On Trauma and Societies

This entry amends and deepens my earlier article “Trauma – An Entry Point”. So some is a repetition, but put into a larger context.

There is a group of conditions with damaging impact which’s members, at first sight, may seem disparate. These conditions fundamentally affect development, personality, and behavior, and impact on forming relationships. Scientific understanding of these conditions, and what they do to individuals, has made significant progress over the past decades.

However, in my experience they also impact on communities, and societies, especially when some of them occur on a large scale, to a huge number of members of a society, as a consequence of violent conflict.

To my knowledge, this area is less charted, in psychology, and in sociology.

The three conditions are:

(1) Trauma;

(2) Compulsive behavior and addiction and their interrelationship; and

(3) Certain personality disorders which, at least, seem to occur as a consequence of trauma especially when exposed to it at an early stage of life.

These conditions can be examined using a multidisciplinary approach including genetic, neuronal, biochemical and environmental/behavioral  sciences. This is especially useful when it comes to the various degrees of their influencing each other and working together.

These conditions, in principle, can be seen in any living organism, at least of some complexity, and to varying degrees, again depending on the complexity of the organism in question.

We all know the story of the dog where it’s owner knows or suspects that the animal has been abused, say, the dog was rescued from being chained and beaten frequently, for example. We immediately see the impact, some animals are extremely anxious, others may be aggressive and can not be held around children. I have not seen anyone who does not understand the causal consequence between the abuse and the behavior of an animal. The dog may even have been adopted for reasons including pity. Animal adoption online markets are full of narratives about abuse.

My experience with human beings who have experienced trauma, especially early trauma, is different. The layers of human development from child to adult, and within an adult’s life, seem to make the causal context less visible. I may hear on a party sentences like “Our new dog was clearly abused as a puppy”. I can neither remember or imagine a similar easygoing discussion about a human being. These conversations are very different.

It appears to me that we can readily appreciate the impact of violence on an animal, but my personal experience with the set of reactions when confronted with somebody who has been subjected to violence, to trauma, to injustice on an extraordinary scale, is different. The scale of reactions includes indifference, disinterested attitude, or inability to appropriately interact with such an individual. Reactions can include gossip to third people like “He or she should get over it”, they can, not only in extreme cases, even outright victimize and traumatize this individual again.

Why? I struggle to come up with a comprehensive answer, but to me it stands out that the topic of abuse appears to be a societal taboo: Victims, if they can remember that they were abused, regularly don’t talk. The reasons include shame, and alienation by others. Every police officer knows (or should…) the term “secondary victimization”. It happens, for example, to rape victims, through the sometimes helpless, sometimes outright malicious, and always inappropriate reactions of family, friends, law enforcement, and justice.

Moreover, in my experience the reactions to human abuse appear to include other elements which make the consequences so difficult to see, and to deal with. They include uneducation, sometimes almost medieval belief, and disinterest. As an example, I take a sentence many of us have heard all too often: “A slap does not harm a child, it’s good for the child”.

Despite well-documented negative impact on the development of children, this belief is very common. To my disbelief, I had even to learn that some State legislation in the U.S. still allows physical punishment of children. Just read this one.

I do believe that massive experience of violence, and especially sexual and gender based violence on a mass scale which occurs in conflict, not seldom deliberately used as a weapon of war, of individual and societal destruction, leads to the occurrence of all three conditions on a scale that affects that societies’ ability to move on, and to reconcile, or not. I have made practical experience of that everywhere where I have worked.

Our ability to appreciate these phenomena and to relate to the behavioral consequences of their existence in an individual is radically different, in my view, within the three following groups, which I introduced in my first article:

(A) Those who don’t have one or several of these conditions;

(B) Those who have, and often don’t know; and

(C) Those who recover from one or several of these conditions, and/or integrate the knowledge of their partly unalterable consequences consciously into their lifes.

These three constituencies mix and may communicate about these issues on basis of a vastly different understanding:

The person who is not affected (A) has limitations to relate, and thus, to understand. Relapse into addictive behavior, compulsive disorders, anxieties, anorexic behavior, just to name very few, appear to be alien to these persons. They have genuine difficulties grappling with relating to why this is happening, beyond an intellectual level. Read “Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent in Plain Sight” by M.E. Thomas. Try to relate to her narrative, assuming you, the reader, are not a sociopath. It’s really demonstrating the case.

The person who is affected (B), does not, at least fully, know and/or is in a condition excluding understanding, through complex denial mechanisms. This person is genuinely unhappy and may even be ready to admit that, but understanding does not suffice and denial adds. The denial can be visible to (A), but that person has often no idea what this denial really means, and how it works. Often, a person (A) concludes that a person (B) is weak. An addict has character deficiencies, full stop. A traumatized abuse victim is weak, he or she should get over it. Full stop. A personality disorder, like, let me just say, frequent panic attacks and inability to be with other people, may establish pity at best. But that person is weak, full stop.

In order to appreciate my entry point into this discussion, read, for example, the definition of the American Society for Addiction Medicine ASAM. According to this definition, based on what we now know through sophisticated science, addiction is a brain disease. I will come to addiction much later, the point here is “brain disease”. The very same way, trauma is a wound inflicted on the brain.

Whilst we may talk about brain injuries and diseases on a neuronal level in educated academic discussions, my impression is that much of society approaches these conditions including from a perspective treating them as character deficiencies.

The person who recovers (C), increasingly understands, as his or her recovery progresses. Recovery is hard work. Thus, the recovering person develops an intimate understanding of what happened, and why.

It is from this perspective that I see and want to examine the impact on societies where large groups of individuals are victimized. Understanding the impact helps finding better ways to help addressing it, increasing the ability of a society to reconcile.

Because if there is no reconciliation, there is high likelihood of relapse into new conflict.

For further reading, here is just one personal account. I will use some more in future entries.