Bearing witness in the aftermath of violence
I work with stories, stories that are often dark and despairing as they understandably would be in the aftermath of violence. Yet I know through my work that it is in the telling that we heal. Trauma following violence disrupts everything. All is fragmented in its aftermath and we are left with pieces of our past life that no longer make sense. The past is so far removed from the present and it stops us from seeing a future. Sometimes it can stop us from living, wanting to live, wanting to go on.
A traumatic incident is a shocking and emotionally overwhelming situation in which an individual experiences or perceives a threat to the physical and/or psychological integrity of self or others, resulting in a reaction of intense fear, helplessness or horror (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000; Lodrick, 2007; Rothschild, 2000) The chief and ongoing question of an existentially oriented therapy is "how is one willing to live, in this moment, with this opportunity to encounter one's pain"?
In therapy, your trauma counsellor is your witness. The act of bearing witness does and can facilitate recovery. How is this possible you may ask? How can a witness heal? Where does this notion come from?
In the world of law, the police, the CPS even, the word ‘witness’ means quite simply ‘to bear in mind’. To hold a client in one’s mind, to really listen to what is being said, to contain what is said even the darkest of thoughts and feelings can help a client move through their experience, through the fire and come out the other side.
In individual or group therapy being seen and having one’s painful experience, such as rape, acknowledged and held, is indeed transformative.
Sometimes an experience is so excruciating that language fails us. We do not have the words to describe what has happened. In your turmoil you may encounter these questions:
- Why me?
- Why am I being punished for something I did not do?
- Who am I?
- How do I get back to who I once was?
When life stops being predictable, when the world stops being one we thought we could trust, our value-laden universe unravels and we lose the capacity to be purposeful and to be who we really want to be.
Existentially we are traumatised by randomness and more so by cruel acts and unexpected malice. These all serve as reminder that our place in the universe is uncertain and ephemeral. When trauma is sudden, it cannot be easily integrated, so it is understandable why you would choose to shut down and feel lost and hopeless.
Yet, and this I do know, moments of trauma and catastrophe can also present an opportunity to review and rebuild one’s life. Having your therapist sit with you through this process, bearing witness to your experience, is the first step, among many, that you will (and must) take, to a life that is, and can be, filled with meaning once again.
And it will.
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