Talking About Trauma – by Gillian Howell

Hello Peer Educators,

I’ve been asked by new Peer Educators in their initial trainings, “What’s okay to say? What can I share about the trauma part of my story?” Many of us have experienced some form of trauma in our lives. You don’t have to have a diagnosis of PTSD to be dealing with the repercussions of trauma. While we don’t want to traumatize our audience, we also don’t want to hold back and cover up our experiences. That’s what society and stigma has been telling us to do for most of our lives. “Keep it in.” For me, part of being authentic means sharing that stuff that society doesn’t necessarily want me to share. If I quiet those stories, I feel as if I’m not doing my job of crushing stigma. Talking about these “taboo” topics, such as sources of trauma, helps break stereotypes and negative beliefs about people with mental health challenges.

I want to come back to the idea of not traumatizing your audience, and what one can focus on in sharing their experiences to evoke the truth. I will tell a personal story:

In 2006, my “rock bottom” year (overall), I intentionally overdosed on my medication on three different occasions. The third time was a traumatic experience. I no longer choose to include the following images in my presentation (in the circumstance that I’m sharing my story, I mean): Gillian in Orlando on a random street on her knees, crawling, the world spinning, dizzy, puking, and banging on a stranger’s door for help. Instead I might include: Gillian afraid, terrified, being so lost that I didn’t care if I wanted to live or die, and then all of sudden wanting to hold on to life so badly and being so scared it was too late. To recap, I avoid the details that might trigger someone or be overwhelming, and instead I address the emotions and thoughts of that experience (still overwhelming, but less likely to shock or trigger someone). I might categorize it to the audience, such as “an intentional overdose,” and then I focus on the core of what shook me and shook my world. Then, I might go into how that experience has affected me today. With this example, ten years later, it no longer has a huge impact on me, but I know for others who have experienced war, sexual assault, domestic abuse, witnessed death, survived suicide attempts, homelessness, or other sources of trauma it still plays a role in our daily lives. One might explain that their trauma leads them to not trusting certain people, or needing extra space, or having nightmares or flashbacks when they’re awake, freezing, fleeing, or dissociating, etc. These are all normal reactions to abnormal situations. And I want our audiences to know that. We don’t have stories to hide. It’s the opposite. We want to share our stories. And rather than freeze up the audience with too many specific details that might trigger them, we want them to hear our stories, and react and respond, but not to disconnect.

Also, we I want to remind myself and all of you, that we don’t want to trigger ourselves or put ourselves in a dark place. I don’t think we’re fragile people that have to step cautiously around topics. I think we’re all pretty resilient and strong, but talking for myself—if I’m struggling with a depressive episode and I choose to explain the emotions and thoughts that went on in that day in Orlando it might actually worsen my mood, which I don’t want. When sharing my story, I have to check in with myself see where I’ve been that week or that day (mood wise) and then take it from there regarding how deep I go, or how much I share of the harder stuff.

In closing, I want to say that I’ve had the opportunity these past few months to facilitate my first few trainings, I’m reminded each time at how each of you inspire me. Thank you for being so brave, and thanks for being part of this supportive community.


Gillian Howell

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