Writing Trauma: From Professional to Personal
April 17, 2020 § 9 Comments
Amy Roost, the editor of the Fury anthology, and I had a shared interest in promoting an integrative approach to graduate studies in clinical psychology. I shared with her my passion for including the latest neuroscience research into treatment, especially treatment of trauma. I argued that our expanded ability to work with so-called “unconscious” reactivity helped the body, as well as the mind, to heal. Amy had already begun gathering women’s personal experiences and reactions to the then-recent,Trump election, and asked if I might want to contribute to an anthology she was editing. I told her it sounded intriguing and I would think about it. What I didn’t tell her was that I had a big dilemma to resolve before doing any such thing.
As a professional psychologist I was trained to leave myself, my personal beliefs and my biases out of any conversation with clients, potential clients, or the general public. My modus operandi was to remain neutral – at least on the “outside.” Going public with my views could jeopardize this. But a group of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals around the nation had already gone public with their views about Trump’s personality issues, going so far as to suggest he suffers from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Though confidentiality is one of the hallmark ethical principles of mental health care, these professionals also felt duty-bound to warn the public about the dangers of having someone like this in a leadership position, no less the presidency of the United States. They succeeded in validating what many already knew: that our new president would put his own needs before those of the country.
I resolved that the public would benefit from understanding some of the principles underlying what we see and hear every day in the new Trump world. While remaining true to my professional ethics, I realized I could share a trauma injury/recovery model I had been using in my practice on a daily basis, mostly with women. The “Polyvagal” Model informs us that when we perceive a threat, real or imagined, our nervous systems go into fight or flight. Hundreds of changes occur instantly but outside of consciousness, as our body activates to fight the threat or run away. This normal response only becomes traumatic when we can neither fight nor flee. Being trapped and helpless triggers another part of the nervous system that calms everything down, presumably to preserve energy, but can lead to utter immobilization, dissociation, numbness, and depression, especially if the threat(s) is chronic. Sharing this model, then, might offer another lens for viewing what was happening not only to us as American citizens, but to President Trump himself, and at the same time possibly map out a path to recovery.
I wrote out the theory and how it might be showing itself on us right now. But I got bogged down in professional jargon. Try as I might to wade through the complexities, I couldn’t whittle down my thoughts enough to be readable or relatable. When an editor read it, she essentially tore it apart, accusing me of being too abstract, avoiding my own feelings and seeming too sympathetic to Donald Trump. Usually this kind of criticism makes me shrink, but I had to laugh because she was right. Despite my professional reserve, I had to come clean with why I felt this was important to say out loud, and what drove me to say it in the first place. So I finally found a way to talk about myself, illustrating how I had once reacted to a debilitating threat. In this way I could demonstrate how the model worked and not just preach about it. Very humbling but very valuable!
Finally, I was able to end the essay as most research papers are concluded, not with certainties or predictions about the future, but with suggestions for how this model can help us understand why we do some of the things we do, and from there, be able to generate more creative solutions for change. Spreading understanding and helping people find solutions that work for them was my ethical imperative after all, and might even contribute to our ending the cycle of trauma-based reactivity under which we’ve all been suffering.
From Trauma in the Age of Trump:
For this presidency we might even think of American women as the canaries in the coal mine, directly experiencing in our minds, hearts and bodies, just how toxic such a presidency can be. But when we use our nervous system reactions to fuel our voices and our votes, we can bring about a new level of leadership that restores the moral stature of the U.S. as a just and caring leader of the free world. What distinguishes women in this effort may be our very capacity for reading those first non-verbal cues of danger—honed by millennia of tending to non-verbal infants. In effect we were primed by nature to perceive and react to the danger afoot in the leadership of this kind of man. While many of his verbal expressions seem less than logical, repeatedly reactive, and singularly unempathic, his non-verbal cues are terrifying. In word and deed to many of us, this man signals ‘predator.’
Lorraine Camenzuli, Ph.D. is a Clinical and Neuropsychologist in private practice focusing on sequelae of trauma. She also consults in EAP Critical Incident Debriefing and workplace trauma. Past research included emotional sequelae of brain trauma and therapeutic effectiveness. Community education has included trauma, cognition and political activism, while service on boards has focused on trauma, the arts and politics. Her essay, “Trauma in the Age of Trump,” is featured in Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences of the Trump Era.