Over coffee talk last weekend with a dear friend, we were discussing the nature of trauma (yes, I talk about trauma in my free time too). In particular why some traumas hurt worse, when on paper they don’t seem as “bad” as others. This is something that I’ve thought a lot about and made some janky hypotheses based on both personal and professional experiences. After chewing on this for the last 17 years and really exploring it more intimately the last two months, the most fitting and congruent hypothesis has to do with values. The more prickled and damaged our values are as a result of the trauma and the aftermath, the worst the traumatic injury wounds.
Let’s face it, at the end of the day, trauma almost always goes against our value system. However, some traumas feel more personal and cause such a deep wounding to our core values that there is more severe pain and a much harder time finding meaning and healing from them. Our values act like a protective barrier to our soul and authentic self and when they are betrayed, it rocks us to the core.
Allow me to use someone I work with (with permission) to illustrate this concept. To give some background…she has horrendous childhood trauma including molestation, physical and emotional abuse, is a police officer who has been in for decades (in varying squads and capacities). Based on her trauma timeline there are over 50 events that could easily qualify her for the diagnosis of PTSD. Many of these events still trouble her and bring up immense emotion, however there are a handful that rise to the top, that at times seem hauntingly unshakable. The ones that cause the deepest pain all are rooted in a total betrayal of values both during the event and the aftermath that followed. She has been a part of several officer involved shootings…these are not the ones that bother her because she is able to reconcile that what was done needed to be done, was done following protocol, and were much in part natural consequence based on the situation. And all congruent with her value system. These were hard for her, however the level of emotional pain, very different.
Now enter a significantly lingering traumatic injury that went against her values having to do with a fallen brother. She was with him on patrol and he was injured in a hit and run while on pursuit. She was one of the first to the hospital. She saw him lying on the gurney in the trauma bay with pools of blood collecting on the shiny, white floor. She heard the doctors yelling and the machines beeping frantically. He was pronounced shortly thereafter. Those images feel as if they are burned into her mind’s eye. They however are not the trauma. Where the trauma comes in is when her Sgt. orders her to go into the trauma bay and remove her friend and brother’s badge and gun. The reason this stung so badly is because she felt as though she were dishonoring him and robbing him of his identity. This went against the grain of two of her core values of honor and integrity. She felt as though she betrayed him. She also felt betrayed, hurt and disappointed by her leadership whose job it should have been to remove personal belongings. This too went against her values of honor and integrity. She and her values struggled to make sense of this. And as a result, to this day, she feels it would have been better if it were her. We’re working diligently and she is reconciling the incongruence this trauma has caused between her values and soul. She is progressing beautifully and with courage. Her values remain intact and she’s stepping into her story.
During this deep, caffeine inspired conversation, my friend and I had one major point of contention. There are some traumas she refuses to talk about and states she never will. Naturally, I simply see this as nothing more than a glorious challenge, but I digress. The reason she stated they will go to the grave is because of the gaping hole they have caused and the belief this hole will never be filled again. The secondary reason I believe has to do with the battle between shame and how damaged the values were as a result of the trauma. I hear this all the time; “oh, I will never talk about that one.” This is the world’s most brilliant excuse to stay silent, not step into our stories and lets the wound fester. By refusing to honor our experiences and stay silent, we’re further betraying our values and our authentic self. These gaping holes DO get filled again. I’m blessed to see it happen all the time. They get filled by courageously sharing our stories and embracing our values. Our values (and a few other things that I will discuss in a future post) start the process of refilling. There’s accuracy, you will never be the same person as you were before your traumas, that part is true. I can promise, the holes can and do get filled and usually with more rich material.
Even though our values get temporarily misplaced as a result of trauma, they don’t ever leave, betray or deny us. They’re always there and continue to act like a protective shield, once we have the trust to rely upon them again. I believe we often confuse matters and think it was our values that betrayed us, when in reality, our values also got betrayed. It was the trauma that caused a betrayal and crisis amongst our values and soul. We get into secret fight with our values due to this confusion and ignore them and allow them to get dusty. When in reality, they’re what have protected us, allowed for survival and are a critical key to healing from traumatic injury and thriving thereafter. Once we have the courage to speak and share our stories of emotional, physical, spiritual and value betrayal, that gives us the power to assimilate meaning, fill the holes and live fully.