Trauma is Indeed Like a Car Crash
in that most people get over it
Suppose you get injured in a car accident and suffer some sort of serious but not life-threatening injuries. Your body will have undergone trauma, in the old school physical sense - the sense from which we get the concept of the trauma center. What would you do?
The sensible course of action would be to seek professional medical care. You would not, I hope, set about to learn how to treat that trauma from TikTok, while sitting in the burning car. You wouldn’t expect Discord to diagnose you accurately. You wouldn’t buy a workbook on recovering from a car accident put together by someone with dubious credentials. Instead you’d go see doctors and nurses and physical therapists; you’d secure the services of those who have been designated by society as having the expertise to provide care. You would go in with a certain level of trust and listen to their advice. This care would likely involve both an acute, short-term period and a more extensive, long-term approach. Things wouldn’t get fixed overnight. Different doctors and therapists might have legitimately conflicting opinions on the right course of physical therapy to help you heal from your wounds. And there would no doubt be permanent scars, both literal/physical and metaphorical/mental. But everyone would understand that this medical process had a clear goal: to heal, to move on, to bring the trauma to a close. If you encountered a doctor who forcefully insisted that you would be, forever more, a car accident survivor before and above all other things, you’d find that deranged, not therapeutic. You would do the work to get healthy and you wouldn’t fight to maintain your self-definition as a traumatized person. You’d get healthy and then you would just be healthy.
None of this is similar to the approach common to the recent obsessive pop-psychology interest in “trauma,” the use of which has become a form of currency among impressionable people. That kind of trauma is seen as permanent and existential. Its acolytes scream angrily about the right to self-treat and self-diagnose. And many find the idea that you should ever get healthy again, that you should ever heal, to be inherently offensive. This is despite the fact that all of the research tells us that most people get over psychological traumas and often fairly quickly. And thank god! That’s exactly what we should want. The trouble is that the whole point of addressing trauma of whichever kind - to get over that which you can get over and learn to live with that which you can’t fully get over - is not conducive to what trauma is used for today. Today, people perform trauma. They perform trauma because they’re rewarded for doing so with attention and sympathy. The desire to get those things is natural; the incentive structure that produces that behavior is toxic. The social assumptions that once pushed people to valorize being healthy, which we now often dismiss as “stigma,” have no purchase in online communities like TikTok, Tumblr, or Instagram. What has great purchase is presenting a comprehensible identity to others, a vision of a self made legible by some simplistic and overarching factor.
The point of addressing trauma is to get over it. Not to derive an identity from it, not to make it a free-floating excuse for selfishness or lack of accountability, not to get social media clout for having it, not to monetize it, not to make it an all-encompassing explanatory mechanism for every element of your life. Trauma is not to be celebrated, explicitly or indirectly. Your responsibility as a traumatized person is to treat your trauma medically, for your own good and for the good of those around you. To treat trauma medically requires diagnosis by and intervention from those medically trained and certified to perform those tasks. And then, from there, your trauma can become a part of your personality, of your story, and of your self. You might use it to create great art, although probably not, as it’s talent and vision that make the mining of trauma for artistic purposes great, not the trauma itself. More prosaically, you may bring people into your confidence about your trauma, as you prefer, or you may keep it to yourself. You should always feel free to reach out to others who have suffered that way for support and advice and community, if that helps you. Trauma is a big deal and it's natural and healthy to treat it as such; there is no timetable for how quickly you have to heal, no wrong way to do it, and no shame in struggling as you do.
But any social construct that compels you to want to remain in your trauma is pathological. Resistance to healing is pathological.
It’s a basic fact of human life in the digitally-connected era: when a discourse gets empowered, in some way, it will be abused. We’re just now starting to count all of the ways that the discourse of racial justice and LGBTQ rights and feminism and related concepts have been weaponized and misused, invoked in bad faith to destructive ends. People found that when they invoked those discourses, others were often unwilling to push back, for fear of being branded racist, or sexist, or homophobic, etc. We had created an incentive structure, and people responded to those incentives. And we have now spent years and years living in the consequences of that scenario - freed from any responsibility to truth or sense or pragmatism by their cloak of social justice, a lot of hucksters have carved out careers of influence and reward, while bad ideas have proliferated due to the lack of an appropriately skeptical environment. Perhaps things have recently begun to thaw, but it will take time to tell.
Trauma discourse has been operating for years in the exact same way; almost everyone I talk to about these subjects looks at the TikTokification of trauma and PTSD with alarm and dismay, but almost no one will say so publicly, for fear of being pilloried. Indeed, many people seem to become vocal trauma advocates precisely because they know they can use the inherent emotionalism of the subject matter to shout other people down. The results? A lot of opportunists getting rich based on incredibly dubious approaches to what are, for most people, entirely manageable health conditions, if they get actual medical treatment; the casualization of PTSD, to the point where self-diagnosis is the norm and the specific medical condition has collapsed into an entirely vague definition of “something I experienced hurt my feelings once”; a cultural expectation that entirely commonplace unhappy circumstances are massive challenges that the individual can’t be expected to survive, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; and a generation of young people who think that the way to be seen as interesting and valuable is to be performatively wounded, with a corresponding incentive to never get better. This is all bad, obviously bad. Very few will say so, for fear of being called ableist, but also for fear of looking old.
PTSD can be a brutal condition, and psychological trauma can cause immense pain and hardship for people who suffer from it. For precisely that reason I reject current popular norms about trauma. Just as a bunch of adolescents pretending to have dissociative identity disorder cannot possibly help the treatment of actual severe mental illness, the use of trauma as a social signifier one can put on or take off as they choose will inevitably have negative consequences for efforts to address the very real and tragic suffering associated with trauma and PTSD. But to get this discourse healthy again, we have to be willing to say no to young people who are spreading bullshit about this topic. And it so immensely frustrating to me, watching our discourse about mental health deteriorate into an absurd branding exercise while so many people just go along for the ride, afraid to look like an old person complaining about the new fad. Well, a new fad it is. And it’s time to push back. Trauma is real, sometimes devastating, and it must be diagnosed by people who are trained to do so, treated medically, and understood to be something that almost everyone can and does survive. And if your utterances or your actions suggest that you don’t want to heal, isn’t that the greatest proof that you were never traumatized at all?