Exploring Trauma with Riggs Clinical Staff Member, E. Virginia Demos, EdD – Part 5
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.
What does it look like as people start to recover [from trauma]?
There is the slow gradual awareness that it was real. That’s the first part. And even then, with sexual abuse particularly, even when they know it happened, they first remember it as watching it happen from the ceiling looking down, so they still haven’t fully experienced that it happened to them, and to their body. This defense protects them from feeling the deep disgust, humiliation, and sense of contamination that all sexual violations entail. It can take time to get to that place, knowing that not only did this happen, but this was me, and it’s in my body. Only then, when the body sensations, the detailed memories, the intense negative emotions and the conscious mind can all come together is there the beginning of a process of deep psychic integration. The integration ushers in the next stage of the work, which involves slowly beginning to grieve what happened to them. When a person gets to that point, they are almost home free, because by then they are finally accepting that this never should have happened, that they didn’t deserve it, and that they were deeply and badly hurt by someone they loved or trusted, and they were robbed of a carefree childhood, and of the many years spent in hiding from themselves and from the world. Abuse and trauma takes away the sense that there is any safety in the world, which is a horrible way to have to live.
The final stage is a very cautious, slow, opening up of hope for something different, namely to come out of hiding, and trusting that maybe, just maybe they can be safe in the world beyond the therapy. That can be a terrifying moment, because they have spent years protecting themselves, by not allowing themselves to hope for something, or to trust someone in an intimate relationship. This last phase also takes time and if they can get to that place, they begin to tell you even more about the way they had organized their mind — all the rules in their head, about what they could and couldn’t do, in an effort to control everything about their lives, because they had no control over the abuse. They can only get to this material after they’ve come through the worst of it, and become more aware of how these rules are now getting in their way. They can’t quite believe that they don’t still need them to be safe. For example, if someone developed an eating disorder, they may hang onto that ritual, because of some magical belief that it has been keeping them safe all this time, and they can’t believe that they’re strong enough to deal with the world without it. It takes more time and many experiences in the real world to feel “I have the inner resources that I need now to manage this,” and that when things go wrong it is not an indication that some catastrophe is about to happen.
Another thing about trauma is that it involves a sudden change. Something that’s good goes bad very quickly. So people with a trauma history become very cautious about things that go bad. The ordinary bumps of life can signal to someone with trauma that something catastrophic is about to happen. It takes a while to re-orient the brain, that this isn’t a sign of impending danger, that they don’t need to fear it, and that it is not a repetition of the past. At times their fear can still get the better of them, and for a brief period, they can become hyper-alert, jump at anything, and see many things as dangerous that most people don’t see as dangerous. The worst part is that this very fear can lead to new trauma. Many rape victims often get raped again; they feel they have a big sign on their forehead that says “victim.” The problem is that when they’re in that situation, they freeze and become helpless and cannot protect themselves or yell for help, so it can happen again.
But when they get to this last phase of the healing process, they can recover fairly quickly and move on. When they get far enough along with the integration and acceptance process, they can begin to trust that they are now able to be in the world. They can speak up and not freeze. They can take care of themselves and can begin to feel that they are safe enough.