How Trump Triggers Complex Trauma

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political

Every year I wonder how much left there is to learn. At what point I can really say, yes, I know myself. For if my forty one years are anything to go by, the answer is that every year I know less and less–relatively speaking. Every year I realise how much more I don’t know. And this year–2016, the year of Trump–will go down as the year I found out I have complex PTSD, and what that really means in my day to day life. How it feels to have a man who is a misogynist, a liar, a rapist and a narcissist as the president-elect of the United States. How it has awoken the sleeping beast of grief and trauma in my body.

Political pundits have wondered at the extent of the grief washing over the world in the aftermath of the election. Not everyone has experienced trauma, have they? But if trauma is ‘defined as an event “generally outside the range of human experience” one expert (and a personal friend of mine) points out, that in the United States alone one form of trauma–rape–is “more common than left-handedness.”1 PTSD is by no means the sole remit of war veterans, because fighting for survival is what we all do. Some of us more than others.

Over many years I’ve often experienced a near faint, red rage which sweeps across my body like hideous prickling nauseous rash. It can happen in an instant, and sometimes in several waves. It happens when I am what they call ‘triggered’ even though it was only this year, that I realised these acute stress responses were what others spoke of when they said ‘triggers’. I passed them off as a regular type of getting angry, because they were regular to me. But this year has seen a spike of them and for the last six months, around once a week. It takes some days to recover from each one during which time I am in a state of hypervigilance, of anxiety and of heightened sensitivity. And as news floods the networks on hate crimes, Brexit consequences, and the Trump presidency, that state has escalated to a high pitched internal screaming. It’s just a joke pretexts are worthless. There is no such thing.

During the severe triggering times, my pre-frontal cortex shuts off. No self regulation, barely any rationality. Fortunately they last less than 30 seconds, and not being prone to violence, no one suffers any physical harm; but that thirty seconds is long enough to snarl a reptilian response, like the snap of an alligator bite. To whatever comment, action or person I have perceived as a threat. Often that includes a veto of some kind, ‘If you do any of this, then I’m outta here’. It’s a gutteral fight and flight response. I shut down and no further communication is possible before the red rage has passed.

An ‘I can’t stay here in this house,’ said to my friend and left after he’d made an equivalence between Hillary’s emails and Trump’s misogynous, predatory behaviour.

An ‘I don’t think we can be together,’ said to my boyfriend of three years when he proposed a radical opinion on objectification.

Both minor incidents happened during the week of the election and it took my boyfriend to point out that my reaction, this reaction, was not my normal personality. It was out of character. Because I–in my rational mind–would never break up with him like that. I might break up with him, but it would be after extensive communication. Emotional processing often to the extreme, is one thing I’ve always been consistent on and it makes for a relationship narrative all of its own. Intense and intimate. Like sex without the genital contact. Suffice to say, breaking up or off in an instant, in a flash of anger, is not my adult style. Yet being a part of me, I cannot say it is not ‘my style’. My trauma and my response to it–either fight or flight–is still a part of me.

Over the years and through extensive work, I’ve been able to observe an improvement in the strength of my coping mechanisms even though in the extreme, objectification, gaslighting, lack of consent, belittling and verbally violent conflict always give me the uncontrollable red rage. These behaviours were the markers of my childhood, and as a child I was handed over through adoption, controlled as an object to satisfy the parental desires of a maternal narcissist and an emotionally absent but often angry father. My neural pathways were formed under the influence of chronic stress and trauma.

By definition I cannot be with anyone on a prolonged basis who demonstrates these behaviours, but these are not binary. They lie on a spectrum and many of us exhibit them to some extent. Like the flare up of an allergy, and since the shock of the midsummer brexit, I am now in hypervigilance. I see potential harm long before it turns into active threat. And when the red rage comes, I fight or flee to remove that potential from my environment, from my children’s environment. With the Trump presidency, I cannot. It is everywhere. I see it everywhere. Threat is everywhere.

Situations involving captivity or entrapment (a situation lacking a viable escape route for the victim) can lead to C-PTSD-like symptoms, which include prolonged feelings of helplessness and deformation of one’s identity and sense of self 2.

Whilst I can process and recover from the occassional acute stress, I will not be able to endure chronic spikes in my stress hormones without doing something. I will not be able to survive four years of a Trump presidency without doing something. That something I will be doing I have decided, is fighting because I cannot flee anymore from what’s going on. My ability to flee has been part of my privilege.

I have understood from my intersectional peers that my state, this state is what they live with and have lived with for years, decades, centuries. I have not been able to recognise it in the past, because it is in our nature to survive the best way our minds deem fit and mine has used my privilege to avoid trauma–mine and theirs. But I accept and understand why those less privileged must be angry with me, or even apathetic to what I’m saying. They’ve been saying it for years whilst I haven’t had the ears to hear. All I can say is that now that I am aware of it I accept personal responsibility for having lived in denial. Unconscious ignorance does not absolve me of this. Nor does it absolve others. Yet the unfortunate truth is that you cannot wake those who like me, were fighting to stay unwoke when being woke meant being thrown back into trauma. Traumatized or not, I still have privilege and now I will use it to fight in this paradox. Because even if it is too late for some, it is not too late to start now that I can.

As I have grown more and more hypervigilant, I have spotted potential harm and reacted instinctively to it. Insomnia has caught up with me again. Night after night. Actions and words which may have passed before, no longer do. The gift and the curse of my trauma is that I have become Cassandra. I know what behaviours traumatize, which behaviours dehumanize and which lead to war. War has come for me. It will come for you too if it hasn’t already. Because one way or another, war is coming for us all.

1. “Worlds of Hurt”: Kali Tal and the Literatures of Trauma
2.Lewis Herman, Judith (1992). Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books.