• Caterina Sullivan

Who is Allowed to Dictate Your Trauma?

Updated: Oct 18



I've heard throughout my life that I need to understand and accept my trauma.


At first, I would sort of just nod and smile and put it on the very last page of my incredibly long mental to-do list.


After a while, I started questioning this in a bit more depth.


"Why do I need to accept my trauma?"


"What does accepting my trauma mean?"


"How does one go about accepting one's trauma?"


"What makes people think I need to accept my trauma?"


The response to these questions was always interesting. Cloaked in vagueness and obscurity, I never felt like I received a proper response.


My understanding of the trauma I have been through is that I am as at peace with it as humanly possible.


Over a period of self-reflection, I've understood that the way I deal with my trauma is through a somewhat dark sense of humour. This is how I best cope, and it's worked well for me to date. I wouldn't recommend this coping technique to everyone because understanding and accepting trauma does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.


The people who are close to me can identify that the only way they know for sure that I have dealt with and accepted my trauma is through this same sense of humour. To others who don't know me as well, it would be easy to assume that I haven't dealt with my trauma. Which then begs the question: if they don't know me well enough to understand the idiosyncrasies of my personality, why are they trying so hard to psychoanalyse me?


A common topic that gets questioned as to how I've really coped with it is my illness over the past few years.


Being honest and upfront about my brain tumour, strokes and eventual brain surgery is often met with a raised eyebrow. For whatever reason, people think that me talking about this is over-sharing. When I question whether or not they would be as uncomfortable if I were talking about knee or wrist surgery, it's met with silence.


It comes down to the perceived trauma they believe I felt while going through my health battle.


Brain surgery would be way more traumatic in most people's eyes than a simple wrist surgery. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. But it shouldn't stop me from being able to share my story, especially when one of the biggest concerns in Emergency Departments in Australia is undetected strokes in young people. I share my story to raise awareness of this.


All of this comes down, at the end of the day, to self-gratification. When people try to diagnose me with unresolved trauma when they don't really understand me, they aren't doing it to help me. They are doing it to fulfill some kind of either god-complex or inner inadequacy that needs to help people for them to feel good about themselves.


Why share all of this? Is this story just one big unresolved trauma?


Maybe a little...


But!


It is important to note that unless we know someone really well, we don't have business trying to psychoanalyse them. And even if we do know them well, we need to ask questions about the person. Instead of "I don't think you've dealt with this trauma," it could be phrased as "I notice you've spoken about this quite a bit. Are you OK with it all, or is there something that's bothering you about it?"


Firstly, by asking a question like this you are allowing the person to have ownership over their trauma and not making them feel further powerless in their lived experience. This is important in dealing with trauma as in many instances, trauma comes from a loss of power. Whether it is from a health condition, a physical or sexual assault, domestic abuse or violence or even a lockdown during a global health pandemic, many instances of trauma are about a lack of power or control over a negative circumstance.


By dictating your thoughts on how someone has dealt with trauma as the ultimate truth, you are then further taking away their power in being able to say how their trauma management and recovery is progressing.


Secondly, asking a question like this instead of stating it as a fact means that the person can explain a little more (if they want to) as to why they might have dealt with their trauma already or how it is no longer affecting them.


Thirdly, when asking a question, you are making the trauma about them, not about you. It's not your trauma; it's not your journey; your opinion in it ultimately doesn't matter. It's about the person who has lived through the experience and their thoughts on it now.


As we all become increasingly supportive of one another through our mental health journeys, we need to learn what is and isn't appropriate to say to people. We need to learn to put our own egos aside and ask questions. We need to learn that our relationship with the person that we are talking to should dictate the level of interaction. If it's someone we don't know well enough to know what 'dealing with trauma' looks like for them, it's not our place to make a judgement call.


Soon, a vast majority of Australians will see restrictions lifted and borders opened. We need to be mindful during this transition to understand that there will be many of us who have lived through months of emotionally draining and debilitating lockdowns. How each of us copes with that will look different for everyone. Some people might be excited to go back out into the world and do things they haven't been able to do for months. Others may be more hesitant and still anxious about the virus. Some may have picked up the habit and routine of staying home and avoiding people and may find the transition back into community life difficult. No two people's experience of the pandemic has been the same, and no two people's reaction to the transition will be the same either.


This is a great opportunity for us to exercise our patience with one another and be sure to ask supportive and helpful questions in our interactions.