Trigger warning: I will be addressing the delicate issue of trauma, and how it has shown up in my life – and how it is helping me to understand more fully how we humans suffer, and heal.
Last week I marked the three year anniversary of my mother’s death. On 21 January 2017, I woke up to find out that Mum was in intensive care in a hospital in London, and that there was little chance of her survival. The last time I had seen and spoken to her, only a week or so previously, she had appeared fit and happy. There was no indication of what was to come; an infection that spread rapidly through her body and resulted in pneumonia and organ failure. I never had a chance to say goodbye; she had already been in a coma for several hours by the time I reached the hospital after an agonising train journey from Brighton to London.
Three years on, this experience still affects me. I know this because I have learned to listen to and feel into the symptoms. In addition to still having moments – though less frequent nowadays – of being overcome with sadness and tears, a ‘grief weep’ that is unlike any other form of crying, I also have physical symptoms that only appeared in the aftermath of Mum’s death. A knot in my right shoulder that flares up when I’ve taken on too much responsibility in looking after others – particularly family members – whilst not seeing to my own needs. Problems with digesting particular foods, at times leading to debilitating stomach pain – a signal of a part of me that still cannot digest what happened on that day in January 2017. I have learned that healing takes time; because it also takes time to decipher how our bodies respond to situations that threaten our sense of safety or stability.
As humans, we will all experience these threatening situations at some point in our lives, and for some of us this will result in a trauma response; a locking in of difficult emotions that never get fully processed, and instead manifest in other symptoms such as insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks or localised, seemingly unexplained physical pain.
Trauma is a pervasive fact of modern life. Most of us have been traumatized, not just soldiers or victims of abuse or attack. Both the sources and consequences of trauma are wide-ranging and often hidden from our awareness. These include natural disasters….exposures to violence, accidents, falls, serious illnesses, sudden loss (i.e. of a loved one), surgical and other necessary medical and dental procedures, difficult births, and even high levels of stress during gestation.
(Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma)
It is difficult for aid workers to admit to their own trauma, in spite of this terminology being so common in our sector. I used to assume trauma belonged to other people. I saw it in northern Uganda, with child soldiers returning from captivity with the Lord’s Resistance Army with a fearful or distant look in their eyes. I saw it with Palestinian human rights defenders whose time in prison – some of them in solitary confinement – at the hands of the Israeli authorities had left them deeply scarred both mentally and physically. In these instances, my attention was turned towards their suffering, and to even consider that I may be suffering too in some way felt either indulgent or irrelevant. Years later, in 2012, I experienced what may have been the hallmarks of PTSD (although I was never diagnosed): a period of several months where I couldn’t stop crying and where nights were often filled with strange flashbacks of my past and each day I woke with fear and despair. It was only when I had slowed down and taken time out of work that these symptoms arose, yet they were most likely associated with my experiences over several years of working in situations of conflict and crisis.
It doesn’t matter what terms we use, or whether or not we are given a clinical diagnosis; we understand trauma by the responses that occur. As much as these terms are now increasingly bandied about in the aid sector, to actually bring it down to personal experience – feel into it, acknowledge it, and try to heal – is still incredibly difficult. There are different reasons for this. I found during my research in Kenya that trauma was not a term used regularly by Kenyans and Somalis I spoke to there. Where there are regular occurrences of conflict, violence and other forms of extreme hardship, and lack of access to clinical support, people find other ways of making sense of their experience rather than pathologising it; with religious faith playing a meaningful role in this endeavour. This is not to say that there is no such thing as trauma in these situations; but I do believe that we must stop assuming western interpretations and treatments apply universally.
In the UK, there remains huge resistance to admitting we are struggling; the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mantra still reigns supreme and spending time with one’s suffering is perceived as an indulgence. This attitude is magnified in the aid sector, where there is the assumption that to do this work effectively we must put aside our personal challenges and focus on how much we can be of service to others.
We need to find new ways of honouring and caring for our suffering. Simply providing a counselling service, as many NGOs do nowadays, is not enough in an organisational culture where people still feel unable to bring their full, emotional selves into the workplace. Nor is talking therapy always the solution; in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide this was widely believed to have re-traumatised many of the survivors. We must start respecting the diversity of approaches that support people in different societies and cultures; many of which start with the body, not the mind, and the acknowledgement that sometimes the emotions that need releasing are trapped somewhere in a physical form. I am lucky to have had access to acupressure healers and massage therapists to support me in releasing difficult and stuck emotions; but I have also valued the power of dance, meditation and ritual in bringing presence and care to what is happening to me emotionally. These are practices which exist in different forms across the world and which have supported entire societies in moving beyond individual or collective trauma. It shows us that as humans we have a remarkable ability to heal, if we give ourselves permission to honour the darkness that is part of the human condition, and the myriad of ways which can bring us back into the light.