May 16, 2007


Posted in recovery, violence at 3:45 pm by nevavegan

After posting “Your House Is On Fire and Your Children Are Gone” I got a couple emails expressing support but also asking some questions. It seems appropriate to answer some of them here, out in the open.

Keep in mind these are just my answers and might not apply to everyone.

The first, and perhaps obvious question is: How do you get past something terrible happening and live a normal productive life?

Funny thing, I guess this all depends on your definition of productive, or normal for that matter. I’m ok, and sometimes I’m not ok, which is really just like anyone else. Everyone has something in their life that they mourn. Some might have more than others, but it’s perfectly normal to get upset, to get angry, to be sad. We hope those things don’t take over our lives naturally, but there’s no possible way to be happy every single moment of every single day. So I’m hoping the balance pushes over into the positive in the final accounting. I’m pretty sure it does.

I felt like for a long time I was waiting for some kind of revelation that was going to make everything alright. Then I realized that wasn’t going to happen. There’s no way I can twist everything around in my brain to turn it into a positive, to make it ok. But that was the revelation: I don’t need to ever be ok with this. I can go on the rest of my life and still say I wish nothing bad had ever happened. And I can be sad about what I lost as a result, but not be sad all the time. Not accepting it doesn’t have to hold me back from healing. In fact it was liberating, because knowing that it will never be ok has helped me to let it go. I don’t have to keep revisiting it because I know now that it accomplishes nothing, but I can revisit it if I want to, understanding the pain involved.

This probably doesn’t make any sense to anyone else, but it is a good thing.

I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about how important it is to forgive, and that approach seems to work for some people. Forgiveness was never my issue, since to me maybe forgiveness came too easily at first, like a reflex, something I did without thinking. I think I looked on forgiveness as a way to bury what I couldn’t deal with. So it was like “ok, I forgive” now I can shut that door forever. Not so helpful. It took me a long time to come around to the idea that forgiveness doesn’t have to be automatic and it’s never simple. Some things in life are unforgivable, and it doesn’t make anyone flawed if they don’t or can’t forgive. Things get better, with or without the forgiveness, with or without the big revelation. It’s slow going sometimes but totally possible.

Another aspect of course is getting care and appropriate therapy. Many people who are traumatized never get help because they can’t afford it and there are no reduced cost options in their area. Some people get care that does more harm than good, sadly. Some types of therapy simply aren’t appropriate for trauma. So we all need to push for more care, more affordable care, and more beneficial care.

The next question was: How do you ever get to the point that you can trust other people again?

I sort of touched on this in the post about hypervigilance, though that really provides no answers ultimately. Trust is a case by case basis. I’m not required to trust anyone I don’t want to trust. Of course all of us, not just people who have experienced trauma, sometimes misplace our trust. It’s helpful to remember that this is just something everyone goes through, not just us.

On the survivors forum someone recently made the comment that when something really bad happens you certainly learn who your friends are. This is true, you do realize who you were once close to that are just too wrapped up in their own stuff to be there for you. You come to understand who holds ugly, often demeaning views about people who have been traumatized. And you realize who can actually be there for you and who can at least try to understand these issues. But it’s so important to remember in all of this that the people who can’t get it aren’t violent people (well at least, not necessarily). They are people going through their own issues. So, we can still trust a lot of people, while at the same time understanding their limitations.

We can also trust by degrees. Like I can trust a neighbor enough to chat with them outside, but if I’m not comfortable letting them into my house with me because I don’t know them well enough to be alone with them, that’s my choice. Nobody can demand trust. It’s fine to hold trust back, even if the person later turns out to be perfectly nice, if there’s anything that makes us uncomfortable.

One thing every abuse survivor has to keep in mind though is that we’ve been conditioned to put up with things that simply aren’t ok, so we don’t always pick up on warning signs from people. It’s vital to understand the idea of boundaries, and that people who ignore or trample boundaries, even if they seem like nice people, are putting up a huge red flag.

I still regard the person who acts out violently as an aberration, the minority within the population. They seem more numerous than they are because of the wide swaths of suffering they leave in their wake. I have to believe that in order to remain sane I guess.

I read that psychologists estimate that 10% of the population lack the ability to feel empathy for others, and often lack a conscience, due to personality disorders like anti-social personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and extreme cases of borderline personality disorder. So 90% of the population does feel empathy for others. More than that, a good amount of that 10% are probably not physically violent, though their disorders no doubt cause problems with interacting with others.

Next Question: Where do we go from here?

Um, you’re asking me where we go? We go vegan of course!

Just kidding. It’s a start, but it doesn’t address the whole big mess of issues. The problems of violence are deeply rooted and intricate. It’s possible for people to understand on an intellectual level all the reasons they should not be violent, but still resort to violence when they’re under pressure, feel threatened or undermined, or when their “road maps,” their plans of how to behave and cope prove inadequate for the crisis at hand. This is why you can have parents who “know better” resorting to slapping or spanking their kids. In a moment where their intellect fails them they reach back to the earliest things they learned. And what they often learned from their own parents was that if kids won’t cooperate parents hit them until they do cooperate.

But many people find ways to avoid that trap. They realize that it might be an issue for them, so they actively seek the tools and information that will help them avoid violence.

I think it’s as important to teach kids life skills as it is to teach them other skills. Schools should be teaching ways to solve conflicts without violence, and how to let conflicts not be solved sometimes. Kids also need to learn about boundaries and how to respect other people (real respect, not the term that is tossed around that often means afraid of), so that they can understand that they don’t get to control other people and other people shouldn’t control them.

Also, as a society we need to stop tolerating violence. In so many situations you’ll find that someone who commits a really violent act has actually been violent for a long time. However, they manage to keep on being violent because people cover up for them. They get friends to lie for them, they intimidate witnesses, the courts or schools or counselors don’t really put any pressure on them to change. So they might have been enabled for years of increasing violence while most people, people who would not be violent themselves, looked the other way. So as a culture we need to stop tolerating and reinforcing violent behavior.

Beyond that, I don’t know. There are no really easy answers.



  1. Deb said,

    It sounds so odd to say it now, but I’ve suffered from periodic depression since I was about 7 and I never got help for it until now. I didn’t connect, until very recently (like, say, 2 or 3 weeks ago), that this almost definitely has to do with something that happened to me in 3rd grade. A friend destroying my friendship with another friend. Sounds pretty much normal life, but at age 7 (which I honestly didn’t think of as the same age as 3rd grade, but I’m pretty sure it was) it was traumatic.

    I thought vaguely of getting therapy in the past, but never did. Not until a month or two ago did I get serious about it. In retrospect, that doesn’t make much sense. Part of me felt I needed a reason for the periodic depression (it never occurred to me that the 3rd grade trauma was connected), and I don’t know what the other part thought.

    Finally I contacted a therapist, and my first session was last Friday.

    I’m so happy I’m finally talking to someone about this stuff. I have high hopes.

    I think I wanted to say that trauma doesn’t have to be absolutely huge for it to impact us, impact our relationships. It can be an early trauma, a trauma that hits us in our most vulnerable spot, a series of traumas. It isn’t the same as being attacked by someone violent, or dealing with the kind of stuff that you dealt with as a kid, but when I saw my therapist just as baffled by some of the behavior of my “friends” as I had been, it felt good. Validating. A relief.

    Maybe there is no understanding it, ever, and maybe that is the point.

    So…I think that was a tangent. I am so glad to have your blog to read, I think it takes a certain kind of bravery to be so honest about such painful things. I appreciate it, and I’m sure I’m far from the only one.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks, this is actually an excellent point. Traumas can be larger or smaller. Actually some people suffer depression without ever being able to identify a significant trauma. But even so, people do need to get help sometimes.

    I’ve sort of talked therapy until I’m blue in the face on this issue, because I’m a huge believer in therapy. Sometimes people will say “I just need to snap myself out of this.” But after a while it’s no failure to admit that we’re like the majority of people who don’t necessarily know how to help ourselves (because we weren’t trained in it after all). I’ve also known people who have been through a significant trauma but say they don’t want therapy because it won’t change anything. Sure it won’t change the past but it can make things better now!

    Oh, and back to your story, girls can just be so awful so much of the time. I don’t know why your friend would have acted like that but there are actually books out about bullying and meanness in girls. They’re on my book wishlist.

    Sometimes a small trauma like that can set up a bad precedent, like isolating the person, or creating distrust that doesn’t go away easily.

    In my case the one trauma actually really set me up for more problems later, because the PTSD distorted my thinking and things didn’t go so well right away.

  3. Deb said,

    When I finally took the step to contact a therapist, I was still convinced that my depressions didn’t have a root cause. It wasn’t until after I contacted one, and was on her waiting list and thinking about things more, that I realized my depression might have an actual “root trauma” if there is such a thing. But even if my 3rd grade trama hadn’t happened, I think therapy would help, because there are certain patterns that I fall into and can’t seem to get out of.

    And my therapist is big on developing new patterns, which is part of why I was interested in talking to her, and willing to be on her wait list.

    One of the hardest things for me to face over the weekend was that as awful as that treacherous little girl was to me (and as awful as my “friends” were at various times from that point on), I was pretty awful to other people too. Not always, but definitely some not nice stuff. I’m not blameless, and I have a feeling that is part of my problem, that I’ve never quite forgiven myself for being as bad (at times) as the people who hurt me. It helps to face it though – I’m guessing the ones who hurt me were hurting or had been hurt, and that is part of why they hurt me.

    It definitely makes sense that the one trauma can set us up for more. I feel like my experience at 7 has shaped way too many of my interactions after that. It has probably come into play in every friendship I have. I don’t trust easily, and I feel isolated quite a bit because of that. Even when I have friends around me. And that is pretty sad. I shouldn’t have to feel that way. PTSD seems like it would be all that and more, because you have all the emotional stuff, plus the physical reactions.

    Those books about the bullying and meaness of young girls sound like ones I should put on my wish list as well – any specific titles that caught your eye?

  4. Neva Vegan said,

    Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. I realized I deleted my amazon wishlist in protest because they were still selling magazines that promote cock fighting and dog fighting.

    Here are a couple that I was looking at though.

    Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out
    Girl Wars by Cheryl Dellasega and Charisse Nixon

    I think we all have to deal with that idea that we resent others who have harmed us and yet we ourselves have also done harm. I wrote on this blog before about some of the bullying I went through in school, and even with that, and my knowing how deeply it hurt, there were times when I was really pretty unkind to others for very stupid reasons. Also, in my case I developed a really big chip on my shoulder and so probably was very harsh with people who were trying to be nice because I had gone into such a defensive stance. So, in that sense poor behavior can be catching. Other times, maybe especially with girls, because the girls they look up to settle problems with bullying, they see that as the way to handle disputes. It might not even occur to them that there’s another way to deal with conflict.

    Guilt and self-blame are such huge problems for me, and likely for a lot of women. I kind of feel like the only way to deal with it is simply to think about how I would forgive a friend, and try to forgive myself accordingly. Also it’s about trying to do better, and recognizing at the same time that everyone alive has those less than stellar moments. So we can’t let the bad become such a focus that we forget to be aware of how we’re acting today. I guess I also apply that to veganism–it’s get up in the morning and do the best we can, yesterday is over anyway. I’ve had a lot of friends quit veganism because they gave into temptation and ate something not vegan, so then they say “Oh, I’m just not strong enough to do this.” While I don’t suggest giving into temptation and pigging out on the cheese pizza, I still see it as “messing up,” something that can be overcome, not a reason to throw in the towel.

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