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....::: Trauma :::....

· Responses to...


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Trauma and reintegration

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Responses to Trauma

We have seen that when we suffer a traumatic political experience such as the disappearance of a loved one, torture or fear, we need to integrate it into our lives. You can't put brackets around parts of your own life experiences. A person who has been tortured may try to forget it, or to live as if nothing had happened. But it's not possible: we need to integrate these experiences into our political projects and our lives.

Often external circumstances make this integration more difficult. Perhaps the family doesn't have space to talk about it; or repression forces us to flee and gives us no time to stop and face what has happened. Other times the attempts that a person or group has made to face the experience have not been fruitful, so the experience is denied, or conversely, becomes completely overwhelming.

So, we find ourselves with three possible responses to dealing with trauma of a political nature. We have called these responses "normality", "impossibility" and "reintegration".

Normality is characterised by the attempt to deny and repress the effects of the experience, and as a result, the experience itself. This type of attitude often leads to what we have called the "privatisation of pain"; that is to say that the experience is lived in an isolated way, with no space, alone or with others, to deal with the experience. The pain stays inside and it is very difficult to get it out and to share it with others.

Often the oppressive social context and the need to continue the struggle mean that the person the person thinks that it is better to try and forget what has happened, deny its impact, and keep moving forward.

They create blocks in their consciousness and in their relations with others, doing whatever possible to hide the combination of experiences and feelings produced by what happened.

Nonetheless, when the damage done is considerable, there is little point in trying to deny the experience and live a pretend normality. Denying and repressing feelings uses an immense amount of energy and over time the person has less and less energy for the task of rebuilding themselves and giving meaning to the experience.

It is a vicious circle, each denial demands more denials (to oneself and others) and each attempt to repress the feelings uses more and more energy.

This attitude of making yourself be strong is normal, and it can be very useful in some situations, for example when responding to immediate threats. Under torture a person needs to keep their defences up. After an attack much energy is needed to respond to the events, denounce what has happened, etc... However, over time this need to be strong becomes a problem.

There are various defence mechanisms that can be used to deny or repress an experience. These defence mechanisms are not ,in themselves, a bad thing. They are the attempts a person makes to keep going in a social environment that it is often repressive and closed. Nevertheless, over time these defence mechanisms consume a lot of energy. Instead of helping a person to keep going, in the long run they become a problem that weakens them.

Many of these mechanisms lead to isolation and avoidance; such as not wanting to relate to other young people because they remind you of murdered companions, not wanting to receive news as it revives past experiences, etc. This behaviour makes intimate relationships and social ties more difficult, and these things are vital to rebuilding lives and political projects.

Individual responses:
Denial: nothing happened...
Pretence: acting as if nothing happened.
Actively covering up: e.g. inventing a past that has nothing to do with what happened.
Distorted Rationalisation: I can't be afraid, i must be strong and forget what I feel.
Avoidance: avoiding being around people or in certain situations.
Repressing feelings.
Not thinking about it.

It is not only individuals that use these defence mechanisms. Families and groups can also use them. A group may respond in this way to experience they have had as a group or to things that have happened to individuals within that group (for example a compañero captures and torured)
[some of these group defence mechanisms can be found on the next page]

Forms of group response
Life goes on: not stopping for a minute, as a way of avoiding a "dangerous" conversation and eliminating space to think...
The reign of silence: situations in which a topic is not talked about because teh group members prefer to avoid it (for example the disappearance of a family member). I kind of mutual "agreement" is reached to not talk about it.
Pretending: Acting as is nothing had happened, although in private all the group members are aware of the situation.
Delegating a memebr of the group as the "weak" one, or the only person affected. ("we're fine, it's Jose that's having a bad time...")

These mechanisms are attempts on behalf of the group to maintain a "pretended normality": to act as though nothing had happened. Over time these mechanisms make the group's structure more rigid. As relations within the group become more rigid it becomes harder to approach problems.

The rigidity of the group also brings an increase in tensions within the group which is often unspoken, but makes people snap at things that in other circumstances would be of little importance.

Impossibility is the situation where a person finds an experience so overwhelming that they feel they will never be able to move on. ("there's nothing I can do... they've broken me..") The person finds themself weakened by the conviction that it is impossible to assimilate it and rebuild thier life.

Often this situation arises after many failed attempts to move on. It is possible that the person has not been able to find the space to talk about it and they feel the are "broken".

Other times the attempts to approach the experience have been made when the person was very low and had little energy for the task. This produces the conviction that it is impossible. The person feels they are in a hole with no way of getting out.
[on the next page we list some frequent situations]

Sometimes an entire family or group lives a situation of impossibility. They may find themselves "stuck", thinking always of what happened, those who absent, etc... living and overwhelming past. This means that they can't move forward in the present or project into the future, and they find themselves tied to the experience.

The third possible approach, which we have called reintegration, supposes a restructuring of a person or group's life and identity, taking into account the experience (torture, disappearances, persecution, etc.) and not denying it.

It is generally more effective to confront an experience and what it means to a person or their family and friends, than to pretend that nothing has happened. To make this kind of integration work it helps to share feelings with others; evaluate the current situation, project into the future, and perhaps look at what the experience has created.

One of the prerequisites for reintegration is to accept that the experience really happened and to understand its nature.

The second issue is "resocialising" the experience (understanding it, sharing and participating). This makes it possible to:
Intergrate the experience and give it meaning
Overcome victimisation
Recover life and social action

The reintegration we are talking about is not, therefore, just an individual process. It is a group, family and collective process: a process of support.

Through the course of this book we talk about community in a broad sense, as an institution, a place where people live together, work together etc. Nevertheless, now we want to emphasise the community as a group of people who share their experiences and have a sense of mutlual solidarity. In this sense the community has an affectionate dimension, based on human relationships of mutual understandng and support.

The support that can make reintegration of the experience possible is based on rebuilding relations in the community. This support can be social (not leaving anyone alone...), material (improving the quality of life), emotional (making space to share intimate feelings), and political (an encounter with a deeply human and ideological sense).


Trauma flier (.pdf - 28 kb)