“What’s Wrong with You?” — the Question Trauma Asks
by Jacques Damhuis
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We were sitting in the park watching ducks come out of the reeds. I was in an anxious space. I’d been struggling with my business, a small company focused on community food gardens. At the time I was committed to growing food for hungry children. It felt like a calling although I didn’t yet know why.
“Have you thought of sharing your journey through writing?” my partner asked. ”You’re a great writer. You could even create an E-book.”
“No, I haven’t,” I mumbled. “I am a useless, stupid person who struggles with writing and I wish I was never born.”
I saw the pain in her eyes. “I’m not going to listen to you until you say something that’s right about you.” She muttered. It was completely ridiculous. What was right with me? I didn’t know what that was.
All through my life people asked what was wrong with me, a question (or demand) which would make me flinch because it often came with physical punishment. My mother would often cuff me when asking the question and the heavy rings on her hand would hurt me. As a little boy I was terrified but later I felt angry with myself. Teachers seemed flummoxed and frustrated. I sensed they wanted answers but I didn’t know how to give them. My teachers were generally kind people but they too could have moments of anger. I began to see the question as a statement of truth. Something was very wrong with me and I was clearly inadequate. I just didn’t know how to put it right. The question continued to haunt me into adulthood. What was wrong with me? I wished I could figure it out.
I’d grown up in a home filled with domestic violence and harsh discipline, and often the one mistaken for the other. My mother had a cane, a carpet beater, and a nasty temper. My parents divorced when I was five years old and I wasn’t given a choice. I was told I would be living with my mother. Within a short time she found a job and a home in Cape Town but the job didn’t last. My mother was way too confrontational. Increased stress meant a shorter temper and spontaneous hidings. Not limited to my rear end, or tool/weapon, whatever was in reach. However, many of the hidings were given to my bare bottom to make them more painful. Our family didn’t always have food, which my mother unfairly blamed on my father’s refusal to pay maintenance. I loved spaghetti bolognese and cottage pie but dinner was sometimes bread and marmite. The lack of food worried me and I often went to bed hungry.
It was at this time that, unsurprisingly, I started to fall behind at school. I couldn’t concentrate and battled to write due to intermittent recall, which frustrated my teachers. Sometimes I was seen as a distraction and I would be sent to the principal’s office for punishment. Other times, I’d be punished with a plastic ruler in class. It was humiliating but nothing like anything I experienced at home. In addition, one of my teachers made me stay after class and took my pants down for a horribly humiliating hiding. Stripped of all dignity I began to see myself as flawed, incapable, and deserving of punishment. I had no one to talk to about what I was going through.
An amazing thing happened. As the messages about my faults increased, the memories of trauma began to fade. Instead, they turned into an overall feeling of dread. Sometimes I would become moody and agitated. I’d wish I had never been born. Friends accused me of being withdrawn. I battled to relate to my peers and believed I was wired (I eventually learned the term is hyper-vigilant), different, flawed and incapable. Keeping traumatic memories buried meant keeping everyday memories buried too. I battled to remember details especially on demand under duress. My academic work suffered. I began to see myself as just not enough.
After leaving school, I didn’t know where to begin a career. I knew I wanted to but I was scared. I struggled to form romantic relationships although I couldn’t understand why. I felt as though I couldn’t break through the barrier and connect emotionally. I also struggled with physical touch despite longing for intimacy. This was something which was difficult to talk about even though it confused me. I started to overcome it when I learned how fear of touch was associated with past pain. My therapist worked hard to connect me to the terrified (and despised) inner child, someone I had been very disconnected from and even disliked. Through therapy, I learned to realise that the little inner child believed touch to be painful. Although I might desire it, this part of me feared pain and vulnerability. The more vulnerable I felt, the greater my fears. My therapist helped me understand that while I was scared, I was okay now. This has helped my partner and me to understand the vulnerability and to be gentle with each other.
Career wise, I eventually found a calling in growing food gardens for deprived children but I struggled with exhaustion and dread. I found a mentor who was harsh and extremely critical. It felt comfortable in some ways although I resented her in others. She triggered my old shameful feelings. She kept telling me I battled with writing and communication. I self-diagnosed as ADD, a common mistake without an accurate case history.
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I was at a park when I reconnected with an old school friend, who had trained to become a psychotherapist. “I sometimes feel emotionally dead.” I told her. “I know there is something wrong with me.” “Have you experienced a trauma?” She asked. I was convinced I hadn’t. Well actually I had. My mother had experienced an aneurysm a couple of years back. “Could that be it?” She recommended counselling and spoke to a friend for a referral.
The therapist asked about my early life. “I was a normal kid”, I said, “quite upset by my parents’ divorce and subsequent relocation. I struggled academically after that. I’d loved spending time in the garden. I enjoyed plants and animals.” Hmm, yes, and what was my first memory? Ah, well, I nearly didn’t tell her. I muttered that I was a strange little kid. I had this memory of watching myself as someone whipped me. I was naked. It was freaky. Who was whipping me? Well it seemed to be a demon, a demon with black hair. How old was I? I must have been about three or four.
Slowly the memories started to emerge. I had counselling and EMDR. My therapist explained that trauma was very much like taking a brick and hurling it at a window. The pieces shattered and they broke apart. She explained that by putting the story together piece by piece, the story of my life would start to make sense. This included emotional flashbacks, where I would suddenly feel emotionally shredded (as I had at the lake when asked about writing). While a single traumatic experience could be terrifying, continuous abuse, where a child has to maintain a relationship with the perpetrator, was different. In order to survive, the child has to believe his abuser is okay while it is he who is flawed. This resulted in emotional flashbacks, like my experience by the lake, when I would suddenly feel overwhelmed with shame or dread. During these flashbacks, I have often wished I had never been born.
Slowly my life is starting to make sense. As I find the pieces of my trauma, I am also finding the pieces of who I am. I have been able to realise that it was me who needed feeding as a child, which has enabled me to see beyond just this single and frightening need, and to see myself as a complete person. As a child, my voice was silenced and my thoughts and opinions were seen as backchat but I always loved communication. Making space to write my feelings became an important part of my therapy. I would think about answers to questions and jot them on my phone’s notepad. Clients often commented on my communication ability rather than my planting ability when growing food gardens. I now acknowledge both my talent and my passion.
Learning to communicate has often meant acknowledging the emotional flashbacks associated with being vulnerable. For much of my adult life I feared or dreaded these flashbacks. I would attack myself in a way which baffled and upset others. This was always connected to feeling as though something was wrong with me. There were, however, many triggers. When this sensation of dread, shame and self-loathing arises I can now soothe the inner child and explain that I understand it was painful before but it’s okay now.
Finally, I have learned the value of self-compassion. My therapist taught me to empathise with the child I used to be. She helped me grieve the punishments and the feelings of abandonment. She told me the suffering little boy made her feel sad. Did it not make me sad? At first it didn’t. I loathed that little boy. Over time I have come to see the injustice, humiliation and pain, and with it, all the joy, wonder and fun I buried along with this. Self-compassion has helped me to direct my anger where it belongs. I deserve love. I always deserved love. If my mother couldn’t see it, it was she who was flawed.
I am also mindful of the need to share and explain complex trauma. Without insight into the symptoms, survivors often feel lost and bogged down by confusion and pain. Memories of the trauma often remain buried and without a clear understanding of the symptoms, complex trauma can easily be misdiagnosed. Some are seen to have ADD or ASD while others are often stigmatised as ‘addicts’. The numbness or dissociation which comes with trauma often prevents survivors from seeking the help they need.
I no longer wish to simply feed hungry children. I now wish to share the journey of complex trauma from the inside, away from the diagnosis and into the experience. I do this so that others, too, can seek help. As Alice Miller once said, “it’s the symptoms which tell the story.” Trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, but it’s the survivors who carry the scars. The scars on my body might always remain but the scars on my heart are slowly healing. By busting stigma and creating awareness around this sometimes elusive topic, others can heal too.