Tour of Duty

Inside the mind of a vet

Silence and Trauma

We hide our vulnerabilities

People suffer in silence. For men, in particular, nothing can bother us. We have to maintain a stoic persona. But we need each other, particularly in our moments of vulnerability. We are social beings. We laugh together. We share joy and accomplishments together. We want to feel understood by another person, by other people. So why are people often so silent about their traumas? Why the need for a John-Wayne-movie persona? Why is there a stigma to acknowledge that you were sexually assaulted, that one of your close relatives committed suicide, or that you have experienced the horrors of combat? What are the consequences of hiding from others our feelings about our difficulties, about our tragedies, from each other?

For those of us who remain silent, we assume others will judge us. We feel the weight of the gaze of other people, and feel weak and vulnerable instead of loved. Perhaps our silence is due to our own pasts, where difficulties were not discussed openly among family members. Regardless of the specific cause, there is often a fear of rejection. People do not tolerate rejection and the risk of isolation well. Innately, we seek attachment, from the beginning of life. When people stop seeking connection with others, something has happened. If emotions can be blamed for this change, it is often shame. Another one is guilt. People who have experienced traumatic events in their lives want to connect and feel understood about them, but often the risk of rejection and the subsequent shame and guilt are too powerful. They often feel no one else can get it. They feel that no one really wants to hear how terrible something was for them, whether it is being sexually assaulted, the suicide of a relative, or combat. People who have experienced any of these examples might feel that no one can understand the experience. But that is what they need. They may feel isolated and even no longer feel like a person in their shame and guilt, but connection is what they need. Connection is healing. Finding someone else who understands and helps them bear the overwhelming emotions associated with an event is how we cope as human beings. We are social beings. We need each other.

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From my perspective, a fundamental part of healing from trauma is feeling understood by another human being. Someone helping us to understand and put words to our overwhelming emotions from traumatic events helps us come to terms with the experience. The memories of the events never go away, but hopefully, they will no longer be the defining point of our lives. As the intensity of these experiences subsides, we can then re-engage with people around us, and no longer feel a shaming gaze from others. By sharing our vulnerabilities and pain, we help each other bear the frustrations of our fragile existence. But there is more to the connections with have with others than pain and frailty. Our interconnectedness can also bring joy, love, and, paradoxically, freedom and authenticity. You could say that our sense of being, who we are, is very much tied up in our relationships with others. Unfortunately, many of us spend most of our lives trying not to share our limits, our fears, our vulnerabilities with each other. We hide them out of shame or guilt, and suffer in silence.

Russell Carr, M.D., is a naval psychiatrist who heads up adult outpatient psychiatry at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

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