The Politics of Trauma

I am Oscar. I exist. I have a body. I have to remind myself of these things every day. This is because I’ve spent a huge amount of my life not feeling like I have a body and not feeling like I exist as a person. Instead, I’ve felt like nothing. I’ve felt like a numb floating mind that isn’t connected to the world. I’ve felt totally dead inside. People will talk to me, people will hug me, people will have sex me. But I’m not there. I’m not experiencing anything. It all feels the same. I’ve felt like I’ve been watching a film of somebody else’s life, rather than living my own. I’ve felt that my own personal experiences did not happen to me, but happened to somebody else. If you’ve listened to my earlier videos, you’ll notice that my voice is very monotone. This is why. It’s hard to talk in an exciting manner when internally you don’t exist.

While I felt this way I did not know what was happening to me. I told stories to myself. I thought I was disconnected from my body and the world because I was a philosopher who spent their time reading about metaphysics. The actual reason why I felt this way was that I have developmental trauma disorder due to being raised by abusive parents and being bullied at school.

Trauma is not just something that happens to you. It, to quote the trauma expert Bessel van Der Kolk, “compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.” (Kolk 2015, 3) As a result of this, “trauma makes people feel like either some body else, or like no body.“ (Kolk 2015, 247) By this he means that trauma causes people to develop (a) alexithymia: not being able to sense, describe and communicate what is going on inside yourself, such as not being able to sense or label your emotions or not being able to tell others what you’re feeling, (b) disembodiment: not feeling like you have a body and feeling numb all of the time, and (c) depersonalisation: not feeling you exist as a person, such as not having a sense of self or feeling like your own life is another person’s life you’re watching. A patient described alexithymia as follows:

“I don’t know what I feel, it’s like my head and body aren’t connected. I’m living in a tunnel, a fog, no matter what happens it’s the same reaction – numbness, nothing. Having a bubble bath and being burned or raped is the same feeling. My brain doesn’t feel.” (Quoted Kolk 2015, 99)

The reason why traumatised people experience alexithymia, disembodiment and depersonalisation is that they have lived in an environment inhospitable to human life and have, in order to survive, learned to stop existing. A 2004 study scanned the brains of 18 chronic PTSD patients with severe early-life trauma. Kolk writes,

“There was almost no activation of any of the self-sensing areas of the brain: The MPFC, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the insula did not light up at all; the only area that showed a slight activation was the posterior cingulate, which is responsible for basic orientation in space… In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our senses of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaption: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.” (Kolk 2015, p91-2)

People often say that domination is based on the dehumanisation of the oppressed by the oppressor. But if trauma frequently causes people to not feel like they have a body and not feel like they are a person, then the emotional and physical abuse which composes structures of domination, such as capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and queerphobia, literally causes the brains of victims to not experience life as a person. Domination not only harms people, it takes away their humanity. It transforms the bodies of victims into living cages which, in order to defend themselves, cut the mind off from the joys of life. It is for this reason that a genuine humanism must be an anarchist one. Only in conditions of freedom can everyone have the real possibility to lead a fully human life.

Bibliography

Kolk, Bessel Van Der. 2015. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin Books

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