Trauma & Pandora’s Box

As a society we tend to associate trauma with natural disasters, war, and people who survive heinous acts of violence. We do not tend to have an awareness that experiencing physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse often creates long term post traumatic stress. Millions of Americans survive traumatic events annually. Some do not require any form of treatment. Sadly, many who would benefit from treatment cannot or will not receive it. For those who do, the labels and treatment they receive often fail to address their specific needs. Most notably, their need to develop or redevelop a sense of personal safety and security is often not achieved.

Trauma is always unique to the individual experiencing it. What would debilitate one person might not create any lasting harm to another. It is impossible to give a one size fits all definition. I see trauma as an experience(s) that completely overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and which causes lasting harm to their emotional well being. This most often manifests in significant amounts of anxiety. In my experience, people often go to great lengths to hide their symptoms, try very hard to forget the events that caused them, and believe they have no choice in the matter.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” – Phylo

The traumas of childhood abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault often leave a person feeling broken, ashamed, and deeply insecure. Whether one is seeking treatment or doing their best on their own, building a foundation for recovery from traumatic stress is vital to improving stability, safety, and security. Foundational aspects are simply organized in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the base of the hierarchy are the things most imperative to a person’s survival. We look to see if the person has a safe living environment and that all of their basic life needs are met. We then look at their physical health, employment/sufficient financial security and resources to meet their own needs. These are the basics. In general, people have a strong awareness of these needs and clarity regarding how to get them met.

The third level of Maslow’s hierarchy separates living from surviving. It highlights the need for support. Maslow simply states that having friends, family, and kin is vitally important to living. The need for support for the person in recovery cannot be overstated.

There are a number of pitfalls regarding gathering support. The most common misperception is that in order for supportive others to be effective, they must know the whole story of what we seek to overcome. This simply is not the case. We have a right to privacy. People with good intentions may ask for the whole story, but we are free to set boundaries regarding what they will understand and how they will support us. For example, we’re free to ask for support in making life changes, overcoming anxiety, or working through past losses while also explaining that we are not comfortable sharing the details of what created these needs. We have found that the best support comes unconditionally and that our loved ones simply accept that we need help in general ways (being available to us, offering encouragement and reassurance) and in specific ways (helping us pragmatically with things like babysitting to facilitate attending self help or providing an environment in which we feel safe).

For a lot of us, our family of origin does not provide support and this discourages our efforts in recovery. Many of us have found comfort in kinship. Rather than wait for our relatives to change, we developed close friendships and relate to these folks as family. Others of us find support in 12 step communities and/or religious and spiritual communities.
It is not important where these folks come from. It is vitally important however that we have them. There is no one size fits all recipe for a support system. We need at least a few folks who are willing to be available and ideally, we will have at least one person we could call at 2am if need be.

We are people who struggle to ask for what we need. The most common apprehension of soliciting support is the fear that we will burden those we love. This is almost never the case. It is almost always a lie that we tell ourselves because we are afraid to ask. People offer support not to be nice but because the truth is that they get to feel good about supporting people they love and they benefit from doing it. The only caution we offer is that graphic details and stories of abuse do have the potential to unnerve others and we suggest that these be shared with those who have expertise in supporting survivors of trauma.

Many of us feel intense discomfort with receiving support. We are people who tend to fear vulnerability. We are very good at giving support and generally very poor at receiving it. We have found it helpful to bring this out into the open. Rather than hide our discomfort, we can name it. If we do not explain why we are uncomfortable we run both the risks of pushing supportive others away and/or making them believe they have done something wrong when in fact they have done something lovely. Being open about our true feelings prevents miscommunication, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. We remain convinced that 90% of what is wrong with the world could be remedied if folks were to simply say exactly what they want, feel, and need.

Note: Pandora’s Box will be an ongoing series for those seeking recovery from past trauma. Future posts on this topic will include the name Pandora. All questions and concerns welcomed.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.