(Trigger warning: Trauma)
If you have experience telling a story of your own trauma (and you’ll learn in a moment what I mean by “trauma”), you probably know first hand that often this is not a relief of a burden so much as a duplication of it. The person who has been harmed usually faces disbelief and questions: How? When? What evidence do you have?
I suspect most people never even get to the point of speaking. It’s easier to keep the story inside, to avoid the demand for (and rejection of) evidence.
But before I get to the “evidence” issue, there’s another problem. Some people leave their stories of trauma untold because they don’t think of them as trauma.
One of my former professors distinguished between big-T-Trauma and little-t-trauma. We think of Trauma as the big-T-version. Going to war. Getting raped, mugged, attacked. Being molested. Drive-by shootings. These big events are granted as “Trauma” by most of society.
Even with big Traumas, it’s often hard to acknowledge that whatever was done to you was traumatic. One hallmark of abuse (trauma) is that the survivor believes that whatever happened to her was just short of “real” abuse. If her father used to peek in while she was in the shower, then “real” abuse involves physical touching. If she was touched, then “real” abuse involves penetration.
Still, most of us recognize the shower-peeper as abusive and traumatic. In contrast, little-t-traumas are the insipid daily events that inhibit the growth of our true selves, but are generally thought of as “normal” by society. They can be small invalidating remarks, things like “That’s not scary,” or “Oh it doesn’t hurt that bad.” They can be a parent’s refusal to hear criticism or complaint from a child. They can be the double cruelty of teasing remarks (which combine meanness with the sickening expectation that you will join in the laughter). Or, little-t-trauma might be a daily denial of all negative feelings. One of my friends grew up hearing, “Let’s all stop fighting and put on our happy faces for church!”
Alice Miller, in the book Drama of the Gifted Child, describes a little-t-trauma scene where two parents are eating ice cream bars in the presence of their toddler, who wants one for himself. The parents let him take bites of theirs, but they don’t let him have his own bar as he wants.
Miller writes about the repressed, unconscious memory most adults carry of being small, powerless, and yearning. Out of the pain of this unconscious memory, she asserts, we exert power over our own children. Miller sees (some? all?) adults “as insecure children—children who have at last found a weaker creature, in comparison with whom they can now feel very strong.” With a child present, the adult’s weakness is “no longer carried within, but split off and projected outside himself.”
I imagine Miller loses most of her readers at this point. Even I had to put the book down long enough to tell Jack, “Welp, that settles it. We’re not having kids. Too much repressed rage.” I wondered if Miller had her own kids, or even babysat toddlers for an hour.
And yet, I find Miller’s compassion for the child in this story really stunning. She writes, “His wish to hold the ice-cream stick in his hand like the others was not understood. Worse still, he was laughed at; they made fun of his wish. He was faced with two giants who supported each other and who were proud of being consistent while he, quite alone in his distress, could say nothing beyond, ‘no.’ ”
Drama of the Gifted Child is a pretty old book, published in 1979, and while the unconscious is still a hot topic in the psych world, repression has gone the way of bellbottomed overalls. But, I think Miller is writing about what my professor named “little-t trauma.” It’s the traumas that are done with good intentions that are the hardest to recover from, because the sufferers usually don’t feel like they have a right to name them as trauma, let alone recover from them. I mean, ice cream? Come on.
My professor used to say that “little-t” and “big-T” should actually be reversed. The effects of daily invalidations add up to much worse than single big-T-traumas.* Little-t-traumas are so insidious because as a culture we refuse to validate them as trauma.
I worried about talking about my little-t-trauma for months and years… I still worry. My fears are numerous, but mostly that I won’t be believed, or evidence will be demanded of me. Most likely, a combination of the two.
So. “Evidence.” Here’s what I’ve told myself, and now, you:
You are the evidence.
You are the evidence of what happened to you.
Whatever it is you’re experiencing, that is the evidence that harm was done. All types of emotional suffering— anxiety and depression, addiction, repeatedly picking bad men or women to date, feeling guilty, perfectionism, eating disorders— these don’t appear in a vacuum. They have a cause. And as the constant witness to your own life, you probably know, on the deepest possible level of knowing, what happened to you.
You may or may not be aware of this deep knowledge. It might be too yucky or scary to put responsibility where it truly belongs (your parents, who were supposed to be good to you; your church, which was supposed to communicate God’s love; your neighborhood or culture to which you don’t want to be seen as traitor— or some combination of many things). You may be trying to blame something else for your Trauma/trauma, like a recent relationship or a terrible boss or yourself. But if you slow down and find safety, you will find that you know. You know what happened. You know how you came to be.
And when you find your knowing, remember: You are all the evidence that’s needed. You’re not “supposed” to have experienced your little-t (or big-T) traumas differently, to have thicker skin, to have understood the intentions of the person that harmed you. As if their intentions have anything to do with your feelings. Your self and your knowing are enough.
You don’t need to present evidence. You are evidence.
*(Of course, it’s not that simple… many people suffer big-T traumas repeatedly, or they have a big-T trauma that is made worse by a background of little-t-traumas).