Exploring Trauma with Riggs Clinical Staff Member, E. Virginia Demos, EdD – Part 3
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.
Can you say more about what’s it like on the inside for people with trauma? What do they feel like and think like?
Well, as I say, they are very hard on themselves, and they feel totally alone in the world. This recovery of traumatic memories is a slow gradual process, and it often starts with a fragment of something, a sensation in the body, a sudden panic, or finding them selves crouched somewhere. Ever so slowly they begin to piece together these events. And again and again they may say, “This can’t be true. I must be making this up.” Or, “I can’t stand it.” And yet it feels so real; some part of them knows it all happened. As the traumatic memories become more real, they struggle with why they didn’t tell anyone at the time it was happening, or with a feeling that they colluded in the abuse somehow. Or they become enraged that others did not intervene, or seemed blind to what was happening. They may try again to convince themselves that maybe it wasn’t so bad. But the terror they have now remembered and felt is an unwelcome reminder that it was indeed awful. They have to slowly accept how terrified and helpless they were as children, and to re-experience the basic conflict they have struggled with, namely that they often both love and hate the person who hurt them so badly. This conflict just tears the mind apart. How could they have been so duped? How can they ever love and trust again?
And how does that manifest?
They’re often surprised by any kindness. They can’t believe it is genuine or that anyone can take them seriously. They don’t expect anyone to care about them or to believe their story, even if they know what happened. Their trust has been sorely violated and they have been deeply hurt, so they have had to hide their needs and vulnerabilities deep inside of themselves. So it can feel very risky and frightening for them to trust the therapist initially and to let that person know what might be going on inside of them. They have had to learn to control the contents of their minds, so they often have sleep problems. That is, they can’t let themselves dream. They may sleep for two hours and then wake up before REM sleep—the stage of sleep when dreaming occurs--can happen. Or they get into a day/night reversal, staying up all night, and only sleeping during the day, when it feels safer. They control the contents of their consciousness as well, so they have difficulty allowing themselves to think about something that might be deeply upsetting. They don’t expect anyone to stay with them through a painful experience; indeed they may expect to be criticized, rejected or abandoned if they express their distress or needs, so they may initially isolate when they are suffering the most, or punish themselves for having such troubles.