He sat on the sofa, pulled deeply into himself, almost disappearing before my eyes, as he told me about his dad’s violence. I wondered whether he knew I was in the room with him. “I feel terribly fragmented; I don’t know who I am,” he explained. “I can’t remember ever being like everyone else; they seem so at home in themselves.”
One of my teachers, a Psychoanalytically oriented clinician, always said the real problem is the second trauma. Her view was the first trauma one encounters sets the stage for PTSD and related problems; the second trauma triggers the cascade. Repeated traumas in childhood physically alter the function of the developing brain, leaving one more vulnerable to new trauma. Even if only one trauma occurs in early childhood the person may remain susceptible to PTSD via a second trauma as an adult.
An Indigenous South American teacher once told me he thought any issue should be resolved in three healing sessions. He believed that psychotherapy was a disservice to people, trapping them in their trauma and making them dependent on the therapist. His view arose from his place in a richly supportive community that fostered a sense of belonging and resilience even in the face of recent genocide.
My parents didn’t trust many people, Native or otherwise. They warned against idealizing others, noting that human beings can do bad things. They never spoke about their experiences growing up, yet lived in a constricted, guarded manner for much of their adult lives. As I have learned about the world they and their parents grew up in I have begun to understand something about their concerns; both colonists and Natives could be ruthless towards those they identified as other.
I’ve come to believe that while the effects of trauma are fairly consistent across cultures, the ways people understand what has happened to them are culturally shaped. Trauma is, above all else, a crisis of meaning, and meaning is shaped by experience, family, and culture. The meanings families and communities attribute to events are culturally dependent and help to shape the individual’s understanding of what happened to them. This suggests strongly that what may be healing in small Native communities in South America may not be as effective in urban North American settings, simply because the context is dramatically different.
It can be tempting for therapists and other healers to believe they understand the cultural context of their patients’ suffering. Indeed, most systems of psychotherapy have a universal frame of reference, generalizing a set of culturally embedded assumptions to all people. This serves as a sort of psychological colonialism, although the cultural biases and beliefs may be deeply buried among universalizing psychological studies and jargon.
Of course, we are each shaped by culture and experience. So what do we do? How do we find a context for healing? One way in is to truly listen to the stories our patients bring to us. If we remember that events are less important than the stories we tell about them, the meanings we confer on them, we are on the right path. We are each unique beings walking the road of this life; we are also embodiments of the Holy Ones. I like to imagine that each of us comes into being as the intersection of the mundane and the Holy. The stories we tell reflect our understanding of our experiences at that intersection.
When trauma enters the picture things can become terribly confusing and painfully dark; at such times the world can seem a violent and dangerous place. Many of our Indigenous creation stories talk about the time long ago when monsters threatened to devour all the humans and other beings. They also tell us about the birth of the cultural heroes who will eventually slay most of the monsters, sparing a few so the world can be in balance. These stories, and the healing ceremonies that arise from them, attempt to address the crises of meaning that traumas bring.
Trauma can fragment: persons, families and cultures. Grandmother Spider taught us to weave. She reminds us we are made in her image and can use our stories to create and repair our world. We spin stories to weave the fabric of meaning in our lives. We can also use story to reweave that fabric, over time pulling together the fragments into a cohesive, beautiful whole. This is challenging work and proceeds at a pace determined by the needs of the person. There is no one meaning for events, nor is there one way to heal from trauma. We are unfolding stories, complex meaning-seeking being-systems. The path forward is unknown, although we may see parts of the trail ahead. We are stories in progress. It is good to remember this.
MICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.