Trigger Warning: graphic description of psychotic episode, violence
Trauma. The word elicits a different response in pretty well everyone. I know being the child of a war veteran, I learned to associate trauma with my father’s experiences, and little else. The issue is, we all fight our own wars. Trauma is arguably a universal experience, while also being incredibly unique and individual. This is, however, something I’m only just learning now, in my mid-twenties. I wasn’t allowed to claim trauma as a young person, because nothing I went through could ever compare to my father’s time in Vietnam. So that became the backdrop of all my experiences, and let me tell you, it did me no favours, especially when psychosis became a part of my life.
Now, psychosis adds a whole other layer to the trauma discussion, as it brings up the question of real vs. imagined, which is what I wish to address. For a moment, humour me, and imagine how you would respond to a person not living with mental illness describing the following life event:
For several days, I saw a man lurking outside the window of my ground floor apartment. My roommate was away on business, so I was alone. I began carrying a pocket knife on my person, out of fear. One evening, when I was in the kitchen, I heard the back door open. I thought I had locked it. Feeling almost paralyzed with terror, I managed to reach for the knife in my pocket, and slowly turn around, to see the man there, standing so close to me I could hear his breathing. As he continued toward me, I cried, asking what he wanted from me. When I saw him reaching for his pocket, I took out my knife, and slashed him with it, watching him sink to the floor. I don’t remember anything else until waking in the hospital the following day.
This is something I personally experienced. Does it change your view to know that I live with schizophrenia, and when the police came, there was no evidence anyone had broken in, no blood, no man? That’s where it gets tough. This experience, and other similarly intense experiences, are discounted because the general population doesn’t see them as ‘real’. Perhaps it’s a misguided way of trying to console me, when someone says it wasn’t real. Honestly, though, it just serves to invalidate my trauma, and it also confuses me. I walk a line between understanding psychosis, and really not understanding psychosis. I’m at a point where I can comprehend that sometimes things happen to me that others don’t perceive, like the voices I hear daily, or the turtles that used to walk along my walls. But these experiences are as real to me as the hands with which I am typing right now. Science has shown that exactly the same neurons fire in my brain as they do in the brain of any person having the same experience. So it’s not just something I imagined. It really happened. To me, at least.
Not only does discounting my experience make me feel small, and confused; it also makes me feel ‘othered’ and judged as crazy, which traumatizes me further. When I brought the story of the man to a psychiatrist, I was mocked by him. He said to me, “So you killed a man? Should we have you taken away in handcuffs?” To him, my experience wasn’t valid. To him, I was crazy. He carried on with this diatribe until I finally ‘admitted’ that it wasn’t ‘real’, as though it somehow changed things. It didn’t. The only thing that changed by saying that was my trust. For him, for doctors in general, and for myself. I fell into a swirling black hole of self-doubt, questioning whether any of my experiences were valid. It wasn’t real? Does that mean they think I’m lying? Instead of dealing with the trauma, I tucked it away, like I did as a child comparing my experiences to my father’s PTSD. I didn’t allow myself to grieve and fear and process. I learned not to talk about my psychosis-induced trauma because, as I understood it, trauma only matters when it’s ‘real trauma’. It has to fit certain criteria, and if it doesn’t, no one cares, and I might as well just get over it.
This experience set a precedent for how I would respond to all trauma, which I’m only beginning to unlearn through counselling. Yes, I needed therapy to recover from therapy. The thing is, If I had gone through a break-in and assault as a person without psychosis, the response from others would have been entirely different. Why didn’t I have the outpouring of support I needed when this happened? Because people aren’t comfortable with the intangible, I suppose. But to try and explain away an event as not real comes with judgement. Who am I to say whether an experience is real or not? Who is anyone to say that?
I stated previously that trauma is arguably a universal experience, and this is something I believe with conviction. It doesn’t benefit anyone to compare our experiences on some implicit trauma rubric. Everyone I know has gone through something deeply distressing at some point in their life, be it the death of a loved one, a car accident, being bullied at school, an abusive parent… no trauma is more or less valid than any other.
No matter what you’ve gone through, your pain is valid. Trauma is trauma.