Recovery From Trauma – Judith Herman (Part 2)

Carrolup School, a healing sanctuary during the time that Noel White was teacher, May 1946 - December 1950. Photographer: John Stanton, 26th November 2018.

In my Healing Blog postings, I’m going to use a lot of quotes and film clips of people who I consider to be experts in the field, people like Judy AtkinsonBessel van der Kolk, Bruce Perry, Judith Herman, James Gordon, Karen Treisman and Gabor Maté.

Their words are far more powerful than my own, in very large part due to their greater expertise. They have interacted with many more traumatised people than I have, and they have worked in the healing trauma field much longer than myself. They are also much smarter than me! However, I have spent over 40 years working in the addiction and mental health fields, so I do have a fair amount of ability in recognising excellent educational material and powerful words that can facilitate understanding of the healing of trauma and its consequences.

I recently posted a blog entitled Recovery From Trauma, in which I have quoted from Judith Herman’s classic book Trauma and Recovery. My first quote began:

The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.

Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.

In this blog post, I want to consider some other parts of Judith’s book. In Chapter 3, entitled ‘Disconnection’, she writes some powerful words about trauma:

TRAUMATIC EVENTS CALL INTO QUESTION basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.

Every time I read these powerful words, they impact on me. I think of people still traumatised by adverse life experiences and how these past experiences impact on their everyday behaviour, thoughts and emotions. I’ll be talking much more about this issue in the new year.

In Chapter 8 (‘Safety’), Judith writes:

Trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control; the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control. The first task of recovery is to establish the survivor’s safety. This task takes precedence over all others, for no therapeutic work can possibly succeed if safety has not been adequately secured…

Of course, the issue of power and control has important implications for the therapeutic relationship between the trauma survivor and any professional with whom they are working. Again, I will discuss this matter in future blogs.

In Chapter 9 (‘Remembrance and Mourning’), Judith Herman writes:

In the second stage of recovery, the survivor tells the story of the trauma. She tells it completely, in depth and in detail. This work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story…

… As the survivor summons her memories, the need to preserve safety must be balanced constantly against the need to face the past. The patient and therapist together must learn to negotiate a safe passage between the twin dangers of constriction and intrusion. Avoiding the traumatic memories leads to stagnation in the recovery process, while approaching them too precipitately leads to a fruitless and damaging reliving of the trauma.

We will look at the power of story-telling in much more detail next year, in particular when we look the work of Judy and Carlie Atkinson and their colleagues at We Al-li Healing Programs.

In Chapter 11 (‘Commonality’), Judith writes (with my paragraphing):

Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community. Those who have survived learn that their sense of self, of worth, of humanity, depends upon a feeling of connection to others. The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience.

Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatises; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group exalts her. Trauma dehumanizes the victim; the group restores her humanity. 

Repeatedly in the testimony of survivors there comes a moment when a sense of connection is restored by another person’s unaffected display of generosity. Something in herself that the victim believes to be irretrievably destroyed— faith, decency, courage—is reawakened by an example of common altruism. Mirrored in the actions of others, the survivor recognizes and reclaims a lost part of herself.

To me, these are such powerful healing words!

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