Most research into trauma is based on male experiences – especially the experiences of male soldiers. It focuses on the idea that you have experienced a single, or a small number of traumatic things and that healing comes from contextualising it and de-normalising it. The expectation of flashbacks to specific events as a PTSD response comes with this sort of trauma.
Of course not all trauma takes this shape. If you grew up neglected, or in an emotionally abusive family, there may not be any big events you can point at. Racial abuse can often take the form of relentless microaggressions – any one alone doesn’t look like much, but added together they become traumatic. Gaslighting depends on attrition, not big events. Economic abuse tends to be a long term project. Workplace bullying can be insidious and long term. People emerge from these situations traumatised and also not fitting the traditional model we have for dealing with event based trauma.
Then there’s the intersections – to be traumatised by living as a neurodiverse person while also having to deal with racism and economic abuse. To suffer medical trauma because of your sexual identity and also having to deal with workplace bullying and one instance of being beaten up… People can have multiple trauma sources and those interact with each other and impact on how, and if you might be going to heal.
I’ve experienced event-based trauma and the kinds of invasive thoughts and flashbacks that go with it. I’ve also experienced the kind of trauma that is built of smaller things over longer timeframes. Being triggered around that is qualitatively really different and much harder to spot. If you’re back in the trenches with the shellfire, then afterwards you have a pretty good idea what just happened. If you’re back in the hideous miasma of an awful childhood, or a toxic workplace or an abusive relationship, that mist can settle over you without it being obvious what’s happened.
With that kind of triggering, you can end up thinking, feeling and reacting as though you were back in hell. It can make the current situation look like the previous one. All the coping mechanisms come out – but they won’t be relevant or helpful if you aren’t in the same situation. They may even harm you. Everything is incredibly confusing and disorientating and you may feel as though you have gone entirely mad.
Getting help for complex trauma is much more complicated. Finding an expert who understands the layers of things you may be dealing with isn’t easy. Even recognising that you’ve got complex trauma impacting on you can be hard because when it isn’t event based, it plays out so much more subtly.