I want to try to talk here about trauma. I say “try,” because in large part, trauma takes place outside of language. What I mean is that trauma can take place beneath the surface of awareness and so it can escape being named and memorialized by the process of putting language to the experience.
Trauma can also take place prior to the development of language, in which case it precedes the ability of the traumatized individual to name and therefore, to memorialize the experience of trauma. In both these instances, the events amounting to the trauma have not been brought under the organizing principles of language. As such, they remain a haunting, ever-present but unnamable presence that undermines the entire sense of being a person.
So, at the outset, both patient and analyst—the analytic pair–have an enormous challenge. Way before we even begin to consider understanding trauma or healing it, we are challenged to put language to it. Because of the fact that trauma takes up residence inside the self, becoming encased in a hardened-off and forbidden area of the psyche, the entire self becomes the first vehicle for the expression of the trauma. Instead of language, we essentially are able to look to behavior, patterns of thinking, states of mind, fragments of disconnected memories and dreams, and all the other subtle but important non-verbal articulations and signals of the trauma.
A very common example of non-verbal expressions that point to the presence of trauma might be frigidity—the decreased ability or complete inability of a woman to orgasm during sexual intercourse. In this example, the same woman might not experience any difficulty with arousal or orgasm during masturbation. If we look carefully at her, we may also see other behaviors signaling the presence of trauma. We might see a pattern of unsuccessful relationships, or bouts of uncharacteristic aggression or passivity. When around the traumatize individual we might be aware of feeling especially protective, or, ironically, aggressive. We might observe repeated instances in which the traumatized individual becomes ensnared in some sort of trouble or difficulty from which she needs rescuing. All of these and more signal—without using language—the insidious presence of trauma.
If we begin to view these signals—not as dysfunction—but as the attempt to convey, and therefore, to organize and give expression to an incomprehensible experience, we can begin the complex process of understanding and healing trauma.
The complexity of trauma is undeniable. At the very moment when we begin to sense the insidious presence of trauma, we also understand that part of the trauma is the terror of its repetition. And so we must grapple with the problem of conflicting aims—the aim to give voice to the unexpressed, and the aim to protect the self from the repetition of the traumatizing event, including knowing about it.
This drama frames the clinical work as the patient strives to approach articulation and at the same time strives to keep herself safe with persistent ‘not knowing’ and ‘non-articulation.’ However, as the treatment slowly creates a strong bond of trust and reliability, the patient gains some confidence in the analyst to help keep her safe. The treatment moves carefully, building up safety even as the analyst and patient approach knowing and the threat of re-traumatization.
In my next few blogs, I’ll look closely at some of the details of working with trauma. I’ll focus on the presence of conflicting aims, and discuss how it informs the treatment.