Putting Trauma Into Words

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

In previous posts, I wrote of the dialectical nature of health and ill health, and every intermediate point, all of these being represented on a circular continuum symbolized by the ouroboros. The two extreme opposites meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail: at the head, feelings of self-love get excessive, bordering on pathological narcissism; at the bitten tail is the threat of (if not the realization of) fragmentation, a psychotic breaking away from reality that is often defended against through pathological narcissism, where the serpent’s teeth are biting. Everywhere else on the ouroboros’ coiled body is every intermediate point from the best of health, just behind the head, to the worst of neurosis, just before the bitten tail of psychosis.

To simplify, we can make three basic categories of mental health and ill-health out of this ouroboros as a symbol of the circular continuum: the biting head is the narcissistic world of what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, seeing an ideal self in the mirror, just as Narcissus, seeing his reflection in the pond, fell in love with himself; the bitten tail is the traumatic, inexpressible world of what Lacan called the Real; and the intermediate, relatively healthy world represented by the serpent’s coiled body is what he called the Symbolic Order, where we’re connected to society through language.

The expression of our feelings, through society’s shared symbols and signifiers (i.e., language), is the basis of our mental health. Bottling up our feelings, never venting them, leads to mental illness. A crucial part of giving expression to how we feel, though, is having people who will listen to us, who will validate us, who will contain our pain as a mother would contain the anxieties, fears, and frustrations of her baby, then transform those feelings and process them for it (since the baby has no mental apparatus yet developed for thinking and processing thoughts on its own), and return them to it in a form it can accept, thus pacifying it. We need people–friends, loved ones, therapists, etc.–who will perform that maternal role for us if we’re ill.

Wilfred Bion‘s theory of a mother containing her baby’s disturbed state (in maternal reverie) is replicated in the patient/therapist relationship, where the patient is in the baby’s role, and the therapist is in the mother’s role. Such a relationship is necessary when, overwhelmed by raw, unprocessed external sensory stimuli (beta elements) that become traumatizing, the patient has psychotic episodes and approaches psychological fragmentation, a terror of disintegration, a mental falling-apart.

This falling apart often happens because there is no one to help the sufferer contain and thus help to process his or her trauma; the therapist must step in and do the containing. This containing (similar to D.W. Winnicott‘s notion of a holding environment) allows the agitating beta elements to be processed and transformed into alpha elements, or thoughts acceptable to the patient. These alpha elements can go into the patient’s unconscious mind–which is structured like a language, as Lacan said–and can be used in dreams and as thoughts to be expressed in words.

Most of us, of course, cannot afford a therapist, due in no small part to the aggravation of wealth inequality over the past thirty to forty years; so we may have to make do with playing the role of therapist for each other. By this I mean being the empathic containers of each other’s traumas and anxieties; for the trauma of having suffered narcissistic and emotional abuse is such that, given no validation of our pain at all from the narcissist’s flying monkeys, we victims are like those crying babies in need of having those agitating beta elements (our trauma) transformed into alpha elements (processed, more soothing thoughts).

So how can we rank amateurs help each other? By listening to our fellow sufferers and validating (containing) the emotional effects of the abuse they went through. Similarly, we can vent our own pain (the contained) in as expressive and vivid a language as we can muster (Richard Grannon calls it ‘Emotional Literacy‘), while others (e.g., our communal online support on Facebook pages about emotional abuse) listen to and validate us. This is how we can move from the bitten tail of trauma (Lacan’s Real) to the upper middle of the ouroboros’ body (Lacan’s Symbolic Order, the realm of interpersonal communication).

I’ll start with some venting of my own pain, which I hope, Dear Reader, you’ll contain for me, then return to me with some soothing validation. (I’ll be willing to return the favour if you send me a link of your verbalizing of your traumas, your ‘contained,’ and I’ll reblog it here, as is my intention with the message given in this post.)

  • Back in the early 2000s, when my mother was prating on and on about my supposedly having Asperger Syndrome, or AS (I’ve never been diagnosed with it, and she didn’t even merit being called an amateur psychiatrist, let alone someone with any measure of authority on mental health issues), I grew increasingly agitated, frustrated, and exasperated with her. When she dismissed my legitimate objections, I just felt unheard, invalidated, and uncared for.
  • In the mid-2000s, when she rejected my wish to fly from Asia (where I live) to Canada to see my sister, J., and her terminally ill husband, rationalizing that I’m “different,” as well as “tactless and insensitive” (due, apparently, to AS–see Part 2 of this), I exploded with rage at her condescending, hurtful attitude, for which she’d never repented. I felt insulted, devalued, excluded, and unwanted.
  • When, not too long after, J. emailed me, telling me to stop complaining to Mom about her attitude, showing me she was 100% on Mom’s side, and trivializing my pain, J. made me feel like a ten-year-old; I frowned like a hurt child, though I was in my late thirties when I read that email. I felt humiliated, disrespected, and infantilized. Her not wanting me to reply made me feel silenced and voiceless.
  • By the 2010s, when I realized that not only was Mom’s talk about AS, but also her labelling me with classic autism when I was a child, all lies, I felt so betrayed and heartbroken, I thought of the whole family, who supported her in her fabrications, as a bunch of perfidious snakes! How awful it is to feel so alone, so isolated, and so unloved. I felt fooled, conned, cheated, deceived, and tricked. (See Part 3 here.)
  • As a child, whenever I got subjected to Mom’s wild rages, or the bullying of my elder siblings, I felt terrified, helpless, overwhelmed, and trapped. Mom’s indifference to, if not outright conniving at, all that bullying just increased my sense of loneliness, of separateness from society, of unworthiness, of inferiority.
  • During the 2010s, when I heard, in the middle of a long-distance phone call from Mom, that she said–after indulging in a spate of bad-mouthing of my youngest cousin, G., about whom she’d never said anything kind in her life–she thought he might have Asperger Syndrome, I groaned in a fury, knowing she was using this psychiatric label to devalue his worth in the family…just as she’d been doing with me. I felt a growing sympathy for my so-unjustly-despised cousin. See Part 4 here.
  • Later this decade, as it became more and more obvious that Mom (an RN, incidentally) was adamant about not wanting to help my cousin, S., who was manifesting paranoid delusions about me, I felt a growing hopelessness, a despairing of the family. No one else, including J., showed any interest in helping S., either: these were the same people who had preached to me for years about the importance of putting other people’s needs in front of your own…and they were now proving they were no better than “self-centred” me! Now, I felt a growing contempt for them and their hypocrisy.
  • When my mother told me a string of lies in the late summer of 2015, the year before she died, and I heard the most blatant untruth of them all–that I supposedly had sent my aunt a series of “over-the-top” emails (click here for the whole story, if you’re interested: Part 5–More Elaborate Lies)–I lay shaking in bed, shocked, unable to sleep the whole night (I’d received Mom’s email, with this lie, just before I was to go to bed). I felt disoriented, baffled, confused, and disconcerted. I had no idea who that family even was anymore.

As you read through my examples, note my use of ‘feeling’ words, especially those in italics: agitated, frustrated, rage, betrayed, etc. It is the use of words like these, carefully chosen and made as vividly descriptive–particular and precise in meaning–as possible, that is the key to processing your trauma. Get to the root of your trauma, and get it out of your system; share your words with people you can trust, people who will contain your pain for you, validate it, and send the energy back to you in a transformed way, to pacify and heal you.

The unconscious, as understood in terms of the Symbolic Order, isn’t the unconscious of an individual person; it’s rather a trans-individual unconscious connecting us with everyone else. The unconscious as the discourse of the Other (radical ‘otherness’: that is, all other people out there, not just someone we would narcissistically mirror against ourselves, as a baby and its mother looking into each other’s eyes), a conversation between the self and other, communication and connection between people in which they aren’t extensions of a narcissistic self, but coexist as equals.

As a rank amateur myself, with no formal training in the field, I tend to modify and adapt psychoanalytic theory as I see fit, so when I see a similarity between Lacan’s trans-individual unconscious and Jung‘s collective unconscious, I do so with an understanding that Lacan would probably wince at my conflation of the two.

My point is that it is in this place where all minds meet–a psychic state unified by communication, shared symbols and signifiers (‘language’ here has the expanded meaning of being a signifying system of differential relations–all interconnected ideas, just as our trans-individual unconscious makes us all interconnected), and listening empathically. I like to call it the Unity of Space, an infinite ocean where we can all heal together.

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