This story, as with all my blogs, observes the privacy of the individuals written about. Names are changed, stories are altered, and anything that might identify the individuals is changed.
Veronica, who prefers to be called Ronnie, is a woman around the age of 40. Her life has not turned out as she had hoped. When she was 15 her sister’s husband sexually abused her on a number of occasions. She was devastated and confused. Her family was one where unpleasant things were not discussed, so she kept quiet about it. It was only when she was 19 that she felt able to share and told her mother what had happened. Her mother’s reaction was not pleasant. She told Ronnie she had to keep quiet about what had happened.
Ronnie found herself without a voice. Having to maintain the family image and keep her voice suppressed was devastating to her.
This is one of the damaging aspects of trauma, especially sexual trauma. Having your needs denied. Not being given the comfort and support you need. Being denied the right to be devastated at the invasion of your body.
Ronnie learned to keep it quiet. She saw professionals to help her, and there was some help, but ultimately it failed her, because the professionals were not trauma informed and trained.
Today Ronnie is frightened of relationships. She lives with her mother. She dresses in a masculine way and maintains a level of obesity she considers safe. She thinks her trauma recovery is complete but it is far from that.
Adelle started working for the same company as Ronnie. She heard some of Ronnie’s story and offered her empathy. Adelle had her own trauma history of physical, sexual and emotional abuse throughout her childhood. Adelle offered Ronnie empathy and friendship.
During one project, Ronnie was in charge and gave Adelle a task to complete that was not in the project documentation. This put Adelle in a difficult situation, because her task was effectively non existent. But she was working on this task with three other people and Ronnie told her it was alright. One of the team was working on the main task as well. Over time one team member became ill and had to leave. Then the team member working on the main task left the company. The remaining team member was offered a role on the main task as well. This left Adelle as the only person working on a task that had become non existent. In all the time Adelle had been on this team she had never been given anything to do. It became obvious to her that Ronnie had no role for her. She needed clarification.
When Adelle attended to her trauma history, she saw high quality trauma informed and trained practitioners. She worked somatically with the trauma stored in her body. She learned to reconnect with her body and her spirituality (her sense of “who am I”). She found her voice and learned to express herself in a healthy way.
This was in contrast to Ronnie who was told by her family to not talk about the ‘nastiness’ and who had seen a psychologist who gave her CBT and told to adhere to the CBT principles.
CBT has its uses, but it is not useful for treating trauma in the first two stages. In those stages, the trauma is buried way below the level of conscious memory. CBT works on conscious memory. It can be useful in the third stage of trauma recovery when you are trying to change the script running in your head. But it cannot help earlier than that.
Ronnie was unable to express any feelings/emotions, despite the fact she had studied drama through school and into university. Ronnie was actually terrified of any feelings or emotions. She also lacked empathy for other people because of her fear of connecting with other people’s feelings.
Adelle decided she needed to clarify her situation. Ronnie was a difficult person to communicate with and tended to tell Adelle things that she then forgot about later. Ronnie was also not in the office often, and when she was it was difficult to find her available to talk to. So Adelle decided to send her a polite email.
As the two had shared some of their difficulties, Adelle was honest about the emotions she was feeling. She used I messages, did not accuse Ronnie of any wrong doing, admitted she was upset and mentioned the emotions she felt, and ended with the statement that was not sure what she should do.
Ronnie’s response was devastating to her. Ronnie wrote back a cold, disinterested response. There was no empathy, no “I’m sorry you are feeling upset”, just a very cold if you want to talk about this I will be available in 5 days time. Contact me to arrange an appointment.
Adelle later told me that if she had included some statement of empathy it would have been okay. If she had said, for example, “I am sorry you are feeling upset about the changes, I can’t meet with you for another five days, could we meet at xtime in xplace and discuss this?” But there was none of that.
Ronnie’s disinterested communication left Adelle feeling invisible, worthless, hopeless and then angry. It fed into her childhood trauma. She left it a few weeks then contacted Ronnie again saying how disappointed she was at Ronnie’s cold unempathic response.
Ronnie replied that her psychologist had told her not to reply to such a “highly emotive written correspondence. These matters are best handled in an open and transparent way, this forum is not.”
Adelle wondered which message Ronnie was referring to. Her message was not “highly emotive”. She brought the message to me. It was not emotive. She stated the facts quite calmly and only mentioned her feelings in the format “when this happened I felt ….”. This is a healthy way to express emotions and own them.
I wonder if Ronnie’s psychologist said this at all. A lot of people hide behind “professional advice” when it is actually their fears driving them and they have not sought professional advice.
Ronnie behaved in the way her family taught her to behave all those years ago when she was told to keep quiet about the abuse. She learned to fear emotions and feelings and found it frightening when she encountered such emotions in other people. She was even frightened of people discussing feelings. This is because she has never attended to her trauma properly.
It is also likely that Ronnie had realised this extra task was impossible to work on and did not know how to tell Adelle that she didn’t have any work for her. It is sad, because Ronnie carries the guilt and shame of what she did, not Adelle.
Ronnie still has to work with Adelle. Adelle has dealt with the hurt, we worked on a meditation somatic technique I often use with clients to help them transform the hurt they feel.
Adelle is fine. But she will never have the same relationship with Ronnie again. She has no respect for Ronnie. She does not like Ronnie’s cold behaviour. She will continue to work with Ronnie but it will be on a very formal footing. There will be no warmth and friendliness, just formality. I think Ronnie will find that hard. Sadly, she will not know how to mend the breach and Adelle is healthy enough to have made a decision to not mind if the breach is never mended. Working with Adelle is going to be very uncomfortable for her.
In the next blog I will talk about how trauma counsellors should work.