How to Live with, Work with, Deal with People Who Have Adapted to Trauma

This is not a book review in this rebellious book review blog, because it wouldn’t be so rebellious if they were all book reviews right?  Having read two books about trauma and dissociation, it made me think a lot about the subject, and I thought it would be nice to synthesize my thoughts into a nice little advice column for people to know how to deal with or even how to be someone who has experienced and adapted to trauma…


The world is increasingly filled with traumatizing events, and in a rather vicious cycle, people who are traumatized are the ones who traumatize others.  Hopefully, the world will become more aware of this.  Only when you identify a problem can you fix it.  If we accept that an increasing number of us are being traumatized whether by parental abuse, combat, car accidents, witnessing violence, we will be more likely to help traumatized people get the help they need.  Not only will it help them, but it will have a multiplier effect on the people around them.  Keep in mind, most all people who abuse and commit violent acts upon others have been the victims of trauma.

Disconnecting.  The lights are on but nobody’s home.  There are many words for this.  Dissociating.  Daydreaming.  Spacing out.  Basically, the mind loses focus on the present and the immediate surroundings and floats off into an internal world.  The person will not only lose connection with others but their bodies as well.  They may not eat because they do not feel their hunger or they eat too much because they do not feel the sensation of being full.  This is frustrating for others, because obviously, it’s hard to communicate with someone who is not there.  “Earth to Jimmy!” We hear that all the time, but it comes across as a tiny, tinny little voice competing with all the beeps and bells going on in our minds.  Here’s a piece of advice.  If you want our attention, plan ahead.  Set up a specific time and place to talk about something important, and we’ll be prepared for it.  The worse thing is to surprise us with important things.  If you get angry and yell at us, all you’ll succeed in doing is pulling us further away from our bodies and the present.  We’ll also hate you for being such an annoying loud ass.

Compartmentalizing.  At one extreme, people who suffer traumas develop distinct, lucid, and loud personalities who talk out loud in our minds.  We do not all suffer from dissociated personality disorder, but we exist on a spectrum.  What this means is that while someone is always present, it may not be the same one at any given time.  What this means is that sometimes we do not recognize familiar people out of context.  We have one mind for one context and another mind for another context.  School me can recognize you in the hallway but if I see you at the mall, mall me doesn’t recognize you.  No offense.  We do recognize close friends, because they meet all our minds in all different contexts.  It also means that we suck when it comes to remembering processes or events that straddle multiple contexts and a long period of time.  We tend to suck when it comes to academic subjects that require one body of knowledge to build upon another body of knowledge.  In other words, most of the math and sciences.  We excel in the creative fields where we can just start from scratch and improvise.  We excel at improvisation, because we’ve been doing it all our lives.  We are also great actors, because we’ve been doing that all our lives too.

It also means that if you do get to know us for a long time, you’ll get to meet all our minds.  This is often why we don’t have a lot of long-term friends or relationships.  We frighten people when we throw different minds at them when stress or different contexts arise.  We often get this, “oh, I had no idea you were so adventurous.”  “I had no idea you were such a flirt.”  “I had no idea you got so angry!”  Etc.  To the extreme, some of us are disconnected from our different minds, so we don’t even remember what we did when we were in our different minds.  “I don’t remember flirting with Jane.”  You think we’re lying scoundrels, but in some cases, we really don’t remember.  “I don’t remember yelling at the bouncer.”  Sorry, sometimes we don’t, but as I said, that’s an extreme.  Don’t let us off the hook for bad behavior but keep in mind, some of us aren’t lying.  We have no idea what our other minds have done.

Incongruent reactions.  Whatever trauma we experienced, our minds have loosely associated any and all things in the immediate vicinity and environment with that negative feeling, especially the sense of losing control.  Anything can trigger us, and in most cases, we are not even aware of what triggers us.  It’s as confusing to us as it is to you.  For all of us, we act first and rationalize our behavior after the fact.  When we see that we have an orange in our hand, we rationalize that we wanted it and must have been hungry.  For us, we see an orange splattered on the wall and it’s confounding as to why we did that.  It’s often upsetting and shocking for us to witness our behavior and try to explain it.  Why did I blow up so quickly at what was rather an innocuous remark?  Why do I feel so lethargic and tired every time I meet Lisa, she’s such a fun and exciting person?  Why I am so afraid of finishing that project I was given?  I have come to the conclusion that most all of my irrational and perplexing behavior is the result of a trigger to some preconditioned trauma, so I just have to accept that, and by doing so, I panic less and come out of it quicker.  If you stay in a confused state, you are more likely to panic and stress about it and thereby prolong the irrational and perplexing behavior.  Whenever I get into my moods, I talk to myself and to try avoid saying or doing things to exacerbate the situation or fight myself.  I used to fight myself all the time, but that just makes you tired.  I avoid making big decisions.  I avoid arguing with people.  Although it is tempting to get drunk to get out of a funky odd mood feeling disconnected from the world, that is probably the last thing you want to do.  That funky odd mood is telling you to be cautious and careful and conservative.  If you were traumatized by a dog attacking you as a kid, and you somehow forgot that, whenever you see a dog, you will get in an odd, funky mood.  You shouldn’t overreact to that.  If you see a dog, a startled reaction will only make the dog more likely to attack or chase you.  Your body is telling you to be cautious and careful and conservative.  Walk by slowly, be alert, and just chill and wait for the mood to naturally float past.

We can concurrently hold two opposing ideas or points of view.  Hypocrite?  No.  One of our minds may embrace the kindness and warmness of humanity while the other is wary of the exploitative, evil, destructive tendencies of humanity.  You see, when we were kids, we had to deal with the odd, perplexing notion that a loving, caring parent could simultaneously be cruel, vicious, careless, and abusive.  One of the worst things for a human to endure is cognitive dissonance, to experience two conflicting notions concurrently.  The human brain is an amazing creature that can fix this problem by simply compartmentalizing its mind into separate states.  One can hold the notion that the parent is kind and loving while another holds the notion that they are scary as fuck.  I both believe in a powerful being that is overlooking all of us and taking care of us, but I also believe that there is nothing, that it is just all an illusion and that when we die, existence as we know it ceases.  While you may call us hypocrites, it creates a remarkably flexible mind that is not afraid of complexity and opposing views and ideas.  After all, we live in a world where the laws of Newtonian physics coexist with quantum physics, and quantum physics informs us that the world is significantly more complex and odd than we may ever be able to imagine.  In fact, chances are, we will never understand the world we live in, and nothing is as baffling and frustrating as that, so we are more likely to embrace the unknown and the ‘real’ world than anyone else.  As far as I’m concerned, I live a baffling life and it is okay to live in a baffling universe where the truth may never be known or can never be known, that the simple acting of thinking about something radically changes it.

At the same time we can also be outstandingly compassionate and excruciatingly insensitive.  We can feel the pain of animals being tortured.  But unfortunately, there is a part of us that can totally turn that sensation of sympathy off completely, and we go numb.  We go numb not only to our own pain but the pain of others.  We can be incredibly sympathetic but also incredibly callous and even laugh at someone else’s misfortune and misery.  It often goes something like this.  We feel so much sympathy for animals being tortured that we could easily imagine us killing and dismembering a human who abuses animals and feel nothing for that human.  This is the essence of our terrible potential.  While we have an amazing capacity to endure pain and suffering, it also implies that we also have the capacity to inflict pain and suffering upon others without remorse or pause.  In fact, chances are, the worst and most brutal villains in history at some point experienced extreme trauma.  It is a potential we should be made aware of, because we often view ourselves as only victims which annoys the hell out of me.  I do not consider myself a victim first of all.  Second of all, we are equally capable of being victimizers and we should acknowledge that and make sure that we don’t fall trap to that quick twist of roles.  When someone feels overly victimized, they tend to excuse all their bad behavior as the direct outcome of their victimization.  This is where evil and irresponsibility sets in.  Yes, in a sense, we were victimized, but today, we are not, and today, we can minimize that experience and reframe it so that it empowers us instead of enfeebles us.  We can never excuse our bad behavior on our trauma but rather own it and then reshape it.  Yes, I blew up at you because you said something that reminded me of my parent, but I am sorry and regret it, and I own that behavior and I alone must make amends and feel remorse and do my best not to blow up at you anymore.  That is what you should expect me to say instead of, well, you pissed me off and I was abused, so I guess I overreacted.

We do not have a disorder.  We are not victims.  We are not disabled.  We are different.  There are many pros and cons to us.  We have an extra ability if you will as well as extra responsibilities to keep those abilities just that and not disabilities.  Our minds are more flexible and our internal worlds richer and more elaborate.  We have a mental safe space to retreat to when the world gets crazy.  We perceive injustices and suffering more acutely, so we are more likely to act and help out.  I have worked for three disaster response agencies for a reason.  I always thought it was coincidence.  When everyone else is losing their minds and succumbing to the loss and dread of disaster, I feel emboldened and energized to help out.  As others turn inward, I turn outward.  People look at me as a solid pillar under a crumbling roof.  I like jobs where nobody has any expectations of you, but you have the opportunity to do amazing things under the most dire of circumstances.  Whether we admit it or not, we like the idea of becoming superheroes.  In fact, the concept of the superhero is the direct outcome of the childhood fear of being powerless in an evil, dangerous world.  We aspire to become the superhero that we needed as a child.  But as always, there is the dangerous flip side where people who have experienced trauma can just as easily become the most dangerous and evil villains.

One potentially unfortunate thing is that people who have experienced traumas tend to be drawn to people who have experienced traumas and in many cases, they are drawn to people who are likely to traumatize them over and over again.  We can spot each other in rooms like we’re some kind of alien race.  But fact is, we can tell by our tendencies to dissociate and mentally wander off or those who are overly intense and in the moment either as a façade or overreaction.  We can be both extremely private and extremely indiscrete.  We can also be heavily spaced out or overly in your face with the moment.  And so we find each other compelling and familiar as opposed to the strange freaks who are just casually in the moment and casually attached to their minds.  Some of us find them boring, but fact is, that’s how strangers behave around each other, not too familiar not too distant.  We just think that’s foreign and strange and hence unattractive.  At the same time, we also have an extreme antipathy toward those who have experienced traumas.  We find them weak, deluded, fake, and annoying.  We have love/hate relationships with them just as we have love/hate relationships with those who traumatize us.  Unfortunately, fact is, if I find anyone exceptionally attractive or repulsive, chances are, they have experienced traumas.  We are repulsed by the weakness we see in them as the weakness in us, and we are drawn to the strength in them as the strength in us.

In psychology, there is the concept of normal and abnormal, of lacking disorders and possessing disorders.  In nature, there are no mistakes.  Mutations themselves are engineered to create variations so that organisms can not only adapt to an ever changing environment but also compete with ever changing organisms.  Evolutionary “failures” are necessary to ensure evolutionary “successes.”  Of course, we anthropomorphize everything.  Fact is, nature just is and does.  There is no such thing as success or failure, winning or losing, better or worse, normal and abnormal.  When we suffer traumas, we simply adopt a whole new set of features that allow us to adapt to greater traumas or at least survive the existing trauma.  Problems arise when we go from a bad start to a good middle.  When you through someone who has never been in a loving relationship into a loving relationship, it isn’t so easy for them to quickly become reciprocal and loving.  The goal is to have options.  There is a chance our economy will fall into a Great Depression and there will be a World War III and much misery, suffering, famine, death, and destruction.  Past traumas have inoculated me to some extent for this possibility.  However, today, I’m lucky to live in a relatively peaceful, wealthy country, and I have to constantly deal with my mind still adapting to traumas with bells and warning lights going off all the time.  If I want to flourish in this relatively peaceful and wealthy country, I need to dim down those trauma adaptations. 

You also have to realize and accept that you have extreme differences in your mind.  While one can be kind and giving, another can be callous and cruel.  While one can be shy and timid, another can be bold and audacious.  While one can be logical and wise, another can be impulsive and artistic.  We often get confused and confounded when one mind acts and another assesses the outfall of that action.  We wonder how we could have been so cowardly in one instance and backed down from a bully and then another time, we stood up to a bully.  By understand our multiple minds, we accept that we simply were in the wrong mind for the given context.  We understand and move on.  If we believe we only have one mind then we must travel down an endless path of convoluted justifications, rationalizations, bizarre reinterpretations and rewritings of history.  In fact, we become frightened and confused by ourselves and follow ourselves cowering in our wake filling our minds with complicated and bizarre excuses often finding that a scapegoat and blame are much simpler and easier to apply.  If only we understood that our minds were separated from trauma, that they compartmentalize different facets of that trauma, and like pulling apart a puzzle that portrays the picture of something horrific and incomprehensible, our separated minds live in piece each with a separate and benign piece of that puzzle.  For some therapies, you pull those minds together, you put those puzzle pieces together, and you face that horrific trauma in the safety and security of a therapists office.  For the rest of us, the only path of sanity is keeping those pieces of the puzzle and the minds that keep them separate.   

Some philosophers say that the idea of the individual is an illusion, that we are (as I read in the next book I will review) islands that appear separate but are actually all connected under the ocean.  If this is the case, then I would wonder, if we are all part of the same mind, a god or nature or something else, then perhaps that thing, that single mind was at some point traumatized, and the illusion of individuality is that mind’s attempt to deal with that trauma?


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