Dr Safeeya Mohammed
Victim XX* 18 years later after her murder, they still hold on to her favourite scarf, though her scent from it has faded, her parents say “holding it takes them back”, and returns them to her cheerful smile. Eighteen years later, there is still no justice or even healing for this family.
Survivor XX* remembers the feeling of her abuser’s fingers around her neck. Sometimes all it takes is a whiff of familiar cologne to recall the rib he broke and it starts to ache. She escaped an abusive relationship 12 years ago but relives what happened through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); a mental health condition that can occur after various kinds of trauma. She was only recently diagnosed last year during the pandemic, the year she was forced to be in isolation with her thoughts.
Trauma can result in serious stress and detrimental health consequences for survivors.
Recently in Trinidad, we are experiencing spectrums of trauma, we have had some heartbreaking accounts of women who have been raped and brutalized. We have also lost young adolescent males to suicide. Trauma of this kind is something that affects you physically first, then emotionally, mentally, psychologically and spiritually. It is a grief of the most profound kind, where you lose your sense of trust in the world and people.
Will life ever be the same again?
It shatters your trust in everything. Depending on the trauma, you no longer even feel safe in your own skin. Dr Bessel Van der Kolk, a leading expert in the study of trauma states that “traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies.” Grief is an aching and a longing for something you once had, which is now gone. The deeper the connection to what was lost, the deeper the grief when it is gone.
It comes in waves. In the initial loss, the waves are tumultuous and chaotic. Surfers call these waves ‘victory at sea’ signifying a huge stormy sea. Life becomes unstable and uncertain. You are not sure of anything.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
This disorder can develop in response to violent trauma. It includes flashbacks or reliving, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and images, hypervigilance, disassociation, self-destructive tendencies, substance abuse, emotional numbing, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, irritability, traumatic amnesia, depression, anxiety, panic attacks and much more.
The Disassociation response
When your brain senses you are in danger, there are four responses that it can engage in an effort to survive. You can either fight, flee, freeze or fawn.
These responses can linger after the trauma, because a sort of rupture takes place psychologically. Especially in a prolonged traumatic and violent experience, such as childhood abuse, gang-rape, domestic violence, torture and similar violent events, your mind can ‘disconnect’ you from the physical experience as a way of surviving. This response in particular, called disassociation, though protective in the moment, takes a long time to heal, but it can be healed.
You can start feeling really disconnected to everything around you and everything you have known. But the memory of the trauma is still stored within you, so you can experience flashbacks of the event that seem like they are very vivid and real. It will feel like you are reliving the moment again and again, because the traumatic event has no ‘date-stamp’ on it, because of the stress hormones that were released during the event.
Your memory is also very affected, as your mind tries to grapple with what took place, and memories sometimes will come back as fragments, intense and filled with all the emotions you experienced during the violation.
Healing starts by re-establishing a sense of safety
In the immediate aftermath of the event, getting adequate physical and psychological help is crucial to lessening the long term effects of the trauma. One of the things that need to be re-established is the sense of safety, because that will directly affect the stress hormones attached to the traumatic memory.
You need to reconnect your thoughts with your body, because that connection sometimes gets broken, so speaking with trusted and supportive loved ones and mental health professionals will help you start that process. There are some very good programs that can help with short and long term healing. Finding a therapist who can use these methods will help.
Long Term Healing
One of the important aspects of long-term healing involves learning to trust. Usually because the violent trauma involved another person, what is very affected is your relationships with other people, or interpersonal relationships. Some ways of doing that involve teaching the body to move in rhythm with others again.
Just like trauma destroyed that ability to connect in a physical sense, doing a physical action to retrain the body in connecting will help.
Adapting the Kubler-Ross stages of grief for trauma, you might feel denial and shock, anger, bargaining, acceptance and healing. Thing is, there are no real stages in grief or healing from trauma. Healing is not a linear thing. Sometimes you feel all the emotions at once and not in a continuum. Sometimes you feel nothing, emptiness. Sometimes just when you think everything is calm a rogue wave of grief or a flashback comes out of nowhere and hits you. It could have been a song, the taste of a certain meal, the smell of a specific perfume.
Learning to Integrate the Loss
The key element is not avoiding it. It is like walking into the ocean of pain you feel, and feeling all the emotions as they come. Learning to accept the emotions and not run or hide from it, helps to heal it. Like a child that wants your attention and keeps getting louder and more desperate to be heard, so is your grief and trauma when you try to ignore it. When you sit with your emotions and give yourself space to grieve, it will eventually subside or lessen. In times when it is intense or you are experiencing a ‘wave’, connect with someone who will listen, who you trust, and let them know what memories or pain is coming up.
Healing in isolation during a pandemic
Another complication in this present time is healing in isolation due to the worldwide pandemic. Sometimes you will not be able to have closure or go through the customary rituals of grief or healing, especially if you are grieving a death. What can you do instead? Find ways of connecting with your loved ones to share the experience. You can also join online support groups or participate in virtual therapy. Find ways to honour the loss, for example, if it is the death of someone, create a memorial in your home to remember them by. Make keepsake albums filled with pictures, things they said, memories from loved ones. Journalling how you feel, what you remember, the hopes and dreams you had... the new hopes and dreams you create after the loss or trauma.
Healing is not a linear journey
Sometimes healing feels like you have been fighting a battle for a long time. You will get discouraged, depressed, maybe have thoughts about ending it all. Surround yourself with supportive people if you can or find a supportive community online.
As Dr Bessel Van der Kolk explains in an interview, “People get better by befriending themselves. People can leave the trauma behind if they learn to feel safe in their bodies—they can feel the pleasure to know what they know and feel what they feel. The brain does change because of trauma and now we have tools to help people be quiet and present versus hijacked by the past.”
For Mental Health Resources in Trinidad and Tobago: