Putting our traumas in perspective
Updated: Jan 20, 2022
I was 15 when this guy tried to rape me. I was coming home after dark, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I got into the elevator, and just before the door closed this young guy slipped in. He pulled out a knife and told me that we were going to get off at some floor and he was going to rape me in the staircase.
I was scared shitless but not witless. I said I had a better idea. My parents weren’t home. Why couldn’t we go up to my apartment where it would be “better”?
What I left out was that every time I was coming home after dark my mother would be waiting at the open door to our apartment, and that she was strong as an ox and brave as a bull. When the door opened on our floor, I yelled, my mother yelled and started running at him, and he ran down the stairs, scared shitless and witless.
This was trauma. An incident of terrible fear. Long minutes facing imminent rape and a horrible death. It was not a story with a happy ending. It was a bad story without a worse ending. Big difference. Plus I was now saddled with a clingy mother now made much, much clingier.
Nor would I say this was even the worst thing that ever happened to me.
This is a normal kind of thing to happen, if you’re a woman. To be a woman is to live your life as a sexual target. You’re that before you become aware of it, and you become aware of it all too soon. A target of eyes and hands and words. And it never stops. They say that once you reach a certain age you become invisible. Well, yeah, maybe, in the dating world. But I’ve had a man grab me—at my age!—in the produce section of the supermarket.
And being a sexual target isn’t just about what happens. That’s really just the tip of iceberg. A tip that varies a lot from woman to woman. For some women the worst they experience is dates getting handsy. For many women the worst is a lot worse. But whatever we actually experience, beyond that lies the fear of what we might experience. In the words of an old joke, a man and woman meet after being matched online. He’s afraid she’ll be ugly. She’s afraid he’ll kill her.
Note, by the way, that his fear—“she’ll be ugly”—is itself a form of on-going trauma women experience. Failing to be deemed “sexually attractive” is itself a form of being a sexual target. Constantly fearing this is also a form of living as a sexual target.
Add to this the fear of non-sexual attack. I was just talking with a twenty-three-year-old woman who’d been attacked by a guy in her family. Months later she was still reverberating with the sense of her vulnerability at the hands of men. And the thought of having to live the rest of her life with this vulnerability.
So. What do you make of all this? How do we live with this knowledge? How do I live with my history? How do you live with yours?
This is a huge issue these days, where trauma is being talked about a lot, and where looking at the damage done by trauma has become a major industry. If we’re not smart, and thoughtful, and very much aware of the data, we can go very wrong.
So then, besides talking about the degree to which women are sexual and physical targets, what else is there to say?
Well, one thing I’d like to say is that while most women have had traumatic experiences, so have most men. Maybe one’s not allowed to say that, these days, but it’s true. Men get bullied in all kinds of ways, some obvious, some more subtle but just as painful. Men’s selves get punched into shape just the way women’s do. Men’s self-esteem takes a beating, as does women’s self-esteem.
Is it worse for men than for women? Or worse for women? I don’t think it’s useful to go there. We really can’t tell. Marine Corps Recruit Training—what civilians call boot camp—is brutal. But it’s deemed an experience that “makes a man out of you,” so it’s not thought of as traumatic. All the pressures men face are seen as healthful, and therefore non-traumatic. But really, is it that easy?
Or is there another way to look at this altogether? Perhaps we can agree on two truths.
We all, to some degree or other, get the shit kicked out of us. Some of us have worse stories than some others do, but we all have some bad stories.
We are all, more or less, resilient.
Resilience is really the headline here, or at least it should be.
I’ll start with me. On top of the traumas I’ve referred to, I had to deal with my parents’ getting divorced and with being a child of penniless, homeless refugees. But you know what? I’m fine. Really! I’m happy, I have a good life, I enjoy things, I’ve done well. Bad things have happened to me, but where’s the damage? I’m not aware of any.
Of course I’m just one person. But there are zillions like me. I worked with a woman who, as a girl, went through years of sexual torture at the hands of her father and his friend. Now as an adult she was...well, she had bad memories, that’s for sure. And she had “issues”—that’s why she was in therapy—but her issues weren’t worse than or different from the issues of countless women who’d not been affected by serious trauma.
The data reflect this. Most people who’ve had what are called Potentially Traumatic Experiences (PTE) do not have mental illness as a result. What’s more, many associations of mental illness with a PTE are retrospective: the person looks for and of course finds a traumatic experience in his or her past to “explain” their mental illness.
It’s not that traumatic experiences are good for us! It’s that the most important thing you can say about us who face so many threats and hazards is that we ARE resilient. Surviving and thriving in the face of the bad things that happen to us is what we were designed by nature to do. And we do it.
By the way, we wrote a book about dealing with trauma. We called it Everything Happens for a Reason. Not that we believed that title literally. But that our research showed us that people who went through painful, difficult experiences--traumas!--did much better if they could find some meaning for themselves in what had happened. And people do this naturally all the time! It's part of our resilience. And in the book we show you how to find that meaning.
The images here are all of survivors of a special kind of trauma: cancer.