Trauma

I care about telling my truths.

One way that we can help others feel like they aren't alone is by sharing stories that they can relate to, and I try to live in a way that facilitates that. Many of the topics I discuss below are topics that society has shrouded in stigma and has taught us to feel ashamed about, and by speaking out I am explicitly trying to change this narrative.

That said, I am not the only person involved in these stories, and it's not my place to tell other people's tales. For this reason, some stories may sound vague and some parties will remain nameless.

In addition, sometimes we hide our truths from certain specific individuals, not because we are ashamed, but because we think their empathy would be too great. By revealing or remembering our traumas with these people, they are at risk of being harmed themselves. This one would hurt you to read, Mum; I'd recommend skipping it.

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Content warning: Sexual assault, drink spiking, abuse of power and authority, racial and gendered discrimination, and other more general trauma.

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The Cut on Tuesdays is a podcast about women. It recently spotlighted an episode from The Nod about racial trauma, its connection to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how it could be treated with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

Although most of the episode was related to MDMA-assisted therapy—what this is, and why it might be groundbreaking for people with PTSD—this isn't the part of the episode that caught my attention most significantly. The host, Brittany, spoke to therapists and patients (and in some cases, therapists who had chosen to be patients themselves as part of their training) and through this conversation, they defined the term 'racial trauma'.

Essentially, 'racial trauma' is the impact that can arise from repeated racist actions, microaggressions, and discrimination as they pile up, eventually causing an individual to interact with their environment differently (in a way that parallels PTSD). This is groundbreaking because, currently, PTSD is only recognised as a condition someone can develop in response to a single traumatic event, not through the accumulation of smaller events that, alone, might not be considered traumas.

As an example, one experience of racial discrimination might not be enough to change the way a person of colour lives their life; however, multiple situations over a prolonged period can cause people of colour to no longer feel safe around white people, the police force and other state institutions, or store clerks who are paying them too much attention. It can make them feel at risk in conversations about race and culture with unknown parties, their workplaces, or even their own homes.

Listening to this discussion of racial trauma made me wonder if psychologists are considering similar ideas in relation to gendered trauma. Just as there can be racially charged discrimination and microaggressions, there can be discrimination and microaggressions based on a person's gender, and over time I imagine that these could have a similarly traumatic impact.

(I don't want to reduce the significance of racial trauma in creating or considering a similar concept like gendered trauma. Racial trauma—as it was described in this podcast—is absolutely real and worth considering, but as a white woman, I'm not the right person to reflect on that concept. I also—in wondering about the parallels between racial trauma and gendered trauma—want to highlight women of colour who intersectionally experience both racial and gendered trauma, and in different ways.)

This episode of The Nod—which I listened to during my daily commute to work—made me think about my own traumas, my own responses to trauma, and the ways that certain situations have made me feel unsafe or have felt particularly traumatic not because of that incident itself, but because of the context of events that it fit within.

I had to get petrol this morning. Now that I drive 100km to work and 100km back again, I need to fill my car up with fuel twice a week. I've become incredibly familiar with the BP station at Caboolture—both northbound and southbound; don't bother with the Unleaded at pump seven because it flows much slower than the others.

Often when I step out of my car at the petrol station, it's busy. I travel to and from work during peak hours on most days, and we all need fuel some time.

The more often I have to fill up my car, the more I've become aware of my behaviour at the petrol station. I deliberately choose pumps that are further away from white utes or men in hi-vis workwear. I park near family vehicles, particularly ones containing children. I saw a man in a paramedic uniform the other day and deliberately pulled up beside him.

These are choices I make subconsciously, and they are based on safety. I feel safer near somebody with children than somebody without. I feel safer next to a public servant, like a paramedic, than I do next to a tradie.

But I know lots of tradies who are great people. My cousin is a tradie. I recently sent a message to a mate of mine who is an electrician because I need him to help me test-and-tag electronics at an event I'm organising. The regular electrician and plumber who service my home are lovely.

So why do I feel so anxious about tradies?

During my drive, I started to unpack that. And then suddenly I was unpacking all of my traumas, against the glare of the traffic-logged M1 highway.

When I was seventeen, I spent a week on holiday in the city with my boyfriend. (He is not my boyfriend anymore, to be clear.) On our first day in our hotel, we were slow to move our half-naked bodies from the bed and to our suitcases. I don't know how much time we spent being affectionate, relaxed, and did I mention half-naked before I noticed the tradies pointing and laughing from the scaffolding on the building across the street. We'd left our curtains open as we fell asleep, watching the lights of the city skyline. Our windows weren't tinted.

We encountered those tradies in a food court later in the day. They were on their lunch break, and they spotted us. They yelled things at me. I was walking with my boyfriend, but I was the one who received the jeering, the laughter, and the crude comments. I wish I'd been brave enough to tell them I was underage, but I don't even know if that would have embarassed them into silence.

Many years on, when I bent to check the mail outside my house, a man in a ute shouted at me about my arse. Another time, walking along my street, a different man in a different ute—at least, I assume—also shouted at me, but this was indecipherable. Stopped at traffic lights recently, a man in a ute jeered at a woman who was using the pedestrian crossing, and I yelled at him from my car window to distract him while the woman hurried away.

Men used to shout at me from car windows when I was a teenager too, walking my dog Coco while still in my school uniform, and utes were always the most common source of catcalls and wolf whistles.

I remember the first time I rode in a ute. I was still seventeen, and I was squeezed between my boyfriend-at-the-time and his roommate. We were driving to fetch some furniture for their new place. I think maybe we were going to an op-shop. I think we might have been looking for a fridge.

It was the roommate's ute. His hand brushed my leg a lot while he changed the gears.

My boyfriend and I met this roommate at an event during orientation week at university. He was the life of the party. He was charismatic, and he had a knack for knowing everyone. When my boyfriend started telling people they were becoming roommates, our classmates were genuinely jealous.

I used to stay over at their house a lot. They lived on top of an Eagle Boys pizza place, where we'd walk barefoot to get garlic breads and lava cakes. Once I was 18, we'd also drink. One night we were drinking, and the roommate offered to pour my second vodka and juice for the night.

Keep your hand over your drink at the bar, and never leave it unattended. Don't accept drinks from strangers. Leave your drink with someone you trust if you go to the bathroom. I knew all of the rules. But 'don't let your boyfriend's roommate pour you a vodka and juice' wasn't one of them.

I don't remember anything else from that night.

Well, that's not completely true. I remember my boyfriend spent a lot of time outside because he had a stomach bug and needed the fresh air. I remember a hazy conversation on the couch with the roommate about whether or not I'd kissed him earlier in the night. I remember the song Promiscuous by Nelly Furtado. I remember waking up beneath my boyfriend's bed, like I'd been hiding. I remember trying to get my contact lenses out in their bathroom, which adjoined the roommate's bedroom, and retching in the sink. I remember my boyfriend being mad at me for getting so drunk because he was unwell and I'd agreed to look after him. I remember never telling him what I suspected had happened.

My boyfriend lived with that roommate for another twelve months. I visited regularly, and I never felt safe there again. I still don't entirely know what happened that night, and I never will. I think that scares me more than anything else.

But my current partner's best friend owns a ute, and he's lovely. I've sat between him and my partner in that tiny half-seat, and felt safe there. That electrician mate who is helping me out with my upcoming event also drives a ute, and used it to take some assorted detritus to the rubbish tip for us once. I rode with him, and we had a great chat while we sorted rubbish into trash and recyclables and green waste. I guess these exceptions are what people on Twitter are trying to point out when they yell not all men at women who are scared to walk alone at night.

Trauma is complicated. Feeling safe is complicated. Power dynamics are complicated.

I met a man when I was in my late teens who was a decade older than me. I was incredibly naive, but felt incredibly mature—and I knew how to sound mature too.

When I was fourteen, the same false maturity caused me to have a vague online relationship with a 17-year-old man from the other side of the world. He complimented me for being so clever for my age, and I felt incredibly special because he was older than me and I thought he was witty. I look back and think, woah, maybe that was a terrible situation. But he also introduced me to some songs and bands that became my favourites throughout my teen years, and that I still love now. I don't know what I carried into my teen years as a result of this friendship, other than a love for 30 Seconds to Mars. Maybe nothing.

This question is easier to answer when I think about the man that I met in my late teens. He made me feel the same sort of special. On the good days, he made me feel so special that I completely ignored my instincts. I fell into a rabbit hole, I lost my sense of self, and on the bad days I spent whole afternoons crying on my bedroom floor because he had a habit of disregarding—or manipulating—my diagnosed anxiety condition for his own gain.

The good days—the special days—became fewer when he finally managed to claim what he wanted from me. I consented, but could I have really consented? I had been broken down and remade into a somebody he could puppeteer by gifting me with compliments or refusing to reply to my messages for days. I have never worked out whether he behaved this way deliberately or not. Did he know the ways he was controlling me, or did these techniques come to him naturally? Did he think that my consent came freely, or did he know that he had turned me into somebody who couldn't refuse?

All I know is that he has ruined Mooloolaba beach for me.

I don't think I blame him anymore. But I don't think I've forgiven him either. How can you forgive someone when you aren't sure of their intentions? And after erasing him from my life, I'm not prepared to reopen that wound and seek answers.

I think this is the greatest singular trauma I have ever experienced. It's certainly the most enduring.

But even this wasn't singular; this trauma occurred over months. Inbetween our conversations and our meetings, I went to work, I spent time with friends, I made lunches and dinners, and I slept. I was still studying, so I was writing assignments and handing them in. I didn't miss any deadlines.

The American Psychiatric Association defines trauma (in relation to PTSD) as 'an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and which involved fear, helplessness, or horror'. The episode of The Nod that I listened to today suggested that this definition of trauma is too limited, and doesn't represent the experiences of everybody—particularly marginalised people.

I chose to write this piece on trauma not because I can define it on a rubric—like I can the perfect bowl of hot chips—but rather because I have finally realised it can't be defined, and doesn't need to be. Trauma is not always a single moment, it's not always a great threat, and it's not always a perpetrator who knows that they are doing the wrong thing and a victim who is involuntarily suffering.

I walk to my car at night with my key between my fingers. I am scared of men I don't know who are wearing hi-vis clothes. I never let anybody pour my drinks for me anymore, even my friends. And I don't consider, 'Wow, you're so mature for your age,' to be a compliment.

The American Psychiatric Association is wrong.

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