Thursday, October 20, 2022

Trauma and the Empathetic Witness

We all hear a lot about trauma these days. It seems to be a sort of buzz word, perhaps becoming so common as to lose its meaning. And yet we are hearing about trauma for a reason. Science is catching up to what so many of us know: that an event or series of events so painful and so profound can change us and even cripple us, sometimes for life. 

There are different kinds of trauma. There is what I've heard called the "big T" trauma: the natural disaster, horrific warfare, the unthinkable catastrophe that comes out of left field. That is what most people think of when they think of trauma. And those events certainly fit the bill. PTSD is very real. 

And yet there is a different kind of trauma. I've heard it called the "little t" trauma. Sometimes it is  developmental trauma. Sometimes it relational trauma. They call what follows complex-ptsd or c-ptsd. And complex it is.  

So why do some people cruise through hard events with nary a scratch and others wrestle with the intense mental and emotional and even physical pain and disability for years...or a lifetime? Especially when it comes to the "little t" trauma, what make trauma...well...trauma? 

"Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness." 

When I first read this quote from Peter Levine then it all made sense.  It is the "in the absence of an empathetic witness" that is, to me, the most crucial point. It certainly has been in my life. When I think of the hard things in my life, the most painful events by far, especially in my childhood, happened when I was utterly and completely alone. There was nobody to turn to. Absolutely nobody. Even now when I try to describe those times, the pain can take my breath away. 

I think that some types of family dysfunction are so much more damaging than others because some things are absolutely isolating. There is nobody to turn to. 

Let's look at the Adverse Childhood Experiences, the ten traumatic experiences measured the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Study, what do you have? 

-Abuse: verbal and emotional, physical, sexual

-Neglect: emotional, physical

-Separation or divorce of parents

-Domestic abuse of mother

-Mental illness of household member

-Substance abuse of household member

-Incarceration of household member

Abuse within the family is isolating. Neglect within a family is isolating. Nobody talks about it. If the abuse or neglect isn't physical, nobody even recognizes it as abuse. You are alone.

If there is a death in the family everybody comes running (unless it is a suicide, of course). If there is a divorce people turn the other way, or worse, point fingers. The child is left to navigate these waters of loss or change alone. 

Substance abuse within the family is a hush hush situation, especially among the tidier in society.

And then there are the horrific secrets of sexual abuse...
And if you get the courage to tell someone and are met with unbelief or blame, all hope of an empathetic witness is gone.

While all of this is tragic, the worst part is that the church can compound it all, by ignoring the wound, by not recognizing the intense internal injury, by minmizing the pain, or blaming it all on your sin, thus compounding the trauma and leaving you to believe that not even God is an empathetic witness.

Far too many of us have had the opposite reaction. When we disclose our stories we are met with the silence of disinterest, discomfort, disbelief, or disapproval. Or we are chastised, exhorted to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, lose the "victim mentality," and repent of our sin. There is no way to quantify the damage this response does. Not only is this a cruel response, it is a horrific representation of the character of God. 

I recently finished the book Trauma in the Pews by Janyne McConnaughey. For the first time I understood why church has been so hard for me. (I would recommend anybody and everybody who goes to church to read this book.) One of the things she points out is how absolutely essential it is for church to be a safe place to tell our stories, stories that perhaps never before had an empathetic witness. 

McConnaughey says:

The litmus test for trauma-responsive faith communities is how leaders and laypeople respond to the vulnerable sharing of trauma.  

So what can we do? We can listen to people as they share the hard, hard things in their lives. We can listen and learn. Listen and weep. Listen and connect. Listen and affirm. Listen and validate their pain. Listen and see. We can be a village of empathetic witnesses.