Telling Your Trauma Story: Why You Really Should

October 21, 2013 Tom Cloyd, MS, MA

Living with an unresolved trauma story that others don't understand can be frightening. But telling your trauma story can be easier. Here's how to tell it.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:

  1. You're not crazy, but your story sure is!
  2. 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!

Connect with Tom Cloyd also at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, his Sleight of Mind blog, his Trauma Psych blog, and the Tom Cloyd website. [photo credit: JF Sebastian]

Tags: trauma story

APA Reference
Cloyd, T. (2013, October 21). Telling Your Trauma Story: Why You Really Should, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 24 from

Author: Tom Cloyd, MS, MA

cat haggarty
May, 6 2022 at 3:47 pm

Im 63 years old and just starting to figure all this stuff out. I was abused mentally and physically as a child by my father....til he died when I was 17. Then mentally abused? by my mother til she passed when I was 30. I was very very promiscuous through my teens right through to my 40's . No real relationships, still don't let many people close to me. I am learning about disassociation....I guess that's me? I have tried talking to my sister about this, but she doesn't want the conversation at all.
She was soooooo favoured by my mother, I was never good enough, pretty enough, smart enough etc. as my sister. I harbour ALOT of resentment to her.....can't seem to drop it. I have many many blank spots of my childhood. But not many people around to talk about the past...we moved alot.
Not sure where to go....for help or what to do. Any advice. ??

patrick axt
October, 28 2019 at 5:02 am

to many rules and you should say this or say that. when a person telling there story should come from there heart. All the rules and regulations on trying to help someone is really hurting them from not telling their truth and from there heart. at first when peer to peer came out it was a blessing for the people that is in their hell. but over time they put rules on being peer to peer than have to go to school (money thing) and now its not peer to peer. its a trained person saying fake ... and not coming from their heart. greed is killing the true message when it comes to truely helping people. please dont reply why we have to be trained to help people. some of my best help was patients with paitents feeling there pain and telling their story from their heart. oh im sure you will nit pick my spelling and grammer and miss the message.

Fatma Khattab
January, 31 2019 at 2:03 pm

My name is Fatima from Egypt and I am now 30 years. I was physically and psychologically abused by my father since I was only 7 years old he burnt down my back and he later at the age of 10 years old sexually assaulted me after my mom died for breast cancer. He always wanted to treat me like a retarded disabled kid, although my mom never wanted a 3 child, she truly helped me to become a human. She was my great inspiration and my only hero, after she died my father forced into sleeping next to him for 2 years when I never wanted to. He abused my psychologically and emotionally, by making me attached and totally dependent on him. Two years later after my mom died he totally become a monster, the opposite person; he lied about his religious faith and practices, and claimed to be a conservative Muslim, he did express his sexuality fully in front of his kids and me when I had a normal progress of social life, he totally turned against me since I was 13 years old, he became more violent and never since then had a normal conversation with me. He claimed at the age of 15 I am possessed with a ghost, he did use much violence against me and grabbed me from my room till the house door from my hair. He did allow several religious men to touch me everywhere from head to toe to hold exorcism over me. Till the age of 16, he again pushed his wife to sexually assault me several times claiming this a ritual part of doing exorcism. He did also that to distract me from high school priority, when I was fighting to become a physician by studying more. He totally refused me to finish my education, while couple of years later, he started allowing my older brother to express his own sexuality fully and in front of us in the family house. Much alcohol drinking was involved and more young women came to our house to please my brother sexually, and appease his hate towards my father for the way he hated us and our mother. I failed totally to take control my life, I was forced into much isolation since my mom died, I was never allowed to see the rest of the family or to communicate normally with other people my age. I went to college, when my father got shocked that I managed after all to fight for my education and I ended up studying human rights. My father hate increased and he pushed my brother (a sex addict and a corrupted police office) to use more aggression against me, and I ended up at college losing my focus on my studies. I was psychologically abused by my father who gave me much medications I have no idea about, I suffered a sleeping disorder and totally suffered several mental breakdowns to be followed. After I finished my college with very bad grades, I was not allowed to have a career in human rights. Although, my father tried so hard to send people to hate on me at work by calling me a psycho, only because he never wanted to see me succeeding at anything. I managed to finish my first two years of work with much hate of the surrounding community, when my father attacked me again with brutal violence he grabbed me on the floor and I ended up totally paralyzed, lost my control over my body and my face and body were full of blue marks and bruises. That was first time I tried to report domestic violence, however, with the much corruption involved with my brother's police work. The police officer refused to help me to get the required medical checkup needed after such attack to report my father and the rest of the family, whom after my father claims I want to be just an atheist whore. My corrupted uncle a police officer, attacked me with brutal violence with my aunt husband. I ended up suffering for the next 2 months with much pain in my whole body. I managed to escape away for the 3 time from my family house after my father got a medical certificate accusing me of being a psycho, when he wanted to move forward to take away my legal rights from me to prevent me from any future work or agreements or even complaining against him. For 4 years since 2013 till 2017 I was physically and sexually harassed at several places of work, and I was bullied in public spaces, plus getting financially exploited. I was targeted by Egyptian police, every time I changed my phone number I received the same call with a message saying that my father is going to force me into marriage. I did manage to leave the country finally seeking asylum in Cyprus, when I totally failed to reach Turkey directly to continue my political work. I was exposed to sex traffickers connected to my family in Egypt, who tried using an Arab family who convinced me leaving the refugee shelter in Cyprus so they would offer me a job and housing opportunity. However, they after managed to destroy my asylum seeking process, they used much aggression against me to force me to go back to Egypt. When I reported them to the police in Cyprus, the police treated me badly and I ended up homeless. I was then exposed to a sex trafficking network which I realized after couple of months that these people are connected to my family in Egypt. I managed to escape Cyprus when the government of Cyprus forced me to sign a paper saying I have no problem, so I can take back my passport to leave the country. I managed finally to reach Turkey when I managed to seek asylum there, they totally refused to help when I was still in Cyprus. When I ended up in Turkey I was homeless and jobless, when I met this Jordanian employer who claimed offering me a job, he later on tried to force me into having sex with him, and I discovered he also got connection with my family sex trafficking network. He told much details of how I got trafficked in Cyprus and he was totally comfortable with himself while telling me much details of everything happened to me. He wanted to continue the abuse, but I refused him and he simply pushed me out of his work. I failed again to gain any refugee support, and I am still suffering being targeted by the Egyptian government through my brother and uncles who corrupted police officers, while I am in Turkey and need much help. I am so scared.

February, 9 2018 at 8:45 am

hi, ammh I don't know yet if i'm suffering from trauma or just pure stress.
when I was a young(I don't remember my exact age) i've been through molestation by the owner of game station in our place it happens 2times I was afraid back then why is he doing that. I don't know what to do I was afraid, ashamed pure negative thoughts comes into my mind. i'm afraid to tell it to my family or should I say ashamed for what i've been through. after that incident a week after he was bed ridden, I was there looking at him wishing that he will suffer for taking advantage of me, I hated him and a day after he dies I don't know if I should be happy of not.
i've been carrying this until now on my 19age. I want to tell this to my family but I don't know how, i've been crying every time I remember that happenings. I hated my self for not telling my father before he died. I hate my self for being a coward. because of that experience I doubted every man even my own brother and I hate this feeling. but thanks god I'm afraid to take my life away. I tried many time to tell them but fail.
I don't know what to do please help me. cause I'm tired of hiding, I'm tire of this. I want to be free. I want to be at peace I can't ask a doctor cause I don't have money, im still a student but please help.

Jennifer Morgan
May, 17 2016 at 8:21 am

Could psychological overload manifest itself as pnes seizures? It seems that as soon as my brain overloads on implicit memory, BAM...pnes seizure episode. I think I'm right on here, but tell me what you think. Also, if you could send your reply directly to my email address that would be most helpful.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natasha Tracy
May, 20 2016 at 10:33 am

Hi Jennifer,
I'm sorry, but we don't send responses directly to email addresses.
When I can tell you is that if you are experiencing seizures, you need to explore this with a neurologist. I can also tell you that stress can invoke a seizure in those that have them.
- Natasha Tracy
- Blog Manager

Carol Townend
October, 25 2013 at 6:47 pm

This is good advice. However, I must add that telling my story has proven hard, because when I am telling the truth, I do not get believed because I have no evidence to prove otherwise.
A lot of my abuse as a child was ignored because the person who did it was disabled and I was scared to tell. Much of my adult abuse which involved me in a large amount of being faced with domestic violence, again gets ignored when I tell the truth. It gets twisted by those who are supposed to help me no matter how many times I have tried.
I now do it this way. The only person who knows what really happened is me, the person who got hurt in the first place. I have accepted it, and I am trying to put it behind me. This is very difficult but what others want to think is not my business, my healing and health is my business so I no longer talk to anyone I know about it now.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

November, 27 2013 at 6:02 am

Carol, thanks for your thoughts. I apologize for taking so long to respond. Currently our site software is malfunctioning (it's being fixed, though), so that we don't get notified with someone offers a comment, so it usually takes us far too long to notice it. I appreciate reading your comments, and I'd to respond:
The more out-of-the-ordinary one's story is, the more likely others will question it. You can expect this. You can help them understand by NOT overloading them with details that could be hard to hear or with story elements that are highly unusual. Why invite incredulity?
Another problem that often comes up in the context of families is that not everyone may have experienced the abuse perpetrator as abusive, and so cannot easily make sense of your story. This is a painful situation for all concerned, and it can be quite hard to resolve.
I like and appreciate that you are able to be self-affirming, relative to what happened to you. This is clear and constructive self-respect - a significant achievement!
It is not necessary that EVERYONE believe your story, but just that enough of the important people in your life do. Others you likely will have to give up on.
Now, finally, my most important thought: You write "I am trying to put it behind me. This is very difficult..." I honestly have NEVER seen anyone who has a traumatic memory that has remained traumatic for a year or more resolve it one their own. Your brain has natural and very effective ways of resolving trauma memories, and they usually work. BUT, when they clearly have not, after a year, you really have only one reliable option: get help from a mental health professional who specializes in psychological trauma. We have very effective methods of treatment for most people, and usually (but not always), it's a reasonably brief process. You owe it to yourself - as another act of self-respect - to give this a try. I hope you are able to do this.
I wish you all the best.

August, 13 2017 at 10:04 am

Interesting. I have several issues with disclosure 1) I don't know who I can trust with the information. Especially with most men in dating situations I expect them to use any disclosures against me somehow. 2) I've had so many ridiculous, over-the-top, traumatic experiences I don't know what I should be talking about exactly. Like perhaps just pick one or two recent situations or focus on the PTSD/Triggers themselves w/o context. 3) One of the situations is work related and there is now a 116 page independently created document that diagnosis the toxic work environment and the abuse I and other colleagues were privy too. The problem is a) we're been forced to sign confidentiality waivers and b) the report covers the last three years but not the incidents that happened to me over the period of time prior to that. It's so weird having concrete evidence of it and not being able to do anything with it really. PTSD symptom but I'm totally checked out emotionally. I can stare at blank walls all freaking day and I wouldn't care.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

August, 16 2017 at 3:16 pm

L, trust is definitely something I don't have in abundance. It took me a long time to share many things with my spouse. We've been married 30 years and there are likely still a few things I haven't fully shared. When I choose to share with someone, it it always with a great deal of trust, or in very few instances, it has been more from desperation. There really is no way to explain how it feels when someone turns away because they suddenly find themselves uncomfortable around PTSD.

John Burik, MEd, MS
October, 21 2013 at 1:01 pm

Thanks to Tom Cloyd for this valuable information. What I'd like to add is part of the reason why intelligent and competent adults have difficulty using their usual adult resources in dealing with bad memories.
We all have mechanisms in our brain that work like the circuit breakers in our homes' electrical system. If there's a power surge too much for the system to handle the circuit breaker "pops" or "trips" which protects the system from harm. Similarly the brain has mechanisms that assess our experience and decide it's too much to handle at that time.
When that happens the experience is stored in what's called "implicit memory." Now a key piece to know about implicit memory is that it doesn't have everyday time coding, knowing when something's past, present, or future. It's as if the experience is happening NOW. So when a present day event "triggers" an old implicit memory the experience of fear, rage or helplessness is very real and very NOW -- even if it makes no sense with what's actually happening in the present.
The good news is we can begin to make sense of this old experience by approaching this past experience, sometimes slowly and always cautiously, with our adult rational mind. As we build this narrative, this story, we begin to convert it to "explicit memory," with its proper place in the historical past.
This doesn't make the past experience good but converts the memory into something we can handle now without overwhelm. I also stress that if you've been given a formal diagnosis or are in treatment you should not attempt this by yourself but in consultation with a professional.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 21 2013 at 9:25 pm

Thanks, John, for this excellent addition. I find myself in complete agreement. Implicit memory is tricky, because, unlike normal narrative memory, it has no "captions" to help you follow the story. Indeed there IS no story. But as you so well point out, we can, in effect, wrap a story around this sort of memory, as part of our transforming it to something that does not any longer "bite" us at unexpected times. I know this if only because I did exactly that in my own therapy. It quite literally changed my experience of what it's like to be me.
One of the points you allude to I'll try to make very clear: If your major trauma experiences are stored in implicit memory, you'll have no easy explanation for "what happened" to you. It is this sort of situation which leads people to think they MUST be crazy. If you don't have an obvious explanation for your anxiety and your anger, and your other limitations, then you must be broken, right? No, not at all right. People with psychologically injurious childhoods can be counted on to have dysfunctions for which they have no explanation. But that is not to say there ISN'T an explanation. They just don't have it. However, it can be discovered, built, constructed.
Here's a simple version of such an explanation which I've helped someone build with whom I've worked:
When I was very young, my mother was exhausted with her own depression, and with a new baby. She didn't have time for me. I was emotionally abandoned. I don't remember any of this, but the facts of my life - my mother's condition, and the sequencing of her children, are well known to all. Emotionally abandoned children are often terribly frightened. I feel that fear today. Now I know what happened to me, and I'm working on what happens next - which will be my growing past my present limitations into a life that finally works.
A realistic story like this puts everything in its place, and excludes the possibility of shame making any sense (although that, by itself, is rarely enough to get rid of it!). It's a solid foundation for moving forward. It can really help, and it is just as you said: an implicit memory converted to a story-telling narrative memory. We CAN do this, and it's distinctly helpful as part of the larger process of resolved non-narrative trauma memory, acquiring necessary life skills, and just getting life to work.
Again, thanks for your very helpful comment, John~

Leave a reply