- Published: 30 March 2021
- ISBN: 9781761040160
- Imprint: Penguin Life
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 272
- RRP: $34.99
You’re Not Broken
Break free from trauma and reclaim your life
I’ve seen a lot of different therapists over the years. Some were great, some good, and some worryingly bad. When I was twenty-three, one of the great ones said to me:
‘Every symptom and issue you bring to me, Sarah, makes me believe that you carry trauma. I think something happened in your past that made you deeply overwhelmed and afraid, and you’re still reacting to it.’
I stared at her in stunned silence. I’d had a stable upbringing. I’d been to a good school. I was struggling, yes, but I hadn’t been through anything traumatic.
Once I regained my composure I decided I’d better set her straight. ‘You’ve got it totally wrong,’ I told her firmly. ‘I don’t have trauma.’
‘Okay,’ she said. And I pretty much left there and then.
My defensive how-dare-you response to the therapist’s suggestion that I carried trauma was about my own denial. But it also reflects a wider cultural fear of what trauma means. Within mainstream culture, three false-truths about trauma persist. First, that trauma is a disorder. Second, that trauma only happens to an unlucky few who experience very extreme events and symptoms. Third, that trauma permanently damages us, leaving us fundamentally broken.
The result of these misperceptions is, of course, that many of us are afraid of the word. We push it away, when really what we need to do is move towards it so we can better understand it.
Trauma is a protective human reaction, not a disorder. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the name clinical psychologists and psychiatrists have given to high levels of trauma that are prolonged, but it’s just a name.
The fact remains that trauma is a reaction, and this is true whether the reaction is more or less severe. (For some reason they lost sight of this as they labelled it in the 1970s.) This reaction can be a response to extreme events, but it can also be a response to common everyday experiences. Maybe the incident was relatively small: one we didn’t label as traumatic at the time, but as time goes on we can see the lasting effect isn’t small at all. To a greater or lesser extent, we’ve all experienced this traumatic reaction. It’s part of being human – it unifies us. And far from leaving us fundamentally broken, understanding our own traumatic reactions can lead to our greatest transformation. As we move towards the thing we’ve been pushing away, we break free and reclaim our life.
When we don’t recognise how traumatic experiences have affected us, we remain bound to the past and disconnected from our true selves. We’re trapped in painful old reactions, patterns and self-limiting traumatic beliefs.
Perhaps something happened that didn’t feel at all okay, but you laughed it off? Perhaps you can’t remember exactly what happened, but you just know there’s something there, something you’ve been afraid to look back at? You’re happy to admit things could be better; that you’re struggling a little, but – trauma? That just sounds too much, too serious, too something-that-happens-to-veterans.
I was afraid for a long time too. My fear held me back from living a full, free, authentic life. Incredible growth is possible once we’re brave enough to consider the idea that maybe (just maybe) the difficulties we’re experiencing today are connected to our own past traumas. Once we do, and as our understanding grows, we change. We stop feeling afraid of the past. We see the patterns we’re stuck in. We see, as clear as day, how the past has affected our self-belief, thoughts, feelings, choices, even our body. We shift from confusion to clarity, and with that clarity comes freedom and growth, coupled with empowerment and thriving.
So, what’s a trauma?
Determining what constitutes a traumatic experience is more difficult than you might imagine, because an experience is only a trauma if we have a traumatic reaction. If we have an upsetting experience, but never have a traumatic reaction to it, it’s not one of our traumas. It’s the reaction that matters; that defines whether an experience is a trauma.
Any distressing experience – particularly those that occurred in childhood – that you perceived as threatening and extremely overwhelming can provoke a traumatic reaction. This includes experiences that are very severe and disturbing, but also includes often overlooked, everyday experiences and ones that threaten our need for social connection (like feeling unseen, unheard or unloved). The experience sets off a chain of reactions in our body and mind. The reactions set off more reactions, and over time we become stuck in reactive patterns and cycles. Stuck in feelings, sensations, thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. Although painful – and demoralising at times – the repetition and stagnation show us what we need to do to heal.
This book will help you understand all forms of traumatic reactions – from the extreme to those that are more insidious and hard to spot. You’ll understand trauma on your own terms, as it relates to your life. Because that’s the truth – only you can ever really determine if an experience, a moment, a school, a relationship, a job, a holiday, a conversation, was traumatic. Only you can, because only you can see the truth of your reaction. Once you learn to recognise your traumatic reactions (which I’m going to teach you), you’ll better understand your past. You’ll also better understand yourself today, and clearly see the roadblocks that are preventing you from moving forward.
No matter where you’re currently stuck, this book will help you understand your past traumas, recognise your own personal reactions to them, and get unstuck – though I would urge anyone who has very high, debilitating, levels of trauma symptoms to seek professional face-to-face support. Primarily, this book is for people who are getting on with their lives, largely unaware of how the trauma they carry affects the way they live their life. It’s to help people shift from confusion to clarity about themselves and their problems. To help people shift from fear to hope, repetition to spontaneity, reaction to action, powerlessness to empowerment, from stuck to freedom and growth.
Trauma affects everything
I think the single most important thing I learnt during the ten years I researched trauma as an academic is that trauma affects everything. This may sound like an overstatement, but it’s not. You only need to take a brief look at the lengthy list of trauma symptoms in the Appendix (p. 223) and you’ll see what I mean. The symptoms, behaviours, moods, coping mechanisms, thoughts and feelings that we now know link directly to trauma are extremely broad (and growing). As well as the list of symptoms that are directly associated with trauma, there is growing research linking other aspects of wellbeing and mental health to previous trauma.1
Did you see the Russell Brand quote that went around social media?
Cannabis isn’t a gateway drug. Alcohol isn’t a gateway drug. Nicotine isn’t a gateway drug. Caffeine isn’t a gateway drug.
Trauma is the gateway. Childhood abuse is the gateway. Molestation is the gateway. Neglect is the gateway.
What Russell Brand so eloquently highlights is that childhood trauma commonly leads to a heap of negative outcomes for the kids involved. Research has shown that adverse (shitty, abhorrent, unfair) childhood experiences2 increase a child’s likelihood of developing certain physical problems in adulthood, including strokes, liver disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, cancer, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and obesity.3 I think these physical outcomes are mind-blowing. And as you would expect, adverse childhood experiences and trauma can also lead to cognitive, emotional and behavioural issues. Learning and behavioural problems, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, smoking, PTSD, various psychiatric disorders, risky sexual behaviour and addiction are all associated, to a greater or lesser degree, with traumatic childhood experiences.4
To summarise: trauma in childhood affects our mind and body. Some of you know this is true because you’re living with one or more of the outcomes I’ve just covered. But a lot of us dismiss uncomfortable facts like these. For many, our denial is so strong that we’re unable to engage with reality: ‘I wasn’t properly neglected as a kid. No liver disease here.’ Our denial, resistance and avoidance makes this whole topic about other people. But it’s not. It’s about a lot of people. That’s the whole point.
There’s no escaping the reality that if we’ve experienced trauma – as so many have – but have had no treatment and done no work, trauma is still likely to be affecting our lives. The research I’ve mentioned above is just the tip of the iceberg, because this is broader than labels and conditions and diagnoses. It’s about our day-to-day life – our ability to experience joy, our willingness to trust ourselves, our confidence and self-esteem. It’s about our contentment, or lack of it. It’s about our sense of purpose, and why we get up in the morning. It’s about being able to be in the moment. It’s about laughter and love.
What do you think your past traumas affect? Your beliefs? Your opinions? Your choice of partner? Your choice of friends? Your hobbies (or lack of them)? Your choice of career? Your willingness to socially interact? Your ability to socially interact? Your ability to trust? To love? To commit? To share? To open up? Your willingness to learn? To be around men? To be around women? To parent? To hold down a job? To love yourself? To see your potential? To what? How does your past trauma affect your life? This sits at the heart of what this book is really about: real life, and ways to make it better.
As we all do
I firmly believe that we’re drawn to certain things in life – careers, people, countries, books, movies, anything – that somehow serve us spiritually and psychologically. I’m one of those irritating people who thinks everything has a meaning and that very little in our lives happens by accident. I’m a researcher, and researchers find patterns. We’d be terrible at our jobs if our conclusions were that everything is a coincidence and life is a chaotic mess. I was drawn to research because I believe that through logically observing life we can learn and grow. We can find the meaning humans have accidentally or deliberately embedded into their actions, words and lives. My choice of career has a personal meaning to me and serves me on various levels. It serves the part of my soul that needs to be of service, to help others heal and grow. And on a less enlightened note, it serves the part of me that’s a perfectionist and needs external validation. Meaning and motive isn’t always pure, but it’s there.
Remember that therapist I saw when I was twenty-three? The one who dared to suggest I carry trauma? After I walked out of that session, I did what I do best: I intellectualised the problem. I left my career in lobbying to study psychology, specialising in . . . guess what?! Trauma! This isn’t a joke, I actually did do this. Why feel your feelings or own your truth when you can run statistical analyses?! I determinedly flew through my Master of Science, receiving first-class honours for my research into how thinking affects trauma symptoms. After a couple of years working in rehab centres and on different research projects (all studying trauma, obviously), I applied to do a PhD. In total I spent ten years researching trauma in academia, single-mindedly fixated on figuring the problem out.
I’m not exaggerating, or saying this to entertain you. This incredible display of denial and subconscious motivation is the truth of my life. Someone suggested that I carried trauma, and instead of facing it, I decided I was going to think my way out of the problem. It didn’t work, and somewhere between statistical analyses 456 and 527, I admitted that maybe I could do with a bit of help. I wasn’t falling apart in the way I had when I was younger, but I knew things weren’t right. I often found friendships and romantic relationships confusing and painful. I spaced out and felt like I was floating if I felt socially uncomfortable. I was anxious more often than I wasn’t. I became stressed and overwhelmed by the smallest interruption to my daily plan. I was, once more, using under-eating as a way to cope. The major difference at this time in my life, compared to when I was twenty-three, was that I was in a relationship that I really wanted to go the distance. And honestly, I knew in my bones that unless I began making meaningful changes, the life I wanted wouldn’t happen.
I went back to the same therapist I saw at twenty-three, and at the same time I worked on a program around my food and eating disorder. I practised yoga and meditation daily and developed a deep spirituality and faith. I was changing, opening up and reconnecting with my body. I was gently, somewhat hesitantly, realising that perhaps statistical analyses didn’t have all the answers.
In the years since, I’ve worked with other great therapists and practitioners. Working with one therapist in particular (who quite possibly is the most patient woman on the planet) changed me. This work, which took time and courage, is why I’m writing this book instead of applying for another research grant. I’ve got more research in me, that’s for sure, but now the numbers will always be translated back into meaningful, accessible words on the page. Back into feelings, back into a form that can help us all rise up and out of our trauma.
It’s the human being part of me, as an individual who has experienced traumas and has had a varied (and somewhat epic) healing journey, that leads me to really know what I’m talking about. I’m not just a researcher who has drawn conclusions from literature reviews and scientific hypothesising. I am a human who has had her own journey. As we all do.
‘For young people who have never been through any of those things, or lived in a time when they were happening, this seems just frightful . . .
I heard them long before I saw them, the throaty rumble of their Second World War engines reverberating in my hearing aids as I sat outside on the morning of my 100th birthday.
Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.
In the spring of 1944, I was sixteen, living with my parents and two older sisters in Kassa, Hungary.
To speak about the meaning and value of life may seem more necessary today (1946) than ever; the question is only whether and how this is ‘possible’.
Our destination was four kilometres from the village of Hommes, 210 kilometres south-west of Paris, and half a planet away from Sydney, Australia.
The oldest suicide note was written in ancient Egypt about four thousand years ago.