For the last seven years or so, I've had an interest in "trauma." It started at a Professional Day workshop at the school where I worked in Agassiz, British Columbia, perhaps in January of 2015. Although I don't remember what the presenter himself said, his comments moved me to do some thinking and reading. At the time, I tried to talk through my feelings in a video that I posted to Twitter and YouTube (now deleted), and over the next few months, I read two Peter A. Levine books, In an Unspoken Voice and Taming the Tiger. Since then, I've tried to pay attention when trauma was mentioned in further professional and personal work.
The concept of trauma came to me at a tumultuous period in my life, within less than a year, my ex-wife and I separated. At this time, the idea that "trauma lives in the body" was an appealing one to me because it felt comfortable: it comforted me to think that these mental roadblocks I felt in myself rested in places that I couldn't really think through. The Levine books described it as a thing you sort of shake off, like you might after an attack from a predator. As somebody who always felt rather disconnected from his body, it was nice to imagine that there was stuff going on that I couldn't quite access, that is was natural and ok, and that there were clinical ways to work through it.
Since then, like I expect many people who've gone through the divorce process have done, I've been in and out of therapy from counsellors and psychologists. Within the two years after the separation, I had two separate psychologists tell me that I had numerous "symptoms of PTSD." I understood that this was not a diagnosis, but an observation they made based on their experiences with me in the therapy room. It wasn't a diagnosis, but it showed that there was important stuff for me to work through.
The comments scared me at first, but as time went on, I identified less and less with those comments. I started to read, in articles in mainstream publications, more and more that "Trauma lives in the body." It seemed like more and more therapists appealed to trauma as a concept and experience. I started to hear teachers and counsellors in schools make references to trauma. I started to hear the word more and more in the news, in relation to the presidency of Donald Trump, for example, or perhaps after the death of George Floyd, and of course through the Covid-19 pandemic.
I don't have references for these observations, but the phrase that most comes to mind is "collective trauma." It seemed like our whole society was experiencing trauma all at the same time. The fact that The Body Keeps the Score stayed near the top of the Amazon best sellers list through most of the pandemic shows that a good portion of the population wanted trauma to be an answer to the questions they were asking through the pandemic. Trauma seemed to be everywhere. Trauma was trending--trendy, even.
Each time I heard the word "trauma" get used outside of clinical settings, it irked me a little. It made me think things like,
It just didn't seem to work. It started to feel like a concept that wouldn't exist without rhetoric, analogous to the "apologetics" that sent me reeling for my teenage years and early 20s as I tried to justify a faith I didn't really believe in, or analogous to education fads that cross the pseudoscience boundary, like Brain Gym or "learning styles." To me, "trauma" got to be too messy. So over the last year, I kinda' let my thoughts about it slide.
But over the last month, the word reappeared in ways that alarmed me. I can't professionally describe those events here, but I can say that these events brought set my skepticism-feelers on high alert. I couldn't quite figure out what was wrong about it, but I knew something was wrong about how people around me were treating trauma as a concept.
And then I serendipitously heard this episode of Oh No Ross And Carrie, titled "Carrie Talks Trauma, Pseudoscience, and Social Media: Trauma Trap Edition." (embedded below)
I've listened to "Oh No Ross and Carrie" on and off for over a decade. I love their work. This episode is a talk Carrie Poppy made for the Merseyside Skeptics, and it got my mind rolling with new ideas and perhaps some clarity.
I feel that Carrie's conclusion about "suffering" creates a far more cohesive concept than any of the descriptions of trauma I've heard over the last many years. When I realized this, it was as if a weight slid off my back that I'd carried since those psychologists mentioned the word to me years ago. I can handle suffering, and I can see suffering all around me. But trauma, I just don't think we're using the term in a falsifiable way. I think the word "trauma" complicates things where "suffering" would simplify the conversation.
At the end of the podcast, Carrie suggests a book: The End of Trauma, by George A. Bonanno. I've started listening to it on Audible. My ideas about trauma continue to evolve. I'll write more about my new thoughts another time.
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