Trauma & Privilege

Right now I’m doing an online course in trauma-informed peer practice and I watched a video that was supposedly about resilience. In it, they interviewed a few people who had undergone horrific events that then went on to live great lives. Ostensibly, they were great examples of personal resilience in the face of tragedy.

One of the interviews really struck me. They talked to a guy who had had his leg blown off by a landmine while camping in Israel, who then went on to found an organization for other amputees. That’s great, but I don’t think he is truly an example of resilience in the face of trauma. In fact, while it was obviously shocking and painful, I don’t think his experience was trauma at all.

Judith Herman (1992) and others have defined trauma as “the inability to cope” with an event or situation. It’s the internal response, not the external circumstances. It doesn’t matter how someone else would feel about the event— if it overwhelms YOUR ability to cope, it’s Trauma with a capital T. This is key. This is my thesis here.

If you aren’t having symptoms that affect your mental health, then it wasn’t truly trauma. (Obviously you don’t have to be DIAGNOSED/DIAGNOSABLE, but you WILL have some kind of post-traumatic reaction.) It doesn’t matter what happens—if you immediately stand up and dust yourself off, it wasn’t trauma.

For review, here are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. People who have undergone trauma, and therefore have overwhelmed their ability to cope in a healthy way, will experience at least some of these problems. (These can be both internal and external reactions, so remember it’s not fair to judge someone else’s reaction by purely observing their behavior.)
-intrusion (unwanted upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders, physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders)
-avoidance of trauma-related thoughts or feelings or external reminders
-negative alterations in cognition or mood (inability to recall key features of the trauma, overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma, negative affect (mood), decreased interest in activities, feeling isolated, difficulty experiencing positive affect (mood))
-alterations in arousal and reactivity (irritability or aggression, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilance, heightened startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping)

These are the types of reactions that “resilient” people avoid. However, what makes the difference? My argument is that it is not a matter of personal “character,” or even “positivity” or “optimism.” It’s societal and it’s privileged-based.

How “well” someone reactions to bad situations and events depends on three main factors:
1. How early in their lives the trauma/traumatic stress started
2. How much other stress they’re under (for example, from microaggressions related to oppression)
3. What sort of supportive allyship they have during the event and its aftermath

The guy who got his leg blown off by a landmine experienced anxiety, stress, dissociation, and shock at the time of the event. But that isn’t enough—he was able to cope. He had the benefit of (what I presume to be) a relatively well-off childhood (since they mentioned that his father was the president of a hospital in Massachusetts). (Note: Interpersonal abuse can still happen in well-off families, of course, but he was free of some of the inherent stresses of poverty.) He stayed in a hospital in Israel with other people (soldiers) who were injured in combat. Through them, he had a support system. When he recovered physically, he came home and resumed a NORMAL life, and then—seeking deeper meaning—he decided to start his organization.

He didn’t grow up in a war-torn area and step on the landmine—he was on vacation from his peaceful home in Massachusetts. His traumatic event happened his junior year of college at Brown University, not at age five. And he had the support system of the soldiers who knew what it was like to lose a body part and still be kickin’. The recovery had little to do with his personal moral character, and much more to do with his circumstances that helped him cope so well. He had NO symptoms of post-traumatic stress, as they made sure to note in the segment that he went back to his life at college and continued just as he had been, sans leg. And he was praised for it on national TV.

This is not a matter of semantics. Examples of positivity culture like this, that explain reactions to trauma as a matter of personal character, are actively HARMFUL to people recovering from traumatic events. While of course healing can and will almost always happen after a traumatic event, if you don’t react “badly,” it’s not trauma.

This is not gatekeeping, either. I’m not out here saying to survivors, “Your trauma wasn’t really trauma. You’re not suffering enough.” I AM saying, in the face of neurotypical professionals and other gawkers, that personal resilience in the face of trauma is out of our individual control. It’s not something negative about our character if we don’t react “well” to bad things. It just means we’re more vulnerable, in a way influenced by societal conditions and systems of privilege.

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