From teachers and policemen to doctors and dentists, many professionals encounter people who are suffering from trauma-related conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a person with PTSD myself, I have encountered many well-meaning professionals floundering when my PTSD causes me to be an ‘uncooperative’ and extremely terrified individual. Doctors, policemen and dentists have become very frustrated with me, and in turn, tried to use threats or force to get me to cooperate—the very opposite of what I needed.
Although professional training on trauma is available, it may not always provide practical methods of helping survivors. This article is a simple explanation of what a survivor may be experiencing and how to help a trauma survivor feel safe.
What does trauma look like?
During traumatic events, whether car accidents, childhood abuse, natural disasters, war or sexual assaults, the victim is often:
These traumatic events happen to them. There was no way to control what they felt, saw or experienced.
By very definition, trauma is experiencing something to which the victim feels unsafe, whether this is perceived or realized.
How to help a trauma survivor feel in control and safe.
Witness at a police station is sitting on chair, rocking back and forth, unable to control their shaking limbs or make eye-contact with police.
What to do:
- Get down on their level, i.e. sit if they’re sitting.
- Keep a safe distance.
- Talk gently.
- Ask how you can help them feel safe. Do they need a blanket or an object to hold onto to ground them? Do they need a policeman of a different gender or an advocate?
Survivor of sexual abuse is at a dentist having their teeth cleaned. Their legs are uncontrollably shaking and they are unable to keep still.
What to do:
- Talk gently – remembering to keep frustration or impatience out of your voice.
- Ask the patient for permission for everything you do, i.e. “Is it okay if I place this bib on you?” or “Is it okay if I look at your teeth with this mirror?”
- Ask the patient to come up with a signal that they are needing a break such as raising their hand.
- Ask them how you can help them feel safe. Do they need a weighted blanket, or to have music playing, or for you to talk to them during the whole procedure?
Again, the greatest help you can be to a traumatized individual is to make them feel safe and in control as much as possible. Working with trauma victims takes patience and gentleness. Remember, you have no idea what they are reliving, and you may be the one person that can help them overcome their fears and crippling traumatic responses.
How broken is too broken? How much healing is enough? Will I ever be ready for a relationship? Marriage? Kids?
Often these questions plague survivors of sexual abuse and assault. I myself had questioned if I would ever be healed enough to even begin dating someone. I had read books by survivors that ended with a short blurb after depicting the seriousness of trauma saying, “I’m now 45, have a wonderful husband and three great kids.” And all I wanted to do is scream at the book, “HOW?!”
Perfection is a lie
There were times in my life that I felt so broken that I thought that I, like Humpty Dumpty, couldn’t ever be put back together again. I didn’t see how in even the next twenty years, I would ever be at a stage of healing where I could get married and have kids. I was terrified of men. I was afraid of being hurt. I was daily bombarded with flashbacks of my past. I loathed myself. I had given up hope on ever being the main character in a romantic story.
In hindsight (oh the beauty of it), I see that my pessimistic outlook came from having an unreasonable expectation that somehow I needed to be completely healed, healthy and basically perfect in order to get married. I didn’t realize this was a lie.
God knows what you need
It wasn’t that I didn’t need to seek healing, or desire to be free from the pain of my past. I needed to allow someone to love me, even in my brokenness. I often would push interested suitors away from me, inwardly screaming “I’m too broken!” My fear of them discovering just how broken I was and then rejecting me caused me to run and hide any time there was even a remote interest from a man. I never thought it would be possible for someone to look at all of me, all of my messiness and stay. But God, in His wondrous mercy, had a plan.
Without me realizing it, He wove a beautiful love story into my life. He brought in a man who first became my friend. A friend who stuck by me even in the middle of my flashbacks. I was on the journey of healing when he entered my life, but I was nowhere near to the level of healing I had assumed I would need to be at. But that’s just it. I never got to that place before I got married.
Yes, I had had significant breakthroughs in my healing, but I was still broken. What I didn’t know was that my now-husband could love me fully, even in my broken state, and would become one of the most powerful sources of healing in my life. God knew exactly what He was doing when he put this man at the local food pantry the day I decided to volunteer for the first time.
Three things to understand
What I want to say to you, my friend who is still asking these questions, who is still wondering if you will ever be unbroken enough to be loved, is:
1) You are already loved.
God loves you just as you are. He knows you fully. Inside and out. He adores you, scars and all. You don’t need another man to tell you what the Creator of the Universe has been saying since the beginning of time.
2) You don’t need to hide.
The man God has for you will be able to see all of you and love you for who you are. You just need to be brave enough to trust in His plans for your life. To trust that when the right man comes into your life, you can begin the slow process of letting down your walls and allow love to move in.
3) Life is unpredictable.
You may feel as though you’ve been waiting for this guy forever, and it seems like he’s never going to show up. I don’t know what God has in store for you, but I know He desires good things for you, and I know that you can’t even begin to imagine what they are and when they will come about. But hold on my friend, they are coming.
Love, hope and peace to you.
I pause my dialogue as I notice the older gentleman next to me begin to go red and his eyes begin to water. “Are you okay?” I ask, thinking he is choking. He merely shakes his head as tears begin to spill down his weather-worn face. I remain silent, dumbfounded. I’ve known this man for over 2 years and have never seen him cry before. “It’s just so heartbreaking.” He whispers as more tears splash down his cheeks. I pause and reflect. It is heartbreaking, isn’t it?
I had just been telling him about the work I do with women who’ve been sexually abused and sex trafficked. It has become so much a part of my everyday life that I have begun to numb myself from the horror I encounter daily. However, that does not stop the reality of how truly heartbreaking the stories from these survivors are. The situations that millions of people find themselves still in today. It is estimated that 70-90 % of sex trafficking victims have been sexually abused as children prior to exploitation. Let that information sink in for a moment.
For many children, the traumas of childhood continue into adulthood. The trauma of their youth gives way to their mindset that “sex is all I’m good for” or “I’m worthless”, “no-one could love me”. These thoughts make them so vulnerable to sexual exploitation from pimps who know exactly what to look for, who know exactly what to say.
Abuse Happens in the Mind and the Body
I observed this pattern happen in the movie Forrest Gump, which I originally thought was only about the achievements of a boy everyone thought would never amount to anything. Jenny, Forrest’s best friend from childhood, was sexually abused by her father and she ended up being sexually exploited in magazines and on stages. She was used and abused by men for years and years because she didn’t know her worth. She didn’t know she was worth more than her father showed her. Her pain was so obvious as she stands on the edge of the balcony, wanting to jump, or as she sees her father’s house, years later, and begins to hurl rocks at it. All the pain and anger begin to come out.
I’m right there with her in that moment. I know many survivors who are also feeling that same pain and rage. But the moment that tears me apart the most, is the moment Forrest asks her to marry him. Forest is obviously head-over-heels in love with this woman. Most would assume she would say no because of his low IQ, but instead she says, “You don’t want to marry me.” In her mind, someone so kind and loving could never want to marry someone like her. She believes she is worth absolutely nothing. She believes she is unloveable.
God Heals the Brokenhearted
I once believed the same things. I once thought the same thoughts. But God, in His great mercy, brought me to a point of healing where the words of my now-husband broke through the lies. I was able to believe his love for me as he knelt on one knee before me. I was able to shout above the screams from my past, telling me that no-one would ever want me, and say “Yes!”.
The reality of sexual abuse and sex trafficking is heartbreaking, but I know a God who is in the business of healing the brokenhearted. I know a God who brings beauty out of ashes. A God who can heal, restore and set free the captives. Do you know Him?
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” – Isaiah 61:1-3
For much of my life I believed that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was only found in soldiers as a result of their time at war. Never did I think that one day my therapist would look at me and say “you have PTSD”. In that moment, all my preconceived ideas of what this condition was, flew out the window. I was made to see that every day I walk by people—normal looking people, not wearing uniforms—who are living and reliving their worst nightmare.
I wanted to give you a glimpse of what it is like living with PTSD, so that those of you who live with this, know that you’re not alone, or that those of you who don’t know the reality of it, can more fully understand.
PTSD and Groceries
Imagine this with me, if you would:
You’re walking down the aisle of the grocery store, pushing a cart in front of you. A man turns down the aisle and starts walking towards you…
If you’re lucky, your mind does not spit images from your past into your vision, making you forget where and when you are. If you manage to stay in the present, you are assaulted with a flood of adrenaline (the fight or flight response) causing your heart to pound in your chest, your breathing to become shallow and unsteady and your hands to shake. Everything in you wants to turn and run. You try to remind yourself that you’re in a supermarket, no-one is going to hurt you. Your body ignores your rationale and shivers begin to race up and down your spine. You are now convinced that it’s going to happen again. This man in front of you is going to pin you down and rape you here and now. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to go. Yielding yourself to what you deem as the inevitable, you force your mind and body to detach—a method you learned long ago to keep yourself safe from the horror of the reality…
Someone touches your arm and you snap back into the grocery aisle. “Ma’am, are you okay?” The woman next to you has a crease of concern between her eyebrows. You realize you’ve been staring blankly at a box of cereal for who knows how long. The man is long gone but your fear continues to paralyze you. “Yes,” you manage to squeak out, desiring to hide away from everyone. Self-hatred and frustration begin to build inside you since you can’t even walk around a grocery store without your past getting in the way.
From the Outside Looking In
My husband has seen me in this state many times. He describes it as such,
“She starts to have difficulty focusing on reality. Sometimes, I was able to distract her enough to keep her from going into a full blown flashback, but many times she would become dead to the world, staring off into space, her body looking uneasy and her lips shaking. I would say her name and her eyes might look at me for a split second, but she wouldn’t really see me there and would continue to stare in a panicked manner. Other times she would interact with me, but she was still reliving a past traumatic memory. I just happened to be in the room with her. Even though I would tell her she is safe and it was only me there, she would still be terrified and panicking and would hear or see her abuser. These states could be as short as a few minutes or as long as an hour. The worst part was that once the flashback took over, I was often helpless to stop it or to bring her back to reality. I could only do my best to comfort her until she was back.”
PTSD affects all aspects of your life. It makes you more prone to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and addictions. It gets in the way of relationships and aspirations. It is not something that will simply disappear over time. It is a daily battle.
There is hope. There is always hope.
I have been living with PTSD for over 8 years now. I cannot say it has always been getting better. Some days are worse than others. But through the grace of God and the support of many friends, I have been able to move from surviving to thriving. I continue the climb onward, encouraging and helping other survivors along the way, one step at a time.
For more information on PTSD see: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/post-traumatic-stress-disorder.htm