As a seasoned clinician and survivor of complex trauma, I’ve come to understand trauma as any situation in which an individual is not prepared to effectively fit into one’s schema a threat to one’s life and integrity.
In the case of complex (child abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, medical trauma, deployment in a war zone) as opposed to acute trauma that occurs from an isolated incident, the threat is repetitive and therefore disrupts healthy development and the attainment of essential milestones. As a result, the traumatic experiences that could not be integrated are split off and locked into the brain’s amygdala, where they are triggered and randomly re-experienced in the present.
While a clinical explanation provides an academic understanding of complex trauma, unless one is a survivor the vast debilitating impact of complex trauma is difficult to comprehend. Perception is altered and overwhelming states of terror, rage and grief are unrelenting. Toxic shame associated with being helpless and overpowered infiltrates the psyche. Omnipresent heightened stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol alert the body to danger when there isn’t danger present.
Moreover, there are pervasive losses associated with trauma, such as the loss of safety in the world, loss of self, loss of life skills, loss of faith, loss of trust, loss of agency, loss of dignity.
The absence of love, along with the bleak misfortune of continuous exposure to blatant and ambient violence disrupts intimate relationships. Having one’s tenuous sense of self usurped by another’s needs is a pervasive fear. The relational ambiguity of either being left or taken over by another’s needs cannot be tolerated due to a disorganized and ambivalent attachment template lacking in object constancy.
Accordingly, victims of traumatic abuse objectify oneself and others, setting in motion patterns of intense, unstable relationships in which familiar enactments of rescue, injustice, and betrayal reoccur. This relational pattern along with…