The Legacy of Trauma Is Long and Wide and Deep

Each person must define traumatic experience for him or herself. It is a deeply subjective assessment. It depends on how threatened and helpless we feel in reaction to an event. We respond to experiences differently. What causes trauma is overstimulation beyond the capacity of our endurance, and endurance capacity varies. Trauma is cumulative and as it builds up makes us vulnerable to further crises. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious or destructive.

We don't "get over" trauma; we bear it for a lifetime, finding ways, or not, to integrate the experience into our life. Trauma changes us. And for people who just want life to return to "the way it was", this can be difficult to accept. We are not defined by trauma, but we are certainly marked by it. Trauma is not easy to define. It can be described as the freezing of past and present into a single frozen moment. Traumatic experiences often defy understanding.

Trauma is both a process and a state of being. It is an experience of everything and nothing at once. It defies words, yet demands expression, over and over. It both demands representation and refuses to be represented. The intensity of trauma seems to make it impossible to remember or forget. This intensity which makes forgetting impossible also makes any form of recollection seem inadequate. Often the traumatic event is too horrible for words; too horrifying to be integrated into how we make sense of the world. The intensity of a trauma is what defies understanding and so a description that someone else understands seems to indicate that the trauma wasn't as intense as it seemed to be. Description seems impossible.

If we ignore the trauma, we seem to have neglected an obligation to come to terms with the horror and pain. If we understand the trauma by putting it in relation to other events, we seem to be forgetting the intensity. The dilemma is that we must tell our stories, and yet our stories cannot be told. The traumatic experience is in a sense, timeless. Trauma exists in the forever present. In order to capture the heart of the experience, we must risk another journey back to the trauma. We are both back there and here at the same time; and we are able to distinguish between the two. We remember what happened then without losing a sense of existing and acting now.

We struggle to put our experiences into words. But there are some things that cannot be said. Words seem too inadequate. And yet, it is not okay to state that the horrors of the trauma are too terrible for words and therefore must be left unsaid and unheard. Many emerge from trauma wanting to wanting to talk about what they describe as "unsayable". Despite the content of what is said, what is crucial is that it is said. The significance of sharing a trauma lies not in what is said, but simply that something is said.