What Is Trauma?
People often think of trauma as related to a physically violent event that is most likely life threatening. When we look at trauma in emotional health terms, we are looking at all of the ways in which our spirit and our person can be harmed emotionally through events and interactions with systems and people. We are looking at people feeling shame, hurt and guilt for being themselves. All the ways in which you can be denied or attacked for your feelings, thoughts experiences and very existence. At its core, it is a denial of the core elements necessary for healthy emotional security, development and attachment to others.
A non-traumatic, nurturing background would involve consistent acceptance, non-judgment and love, paired with healthy learning of self and others’ boundaries. There would be room for mistakes and a supportive learning orientation with encouragement and positive self reference as opposed to punishment. Psychological and emotional traumas often involve pervasive invalidation and withholding. You are denigrated and dehumanized at your core for just being, and convinced there is something wrong with you and that emotional violence is what you deserve or is normal. In fact, you are very often blamed as the abuser by parental figures who have their own unresolved intergenerational trauma or mental health issues and displace them onto their children. In much the same way, systemic institutional structures and societal attitudes replicate this abusive paternalistic relationship.
What is Trauma Informed Mental Health Care?
Trauma informed mental health support is more or less a depathologizing approach to emotional reactions to suffering and harm. Grounded in First Nations and holistic health understandings, trauma informed approaches look at mental health concerns more or less broadly as specific symptoms of emotional and psychological coping patterns that result from oppressive and violent situations and life experiences. An individual’s coping style is something that instinctively results from our survival instincts, often involving Fight, Flight and Freeze responses. Basically, the amygdala portion of the brain becomes enacted any time there is a physical or emotional threat of harm. When this is the case, we instinctively respond by lashing out, running away, or staying very still. This can look various ways and there are lots of ways of exploring how trauma interacts with mental health symptoms and coping patterns.
The idea of trauma informed care is that folks respond with very legitimate long and short term emotional strategies that make sense at the time in terms of alerting us to danger and keeping us as safe as is possible in a time that is usually very powerless and helpless. The brain is too smart for us, and through long term support, reflection and therapy coupled with helping folks get stabilized around structural safety and meeting their basic survival needs, we can move forward and build safer connections and coping strategies that reduce further experiences of harm, suffering, and repeated cycles of violence.
What does complex trauma look like in LGBTTQ2SI communities?
Complex trauma looks like social violence. It looks like relational violence. It looks like structural, systemic violence. And it looks like surviving and reenacting all of those things upon each other. It looks like communities of queer and trans people replicating violence we’ve experienced for the last twenty to fifty years with no one talking about it. It looks like people fucking up and lashing out and and harming each other and being cast as monsters and excommunicated with no resolution or healing.
It looks like people placing themselves in positions of power and never being accountable themselves for bullying, social and emotional violence. It looks like the silent treatment, and a very fractured community that increasingly sees its own members as triggering.
It looks like people being left alone to suffer in isolation, with no community to rely on and no resources to pay rent or put food in their bellies. It looks like no one being able to ask for help and no one noticing, or making judgments and assumptions about that person’s life and their perceived ease.
It looks like no discussions on mental health, trauma and recovery, and certainly no space to hold room for awareness of how addictions may be a part of this.
How can it be difficult to provide mental health support within your own community?
Very few people know or respect the toll that this work takes on your spirit emotionally and physically. Emotional nurturance and caregiving work is completely devalued, unacknowledged and erased. People doing this emotional labour in the best of circumstances in supportive (rare) environments have a difficult time not being burnt out and leaving after a few years.
The energetic emotional output and absorption of stress is so great that you end up having very little personal resources for your daily living or relationships. Let alone the desire to talk and make conversation, or heaven forbid, listen to someone for hours who is more talkative than you and has no clue what listening and caring for a living does to you.
You add to this your own trauma and survival story, as well as any non paid supportive work you provide to loved ones and you have a recipe for supreme isolation and martyrdom. You can literally martyr yourself to death because the systems you work within and even your own community have no understanding of the toll on your life. Many of us are in crisis or survival. Now imagine being in survival, and adding a caseload of thirty suicidal clients you are responsible to help in some tangible way despite overwhelming structural barriers, day to day. Imagine the emotional toll it takes to support a friend or family member when they are in crisis and multiply this 24/7 x 30-40 people. Now imagine doing that for fifteen straight years with hundreds, and thousands of people. That will give you a glimpse into the toll of this work.
On top of that, your colleagues and manager have no concept of what mental health work entails in terms of trauma counselling and have no clue you’ve been helping keep people out of crisis and into some modicum of survival all this time. No one killed themselves, so no one notices your work. And you aren’t supposed to have any needs, especially for emotional support. It’s preferable if you have no needs at all and never take time off and continue to do your work without anyone noticing or supporting.
This is capitalism and patriarchy at its finest. Everyone deserves to be valued and supported for the work and care they provide at their jobs and in life. We think firefighters and paramedics are heroic because they emphasize the physical value of life, not the emotional.
Fractured relationships, Fractured communities. Dealing with trauma in your own relationships while providing support to others in your community.
The thing that strikes me about our social justice political work in our communities, is that the premise is that collectively, we struggle together from our different positionalities to fight for equitable access to resources, opportunities, structural, physical and emotional safety. However, we don’t have many conversations or tools for how to address building solid relationships with each other when the source of much of our trauma and subsequent mental health challenges result from early relationship traumas intertwined with systemic violence and surviving from this.
We avoid conversations around mental health and don’t have a shared understanding of trauma informed care with each other. So we seem to be forever retraumatizing each other and fracturing our much needed intimacies into oblivion. How can you fight in solidarity when you don’t have basic trust?
If we are to consider the possibility of fighting systemic oppression and decolonizing ourselves, we have to get less vicious and more understanding with each other, to move our thinking beyond seeing individuals unilaterally as abusers or victims. They are two sides of the same coin and we are all vulnerable to acting abusively or being victimized as we perceive threat and harm coming our way according to our own trauma lens and survival instincts. We are encouraged to remain in survival mode due to all of the ways in which folks experience systemic oppressions and violence. So, this means many if not most of us, are in some form of fight or flight mode much of or all of the time.
A lot of the social and interpersonal violence in our communities, is a result of trauma responses being triggered and not knowing how to recognize this and support each other when it happens. Survivors harming survivors. If we view individuals as the problem we end up pathologizing each other, something the medical industrial complex does quite well already. It means we are all potentially violators compelled to leave community, with no way back to each other and self appointed groups of individuals acting as judge, jury and ex-communicators.
In order to radically dismantle unjust systems and account for the personal impacts of systemic and intergenerational traumas on our mental health, wellness and functioning, we need to start talking about how we cope and support each other better when we are struggling to find ways that do not replicate experiences of violence.
We need to create new and better systems for supporting each other and distributing this work fairly and equitably.
Some thoughts on increasing sensitivity.
It would be greatly beneficial to start addressing our collective and individual trauma patterns and coping while in survival mode. Instead of treating each other as shameful, or not enough of, or belittling and demonizing each other when we get ideas and behaviours wrong - we can focus on educating why boundaries and limits for certain behaviours are necessary while accepting the individual wherever they are at, as a whole human being who is also surviving huge systems of violence. Each person has the same value while recognizing some of us have easier and more plentiful access to supports and recovery resources, as well as resources in daily life.
When violence happens in our communities, some of that work will have to look like seeking to understand the ways in which folks respond when feeling triggered and holding and supporting both or all parties through this difficult work of awareness and self discovery. The last thing a survivor will want to do is listen to how the person who harmed them is in pain. And perhaps, the last thing a person who has survived violence, yet is accused of violence will want to do, is hear how they have victimized another. However, as part of a healing process and holding folks accountable we will have to wade through lots of pain. We will have to get very good at wading through pain in a supportive, non pathologizing, nurturing manner.
This does not mean accepting abusive behaviours, but it means teaching about limits in conversations that happen gently and firmly, with room for whole individuals to be in a process of learning, recovery and engaging in hard personal and collective work over time. Some folks accused of harm will not want to be a part of this process and we need to find ways of supporting each other and keeping firm boundaries with those individuals as well as providing alternate routes for reengaging in the work of restorative justice.
This also means giving those who have been harmed the ultimate say in whether or not they wish to participate in any part of a process and centering their needs and wishes for a just process. This can look complicated though, when both parties accuse the other of harming them or being the abuser. This becomes an area where we must gather more collective knowledge and skill to implement opportunities for us to come together in ways that will hold all of that pain securely. Usually in a therapeutic setting, this can involve the parties doing their work separately with key supports, then using those supports to facilitate a meeting that has particular goals for conflict resolution. But, we can get creative in how we do this in our own communities. And this is already happening.
Firstly, we must get more familiar with how our interpersonal violence is tied to trauma survival and raise awareness of this.