Trauma tells you to not believe your experience, and to minimize it and move it off to the side. As a society, we tend to be a culture of one-uppers and Olympians competing in the Trauma Olympics: My trauma is bigger than your trauma, and as such, there is only room for one trauma on the “table” at any one time. Or, we don’t even need the comparison from others, the mere expectation that our trauma isn’t “worthy” enough causes us to sideline it. Then, you add in the fallibility of memory, and trauma seems to have something of a trump card to gaslight yourself with.
I’m thinking about this today because I’ve been listening to my go-to mental illness podcast, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, hosted by comedian Paul Gilmartin, where he interviews fellow comedians, artists, friends, and doctors about their mental health issues. I haven’t found a mental health podcast I enjoy more, and I’ve previously done a deep dive on why I like it so much. Bookending the interview are reader surveys that Paul reads, anything from people revealing their darkest secrets to their sexual fantasies to what he calls an “awfulsome” moment. These wide-ranging, raw surveys are a way for readers to mine the depths of their psyche in a way that is intimate, and yet, also connective with everyone else listening. At least, that is why I like the surveys so much because it makes you feel less alone. There are other people out there who have experienced trauma, pain, abuse, or struggle with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and so on, and their thoughts are often my own thoughts. And it is so complicated, especially the relationships people have had or still have with their abusers, including Paul, who was abused by his mother (and others). Our lives live and breathe in that complexity, and it is so satisfying, as odd as that seems, to hear that complexity conveyed and explored in a podcast.
Over the years, Paul has done three shows where he reads the surveys exclusively without any interviews (and maybe there are more, but I only see three). Whether in other shows or these shows, I noticed a theme emerging with the readers who filled out these surveys. They would preface telling their trauma story of abuse, physical, emotional, or sexual, or all of the above — and let’s be honest, in most abuse situations, there is going to be overlap, and let us also remember, that sexual abuse is physical abuse, but I understand what is normally thought of as physical abuse and why it gets differentiated — with: I’m not sure if this counts, but …
And then every single time, what the reader tells us following the “but” strikes me as clearly abuse in some form or another, and trauma-inducing. Granted, I think it would be (for lack of a better word) problematic for me, someone who isn’t a therapist, or other listeners of that ilk, to tell someone else whether what they experienced is trauma or not, abuse or not, albeit, sometimes it takes someone naming it for someone who was abused and traumatized to understand it and contextualize it properly. I find it so fascinating, though, that humans seem to have this innate need to preface our stories with: I’m not sure if this counts, but … because we are worried people will think it won’t, or that it isn’t traumatizing enough, or abuse enough, or whatever else is the case.
But also, I wonder if those who have suffered abuse and trauma of any sort are recalcitrant to think it as abuse because they don’t want to think of themselves as victims, as having been wronged. Or they still feel culpable or responsible for their abuse in some way, and haven’t yet fully worked through why that isn’t the case. When you consider in many of these cases, the abuser is a family member, or a close family friend, or someone they otherwise loved or thought they loved or thought this is what love looks like, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to feel the weight of the label “abused,” or “victim,” or conversely, as a parent, for example, as an “abuser,” and the door that opens thereafter.
From Googling, shame comes up as a reason someone might not report abuse, which lends a reason beyond legal reasons they might not think of it as abuse. And when I think about it in that context, it also makes sense. Shame was, and at times still is, a powerful factor in confronting my own mental illness struggles and internalized stigma. I feared being seen differently, like a misfit, by my family, friends, coworkers, and physician. I feared seeing myself that way. I can only imagine the level of shame one might feel when something has been visited upon them; when something externally has happened to them, again, especially from a loved one. Obviously, nobody asks to be sexually assaulted or physically and emotionally abused.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few of the other reasons someone might not report abuse or think of it as abuse: fear of reprisal by the abuser, of not being believed by family, friends, the police, the courts, society, etc.; worry that it was “long ago,” which both goes to a legal concern one may have, but also the fallibility of memory and how that gaslights victims of abuse; and a society that still, even after things like the #MeToo movement, doesn’t quite have an open and receptive culture to speaking out about abuse. To the latter, I think too many people think false allegations of abuse (in whatever form) is more rampant than it actually is. Seriously, I bet if you asked a regular person, they would think false allegations occur a quarter of the time, or even higher, when it’s actually anywhere between 2 and 10 percent, depending on the study, which is in line with false reports for other crimes.
We often think about how trauma and abuse severs our ability to trust other people again, but we forget how it also severs our ability to trust ourselves. In my humble, layman opinion, healing from trauma and abuse first requires identifying and naming it as such in all its fullness, no matter how ugly that process may be, and that starts with learning to trust ourselves again. The barrier to the former is the lack of trust we have in ourselves to be telling the truth about our own experience.
For those who feel alone in their experiences, wherever they are on that journey, I highly recommend The Mental Illness Happy Hour. It helps, and is yet another form of catharsis I’ve found.