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Trauma and the untold stories of resistance

Let’s visibilise what’s invisibilised, politicise what’s medicalised, invite agency and restore dignity

Written by Shelja Sen | New Delhi |
October 22, 2021 3:26:58 pm
There’s a Mexican proverb, ‘They tried to bury me, but didn’t know that I’m a seed.’ It captures the dignity of the human spirit. (Source: Getty Images)

Trauma has become a buzzword in the area of mental health. Podcasts are being churned out, books are being published, international conferences have erudite panellists educating the world on how trauma is at the root of all problems. Now, why would I have a problem with it? Surely, a more trauma-informed world would be a better world, won’t it? Maybe not, and let me explain why.

Discourse of victimhood

Suppose India’s colonisation and the atrocities inflicted by the British was the only history available to us, and the sustained resistance by the people was completely erased. Where the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, crushing famines and brutal subjugation of people spanning three centuries was the single story we carried, and there was no mention of the Uprising of 1857, the Non-Cooperation Movement, and magnitude of the freedom struggle? What would it do to our identity and sense of pride as Indians? Similarly, what does it do to a person when their life is reduced to stories of oppression without any acknowledgement of resistance? People are always responding to hardships no matter how gruesome, painful and life-threatening. I work with children who have been raped, abused, neglected to the level of being on the streets. To reduce them to just victimhood will be a dishonour to years of survival in the face of extreme conditions.

Pathologisation obscures resistance

Mental health and medical industry have indoctrinated us into objectifying people as disorders and diagnoses, which leads to concealing the issues of social injustice by locating the problem in the person. Sameera (name changed), 24, who had been sexually assaulted in childhood by a male teacher in school, recently started getting severe headaches. The “trauma specialist” her parents consulted labelled it as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with “suppressed rage” and started her on medication and counselling for “releasing rage”. In this medicalisation of the wrong-doing, what was obscured was that nobody asked her — what survival skills pulled her through that dark time? How did she not only manage to escape the teacher’s clutches but also warn other girls in her class to stay away from him? What ideas did she have about how girls are made to feel unsafe and hurt by the adults who are supposed to take care of them? If they had, they would have heard very different stories — of agency, of courage, of solidarity. And most of all, of how Sameera preferred to be seen — not as a passive victim but as a person who stood up for herself, her friends and who held on to her dignity in the darkest moments.

Mother-blaming

Psychiatry and psychology have a murky history in terms of mother-bashing. Every problem a person has, be it depression, anxiety, addiction and even neurodivergence like ADHD, autism, is traced back to some problem in mothering — mothers who neglected, cared too much/too little, could not protect— the list is endless. Trauma is the new frontier in mother-blaming. Sameera was really bewildered when she was told that actually her “suppressed rage” was for her mother as she could not protect her. For centuries, feminists have stood up against patriarchy, but even now, we find such easy targets in women. Of course, children thrive when their parents can keep them safe, but rather than locating the problem in them and being complicit in this politics of mother blaming, it is crucial to highlight the structural inequality, crushing burden of care mothers have to carry single-handedly that drives so many to such black pits of despair and heart-breaking guilt. Our trauma practice has to be about visibilising what has been invisibilised, politicising what has been medicalised so that we can invite agency, restore dignity and honour their resistance.

Invite agency rather than assign damage

So much of discourse around trauma is about the effects of trauma and not the responses. Therefore, the treatment plans, highly influenced by Western ideas, diminish, overlook the local know-how and skills of survival and living. People rendered vulnerable due to traumatic incidents in their life internalise these problems and end up dismissing their own unique responses to the situation. There is enough research on how the Western ideas of trauma and healing caused further damage in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami (Ethan Watters’ 2010 Crazy Like Us, Globalisation of the American Psyche is a fascinating read). Armies of well-intentioned trauma experts landed from all across the Western world with their fancy paraphernalia, and nobody bothered to ask, “What skills and resources do the local community have?”; “What steps do we take to respect the local, ethnic, cultural traditions and religious beliefs?”; “What has helped them to survive in the face of similar catastrophes in the past?”. Damage is assigned through a Western lens, internalised through a colonial sense of inferiority and dispensed as the only truth.

People are real experts in their lives

In my organisation, we have worked with children from a range of socio-cultural-political contexts — Kashmir, Tibetans in exile, street children — we strive to understand the cultural narratives, the local idioms of distress and healing. In our conversation, Sameera shared with me how she continued going to school after the incident even though, despite the complaints, the teacher was not fired. She explained to me that, “I had decided that I would not let it mess my future. In fact, it made me even more determined than ever before.” Her dream was to become a computer scientist and support her family, who had been through severe financial difficulties. Recently, she had got into a relationship when the headaches had started. When I asked her, “If this pain had a voice, what do you think it is trying to tell you?”, after some thinking, she shared, “I think it wants me to be safe, but it wants me to find love too.” The pain was not “suppressed rage” but a testimony to what she valued — safety and love.

Change happens on the margins

Any significant change that happens in this world, which works at helping people who face discrimination, happens at the margins. People who enjoy privilege and power (I count myself in that lot) are too complacent to do much. In the past few decades, resistance to oppression has come from communities who have faced trauma across generations — feminists, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, indigenous folks, people of colour, Dalits, neurodiverse youth and most of all, the ones who are placed at the intersection of these marginalisations. They have reclaimed it as a human-rights issue that requires a lens of social justice and not pathology and dehumanising practices.

There is a Mexican proverb, “They tried to bury me, but didn’t know that I’m a seed.” It captures the dignity of the human spirit. People are not passive recipients of extreme hardships, pain, violations or even trauma treatments. They cannot be crushed, they resist, and they grow back again. Even stronger.

Acknowledgement to narrative practitioners across the world whose ideas have supported my practice.

Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, writer, co-founder, Children First. In this column, she curates the know-how of the children and the youth she works with. She can be reached at shelja.sen@childrenfirstindia.com.

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