Talking About Depression: On Being Defined by Trauma


I saw a tweet last night that went something along the lines of “People with trauma are afraid to get help because they’re afraid of who they would be if they weren’t defined by their trauma.” At first, I thought that this was an interesting thing to say. Yea, people need to get help and people are afraid of who they’ll be without their trauma. However, I think, for most people, they are terrified for their trauma and don’t want to be controlled by it. They have no real way of effectively dealing with their trauma. I’m going to use Shawshank Redemption as a way to talk about Trauma, it’s probably going to offend some people, but I think it will help people that don’t understand trauma how much it controls your life. I’m not even someone that has PTSD, but I understand how small trauma adds up through growing up in an unhealthy environment.

When you have trauma, you’re like Andy from the Shawshank Redemption. You were wronged in someway that takes your freedom away. You are basically imprisoned by that event. You aren’t able to mature or grow as a whole person. Like Andy, you do change. You learn new skills, you progress in your job and craft. In his case he learns how to break the law for the Warden, while you or I, might get a bachelor’s degree or become successful in our chosen profession. However, like Andy, you relive your traumatic event on a regular basis. In the movie, this can be represented by his rapes in the laundry room or his hopes being dashed when the Warden kills a man that could have vindicated Andy.

For a person, you’re stopped in physiologically, in such a way that when you are triggered, your mind and body returns to that point of trauma. There’s no light switch to get past it. You don’t want to be reminded of your trauma, but you have to deal with the fact that the trauma existed. In cases where people have defined their life by their trauma, it’s not a badge of pride it’s a coping mechanism. You’re trying to find a set of people that allows you to talk about your trauma and actually listen. For people with depression and trauma, you don’t want to feel like a burden on your friends and family. In cases of extreme trauma, people don’t want to hear about how nasty and horrific the events were.

Confronting these events in an attempt to heal from them and put the trauma behind you is terrifying. Therapy may look very clean and clinical, but that’s because that’s the physical location. It’s designed to provide a very safe space for you to work through your trauma and root cause of your depression. Psychologically it’s closer to “crawling through 500 yards of shit and stank” to get to freedom. But those 500 yards could take years to move through. You could get stuck in there. You have no idea where the end of the pipe is, if you’ll make it the whole way through, if what’s on the other end is really worth it.

Being able to make the plans to escape is terrifying. I haven’t had the trauma that a lot of people have had out there. I know how difficult it was for me to start therapy. For someone with a history of rape, molestation, child abuse, or survived a war it must surely seem insurmountable. You have to find someone you can trust. You have to feel safe. You have to be helped through a flashback when the trauma is too much to handle. You have to be able to afford it.

Defining your life by trauma is a coping mechanism. It’s driven by fear in a lot of ways, but saying that the person is afraid of not being defined by that trauma shows that they don’t truly understand trauma and the amount of effort that a person goes through to survive the trauma, let alone to address the trauma.

I definitely recommend, when you are experiencing an overwhelming flashback, to pull out an app like Headspace and do the one minute SOS meditation. Then, two minutes, and finally three minutes. By the time you finish with those 6 minutes, you’ll have centered yourself on your breathing and helped yourself to comeback to the present and out of the past. Physiologically, it’ll help get your blood pressure and hearth rate under control. As well as giving you a sense of control of your mind and body.

This advice is going to be nearly impossible to follow if you’re not already building the practice into your life already. So, start with doing daily meditation before you beat yourself up when you don’t do it. It’ll take time to get to the point where you even think about something like that. Don’t feel embarrassed about needing to that take minute for yourself (or longer), you’re going to take it anyway. This will help that minute be much more meaningful in dealing with your trauma and anxiety.

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