Tuesday, August 06, 2013


Finally! Somebody validates my every emotional response to everything!

Mark Epstein, writing in the Sunday NYT:
Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder.
Every part of this seems right to me: that we bear the marks of past losses and disappointments, however seemingly minor (one-off rejections or misunderstandings or fights that get patched up); that we're also shaped by our anticipated losses; and that, as Epstein goes on to say, "closure," and the desire to impose a timetable upon grief (or even just mild melancholy or nostalgia) are bullshit.

As Epstein writes,
My mother's knee-jerk reaction, "Shouldn’t I be over this by now?" is very common. There is a rush to normal in many of us that closes us off, not only to the depth of our own suffering but also, as a consequence, to the suffering of others.

When disasters strike we may have an immediate empathic response, but underneath we are often conditioned to believe that "normal" is where we all should be.
It's a pity that the word "trauma" is so linked in most people's minds to major disasters. We may be willing to apply the term to private, undramatic sorrows, like the peaceful death of a sick family member--but the death of a pet? the end of a three-month relationship? a negative encounter with your boss? Surely those are the upsetting events of an hour or a week or a month. But trauma only means wound, and those come in all sizes. It's not easy to know in advance what will leave a scar or ache every time the weather turns damp.

But although the past marks us, often permanently, being marked by the past is perfectly compatible with moving on. Sometimes life's traumas leave us in howling, incoherent grief, but not always. Not even usually. And even when they do, that stage passes. But the wound remains, throbbing a bit, tender to the touch, but capable of being forgotten.

Until, suddenly, it isn't.


i said...

That is a really important article you linked to. I didn't think about any of this stuff until I had a baby. Four days of labour, two hours of pushing, and a c-section later, to say nothing of the feeling I was going to die with that baby in me and the sleep deprivation caused by American hospitals being designed to make you crazy, and I felt like I wasn't even the same person anymore. (To some extent I still do.) It took me a long time, and help from others to realise it was pretty textbook trauma.

One of the things Epstein doesn't talk about in this article, though I'm sure he knows, is that trauma is often a physical reaction, and just the feeling of being in danger is enough to have lasting effects. We have a hard enough time acknowledging the lasting psychological damage of people whose lives are threatened or whose bodies are maimed: soldiers, accident survivors, survivors of illness, you name it. It's that much harder to understand that the psychological fall-out from feeling in acute danger -- even if that labour wouldn't have killed you, even if that guy wasn't really following you to rape you -- is just as real.

My utterly biased hunch is that, even though men's trauma is also ignored, women's trauma is even easier to brush aside. The historical record under-represents it massively, though there are hints. (There's an interesting book on Milton and Childbirth that I've only glanced at, for example, and of course Margery Kempe is a pretty clear example.)

My own reaction to this has been to talk quite openly about it, which of course makes people uncomfortable. They might have been expecting to hear how wonderful it is to be a mother and have a sweet little cherub in my arms, and they get a horror story instead. I'm fine with that. I am so incredibly sick of the silence around what people suffer, and sick of how it leads us to unrealistic expectations for healing -- just as Epstein points out.

Flavia said...

Thanks for this, I. I particularly like the point that fear, or the anticipation of peril, can have as lasting effects as the worst-case scenario actually coming to pass. I don't think, for example, that most men understand just how on edge many women are walking home alone at night, or seeing a shadowy figure in a vacant parking garage near their car. That's partly about the fucked up way that women get taught to be afraid, but not only--and maybe it doesn't matter how they got that way; living with fear is living with fear. The same is surely true for people living in extreme poverty, or under repressive political regimes, or in crime-ridden neighborhoods, or with an alcoholic parent. The psychological (as you say) becomes physiological, or vice-versa.

I'm sorry your labor was so tough. But I agree it's the kind of thing that needs to not be hidden away.