It is said that you are the sum of your experiences. For most victim/survivors of domestic violence their sums include trauma. So why does the support community still fail to understand the impact of trauma?
Trauma can present itself in a number of ways. For survivors a common diagnosis is that they suffer from anxiety related to their abuse history. Their anxiety disorder is commonly classed as Complex PTSD. While PTSD is the result of a single traumatic event (like experiencing a miscarriage or a natural disaster like a Bushfire), Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) refers to the response you have to multiple traumatic events (AIHW, 2020). Most Domestic Violence (DV) is characterised by multiple events of abuse, which is why C-PTSD is more prevalent amongst victim/survivors.
PTSD is nothing new. The first reference to it existed long before the dawn of modern day psychology in the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, dating back to 2100 BC. Gilgamesh, the main character, witnesses the death of his closest friend. Following this traumatic experience he is tormented by recurrent and intrusive memories, nightmares and repetitive thoughts about the event. Since then it has been known by many names. During more modern times of war it used to be called ‘shell shock’ or ‘war neurosis’, and associated with veterans who experienced severe trauma during war.
In Australia it is estimated that 12% of the population will experience PTSD during their lifetime (Sane Australia, 2019). While in America the estimate is said to be around 7–8% of the population (PTSD VA, 2019). Given that most people do not understand trauma and have little insight in to their diagnosis these estimates are very conservative.
In certain groups, like survivors of domestic violence or humanitarian refugees, you may find that up to 90% of its members suffer from the impact of C-PTSD. This is why trauma informed care is crucial.
How does Trauma Impact Lives?
Those who suffer from trauma are more likely to commit suicide, take drugs, experience depression and be absent from work. Understanding trauma can help prevent deaths and improve quality of life for many.
Domestic violence survivor Hannah left her violent husband a few months ago, barely surviving the departure. “My C- PTSD would be triggered by the Halsey song ‘You should be sad’. Every time I hear that song I remember sitting in my car outside of our house and thinking I should leave my violent ex. But then the line came ‘I’m glad I never had a baby with you’ and I looked down at my belly and I thought I couldn’t leave him because I was pregnant and our baby needed a father. Now when I hear the song I feel intense guilt and shame for not leaving earlier, especially as that’s a question I was asked by many after I left.” Hannah explained.
A lack of understanding surrounding trauma means that many are shamed for their perception of the trauma which in turn exacerbates their symptoms and social isolation. Shaming can include asking a victim/survivor “Why didn’t you leave or fight back?” “What did you do to provoke this?” or simply telling someone to “Get over it!”. These questions don’t just instil blame in the victim but can trigger episodes of PTSD as the victim-survivor is transported back to the moment of abuse, and made to feel they should have prevented the abuse from happening.
If you are suffering from trauma it is going to impact your life. You’ll likely spend mental and physical energy engaging in avoidance behaviour. Because of this you may feel detached or disconnected from yourself and others.
“After I left my abusive partner, I felt like a shadow of myself. As if I was a ghost floating above my body. I love my children more than life itself but I struggled to feel the same joy and connection I normally have with them. All I wanted to do is sleep and hide in my bed, despite the nightmares.” Deborah explains. “I barely got through doing the basics of the day. I wasn’t interested in meeting friends or doing anything really.”
Deborah’s experience of trauma is typical, and many who suffered from C-PTSD describe apathy and extreme fatigue as symptoms.
Your personal history can prime you for C-PTSD. For instance, you are more likely to experience C-PTSD if the abuse/trauma occurred earlier in your life, and the more prolonged it was. You are also more likely to suffer from C-PTSD the closer the relationship with the person who acted abusively and the more severe the violence. Most domestic violence (DV) is characterised by prolonged abuse by a ‘loved one’ which is why survivors of DV often have to cope with the aftermath of PTSD.
Living with Triggers
If you are suffering from PTSD then the first thing to do is to manage your expectations. Recovering from trauma takes time and it’s important to be kind to oneself. You don’t have to go at it alone — in fact, finding a trauma-informed therapist or a support group will certainly help your recovery.
Finding the right therapist to suit your needs is imperative. Many victim/survivors struggle with Counsellors or Psychologist who are not trauma informed. Tamara sought help from a Psychologist after leaving her abusive ex:
“My therapist said my experiences were comparable to a horror movie. That made me feel so bad. I know my last 10 years were a nightmare — I don’t need her to tell me that.”
She continued her search and found a more suited therapist to her needs.
While you are recovering from trauma you are not operating in a ‘normal’ way so be sure to allow yourself to rest and recover. Some days you may just feel like lying in bed, and that’s okay. This is not business as usual.
Survivor Tamara was sold in to sexual slavery by her abusive ex. Since escaping sexual slavery she has been diagnosed with C-PTSD.
“My triggers can happen anywhere.” Tamara explains.
“I was hanging up clothes at the store, and I picked up a dress which looked just like the dress my perpetrator made me wear when he sold me. Suddenly I was catapulted back to that moment when I was being sold. I was no longer in the present but flashed back to the first rape. I tried to touch the cold railing to pull me out of the episode but I was overcome, shaken and frozen still. Once the episode ended, I walked away and asked a colleague if she could finish putting the clothes away from me. I never know what might trigger me. It could be a phrase someone uses, an image, a sound.”
Being conscious of potential triggers is helpful. Avoiding TV shows or scenes which may cause upset is advisable. Communicating triggers to support workers or close friends/family can also help protect you.
But sometimes these scenes cannot be avoided. “My abuser used to tie me up, and hold me captive in our home. Seeing anyone tied up is a huge trigger for me. When I saw the recent Baker’s Delight Christmas advert, where two children were tied up with Christmas lights, triggered me. I had chills running down my spine and had to leave the store immediately.” Mary-Anne explained. “I turned to my coping strategies which I developed with my survivor support group and they helped me through this challenging moment.”
Process over Person
To get support many victim/survivors have to retell their trauma over and over again, triggering their C-PTSD symptoms. Currently the reporting process seems to be designed to support administrative needs, instead of the needs of a person suffering from trauma.
Annabelle tried to get support following her escape from DV. She experienced mental and physical abuse from her partner for years.
“After I left my abusive girlfriend, I sought help from a DV service. I was given a 20 page form to fill out, asking me all about the abuse. One question asked me to detail the last instance of abuse and I was brought back to the moment she held a knife to my throat and told me she was going to kill me. I started shaking. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t breathe. I ended up running out of the Centre and never wanted to go back again.” Annabelle explained.
PTSD can also cause amnesia, concentration issues and hyper-vigilance when it comes to threats — making it challenging for victim-survivors to give accurate statements. The current system makes victim/survivors go through an arduous obstacle course of statements and testimonies, asking them to relive their trauma over and over.
For many this is not worth going through. Therefore there is an urgent need for more trauma-informed legal and support processes. The human being needs priority over the process.
How can I support someone suffering from PTSD?
If you have never experienced trauma then you are lucky. Appreciate your privilege, as so many have not been as fortunate.
Act thoughtfully. Be conscious of those who are suffering. They may need more reassurance than others, and may show unusual responses. Show them kindness and avoid unnecessary questions which may be felt as blaming the victim/survivor.
Compassion is key.