Do you remember the first time you witnessed hatred, cruelty, or violence? Did it occur in your personal environment or did it affect the world around you? Chances are that at some point, from birth onward you were exposed to something that stole your innocence and shaped your worldview. These large and small traumas define us as humans. For many people, these experiences begin in childhood. Perhaps witnessing domestic violence in the home or being abused by a parent or caretaker. By the time a child goes to school, he or she may have endured multiple traumas.
Children who’ve endured early traumas are ripe to be picked on by bullies and as they get older often choose unsafe relationships. Domestic and sexual violence, racial, religious, gender violence, and child abuse are just a few of the early traumas humans endure that create a lens from which the world is seen. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, (DVAM), and a time to reflect upon how oppression and violence are learned first in the home.
What is Trauma?
It might begin as a small glint in the eye, an opening that looks like sadness or fear. A shift in the soul, maybe. At first, disbelief occurs, and then the adaptation begins. Innocence begins to drain out like a sieve, leaving small passageways for anger, shock, doubt, and shame to replace it. If no explanation or intervention takes place, if no awareness is gained, the effects of trauma swallow you up as fact reflecting back in your mirror and in the faces of others. It can be spotted by unsavory types too, who know how to fashion trauma into weapon out of their own unclaimed darkness. The trauma you swallowed up, or swallowed you, dims your light as you seek to make sense of it. Like a beacon searching for shore, it just goes on. Trauma, and its cohorts, are your new inner residents striking out at others or dwelling in the land of self-destruction. This hall of mirrors is entered into at an early age for most. We don’t really talk about it either. It’s just the way it is here on planet earth and we work our entire lives to compensate for it.
As an adult, the effects of trauma can lead to an unexamined life, void of introspection, accountability or compromise. It is not a separate “out there” thing happening in certain communities and with people we don’t know. Think of all the unconscious power-hungry leaders choosing to ignore conscience, kindness and decency. Trauma, indeed, is an inside job.
Domestic Abuse: the Trauma That Keeps on Giving
We tend to think of domestic violence as a moment in time, an incident that occurs which disrupts the normal fabric of a life. If it hasn’t affected you personally, it’s easy to think of it as something that only happens to other people. Domestic violence and domestic abuse are often interchangeable terms. For our purposes, I’m using the term domestic abuse because many who are the “victims” of emotional, verbal, and numerous non-physical abuse, downplay and minimize the abuse as less than domestic violence. It’s easy to think these things aren’t so bad when you’ve been conditioned over time to accept them.
Domestic abuse is defined as a pervasive pattern of coercive control used by one person in a relationship to gain power and control over another person. This pattern of behavior can include physical violence, coercion, threats, intimidation, sexual, emotional, psychological, financial, or even religious abuse, as well as numerous other ways that a person might seek to control the behavior of another. The relationship can be intimate partner or familial. Oftentimes children are used as pawns in abusive households. Domestic and sexual violence are rarely hidden from children in the home and just like child abuse, they scar and deeply affect the psyche, and future, of the child.
But the roots of domestic abuse lie in all forms of violence and oppression. Interconnected and deep, all forms of oppression are tied together by the cord of seeking to maintain power and control over another person, group, race, community, or entity. As humans, we’ve all been wounded and in turn, we often wound others. Part of understanding the dynamics of oppression is understanding our participation in it and then making a choice to do something about it.
A few weeks back, a young advocate asked my opinion on why after almost 30 years of the Violence Against Women Act, (VAWA), we as a country had not made more progress in “eradicating and ending” domestic violence. My first inclination was to talk about prevention efforts and the lack of resources for adequate and sustained prevention programming. However, this isn’t the only problem. We haven’t ended domestic violence with prevention efforts, laws, shelters, or advocacy — although all of these things are absolutely necessary to keep people safe. But keeping people safe does not effectively address why they are in danger in the first place! My answer to the advocate was inconclusive.
Embracing the Gnarly Roots
A couple of years ago, while helping my son get rid of invasive plants in his backyard, we found a plant that was small, and a bit ugly, on top of the ground but had this intricate and deep root system that connected to every other ugly little plant in the yard. It was wild! The roots were so intertwined, dense and almost impossible to pull out. In some areas the roots were as thick as those of a tree. We used shovels and axes and every other sort of gardening tool and made a significant dent in the yard work. But regardless, many of the hidden tentacles still remained. The roots claimed the yard on some level and could be minimized but not eradicated.
It’s like that with abuse. I’ve often thought that pulling out the roots of abuse, exposing them to the sun and making sure that plant never grows again is the answer. It’s not though. In my own life, I’ve used this metaphor, but I’ve never gotten to the deepest roots. Like the ugly little plants, I can’t pull out all the roots without destroying the yard. So what’s the answer?
The answer lies in reframing the question. The answer lies in looking at the root of the problem differently. Work with the roots in a different way. You might not need to dig them up. Maybe there’s a way to make peace and create something new rather than seek to destroy them. To heal requires you holistically address what is hidden. Address with love and compassion. To heal requires a fearless devotion to squaring off with the roots, all of them, and then seek to understand them.
This is the nature of addressing domestic violence. When separated off from its connections to other traumas, violence and hate overall, you miss the mark. You can’t hope to address the gnarly roots.
A Trauma-Informed Approach to Healing
There are 6 principles of trauma-informed care according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, (SAMHSA). These are principles used by clinicians, advocates and service providers of all types to ensure quality of care for people seeking assistance.
They are (simplified):
- trustworthiness and transparency
- peer support
- empowerment, voice and choice
- acknowledgment of cultural, historic and gender inequalities and challenges
In providing domestic and sexual violence services, we recognize and address our roles as advocates in creating a trauma-informed system. It’s easy to forget though, unless you apply those same principles to yourself and those around you on a regular basis.
Critically, you must look at your own roots trusting yourself, creating a safe space to be authentic, ask for support, use your voice to your benefit tempered with the acknowledgment that all those around you are struggling too. A trauma-informed approach is the start of the road to wholeness and the path of empathy in action.
Trauma turns some into bullies and abusers and others into their victims. Trauma does not need to define a life though. There is help to break free from abuse and help for those who abuse. There are numerous ways to heal from past traumas, but first, you must make a decision in the present.
The necessary decision is to become aware of all the small and large ways you remain unconscious of creating pain for another. These things may not be as apparent as domestic violence but might include screaming at another driver, Facebook and Twitter fighting, mean put downs, unkind remarks, and all the other ways that we as humans diminish other humans. Everyone has their bad moments. The magic is found in the choice to change that moment.
This October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, (DVAM), I encourage you to think of the larger, more pervasive problem of domestic and sexual violence in your community and country. Domestic abuse is a common societal trauma that affects people from all walks of life, all religions, races, and socioeconomic groups. It’s interconnected, deep, rooty, complicated and tied to all forms of meanness in this world.
It may never be eradicated, but it can be healed. It can be addressed.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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