How Do I Know If My Spouse is Experiencing Traumatic Stress from Childhood? (Part 2)
Part 2: Be Aware of the Dilemma that Trauma Survivors Experience
Before we delve into recognizing the symptoms and effects of trauma, I thought it would be helpful to cover the dilemma of how those symptoms can stay under the radar. The awareness of this dilemma can help us to be more sensitive to those who are experiencing traumatic stress.
I remember years ago a brilliant, accomplished lady came to see me. We’ll call her Debra. Debra had been an honor student in college. She graduated with several distinctions and was very much sought after in her industry. Shortly after graduating from university she became the head of a large conglomerate of international companies.
If you crossed paths with Debra, you would encounter a woman dressed in power suits, traveling in first class, and walking with focus and purpose. If you chatted with her, you would find her to be exceptionally caring, friendly, sociable, and articulate. If you were in her inner circle, you would enjoy catered parties in her well appointed home and lavish gifts when you had a birthday or anniversary. When people around her were in crisis, she could be relied on for financial and practical help. She was viewed as the image of success.
But what many did not know was that Debra was a survivor of complex childhood trauma. Abandoned by her parents as a young girl, she was raised by extended family. Prior to her teens she was repeatedly abused by men in her neighborhood. Her childhood had been filled with personal heartache and pain. Yet, like many trauma survivors, she did a masterful job of hiding or camouflaging her pain and her symptoms, showing up as the picture of stability, capability, and strength.
What finally brought her to chat with me was that the anxiety she suffered was becoming more and more severe, and harder and harder to hide and to manage. Because her trauma had remained untreated, it was doing what trauma does. It was morphing beyond her usual coping mechanisms. This can be a good thing because this type of crisis point compels many trauma survivors to finally reach out for help. The dilemma was that because she still appeared on the outside to be fine, her highly stressful life kept spinning with expectations, demands, and triggers that complicated her recovery process.
Debra is a fitting portrait of a wide spectrum of trauma survivors. Many of the effects and symptoms of trauma can blend into the fabric of a survivor’s life. Trauma survivors can appear to function quite well in the day to day life of their broader world - work, church, school, social gatherings. They can mask symptoms and use their talents and personality strengths to appear unaffected and to compensate for the trauma symptoms that do seep through. This is part of their coping.
The “unseen” nature of trauma, and of many mental health issues, lends itself to this masking. This is unlike physical illnesses where the symptoms may be glaring (such as weight loss, loss of hair, physical weakness, hospitalization, the inability to walk, etc.). The seen nature of physical illness/injury elicits the compassion and adjusted expectations of others.
Sadly, for many trauma survivors (and others with mental health issues), the conundrum is that even when they reach a crisis point with their trauma and need tremendous amounts of support and understanding, those around them do not necessarily adjust to accommodate the recovery because the person looks, acts, and speaks well enough. Unlike cancer or emergency surgery, where people more easily connect with the reality that the unwell person just cannot show up as he or she did before, trauma injury is not well understood and its impact can be difficult for others to grasp, even when they become aware of the person's trauma.
This is part of the reason why there is sometimes shock when a boss, or a colleague, or a friend tries to take his or her life, or "suddenly" cracks and is institutionalized, or becomes an addict. Even when that person's trauma diagnosis has been known to others, many people still have a difficult time connecting with the reality of what that diagnosis means. Onlookers scratch their heads as they try to wrap their minds around how someone who did not seem depressed, or who had a good career and a wonderful family, or who just contributed in yesterday’s staff meeting, would do such a thing as attempt suicide. But the reality is that many survivors of complex trauma reach an acute crisis point where they are fighting for their lives, just like the cancer patient or the pedestrian who was hit by a vehicle is fighting for his life. The fact that it is a fight for their lives and for their very survival is just not as evident as the cancer patient’s fight, because many trauma survivors, in professional and social settings, will try as best as they can to manage the triggers that are causing internal stress responses.
This unseen nature of the trauma injury means the survivor must try to navigate through even the heightened crisis points without the benefit of adjusted expectations of family, friends, colleagues, employees, and others, even while in treatment. If treatment looked like a bed in an intensive care unit, expectations would more readily adjust. Priorities would be reassessed. But the dilemma for the complex trauma survivor who has reached a crisis point internally, is that he might still look normal on the outside while battling for his life on the inside. (And we have not discussed the added dilemma of when the symptoms are seen by others but misinterpreted and misunderstood. As you would imagine, that can further complicate dynamics.)
If your loved one is a trauma survivor, or battling a mental health issue, your empathy, compassion, kindness, gentleness, time, and support may be the closest he comes to an environment where he can have the space to stabilize, find help, and begin the long but priceless road to recovery. Do not underestimate your role here, even when tough love is required, such as insisting on treatment or other interventions. And if you know others who are in trauma recovery, prayerfully consider why God has placed you there and consider ways to facilitate the healing process.
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