Everyone deals with and processes trauma in different ways. When people finally decide to speak up, why do we find ourselves questioning their timing? This article explores how delayed trauma might make people feel and asks you to reconsider your approach to people experiencing a delayed response to traumatic experiences.
Traumatic experiences can be any range of experiences that are unpleasant and scary. Mind refers to trauma as “going through very stressful, frightening or distressing events…traumatic events can happen at any age and can cause long-lasting harm”. Traumatic events could be ongoing and prolonged (like an abusive relationship), or a onetime event (sexual assault) that can cause a variety of long-lasting problems. Trauma can also not be easily recognised or noticed immediately, sometimes the ongoing, drip-effect experiences are the most disguised, and it is these examples I am referring to most in this article. Those experiences that seem normal and okay, but on reflection, are certainly not. Mind also say that “everyone has a different reaction to trauma, so you might notice any effects quickly, or a long time afterwards.”, so when people choose to talk about their experiences, why do we find ourselves asking:
‘Well, why only now?’
Past experiences of my own has made me a firm believer that no matter what you say to the ones you love and care for, they will only escape something bad for them when they’re ready themselves. You can tell, and beg, and reason, but ultimately, a switch goes off when someone is too hurt or has had enough. And until that switch has turned, there’s not much you can do. For some it’s sooner, for some it’s later, for some it’s never. When people are ready though, they will get there. And once they get out, they will spend a long time thinking. Once they have thought, and reflected, they will see it so clearly, and this is where things will probably start to surface. So years later, when they are ready to talk, when you have opened the door for them, the worst thing you can say is “why now?”. So, first and foremost, stop doing that.
I’ve always thought it a stupid question, “why now?”, as if we have a finite amount of time to discuss our past. When people decide to open up to you about past trauma, it is a conscious decision they have made to be vulnerable to you. It is hard to admit you have been wrong, or fragile, or maybe even damaged. So why do we think that everyone should, and can, speak up right away? It is actually not possible a lot of the time. With the rapid progress of the Me Too movement, and the backlash some people received for discussing past trauma, this negative and accusatory reaction sets a precedent for past, present and future trauma. We are teaching people “you talk about it when it’s happening or not at all”. Since when was that a rhetoric we kept? Since when did we limit people to timed discussion about their lives?
After many talks with loved ones in which they have told me something difficult, and vice versa, I have sat and thought, why didn’t I/you see this before? Why didn’t I tell you/you tell me this sooner? The answer quickly became clear to me, I didn’t, or they didn’t, because it’s really hard. The number of conversations I have had in this manner is shocking. The number of times I have seen an unexpected reaction is more than the expected number of times. I have seen loved one’s faces fall, and I have seen my own fall in their reflection. And all of a sudden, a tidal wave of realisation happens. That what you have said, or heard, is painful. There are questions like: Why didn’t I feel this pain the first time? Why didn’t I feel this pain when it happened? Why have I only been able to feel this now? This sudden recognition that, hold on a minute, that was awful.
Several things can be happening to stop people talking in the moment. For the extreme cases, it could be dangerous for them. They could be threatened or scared into silence. Their life could depend on their secrecy. Their brains could physically block the trauma for their consciousness. But what about when these things do not apply? Surely it should be easy to discuss then? Wrong. Some trauma is not even recognisable at the time. It doesn’t feel not normal, so its not seen as abnormal. Sometimes you don’t even think twice about it. It’s just a part of your life, it’s just something you know. The realisation of abnormal and wrong behaviour often comes later as a result of reflection, after one is out of the situation. Reflection and hindsight are very powerful things. It allows an individual the time and space to process what has happened. Which is why some people do not even notice, do not even know, that they are experiencing trauma at that time. Even if/when they do, it is incredibly hard to discuss. It’s not a conversation that is had or opened up lightly. It is approached with caution, in hushed voices, in the corners of rooms, or huddled together on a bench, glazed eyes on the floor in remembrance. The tears and the shame when one realises, why did I not speak out earlier? You do not need to ask why now, because this person already has. So how do we help people to realise, to talk and to be stronger sooner? Instead of asking ‘why now?’, why are we not asking ourselves ‘why couldn’t they talk before?’.
Firstly, we need to be educating people from young about healthy situations. What is normal, what is unhealthy. I am delighted that RSE (Relationship and Sex Education) has become mandatory for Primary and Secondary education now since September 2019 (even though this is far too late, if it wasn’t, this article wouldn’t have even been written). Healthy relationships are covered a lot in the RSE curriculum now, which is a positive step forward. However, appallingly, KS5 (Sixth Form) PSHE and RSE is not compulsory by the DofE. Why do we stop feeling it necessary to teach young adults about healthy relationships and normal behaviour, when they are the ones most likely to be experiencing these things seriously for the first time at this age? This is where our Department of Education is failing young adults. We need to focus on teaching healthy relationships with others, normal and abnormal behaviour, and how to recognise abnormalities quickly and effectively in life stages that are relevant and thought-provoking, for young people to recognise and prevent issues and trauma.
Prevention should be first, and rehabilitation should come second, when needed. Better education makes prevention the first step, so that young people can recognise and challenge things as soon as they arise. I know that myself, and many people who I have discussed this with, do not really remember being taught RSE. My personal RSE memories consist of putting a condom over a dildo whilst everyone else watched and being shown pictures of horrific STIs on various genitals (looking back, this genuinely reminds me so much of the ‘don’t have sex, you will get chlamydia and die’ scene in Mean Girls, it appears that scene was not entirely fiction and its sense of irony was lost for people). I cannot recall having any teaching about healthy relationships from school. If I did, it was clearly too early on or insignificant for me to remember by the time I was old enough to need that information. There is the issue.
At an individual level, we need to open difficult conversations with loved ones. Even if they do not look like they need it. You never know what happens behind closed doors. Ask them, “how is X going?”, “how are you feeling about X at the moment?”, “what was it like when…”. Talk about your own experience with the subject if you have one, find common ground, or alternatively and if needed, show them the opposite. Let them see the comparison between your story and theirs and let them work out the differences. Show them what love and support is, and what it looks like. Listen to them. Don’t lecture or reprimand. Show them you care and want to listen. Be patient and be kind. Be ready to answer questions from them. Be ready to share your own life and be vulnerable back. And for god sake, do not ask “why now?”.
We should be asking people to confide in us and to discuss with us when things are wrong. We should be telling everyone it is okay to speak up and speak out. Because it is okay to talk. Whenever and wherever. Because one comment might save you. It might make an eyebrow raise, a hand go to a mouth, or a tear fall from an eye. And once you recognise the reaction, you reflect again. Once you see the pain in others, you see the pain in yourself. It is hard to face. You will have to deal with the aftermath of course, by picking up the broken pieces and gluing them back together again. You may find yourself borrowing bits from others to help you mould your own perspectives. That is okay too. It’s rough, but it is doable. And you will be much better for it in the long run.
In the end, it is here and now, that I want to take the opportunity to thank those that I have had these conversations with, strength and courage was shown from both of us in these times, and it is your bravery, together with my own, that has allowed me to speak up about this silence that society is perpetuating. We are proof, to you dear reader, that there is always light, there is always better, there is always more. There is a whole new life waiting for you. And we are waiting to hear you, to help you, to heal you.