Telling Your Trauma Story: Why You Really Should
Monday, October 21 2013 Tom Cloyd, MS, MA
If you are living with unresolved trauma memory, whether or not it's posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or dissociative identity disorder (DID), you will almost surely bewilder people some of the time. We both know you want this not to happen, but, as is surely obvious to us, you have little or no choice in the matter, other than to avoid triggers to the extent that you know them and can anticipate them. The real problem here is that you can't avoid all triggers. So, you will bewilder and maybe even frighten people a certain amount of the time.
Your Trauma Story, Triggered in Public
Triggered breakdowns in social situations can have serious consequences. One person I knew and worked with almost went to prison, because of violent defensive behaviors that were triggered by a sense of extreme threat, when she felt abandoned by an intimate. Another person I like and respect recently encountered a massive trigger, entirely unexpectedly, while out for a social evening with family. He became almost unable to function, and felt absolutely terrible because there were people present who surely had no idea what was happening.
There are many things that are truly awful about such situations, but one of the worst is the feelings of shame that seem always to follow such episodes. People tend to feel defective, and at fault. Now, we know this is entirely irrational, but the feelings are very real, and they are hard to avoid.
This is especially a problem with DID (think of it as a kind of super-PTSD), where shame issues and dynamics tend to be a Really Big Deal. I want to propose that working on resolving this secondary reaction to the primary problem of triggered functional breakdowns in the midst of life is an essential part of your healing. To make this happen you will need to correct how you think about yourself, and from that will come corrections in how you feel. A key part of this is becoming a better storyteller, as you will see.
Your Trauma Story Needs an Update
Two things have to happen, if you are to bring about this engagement and then successfully resolve your highly distressing secondary shame reaction. You must learn what actually happened to you. This basically involves your constructing a story. You should start with a very simple one - something like this:
"Some years ago, a bad thing happened to me, and I was terribly frightened and hurt by it. I have not yet recovered from this, but I'm working on it. Until I finish this work, I will have periods of time where I become gravely frightened all over again and am unable to live my life in the way I'd like to. I can usually recover from this fairly quickly, but not immediately. I need to take care of myself until I have regained my ability to function. Then I need to return to my usual life and my ongoing healing work."
You may not realize it, but you already have a story about what happened to you. I've heard these stories. Here are some:
- I'm crazy. I got crazy after my kids and husband were killed in an auto accident. There's no hope for me. I'll always be this way.
- My parents hated me. I'm an awful person. If I had been a better person they would not have hurt me. But I wasn't, and I'm not. I'm defective. I deserve my misery. It's my fault.
- I'm one of only two guys who survived when they blew up our truck in Iraq. I'm not any better then those guys who got killed. I should have been killed along with them. I have no reason to have been spared. I'll never be the same. My life is just gone.
I have a couple of immediate reactions to these stories, every time I hear them:
- You're not crazy, but your story sure is!
- You really don't get it. You don't understand what happened to you. That's outrageously unfair. Someone should have helped you understand what happened in your brain, and that the change in your life - how you are now - is a perfectly normal reaction some people have to a very NON-normal event or events. We have to talk.
The correct story about what happened to you never includes the "it's my fault" statement that so often people tell themselves initially. It DOES include a decent description of how stress-overloads can affect some people badly, and for a long time. Why not ALL people? We are still figuring this out, and don't yet have a good answer. Lots of people fall off ladders, too, with only some of them breaking bones as a consequence. It just happens. It happened to you, and that's what matters.
So, by whatever means it takes (usually the assistance of an experienced trauma therapist or PTSD professional) you simply MUST get the story you tell yourself straightened out. With that in hand, you're ready for the next and final step.
Updating Your Trauma Story Prepares You To Tell Other People the Truth
This is probably the most important thing you will do with your story. You are simply not the only one with the wrong story. MOST people have the wrong story. That's not acceptable. As part of your journey away from completely inappropriate and irrational shame about what happened to you, it is critical that you learn to simply tell the truth to other people, after you've learned to tell yourself the truth.
First of all, consider what that means. Think of what you do when you tell a kid about sex. Probably the most critical part of your story about sex is what you do NOT say. All you need to do is tell them what they want to know, and at least some of what they need to know - and all of it in simple, direct terms.
You need to do exactly the same thing with your family, your spouse, your relatives, your boss - or whoever, concerning your PTSD or your DID. Only two things will stop you: ignorance (which is taken care of by getting the story you tell yourself straight), and shame. And the good news about all this is that you really can do it little by little, just like kids and sex!
Start Small, and Go From There
To successfully tell other people about your situation, think hard about what they need to know, and about what they can realistically understand (Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand Us?). Think again about telling a 10 year old about sex: you're dealing with limited interest and limited ability to understand. Your story should be simple and accessible to them. Now, transfer that idea to the people in your life who you want to understand you better.
PTSD isn't too tough to talk about, thanks to all the media exposure it's gotten in recent years. However, a fair amount of that exposure contains some real misinformation. So, expect to correct two common thinking myths: (a) people with PTSD are far, far more likely to be frightened and withdrawn than angry and assaultive, and (b) PTSD is highly treatable, but too often it is not treated, so people end up living with it unnecessarily.
With DID, the challenge is significantly tougher. I strongly recommend that you not attempt to actually describe DID, at least not at first. It's tough to give a simple account of alters and switching. Few therapists can do it, so your chances aren't good. Instead, just describe it as "complicated PTSD" (not complex PTSD [C-PTSD] - that's different). I've seen (and heard) that this usually works rather well.
Remember, you're talking to a 10 year old. They don't need to know much! There are large payoffs for getting your story straight and then telling it to others. It will clarify and strengthen your own mind, and it will truly help those around you. When we understand what's actually happening - even a little, we tend not to get frightened by it, and this benefits everyone.
By being an ambassador for yourself, for people like you, and for the disorder you're working to overcome, you became a major asset to all of us. I personally think this is an opportunity you really shouldn't pass up! But do it for yourself, first of all, for you are without doubt the most important person the story, at all points in this process. You first, then come talk to us!