On being held captive by trauma, and our need to be made whole

A friend of mine was in a car accident 7 months ago and hasn’t been the same since.

He was broadsided by someone illegally crossing three lanes of traffic and thrown hip first into a curb, then ended up in a pile of gravel on the street corner.

On Friday he was struck again, just a block from his home, but fortunately this time it caused damage only to his car and not his body.

We ate dinner together today and he talked about passing both places on his way to meet me. At the place of the first accident he both wanted to avoid looking and was also drawn to its’ features….the disturbed gravel (thinking, it could not be the same as it was months ago could it?), the rubber tracks on cement, and the feeling “this is where life shifted.”

Narratives of trauma are bound up in notions of both self and culture. The body and mind struggle to equip the traumatized person with explanations and/or support that will ease suffering, perceived and real. In fact, in many cases of trauma that distinction often ceases to exist at all. Our signposts stop being literal/scientific pieces of information (is my knee healed, can I breathe properly) and shift to another realm. We become dependent on and starved for symbolism, and meaning.

In this context, trauma creates a paradox that’s difficult to accept: in order to become whole we must fold the source and wound itself into our lives (though we may not accept it as having been right or just). My friend described seeing the place of his first accident as a confusing kind of familiarity, as if he were meeting a long lost friend but at the same time recognizing the great suffering and terror grown from that exact moment in that exact place.

Stockholm Syndrome is often described by victims in this way. The most popular explanation is attributed to Freud, who theorized that when the ego is faced with extreme circumstances over which it has no control, it has no choice but to enfold the trauma into its structure. Essentially, the ego defends itself itself in an extreme situation by internalizing the captor’s values until there is no conflict.

When we face serious trauma, a similar relationship emerges with both place and the physical objects in it that are involved in our trauma.

I can illustrate this with a practical example that some people may recognize…..my mother died almost a year and a half ago. I’ve had some difficult experiences, but it was by far the most traumatic and it did not and continues not to be easy. I often find myself revisiting the literal, physical places and things that remind me of her, including those that hurt deeply. In fact, at times they seem to have more resonance than things that have pleasant memories associated with them. I want deeply to become whole again, and cannot do this without enfolding the wounds and scars, and yes, the terror too.

I wonder about my friend’s trauma. Truthfully, there is not much I can do for him, but I am supportive as much as I can be. He’s struggling with what seem to be clear neurological issues, and 7 months in I suspect it will be something he learns to work with and does not ever fully recover from. Like it or not he has internalized the physical experience of his accident and it has become his captor, and also a part of who he is.

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2 thoughts on “On being held captive by trauma, and our need to be made whole”

  1. I am sorry to hear about the story of your friend and also the loss of your mom. Trauma is a difficult to thing to work through. Speaking from personal experience, I remember the smells, time of day, weather outside, a bunch of details. Life moved in slow motion. I don’t think we’re ever the same after. Have you ever seen the play written by Joan Didion called ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’? For some reason your post made me think of it. Thanks for the post and blessings to both of you.

    1. I have to admit I haven’t read much of Joan Didion’s work at all, though she’s been on my to read list for a while now. Thanks for the recommend (and kind words), I’ll check it out

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