Exploring Trauma with Riggs Clinical Staff Member, E. Virginia Demos, EdD – Part 2
In this six-part series exploring trauma, we will present excerpts from a longer interview with E. Virginia Demos, EdD, a member of the clinical staff at the Austen Riggs Center and an authority on trauma. At the end of the series, we will make the interview, in its entirety, available in our Resource Center.
Do some people experience horrible events, and come out unscathed?
That is an interesting question. At Austen Riggs, we see the people who haven’t been able to recover. There’s a lot of debate about what makes some people more vulnerable than others to trauma. For example, do they have earlier experiences that prime their psyches somehow? Are they more sensitive and feel things more intensely? Was the trauma repeated again and again? Did they not get help soon enough, so that the experience was magnified in their minds over time? Or perhaps some people are more highly defended and just don’t let things in, even though they’re horrific. There are lots of ways to think about this issue and I don’t think we have all the answers.
We do know that the sooner someone can talk through the trauma and get help with it, the sooner they will be able to recover from it. We also know that the farther away a person is from the traumatic event, e.g. a school shooting, or 9/11, the less traumatic it may feel. We often see people for whom the trauma has happened a while ago, when there was no help available. If it happened in childhood, and involved a parent or someone trusted by the child —first of all that makes it more likely that the trauma happened more than once. And it creates a wretched dissonance. A child’s mind just can’t put together how a trusted adult is supposed to behave with what that adult actually did to them. Their trust has been shattered and the world is no longer a safe place, so a vertical split occurs in the psyche, to ward off the painful experience. The child then has to build up very powerful defenses against the part of the self that was hurt by a trusted adult and that felt so terrified and helpless. But such defenses come at a high price for the psyche. The child has to become vigilant — both toward external events and internal states. They can’t engage spontaneously with others, lest that other suddenly change and become hurtful. And they have to protect the contents of their mind. For instance, they can’t think certain things, lest a stray thought evoke a memory of what happened.
Often when they come into treatment, they may not remember a trauma that actually occurred, even though they know something is wrong. They know they’re not normal. They know they’re different. But they can’t quite name it. Sometimes people know, but they don’t trust their memory, so they don’t take seriously what they know to be true, because they desperately don’t want it to be true. So even when they remember it, they will often say, “It really wasn’t that bad,” or “I must be making this up,” or “No one would believe me.” These things are just not supposed to happen.