I refer to the kind of trauma Jason experienced as “existential trauma:” a shock or peril so severe that you experience your own annihilation as imminent. Trauma is of course more expansive and complex than this. It’s not just moments when you clearly think to yourself, as Jason did, “Oh. Now I die.” But specificity matters.
Other kinds of trauma are real and consequential: a divorce, the death of a beloved pet, a job that consumes your soul. But there has been, I think, a bit too much flexibility in how we define and use the language of trauma and PTSD – especially that social flashpoint of a term, triggered. It makes for muddy thinking and gives us, culturally, an escape route, a way to distance ourselves from the deep suffering in which we are submerged. If we call everything trauma, it is easy to argue that nothing is really traumatic.
While I don’t want to reproduce an atrocity hierarchy – a comparative, or worse yet, competitive cataloguing of harm – there is a profound difference between the trauma of your parents splitting up and the trauma of your father holding a knife to your throat. The former can cause lasting emotional harm, if handled poorly. But the latter is an existential trauma – a forced recognition that one’s death can come at any time.
In Maggie O’Farrell’s extraordinary memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, she writes,
There is nothing unique or special in a near-death experience. They are not rare; everyone, I would venture, has had them, at one time or another, perhaps without even realizing it. The brush of a van too close to your bicycle, the tired medic who realizes that a dosage ought to be checked one final time, the driver who has drunk too much and is reluctantly persuaded to relinquish the car keys, the train missed after sleeping through an alarm, the aeroplane not caught, the virus never inhaled, the assailant never encountered, the path not taken. We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.… If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not. They will take up residence inside you and become part of who you are, like a heart stent or a pin that holds together a broken bone.O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am, Chapter 2: Lungs
It is one thing to understand oblivion abstractly, O’Farrell argues, and another to come face-to-face with death’s imminence. An existential trauma invites death to live inside you, to become part of who you are, irrevocably.
Which harms are existential is complicated, though. If you get blown up or badly beaten, even if you are in a bad car accident, the existential threat is obvious, noncontroversial. But what about a sexual assault where the violation of your bodily integrity is so profound that a crucial part of your psyche might be extinguished? Or the trauma of racial terrorism, where a key part of who you are – your Blackness or Brownness or Asianness or Nativeness – results in being targeted for individual or communal destruction?
Is it possible to get PTSD from non-existential harm? It’s likely. I’m not interested in policing who has the right to have PTSD. I’m sure that many question my right to my own diagnosis. So what if my partner was emotionally volatile, our health insurance was denied, we were rejected by a mental hospital, and medical debt still hounds us? The harms I suffered – mostly bureaucratic and interpersonal – are categorically different from those suffered by Jason during the two attacks that threatened his life.
And yet … when the pink debt collections notices arrive in the mail, my body reacts as if I am in mortal peril. An existential threat does not have to be explosive, a single catastrophic moment in time. It can be cumulative, erosive, instead.
This is something Pat Barker describes very clearly in Regeneration. She understands erosive trauma. One reason the novel speaks so profoundly to me is the sense of recognition I felt when, as a caregiver and partner to someone with PTSD, I read these lines:
Pilots, though they did indeed break down, did so less frequently and usually less severely than the men who manned observation balloons. They, floating helplessly above the battlefields, unable either to avoid attack or to defend themselves effectively against it, showed the highest incidence of breakdown of any service. Even including infantry officers. This reinforced Rivers’s view that it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition.Barker, Regeneration, p. 222
The trauma that comes from having your safety eroded and not being able to do anything about it, Rivers reflects, makes sense of “the prevalence of anxiety neurosis and hysterical disorders in women in peacetime.” The irony? “This apparently intensely masculine life of war and danger and hardship produced in men the same disorders that women suffered from in peace.”
We are interdependent creatures. We build ourselves from infancy in relationship to others; when we are broken by the world, we rebuild ourselves in relationship to those around us. So perhaps this notion of existential harm needs to be expanded to encompass the deep relational harms of white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic violence. The constrictions and erosions of injustice can be just as harmful as the explosions of direct confrontation.
Playing with the relationship between constriction, erosion, and explosion, Barker notes the irony of soldiers being ‘mobilized’ for trench warfare during World War I.
Mobilization. The Great Adventure. They’d been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure…consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. … No wonder they broke down.Barker, Regeneration, pp. 107-8
Careful out there on “Booms Day,” my PTSD friends. I wish you quiet in your neighborhoods and peace in your hearts and minds.
Since we’re a bit behind, I’ve updated our reading schedule, here: https://virginia-eubanks.com/ptsd-bookclub/. I’ve also put up links to each blog post so that you can read them in order, if you’d like. Some people have told me that it is difficult to read the series chronologically.