Survivors Speak: Psychological Trauma Can Be a Great Destroyer of Dreams

Hello! I created this video for an event called Survivors Speak: A Story Telling Event, which will be taking place in Salt Lake City shortly.  It is an opportunity that will provide many survivors of abuse to come out of the shadows of hiding and speak up.  Sadly, I am unable to attend, but all the same, I want to show my support to my friends there by addressing the very real issue of psychological trauma.

Psychological trauma is a very real issue that needs attention. I will give you a formal definition of psychological trauma but before I do so, I would like to help you get in the mindset of this type of trauma.  To do so, please take yourself mentally to Aurora, Colorado.  The date is July 20, 2012. You are at the midnight showing of the movie Batman.  Do you remember this night? This is the night that the 24-year old white man, who had colored his hair a Kool-Aid orange and red to look like the Joker in the movie Batman, opened gunfire killing 24 and wounding 58.

Imagine you were among that number.  Imagine being shot in that theater and then having to go back to that theater every week, sometimes more than once a week, with the gunman still there.

Imagine that when you go to the theater weekly, the people attending the theater oddly know nothing about the shootings that occurred, and of course, that you had been shot.  To add to the complexity, imagine that it is an event that cannot be disclosed to anyone either.

Imagine that because it cannot be disclosed, instead of receiving needed medical attention, everyone instead wonders about you and questions you.  You want to share it with them but you know it’s not safe.  One of the reasons it’s not safe is because the gunman is still in the theater.  He is there every time you go.  Going back to the theater is so not desired but you must go.  You know you must. You have to go for your job or for your education or maybe even for eternal life.

You feel so ashamed, confused, and embarrassed that you were shot, and multiple times, and that you are struggling because of it.  You struggle with anger that people, in their ignorance, won’t back up, giving you psychological air because they have no understanding of what you have even undergone.  You struggle with intense anxiety—fearing you will encounter the gunman unexpectedly, even though you are on constant lookout so that such will not happen.  You struggle with intense self-hatred because you fear, and even believe, that you deserved to be shot.

Now compare that theater to a location where a traumatic location can occur—which can be anywhere—home, school, work, and yes, even church.

So the formal definition of psychological trauma is: “The unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which, the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed.  Thus, a traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope. The individual may feel emotionally, cognitively, and physically overwhelmed. The circumstances of the event commonly include abuse of power, betrayal of trust, entrapment, helplessness, pain, confusion, and/or loss” (Pearlman & Saakvitne, 1995, p. 60).

This definition intentionally does not allow us to determine whether a particular event is traumatic; that is up to each survivor. This definition provides a guideline for our understanding of a survivor’s experience of the events and conditions of his/her life. Thus, while we consider this ache that too many experience with psychological trauma, we need to keep in mind and understand that what is trauma to one person may not be trauma to another person—we are all on different plains and tolerance levels and those vary from person to person and from time and circumstances even among those same individuals.  If you are going through a physical difficulty, for example, and an extreme emotional situation hits on top of that, you are more likely to experience trauma than if all else is going well in your life.  We must not be rigid and simple-minded in our thinking and understanding of this. We cannot just assume that someone is weaker or more problematic than the next soul because something traumatizes one and not the other.  Situations and timing matter!!

Further, when talking about psychological trauma, we need to understand that trauma is not the same as offense.   We hear so often about offense, especially within the Utah, or Mormon, culture. We have been taught well that we choose to be offended. But offense is not the only level of hurt.  There is also trauma and people do not CHOOSE to be traumatized. One does not choose to be robbed or assaulted or shot.

And trauma must be treated differently than offense—just like a slap must be treated differently than a deep wound.  And if there is any group of people that need more sensitivity and understanding, it is this group of people.  But you see, I’m not just talking about obvious trauma which can readily be recognized and seen.

In addition to obvious trauma—such as a death, there is also invisible, unacknowledged, spiritual, psychological trauma.  All trauma is so very hard to deal with, for sure. Known and understood trauma—something that is physically seen that is suddenly ripped out of one’s hands—is a deep and anguishing experience, to say the least.  People are not the same again after such experiences and violations. But equally traumatizing is invisible trauma.  …And yes, invisible trauma can even show its vicious tentacles at home, at school, at work, at church—anywhere! And it can come in some many forms.

Further, many who have psychological trauma line up pretty squarely with the DSM-5 criteria for PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder.  The symptoms and duration are real which include depression, hyper-vigilance, anxiety, flashbacks, extreme reactions to memories of the trauma, avoidance, loss of memory, detachment, insomnia, and a loss of self-confidence.

Now, the tendency is for people to diminish any kind of trauma that is not combat trauma. But let’s be very clear here: In combat trauma, soldiers go in EXPECTING to face an enemy. They go in trained for battle. Yet, after battle a soldier is often flown back home and received with love and care. We make allowances for these people and get them immediate help.

But with psychological trauma, one is being violated and betrayed by people that are thought and expected to be safe—a priesthood leader, a family member, a friend, a helper, a defender. But with psychological trauma, no one wants to admit and accept it—nothing seriously bad can happen at church, for example, right? And the wounds can’t be seen! Those suffering are often just as confused. And because no one gets it, the hurt and blame are thrown right back onto the traumatized, causing greater cognitive dissonance such as confusion and fear. When trauma comes from the hands of those we thought trustworthy and safe, our whole neurological system is thrown into chaos. In fact, research shows that psychological trauma is more detrimental and has a longer lasting effect than combat trauma.

Additionally, many of these people experience mobbing. What is mobbing?  “Mobbing is hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systemic way by one or a few individuals. The individual is pushed into a defenseless position and held there by means of continued mobbing activities. Mobbing activities that people may experience: 1) the victim is silenced by those in charge and left with the inability to speak out of fear, 2) verbal threats, and other verbal activities which become part of keeping a person from doing their work effectively, 3) ridicule, 4) gossiping or rumors, 5) being given patronizing or meaningless tasks, and 6) being harassed in a threatening way” (Speight & Speight, 2017).

One article on PTSD states: “One great trauma-imposer seems to be when it comes from authoritarian figureheads.  Perhaps the hardship of this type of trauma comes from what Sigmund Freud observed as “a common illusion of a father surrogate that loves all of the individuals in the group equally.”  To add to the conflict, members of such groups, believing the “surrogate father illusion,” will often call into question the trustworthiness of the trauma victim, and, in support of the authority figure, quickly diminishes the reports of the traumatized, leaving them without a sense of their own personal worth and identity.

“Sadly, too often, trauma violates prior explanations or meanings for life; thus, if victims are not careful, trauma can be a great destroyer of dreams, of religious faith, and of spiritual practice.  In addition, traumatic reminders of the actual event may occur by just going to the traumatic location or even seeing people from that location which often echoes the hurt, causing re-traumatization. Thus, such violations generate immense emotional and spiritual distress not only for victims and their families, but can also cause great harm for everyone associated with that organization” (Hartline, 2018).

We need to open our ears to hear these sufferers.  There are actions we must take if we really care about lifting the hands that hang down and healing our society.  We can start by believing and validating those who have been traumatized.  Let us gift them with our attention, sensitivity, and help.

**Danna is the founder and creator of The Mormon Trauma Mama.  She is actively involved in advocating for those suffering from church trauma and is currently getting her Master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling from California Southern University.  She has spoken at many events on the very real issue  of church trauma in the LDS Church, including the ADAM Conference, Sunstone Symposium, and the When Church Hurts Summit.  For more information on church trauma,  find an overview on the MTM  homepage which includes a presentation Danna did at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

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