By Marissa Ghavami and Jessica Mastro
“My parents weren’t abusive.” “My best friend and I were toxic for each other.” “My boyfriend never hit me.” “I haven’t been through trauma.”
As someone who passionately advocates for healing from trauma, people often open up to me about their pasts. People share their stories with me because I validate their experiences. Yet, many are hesitant to label their experiences as “abusive” or “traumatic.” I often hear something along the lines of: “but I haven’t gone through anything compared to that.” Many people feel their past experiences were not “bad enough” to affect their current lives.
There is a common and outdated misconception that only catastrophic events, such as rape, physical violence, war and natural disasters, cause trauma. But experts today recognize that trauma is subjective. As my friend and colleague, the internationally renowned Dr. Jamie Marich puts it, “trauma is any unhealed wound.” We all have unhealed wounds.
Conversations centered on the most marginalized among us are crucial. Black folx, other people of color, LGBTQIA+ folx and people with physical and mental impairments are undeniably disproportionately traumatized. However, none of us go through life unscathed. As we struggle to deal with a global pandemic and to dismantle systemic racism, many of us are asking ourselves what more we can do. We learn COVID-19 protocols – wear our masks and social distance. We learn about the history of racism and strive to show up as anti-racists. In order to create the most effective change, we must also turn our efforts inwards. Healing from our individual traumas, both big and small, can go a long way towards healing humanity.
When we feel numb, dissociated, anxious or depressed, it’s much harder to be an agent of positive change. The inner turmoil generated by our unrecognized trauma demands our attention. With our focus locked on ourselves, it’s more difficult to empathize with others. We get lazy about COVID-19 safety. We don’t speak up when we hear a racist comment. Our minds are consumed with the manifestations of our unacknowledged trauma.
Part of this inner turmoil can be self-blame. We are angry at ourselves for allowing our trauma to happen. But it’s not our fault. Trauma bonding, the tendency for a victim to form a dysfunctional attachment to their abuser, is a clinically acknowledged result of the cycle of abuse that can render us incapable of standing up for ourselves. If we are still beating ourselves up for not defending ourselves, where will we find the strength to defend others? If we can’t speak truth to power in our own lives, how will we speak the truth publicly?
We best serve our communities when we are in healthy relationships, have thriving careers, and are in good physical, mental and emotional health. Trauma can rob us of these sources of strength in our lives. However, many of us don’t even know we’ve been traumatized. When we acknowledge the impact of all sorts of traumatic experiences, we can start to take back what’s been stolen.
My colleague Jess Mastro and I created the micro-short film / Public Service Announcement Locked Inside Us. Healing TREE (Trauma Resources, Education & Empowerment), the nonprofit I founded and run, is releasing this PSA on August 30th. Locked Inside Us addresses “little t” traumas—the kind of trauma we may not recognize but can still negatively affect our lives moving forward. This 2 minute micro-short shows a young woman who feels afraid to pursue a potentially positive relationship because of her past experiences with an emotionally and verbally abusive ex; because of her unrecognized (and untreated) trauma. First, the audience sees how a person can be haunted by something “as small as” a high school relationship where a demeaning label is used. We also see that pejorative labeling is not unusual, but all too common.
Locked Inside Us is intended to ignite conversations about more subtle forms of abuse, especially for young people. We want to take away the fear that an experience “doesn’t count” as abuse, or “isn’t bad enough” to cause trauma. Everyone has trauma. Why be ashamed to talk about it? When we learn the vocabulary to contextualize and validate our experiences, we can connect to the resources necessary for true healing rather than mere coping. With the help of Locked Inside Us, Healing TREE hopes to show that so many kinds of suffering are caused by what happened to us and not “what’s wrong with us.” The PSA ends with a call to action to explore the resources for healing trauma on our website. When we heal ourselves, we gain the strength to participate in the healing of our corner of the world.
Healing TREE (Trauma Resources, Education & Empowerment) advocates healing from abuse and trauma rather than coping with the symptoms, in order to transform lives and, ultimately, society. We achieve this by providing trauma-focused resources and education and by producing and partnering with relevant film, television, and theatre, empowering the social change necessary to create a healing movement. You can learn more about us and find resources on our website at www.healingtreenonprofit.org.