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How Useful is Trauma as a Therapy Tool?
A personal story from Stanton Peele
I had a client who often referred to negative family experiences she had when explaining the rut she was in. Although I won’t detail her current problems or her traumas out of confidentiality concerns, I will say they were somewhat midrange—that is, they did not include childhood violence or sexual abuse.
Her childhood experience also included the death of a close young relation, which was horrible. Did that explain her current problems? We discussed that experience at some length. But the death always became connected with other childhood issues, some of which, while unpleasant, were less severe. All of this made it hard—for me at least—to identify the exact nature of the trauma and its relationship to the problems that were the concern of our therapy.
At some point well into our therapeutic relationship, because I felt badly for her loss and I wanted to let her know I had experienced a similar event, I told her that my brother committed suicide. I’m not the type of therapist who dwells on himself, so this was slightly out of the blue. I was self-conscious about mentioning it, since I was 55 and my brother was 59 when he killed himself—definitely not a childhood trauma.
I wasn’t most concerned for myself when he killed himself. His widow was an extremely sweet and loving person. She had had two sons (not with my brother), and one had also committed suicide. What would be the consequences of my brother’s act for her?
I was self-conscious about mentioning it, since I was 55 and my brother was 59 when he killed himself—definitely not a childhood trauma.-Stanton Peele
Flash forward: Her other son had an extremely happy and rewarding family life which he made his mother an integral part of—she was always sending me photos of their commemorative events. My sister-in-law also eventually formed a close relationship with a man, which made everyone who loved her happy.
My second concern in my own case was for my children. My ex-wife’s brother had also committed suicide. I could see my kids having a bad turn of events, entering therapy, and saying, “Uncles on both my mother’s and my father’s side killed themselves when I was young,” and the therapist taking that ball and running with it. I didn’t think that putting those ideas into the mix would be helpful, since my kids didn’t see either of their uncles that often.
I was extremely surprised by how touched my client was by my revelation…-Stanton Peele
I was extremely surprised by how touched my client was by my revelation, given that it was a late-life event and therefore had only secondary psychological consequences. She thanked me for sharing, and expressed wonder at how the suicide hadn’t derailed my life, but that rather I had carried on with my family and professional life. As I said here, I felt any such compliments were undeserved—it was others’ reactions to my brother’s death I was more concerned over.
This story highlights some of the issues of using trauma as a therapeutic tool. Here are six questions raised from this experience:
- How do you rate the severity of a trauma? Is it the seriousness of the nature of the events, the degree of trauma the person currently reports experiencing, or the severity of the person’s current problems that dictate how bad the trauma was?
- Is it possible that NOT thinking of oneself as traumatized is helpful? Despite my brother’s suicide (which I have never before mentioned in print), I would never consider myself a trauma victim. NOT feeling traumatized was beneficial for me.
- Was it also self-protective that I focused on the suffering of others rather than my own? Since my attention in the tragedy was for my sister-in-law and then my children, and I never focused on my own loss, I didn’t myself feel traumatized.
- Does successful functioning minimize trauma? Since my children—all now well-launched into adulthood—haven’t been suicidally depressed, I am inclined to sidestep my brother’s death as a family issue. That his widow has flourished is the best sign that this trauma was weathered by the one it impacted most.
- Can trauma become self-determining, as expressed in the idea: “I must have been traumatized—look how badly off I am today.” But, then, is that logic circular? “I can’t resolve my problems—my trauma has been too great to overcome.”
- Can everyone find in their lives something that qualifies as a trauma? To tell the truth, I have experienced other, worse things than my brother’s suicide. Don’t the tragedies that we share put us all in the same boat?
As a helper, the question must always return to this level: Is the therapeutic idea or tool a helpful one? And my personal and clinical experiences with trauma haven’t convinced me that it is.
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