Trauma Stigma: We Are Only As Sick As Our Secrets

I had a reminder recently of the stigma facing those dealing with trauma related to childhood abuse.  I have encountered this before of course, perhaps vicariously, during my 20 plus years in the trauma treatment trenches.  As a psychologist specializing in treating trauma I am well aware that many people do not want to be reminded of the less than pleasant aspects of life.  Even mentioning what I do for a living can get me interesting responses, or sometimes just shut down the conversation altogether.

Someone unfollowed me on Twitter, and wrote to inform me,  because I was not a “positive psychologist”. This took me aback  and I tried to understand what led to that impression.  I looked through my most recent Twitter postings to try to see what they saw.  I had been posting, as I always do, about the impact of trauma and had recently written an article about how childhood experiences are linked to adult problems: Childhood Wounds: Understanding Yourself in Context.

“You are only as sick as your secrets”.  If the oft repeated 12 step slogan is true then our culture is indeed sick.  The refusal to acknowledge the link between childhood trauma (big T and little t) and mental health issues of all sorts in adulthood seems to me to be a kind of cultural dissociation.  We would rather blame the victim, or in family systems terms set up the “sick” one as an identified patient, who has bad brain chemistry or has come by their mental “illness” in any way other than as a result of their childhood experiences.

Denying the past dooms us to repeat it. Denying the link between childhood trauma and mental health disorders of many kinds leads to inadequate treatment of the put a band-aid on it sort, no treatment at all, and/or adults who are ill prepared to themselves provide good enough parenting (or protect their children from outside perpetrators).  And thus the cycle continues.

The pervasiveness of childhood trauma and its long lasting impact is the big secret and survivors who try to talk about their experiences are shamed and stigmatized.  We want to view you as other, an anomaly, not the understandable consequence of a sick society.

My Twitter experience felt very much like a reaction to my telling the truth about these issues our culture wants to disavow. If I as a professional am impacted, imagine how much more so this stigma impacts survivors, I was reminded.  The silencing, minimizing and blaming that can occur when a survivor tries to tell their story is a whole other level of traumatization.

This experience reminded me that visibility and conversation about trauma-related topics is crucial.  It is why I see blogging and using social media to be an important part of my work as a trauma therapist.  By speaking out about trauma and its impact I hope to support those who must live with it and to educate those who do not yet understand.

What else can we do to combat trauma-related stigma?

-Stop blaming the victim.  Speak up as an ally when you hear victim blaming conversations.  Those who have been abused and need to get help for it are not the problem. Abuse and the systems that allow it to continue are.

-Understand that avoidance, denial, not talking about childhood trauma and abuse does not make it better. If a survivor could just think it away, they would have long ago.

– Realize that nature vs. nurture is a false dichotomy. Our environment (how we are nurtured) effects our brain chemistry. “Chemical imbalances” as the cause of psychological problems rarely exist in a vacuum.

Please do share your experiences with stigma related to trauma issues, or mental health in general,  and how you combat and cope with this.
Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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23 Responses to Trauma Stigma: We Are Only As Sick As Our Secrets

  1. Christian says:

    While I know that avoidance will not get me past (or “healthy from”) my childhood trauma, I just don’t want to deal with it. I made several attempts to work through some things with a few different therapists, and I just never had any breaks.

    And I really don’t want to go through all of it again. I don’t.

    I *know* it holds me back in some aspects of my intimate/romantic relationship, but I’m leaving it alone. My s/o knows and accepts me as I am…..dents, dings, and chipped bits.

    I’m not proud of it, but I accept it as it is. At least, for now…

  2. Christian-

    Thank you for posting and welcome!

    I completely support each individual’s right to decide when/if they will do their own trauma work.

    What I am musing about here is how our culture (and various individual members) can make doing that work harder (or easier) for others.

    Deciding you are not ready to do your own work is very different than putting forth an opinion that no one else needs to/ought to. In no way do I read the latter in your post.

    Every choice you make for yourself is valid because it is *your* path and life, no one else’s.

  3. C says:

    As a survivor, I do not want to be identified only as a victim of trauma. I do not want to be absolved of personal responsibility or seen as weak or powerless because I was victimized. I totally agree that the media and the culture do minimize and silence and blame victims. At the same time, they sensationalize traumatic events and encourage confessions and drama out of people (reality tv anyone?), that overall adds to a we-are-all-victims-all-the-time mentality. It ends up obscuring important issues about trauma and recovery. IMO, of course.

    • Good points, C. And thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      To me that is another part of the myth about trauma/violence: that “victims” are weak, somehow inherently lacking, different than everyone else, and that somehow this is what causes their victimization.

  4. bejart says:

    Yes I think being open about childhood trauma or even adult trauma like sexual assault and domestic violence taps into other’s cultural shame. Probably the most important part of my own work in therapy was lifting the shame of being victimized.

    I have also thought for some years that the pop-psychology of the 80s co-opted the word ‘victim’ and turned it into a negative – ‘she’s being a victim’ ‘that’s victim behavior’. And while I understand that trauma can lead to patterns that can cause us to repeatedly place ourselves in abusive situations, I find that use of the word troubling and additive to our victim-blaming culture. It carries the sense that the victim had a choice.

    I too no longer wish my entire identity to be about my abusive past, however it is an integrated part of my whole being. And one of the things I have found that (can) lift other’s sense of shame is speaking of my experience without an ounce of it. It’s very freeing, and when I don’t take on someone’s victim-blaming stuff it tends to throw up a nice mirror.

    • Thanks for commenting, bejart.

      I like what you say about “an integral part of my being”.

      I’ve been mulling all the comments on this post over as I finished reading Wally Lamb’s “The Hour I First Believed”. For me, this was a story of multiple types of traumas and their generational impact but also of the transcending/transformation/living through trauma into something that heals the self and others.

      That someone, any of us, can be wounded AND strong is something I truly believe.

  5. Lucy Marrero says:

    C, thank you for your reply. It’s fascinating to me that I was thinking about this *very* thing (related to another situation) right before I read this…

    I think this dichotomy between abuser/victim is due to cultural ideology. It’s a cultural value: one either is an abuser (and thus evil, irreparable, etc.) or a helpless victim (and thus broken, unmendable, etc.). It’s awfully convenient in that it supports paternalizing women [victims] and criminalizing perpetrators, especially men (and women) of color [abusers/criminals/evil].

    The reality, at least in my view, is much more complicated. Abusers perpetuate violence because of a number of environmental factors–generations of violence within families, cultural messages, being survivors of child abuse, seeing their mothers abused… and survivors can and do survive violence/trauma/abuse and act as agents of their own destiny in ways small and large.

    We are all human beings, with light and dark in us. We have various levels of darkness to grapple with, for sure, and various resources (or lack thereof) to act as agents.

    Your closing sentence, C, that it “ends up obscuring important issues about trauma and recovery” gets to the heart of it for me–our culture obscures the relationship between cultural values and social practices and violence at the interpersonal level. Child abuse, violence, domestic violence–these are not products of faulty people, these are the products of a faulty environment that wreaks havoc on human development and muddles things up dramatically.

    Finding our way out of the mess into loving, respectful relationships that allow for our fully humanity in ourselves and in others is hugely challenging. But incredibly fulfilling. It restores my hope in humanity and the possibility for other, healthier ways of being.

    • Lucy-

      Thank you! I am nodding and thinking as I read along. The (false) dichotomy between abuser/victim is an important point. It has certainly been my experience that many who comit abuse have themselves been abuse. And (of course) that many who have been abused do not repeat this cycle but instead transcend it.

      “Child abuse, violence, domestic violence–these are not products of faulty people, these are the products of a faulty environment that wreaks havoc on human development and muddles things up dramatically.”

      Yes! And it is crucial that we are able/willing to step back and address the bigger picture.

  6. CH says:

    Thanks for elaborating on what I was getting at Lucy. Victim-blaming is rampant and I believe it is part and parcel of “isms,” (racism, sexism, classism, etc). Bejart makes a good point about the proliforation of “victimology,” where being a victim of something has currency, becomes sort of a status-symbol. How do we honor the experiences of victims, hear their voices, without turning victimhood into an identity? My identity is NOT “victim.” That feels totally disempowering. I want the focus to be on my strength, resiliency, and my contributions, not on my victimization. That’s *very* different than holding me responsible for my rapist’s actions.

  7. Jo says:

    It takes enormous courage to come forward and say, “Yes, I survived atrocities such as this.” It’s not a decision to be made lightly, nor is it right for everyone. I have the utmost respect for anyone who is a survivor, whether they do or do NOT wish to disclose their past.

    In my case, I know that my a large part of my purpose in life is to speak out about my experiences, particularly in a way that dispels the prevalent myth that those who are victimized inevitably grow up to offend. Additionally, and perhaps primarily, I embrace the idea that life can be joyous, beautiful, and filled with laughter – even as I face the horrors. I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, but for me, it’s a matter of perspective and choice.

    For those who may be interested, my blog can be found here: http://raisedbyrabidwolves.blogspot.com/

    I am working on my Magnum Opus, and hope to have my book ready for submission to a literary agent or publisher in the next 18 months or less.

    • Thank you for your post Jo and for sharing the link to your blog!

      How challenging it is, in our either/or culture to integrate horrors and joy, wounding and strength. And yet how important to be able to do so…good for you that you are able to do so!

      I work with and of course understand that many trauma survivors are not there yet, are so mired in the immediacy of the pain that they cannot see anything else. Those who share their experiences, not just of abuse but of thriving after, maybe help provide a glimpse at other possibilities.

  8. Lucy Marrero says:

    CH–

    How do we honor the experiences of victims, hear their voices, without turning victimhood into an identity? My identity is NOT “victim.” That feels totally disempowering. I want the focus to be on my strength, resiliency, and my contributions, not on my victimization. That’s *very* different than holding me responsible for my rapist’s actions.

    Yes yes yes!!

    This is so beautiful stated! As I gain experience and knowledge as a future therapist and community psychologist, I am drawn to approaches that emphasize strength, resilience, and assets/resources (community psychology, liberation psychology, narrative and humanistic orientations…). We cannot catalogue a person’s “deficiencies,” needs, and traumas and call it an assessment. We have to, ethically, begin from a place of strengths and assets, contextualizing the “deficiencies”/needs/traumas within that strength-based perspective, invoking the strengths and assets in the process of healing. (Which, incidentally, to me, is not a destination–it’s a continual process with major changes over time…)

  9. Susan says:

    “Our environment (how we are nurtured) effects our brain chemistry. “Chemical imbalnces” as the cause of psychological problems rarely exist in a vacuum.”

    thank you for this. I spent 15 years in a medicated stupor when all I needed was to have my experiences validated and to get on with learning how to live in spite of what I went through as a child. What changed? A doctor who listened instead of dismissing my past. A therapist trained in trauma to validate my existence and light the path for me to find my way out of the darkness.

    My mother gave up the fight in 1976 when she (also) asked for help and was denied ,medicated and manipulated by family and doctors. It has been a long road but this is the message of today.

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  11. Dee says:

    As someone who “left it well alone” and found that it would not work for me. I had to face it. 3 years of hard work later. I am a different woman and a stronger woman.
    I want it to be openly discussed. I hate the fact that I am not ‘supposed’ to be talking about it. Once upon a time in rural Ireland you could not talk about Cancer, it was whispered and was called The Big C. Now, it’s no big deal. There are support groups & everything. I want childhood abuse to be talked about, not whispered, not ignored, not silenced because it makes people uncomfortable. It took place in my community so my community should make a place for me. I don’t mind who knows it. And if they only want to see the abuse, that is their loss since there is a lot more to me. But it is a big part of me since the silence remains. The more I talk, the less of a hold it has over me. Also by talking I have met other women who have suffered abuse & I have learned additional coping mechanism, I get to laugh with them, cry with them and feel less isolated in this silent community. Silence does feed the violence.
    Thank you for raising this issue.

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  14. Cass says:

    Dr., I thank you for your article. I think it is very enlightening, as are the comments that are in response to your article. I feel like I have done all of these mistakes that do not help in regards to one friend of mine. I have tried to get this friend to think positively or to not focus on the bad things (this in regards to abuse and to just things the friend is angry about in general). I was trying to adopt a mood of “attitude counts.” But at the same time this friend has vented to me about frustrations with the abusers, and I have listened. So I suppose in that way I am doing as you advise and helping them to “tell the story.”

    I want to keep doing the right move in regards to this friend and I am not proud to realize that I have not been helping by trying to use the “don’t think about it” method. I am pretty helpless in helping this friend because the abusers are powerful people – parents – and I try to tell my friend that she can and will get out of the vicious cycle some day but all I have is my conviction; I don’t have any practical method.

    So again I thank you for your article because I feel that you have presented some methods that may help.

    Sincerely,
    Cass

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  17. nessa3 says:

    There is alot of stigma given in church circles…Your either demon processed, sinning, weak, unwilling to forgive and move on. They think alls you need is to repent, memorise a few scriptures and leave the passed in the past. I tried that …it didnt work….

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