watch that reporter on television or in any capacity as it used to bring things flooding back over 20 years later (and its now just a clear choice that I make on principle).
I did eventually speak up and sought help once I returned home after I had completed my work down there and I was approved for ‘one session’ and after attending that I was able to normalise my response and what I was feeling and process it all in a healthy way and gradually move on and continue to do my job in as productive a way as possible.
However, no-one is immune to trauma and the impact it can have….I kept telling myself “it hadn’t happened to me”, “I didn’t have the right to have a reaction like I did” and that I just needed to “put it behind me and get on with it”…..however that strategy didn’t really serve me and I did carry the impact of the trauma around with me for many years to come being more reactive than I’d ever been in my life, until I eventually (many years later) allowed myself to experience my ABS system (Accelerated Breakthrough Strategies) and embrace my vulnerability, feel the emotion attached to that period of my life and give myself permission to process it fully and completely so I could actively move forward.
So I write this to let you know that no-one is immune to trauma and distressing events, information and experiences and to encourage you NOT to minimise your experience of trauma or distress and to actually acknowledge that if you are demonstrating anxiety, fear, ‘anhedonia’ (feeling not much at all), ‘dysphoria’ (general dissatisfaction with life) or agitation or anger then please be honest with yourself, ask yourself where it has really come from, and what could really be going on and actively seek help so you can let the negative emotions go and live the life you want again.