My Approach To Trauma

Serious emotional trauma results in post-traumatic stress, perhaps even PTSD. You experience “flashbacks” where you are hijacked by the past. A scent, a sound, or a vivid reminder of your trauma triggers an instantaneous feeling that you are back there–even if you know rationally you are not. How do you deal with this?

The first step is “grounding” to help you stay in the present. When you are triggered, can you name five things you can see and five things you can hear? Can you feel anything, perhaps the chair you are sitting on or the temperature of the room? Can you smell anything? Really concentrate on your surroundings. If you have difficulty with this, try something more drastic such as sucking on a lemon or listening to loud music. Or you might carry a stone in your pocket, something hard and firm that can help pull you back to the present.

Another helpful practice is mindfulness meditation. Contrary to popular belief, it is not about relaxation, but rather its opposite: heightened awareness of the present. You learn to sit with with difficult feelings and thoughts as they arise and then dissipate by focusing intently on your breath or some outside stimulus such as a clock ticking.

In therapy, we deal with the toxic self-messages linking past trauma to present triggers. They probably happen so fast, you don’t notice them, but they are there. The scent of cologne might trigger a powerful memory of sexual abuse, for example. Immediately you replay the thoughts from your trauma, thoughts like: “I led him on. It was my fault.” And the thoughts lead to intense feelings of powerlessness, violation, and self-blame.

What are the thoughts you tell yourself when you are triggered? “I’m powerless”? “I’m to blame”? “I deserve this”? Thoughts like these may not only trigger you, they may also cause you to stay in an abusive relationship or be taken advantage of. How do you challenge them?

I might invite you to reflect on situations where those messages do not apply. I might suggest you come up with positive messages you know are true. I might question whether you would tell a friend in a similar situation that he or she deserves it. Are you horrified at the thought? – Then stop doing it to yourself. Find positive, healing messages to tell yourself instead.

Reminders of past trauma may always bring up painful memories. But if you can challenge the toxic messages associated with those memories, you can remember what happened without reliving it.

You can’t undo the past and “heal” the trauma you suffered. You cannot get back the life you once had. But out of its shattered remnants you can build something healthy, something wonderful, something beautiful.


Russell Stagg

My Abuser Was So Charming, No One Believed He Raped Me

My life consists of helping others, reading dystopian fiction, activism, writing poetry and crafting. Most of these activities have assisted me in coping and healing from the rape I survived when I was 16 years old.

My partner at the time was 20 years old, maniacal and abusive. He was exceptionally talented at lying and cheating. He would monitor my eating by clocking how long it would take, and if I did not hurry, there were extreme consequences.

He cheated on me with five women, and as he told me, he laughed.

In the car, during his giddy story of deceit, I grabbed a sharp item from his glove compartment and began slashing at my wrists. This would not be the last time I self-harmed.

Finally, physical and emotional manipulation and abuse would not suffice. He raped me in his locked room, with his parents just around the corner, so forcefully that the bed looked like a murder scene.

Cheerily, he took the sheets off, put them in the washer and said, “Ha, I sure hope that stain comes out!”

My abuser was extremely charismatic. He is a nurse. When you think of a nurse, I would assume most individuals think of someone warm, welcoming, smiling and compassionate. On the surface, he is all that and more, but it is a finely tuned façade.

The first time I met him, I was dating his best friend. We were all at a mechanic together, waiting for my current boyfriend’s car to be fixed.

He sat down next to me and attempted to get to know me. He was highly flirtatious and said all the right things, things I had never heard before. He told me he could feel the endorphins in the room. I lit up the room with my energy and beauty.

Compelling, poetic words.

I did not feel creeped out by this, surprisingly. He has an energy that makes you feel under the influence, but mostly as if you are buzzed. It is like slipping into a warm, glowing place.

From my description, this sounds exactly like what you might like to feel with someone, anyone. I promise you, you do not. He had this effect on everyone he met.

However, behind closed doors, he was the most manipulative person I have ever witnessed.

He had a sharp grin like a fox. He would smile and dote on me as he delivered the most horrendous backhanded compliments and emotional abuse.

He would look me straight in the eye and tell me he could not take me to the homecoming dance due to lack of funds while showing me his new keyboard, mouse and computer.

It is still hard for me to look at the local park where he hit me, degraded me and brutalized me.

He was an excellent liar. Remarkably so. No matter what pain he delivered, you were spellbound into believing you deserved it and this is how it must be.

He made me feel like he knew what was best for me in the end and was only doing what he did to “make me a better person.”

When I would share this with others, they thought I was nuts. “He is such a perfect guy. He is older, well-established and so friendly… what you are telling me is bullshit,” they’d say.

Little did they know, he checked off all the marks for those likely to be abusive.

I believe my friends reacted the way they did because all of us really had no education on consent, boundaries or abuse. I found out later some of these friends had experienced their own abuse and attempted to curb their feelings by shutting me down.

The biggest reason I was misunderstood and rejected was because my abuser was so full of charisma.

I always tell people, to this day, “You would love being around him. He could even trick you despite your psychological knowledge. He slips past your radar.”

From that brutal event, I suffered from PTSD, which is marked by night terrors, hyper-vigilance, increased stress response, reliving the trauma and avoidance.

From the age of 16 to 17, I abused pills to a degree, had a scathing attitude and was fueled by hatred.

In school, teachers knew something was wrong, but did not try to interfere. I could not have gotten through high school without their willingness to stay their distance.

Because of the uncomfortable fear I felt when I thought about telling my parents what happened, I only told a few friends of mine. This was the right decision for me at the time, but I still wish I had told them at the time it happened because I never got any soothing or healing from my friends, and my traumatic memory seems to be permanently stored in my amygdala.

But at the age of 20, in an act of desperation, I blurted out to my parents what had happened to me. Everything came to a screeching halt. My parents could not simply process what it was I was saying to them.

Their first response was to feel guilty for being the people who brought me to my then-boyfriend’s home. They thought it was their fault for “facilitating the assault.”

I assured them this was not true, but they continued to harp on their wounds: “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” “Why didn’t you report this?” “Why did I drive you there every week?”

This barrage of guilt-inducing questions made me sick. However, I empathized as best as I could. Hearing what had happened to me so much later likely left them feeling disheartened and powerless to fight back against my rapist.

All of this hurt me.

Over time, they have begun to realize the focus should have been on me, as I had already moved past those terrifying inquiries. Now, they have fostered respect and healing toward my experiences.

Although they are still mystified about it, they try to understand the effects of it by letting me speak my mind and have a healthy amount of space.

Because I never got to openly discuss my trauma until years later, my memory of it is generally fuzzy and I feel like that has caused a stunt of my growth and healing.

My thought patterns and behavior were poor and negative. I tried to control others and hurt them with my words and actions, thinking that I would somehow feel better by doing this.

However, all I can do is move forward with the memory and coping skills I have. Through this, I realized it was time to change and devote myself to protecting and helping survivors.

Now, I am in my second semester in a master’s program for mental health counseling, I am an advocate for survivors and victims, and I constantly champion for social justice.

The rape at 16, and a succedent rape, as well as numerous experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment and catcalling, have led me to the point where I am today.

Six years later, I am now able to succeed in my field, help others properly, cope healthily, go to counseling and express my feelings and my story without being afraid.

My partner now is wonderful, compassionate, full of love and understanding. I am able to share my story, experience safety and feel comfortable. He listens to me always, about my concerns and my fears.

He is familiar with the symptoms of PTSD, so he never startles me with knocking on my front door or ringing the doorbell. Instead, he sends a text.

He looks at the parent’s guide for movies and television to screen for things like sexual content, vulgar language, violence, misogyny and transphobia.

He makes things for me that soothe me, like a little box that holds kind words of love and how he feels about me. It is to be used when I feel worthless or depressed.

To transition from a victim to a survivor, others need to provide you with time, space, sympathy, active listening, understanding, involvement in your story and the repercussions and, most importantly, nonjudgmental love.

Rachael W