In early 20th-century Russia, instability was rife, with antisemitic riots, known as “pogroms”, causing chaos. Amidst this turmoil, a young girl named Rivka, forced to shelter during violent outbreaks, found her fate decided in 1907. Her journey from Russia to becoming Rebecca in New York at 14 is eloquently captured in Magdalena Ball’s poetic novel, Bobish, tracing the life of her great-grandmother.
This isn’t just a story of historical trauma; it’s a reflection of how people, particularly young ones, leave their homes when adversity becomes too great. Whether driven by societal conflicts, family disputes, or personal tragedies, trauma invariably leaves its mark. Our brain, particularly areas like the amygdala and hippocampus, reacts to these traumatic incidents, something which Ball captures poignantly in her verses. Her poem, Ocean Mandela, recounts Rebecca’s journey with a mix of childlike wonder and harrowing memories.
Fast forward to today, and Dr. Ahona Guha’s work, Reclaim: Understanding Complex Trauma and Abusers, resonates with Ball’s tales. Guha, a clinical psychologist, delves into how society’s understanding and portrayal of trauma, especially in the era of social media, often lacks nuance. While the digital age has increased awareness around trauma, it has also simplified its understanding, leading to overgeneralizations and potential misinformation.
Society’s Perspective on Trauma is Paradoxical
While working hard and being industrious are often rewarded, struggling with addiction due to trauma is stigmatized. It’s a harsh reality that many individuals, from convicted criminals to high-functioning professionals, grapple with daily. The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlights this disparity, noting a significantly higher imprisonment rate for New South Wales’ Indigenous Australians.
Guha and Ball’s works converge in their portrayal of trauma’s multifaceted nature. They highlight how trauma, whether stemming from personal relationships or larger societal issues, shapes identities. Ball’s poetic journey of Rebecca’s life in New York, from the tragedies she faced at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to her marriage with a fish smoker, intertwines with Guha’s insights on trauma’s subtle and overt manifestations.
- Childhood Trauma in South Africa: According to a study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, more than 40% of South African schoolchildren from grades 8 to 11 reported experiencing some form of crime or violence in 2018, with many of them witnessing violence at home. Such traumatic experiences in early life have significant implications for mental health in adulthood.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Globally, it’s estimated that 70% of adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. Of these, up to 20% may develop PTSD. In the South African context, where communities have faced social upheavals, political violence, and other challenges, the PTSD prevalence rate is believed to be much higher, especially in communities most affected by violence and crime.
- Sexual Violence: South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world. According to the South African Police Service, in the 2019/2020 year, there were 42,289 reported rape cases. This number represents only the reported cases, and the actual figures could be higher. Sexual violence can lead to long-term trauma among survivors.
- Mental Health Consequences: According to a study from the South African Stress and Health (SASH) study, around 75% of South Africans who have experienced trauma and violence have had at least one lifetime psychiatric disorder. Moreover, those who have experienced multiple traumatic events are more likely to suffer from conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
- Economic Impact: A report by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) stated that the impact of trauma and related mental health issues costs the South African economy more than R40 billion annually. This figure accounts for the direct medical costs and the indirect costs of lost earning potential and productivity due to untreated trauma.
The Dual Faces of Trauma
Resilience and Personal Growth
- Increased Empathy: Individuals who have experienced trauma often develop a heightened sense of empathy. Their experiences can make them more understanding and compassionate toward others who are suffering.
- Enhanced Resilience: Overcoming traumatic events can increase a person’s resilience. They often develop coping strategies that enable them to handle future challenges more effectively.
- Post-traumatic Growth: Many survivors report positive changes post-trauma, like a renewed appreciation for life, recognizing new possibilities, improved personal strength, enhanced relationships, and spiritual growth.
- Constant Hyper-vigilance: While heightened awareness can be advantageous in certain situations, constantly being on alert is mentally and emotionally exhausting.
- Over-sensitivity: While empathy is generally seen as a positive trait, increased sensitivity can also make trauma survivors more susceptible to being overwhelmed by others’ emotions or distressing events.
Cognitive and Memory Challenges
- Enhanced Memory for Survival Situations: Traumatic events can heighten memory capabilities in specific contexts, especially those related to survival, as the brain prioritizes these memories for future reference.
- Impaired Memory Function: Trauma can interfere with short-term memory and the ability to process and store information.
- Disorganized Thinking: Traumatic events can cause difficulty in organizing thoughts, which can impact daily functioning.
Physical Reactions and Health
- Quick Reflexes: Those who have experienced trauma might develop faster reflexes, especially in situations reminiscent of their traumatic events, as their bodies are primed to respond to threats.
- Health Complications: Chronic stress from trauma can lead to long-term health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
- Sleep Disturbances: Trauma survivors often suffer from insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns, impacting their overall health and well-being.
Social Interactions and Relationships
- Deepened Relationships: Shared traumatic experiences can deepen bonds between individuals, creating a profound understanding and connection.
- Withdrawal from Social Situations: Trauma can lead individuals to withdraw from social interactions, leading to isolation.
- Trust Issues: Experiencing trauma, especially if caused by another individual, can make it challenging for survivors to trust others.
The Role of Perception in Recovery
- Shifted Priorities: Surviving trauma can lead to a shift in priorities, making individuals more focused on what truly matters to them.
- Enhanced Spiritual Connection: Some people find a deeper spiritual connection or understanding as a result of their traumatic experiences.
- Altered Worldview: Trauma can lead to a more negative or altered perception of the world, making it difficult for individuals to feel safe or optimistic.
Dealing With Your Trauma Experience
- Acknowledge Your Feelings It’s essential to understand that your feelings are valid, irrespective of how others might react to your trauma. Everyone processes events differently, and you deserve to give your emotions the space they need.
- Seek Professional Help Consider reaching out to a therapist or counselor who specializes in trauma. They can provide you with coping strategies, offer perspective, and support you in your healing journey. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- Establish a Support System Engage with trusted friends, family, or support groups. Surrounding yourself with a supportive community can make a significant difference. Sharing your feelings and experiences can be therapeutic, and hearing others’ stories can provide a sense of shared understanding and solace.
- Limit Exposure to Triggers If particular sights, sounds, or situations intensify your trauma, it’s okay to avoid them while you heal. Over time, with the help of therapy, you may find these triggers become less potent.
- Prioritize Self-Care Engaging in self-care activities can be a powerful tool in trauma recovery. Activities such as meditation, journaling, exercise, and spending time in nature can be therapeutic. Listen to your body and mind, and permit yourself to take breaks when you need them.
FAQs on Navigating Trauma
Q: I feel guilty for not “getting over” my trauma quickly. Is this normal?
A: Yes, it’s normal. Everyone’s healing journey is unique. Trauma isn’t something you simply “get over”; it’s something you work through. Give yourself the grace and time you need.
Q: How do I explain my trauma to someone who doesn’t understand?
A: Be as open as you’re comfortable with. Let them know that trauma is a personal experience, and while they might not fully understand, you appreciate their support and patience. If you’re unsure how to articulate your feelings, consider referring them to resources or literature on trauma.
Q: Can I ever feel “normal” again after experiencing trauma?
A: While your definition of “normal” might change, healing and a sense of equilibrium are attainable. With time, support, and coping mechanisms, you can find a new sense of normalcy that incorporates both your trauma and your growth.
In today’s world, where trauma’s nuances are often overlooked, both Bobish and Reclaim serve as essential readings. They challenge society’s views on complex trauma survivors, reminding us of the importance of empathy, understanding, and a more informed perspective on trauma.