“I’ve experienced trauma.”
Admitting this to yourself is an important step on the path toward true healing. But for some people a big hurdle can stand in the way: We must first discard the stigmas surrounding what trauma actually is that we can place on ourselves without even realizing.
Case in point: I come from an immigrant family that moved around when I was a child, finally settling in the U.S. just before I entered high school. I spent my whole childhood painfully trying to adjust to new languages and cultures, and struggling to form a healthy sense of identity or belonging of my own. I also experienced bullying, economic hardship, and other things that made growing up well adjusted challenging. As an adolescent I fell into deep depression and what I now understand to have been severe anxiety. At the time, I felt that no one could help me and largely kept it to myself.
Only years later did I admit to myself that these experiences made up a type of complex trauma, which still impacts my life today. Complex Trauma is sometimes also referred to as Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). In the "The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences, Nationally, by State, and by Race or Ethnicity,” Vanessa Sacks and David Murphey studied data from the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health to show that childhood trauma can be caused by a myriad of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These include (but are not limited to) to divorce, death or incarceration of a loved one, growing up with someone who is mentally ill or addicted to drugs, or experiencing poverty in childhood. About 45 percent of U.S. children have experienced at least one ACE, and one in ten children nationally has experienced three or more.
The problem is that even when we’ve experienced such things, we don’t always allow ourselves to think of them as trauma. We’re taught to think that we should just suck it up and move on. This is because we often think about trauma or PTSD in the context of war veterans left scarred by traumatic battles, or people being severely physically or sexually abused for example. It might never occur to us to think about any of our own experiences as trauma if these don’t fall into that category.
By my own count I experienced at least five different ACEs before the age of 18. But since I went away to college, I’ve dealt with this mainly by trying to forget all about it. I also felt that if I were to complain that some things in my childhood weren’t fair, then I’m somehow betraying those people whose experiences were much worse.
As the years passed I established a career, got married, and had a child. I appeared successful, well adjusted, and as if I had everything going for me. But seemingly mundane things like one extra project at work, or an unexpected change in my routine suddenly triggered a sense of dread in me that I just couldn’t shake off. No one could see how my heart sometimes skipped a beat as if I was under attack, even when I knew nothing bad had occurred. These things happened so often that they became normal to me. I barely even noticed them.
As an adult, I also hid from nearly everyone in my life how I’ve struggled with low self-esteem, how I never felt good enough no matter what I achieved, how difficult I found it sometimes to connect with people (even friends and loved-ones), and how convinced I was deep down that no one could be trusted. On occasion, when the anxiety got particularly bad, I could go without sleep for days. When life got stressful, as it does for everyone, I got overwhelmed and struggled to cope.
When I saw that I was making important life choices largely based on anxiety than on sound or logical reasons, the light bulb turned on in my head. After going through several therapists, I finally found one that made me face that I did experience trauma as a child. I realized that trauma can mean a lot of different things, and what isn’t traumatic to one person can be very traumatic to another. I didn’t have to hide from my emotional pain. And feeling this pain didn’t make me weak.
Today, my healing is still a work in progress, but I am one step ahead now. Because the first step to solving a problem, is acknowledging that the problem exists. As long as I didn’t understand what trauma is – telling myself instead to just “get over” it – I placed a stigma on my own experiences, and never truly allowed myself to heal. It may seem like a negative thing to admit that you’ve experienced trauma, but it is actually very positive. As long as I wasn’t able do to that, I kept reliving the child I once was instead of living as the person I am today.