“Isolation is a teenage daydream”: On trauma, story and contacting the adolescent psyche.

When (by Toby Chown)

When I was a teenager,
I could not speak,
It stung to live such dissonance,
My useless tongue
could not articulate the pain of my body as it flowered,
shameful firestorms
chains that bind a teenage mind.

Subtle chains;uniforms,
Blank friendships, Bored streets,
Repetitions of class and number,
Gleam-glass shops, white trainers,
Red eyes, clenched necks,
Huge hoarding boards and Friday night violence;
Isolation is the city’s business,
Isolation is a teenage daydream.

I had to learn to sing;
Had to learn how a voice
Takes form like a tree branch;
Solidifies slowly to express its own shape.
So if by chance I should sing
The blue jewelled cases of a wandering insect ,
Or the wet emerald moss of
A beech tree’s splayed roots
Or the ache in the chest from
A cormorant’s cry,

It’s only because I never sang
That mute song
Of the broken suburbs
Crushed beer cans in the gutter,
Empty streets lined with trees,
That sense, that the mute know
Of always looking in from outside,
The sense in a raindrop, a teardrop
A sigh.

Badger skull on leaflitter, ashcoombe woods by Toby Chown

The deepest tragedies of trauma lie beyond the horror of the event itself. Perhaps the worst aspects lie in the way it becomes internalised, mirrored in the self’s relationship with itself. Sometimes, the shame of this internalisation can become trapped within the self. The result can be a tremendous sense of isolation.
When that happens, the mood it creates can seem to spread outwards and into the whole world.

There are many different techniques for dealing with trauma. Perhaps the most effective ones involve building a safe relationship with another human being as a way back into the world. When this happens, it can feel as if the world has changed from one of crushed beer cans and empty shop windows, to a world of emerald moss and wandering insects. In this way, the risks and beauty of the living world can become mirrors for the Self.

As the key to this lies in relationship, it’s something that anyone might find themselves doing. To go deep into a traumatic experience, and process either a traumatic event or complex trauma certainly may require the time and experience of a skilled clinician. However, the reality is that we are all caught up with each other and the world such that we may all find ourselves in relationship with traumatised young people or families.

Trauma Training

Recently, I was given the opportunity to film a six part online video training on trauma for non clinical professionals alongside my colleague and friend, Jo Parker. It’s free to access til the end of May, and you can sign up here. Jo and I worked for many years together at the Oasis project in Brighton and Hove, UK, who I still work for. Oasis specialises in offering therapy to children, teenagers and families where parents have had drug and alcohol problems.

Referrals come in from different quarters of the city from families with many different stories of distress. We would talk them through together, then meet up with parents, and offer children sessions of arts based therapy. Jo’s background is as an integrative art psychotherapist, mine as a dramatherapist. Often we would also need to talk with social workers, schools and other professionals, especially if risks of violence or neglect were high.

Many of the children and teenagers we worked with had experienced traumatic events, such as witnessing the violence of one parent to another. Others had experienced the neglect that comes from the struggle of a parent to give the child the kind of stable attention that they needed in order to thrive. Parents themselves frequently also have experienced trauma, and use alcohol or drugs to numb out the painful feelings that come with failing to be the parent that they wanted to be.

When we come into relationship with people who have experienced complex trauma – as we all do and will – there is both opportunity and risk. This is also true when we want to come into work with our own traumatic memories. The opportunity is strong – each time we allow a memory to surface in ourself or another there lies the possibility of re-shaping it, of finding and offering what was not present in the original traumatic experience. The risk however lies in activating and strengthening defences – dissociation, blame, cynicism, rage, depression, anxiety, adaptation – that have arisen to protect the self from the trauma itself.

In this series, Jo and I listen to four young people talking about their experience of early trauma. In our conversation we seek to find the response that would help reshape their experience and share it with the viewer.

I want to unpack something of it’s contents, and as I am posting it here on my webpage, to start to think a little about the connections between my work with early and complex trauma and the practice of the imaginal and ecological that I develop here.

I’ll start off with thinking about adolescence, as this is often the moment in which the effects of early trauma become more starkly apparent.

“Haunted Evaporations” by Toby Chown

Disconnection and the social self

Adolescence often opens up feelings of disconnection and isolation. When isolation gets pushed too far it begins to reveal the dislocated fortresses of the modern world. The necessity to form relationships combined with the intensity of the feelings frequently overwhelms the tongue, makes it impossible to speak.

This kind of dislocation is frequently present within trauma in an even more amplified way. When trauma occurs in childhood or adolescence, the archetypal isolations of teenagerdom can become not only difficult but dangerous, as unresolved experiences get pushed violently outward or become harshly self inflicted.

Solitude and the experience of being alone are deeply important at certain points in life, as they confirm something of the uniqueness of the individual. Adolescence involves an experience of isolation as part of it’s passage, as the child’s need to reach out to the world pauses and starts to turn inward. However traumatic adolescence may feel, there are distinctions between complex trauma and a difficult adolescence. Trauma is not adolesecence – it interupts it. It prevents us from discovering the deep range of imaginative possibilities within ourself that adolescence offers, the comradery, the honesty, the discovery of what we have to offer others.

When trauma interrupts adolescence any benefits of solitude may be lost in a barrage of private worthlessness. It creates a pathological image of the self, as worthless, or violent or helpless.

Adolescence has to do with both becoming more social, with turning towards friends, sexuality, adventure. It’s a turn towards becoming more individuated, more who you are. Anyone who has teenage children will have seen that something more has arrived in a teenager. In moments when the storm clouds of moodiness and retreat pass, a sometimes startling luminosity can be seen. Some old stories tell of a sudden glimpse of gold hair that falls from a young person’s cap, or a flash of gold beneath the shaggy fur of a bearskin.

When trauma intrudes, an irresolvable tension arisesthat can take chunks out of this private luminosity and shroud it in pain. This pain may be both thought and embodied. It relates to the unlived potential within the moment of trauma as the pathological image of it returns and casts it’s dark shadow over any new experience. By it’s nature, the psyche returns again and again to the place it’s wounded. Adolescence involves a delicate series of moves inwards and outwards, the beginnings of both conscience and deeper consciousness. A heightened sense of the voice of the collective, and the need to look right, combine with the floor of the self dropping away to reveal a glimpse just how far down the world and the self reaches.

Trauma contracts a person’s story

Our training videos feature the voices of young men and women, often in their late teens or early twenties, reflecting on their experiences and consequences of trauma. The videos were designed with a non clinical audience in mind, for people who may be working with young people or families affected by trauma. They take a broad multi angled look at trauma, looking at the impact on neurological pathways, on family systems, the impact on relationships. They look at how being part of a culturally marginalised group intersects with trauma to amplify it’s effects. Finally we look at the impact of working with trauma on the listening ear and the receptive nervous system, of vicarious trauma and how to approach dealing with it.

“the neuro-path up is the neuro-path down” by Toby Chown

Fixation, contraction and the wall of briars

One thing that emerges from our videos is how central trauma becomes to those that have experienced it. All our soul wounds demand attention, psychological or physical. Hillman has written of the psyche as a watchmaker that obsessively returns to the workings of it’s mechanics again and again until it discovers what is wrong and how to fix the pattern. This is especially true of trauma, when the extent of the injury demands a revisitation. Yet the overwhelm of the experience means that that re-visitation is often deeply unwanted and can split the wound open again. The wound becomes protected by defences, like a wall of briars, or threatened, as if by an army of ghouls that surround a castle. Within the castle, something at the centre can become frozen for a very long time, fixed down and unable to move.

Something human in us contracts in the face of this fixation. The narrowing of blood vessels and the tensing of the body’s muscles into armour reduces our capacity to channel experience. Yet the intensity of the experiences demands to be told. Judith Herman says:

“The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”​

Herman tells us that trauma affects not just the body but speech. Trauma creates a tension in expressive acts. A wound not just in our story, but also in our ability to tell our story. Therefore, if there is to be healing it must be healing both of a wounded story and of the wounds in the ability to tell a story. To tell a story one needs to have someone prepared to hear it. In “When” the injury to the power of speech breeds isolation. Working with people with trauma means working to heal a wounded story, both through listening and helping to re-tell it.

Trauma and overwhelm

The word “trauma” simply means “wound. ” However, it has come to mean something more than this. Peter Levine calls it : ”The overwhelm of our natural defensive responses that creates something like an injury in our autonomic nervous system, which affects its ability to self-regulate.” Here we have overwhelm, and the idea of a wound to something below the normal threshold of consciousness, within the body itself, that overflows it’s abilities and organic responses.

“Whelms” were small drainage gullies that filled with water to drain excess rainwater from fields to protect the crops. Being “overwhelmed” meant that these earth gutters have become too full and spill water. Being overwhelmed means that our capacity has become restricted, too small for the amount of rain. Trauma and it’s cousin toxic stress have this restrictive effect. It narrows our capacities, restricts blood vessels, fixes our vision on the need to escape or fight. Therefore enlarging the capacity of the self, through expanding the possibilities within a story, taking time to listen to each each character, and finding accurate metaphors work against this restriction.

A single trauma imprints the experience of deep shock into the nervous system. If it damages our ability to self regulate, that also means it seeds within us a terrible dilemma, between the need to reach out to others in order to return to a sense of groundedness, and the knowledge that we feel damaged beyond our ability to heal on our own. Repeated traumas, especially early on in life, shape the whole ecosystem of relating, on a psycho-physical level. Working to hear and help make a coherent story becomes a key part of working with complex trauma.

“Mask for sale” by Toby Chown

Stories as reflections of relationships

Stories may at first sight appear to arrive in an uncomplicated fashion from a teller. Yet in reality they are deeply collaborative, psychological relational processes. Stories draw patterns out of experience. They are often shaped to please the listener or audience, whose attention subtly shapes them. Tellers present certain details and omit others, as they grope in a tendril like fashion to find the right response. They rarely if ever arrive fully formed, and it takes relational attentiveness to find their shape. Often the shapes that experiences seem to take are shaped by stories that the teller is not conscious of. Often we live out stories of plots that have been given to us already. One aspect of working with trauma is the search for the plot that has been given, and the pathway into a different story. Sometimes it can feel like we are characters in search of a story, as Pirandello wrote.

So, in the training videos we offer about ways of working with trauma, young people’s stories are at the centre and threaded through. Working with trauma is working with the impact of hearing the bones of a harrowing story. It is also about remembering that story as the context for other stories and finding patterns that connect and liberate.

Relational reflection transforms events into stories

So one of the things we do in the video is to find a deeper story within the stories being told. To make these training videos, our collaborators at Make Good Trouble interviewed young people directly about their experiences of trauma. Then Jo and I listen to the recordings of these young people’s stories. We share our experiences of working with trauma in the studio space of creative arts therapy and reflect on what young people are telling us about the neurological and psychological and cultural experiences of trauma.

Our process of reflection also acts as a kind of digestion of the really difficult experiences to hear are shared. This digestion through reflection offers one of the keys to working with trauma, either professionally or personally.

Reflection with another attuned and reliable person is the most basic and perhaps important way that we as adults manage stress and trauma. Reflection etymologically comes from “re” which means “again”, and “flectare” which means “to bend back”. The word has connections to both the bending of the bow and the flight of an arrow. When we reflect, we bend back the bow of image of the event, and witness again the flight of it’s arrow. When we listen in an attuned way, we help someone move back into a memory – which is not just a frozen image, but toned with deep feeling.

The danger then arises of getting pierced once more, of the wound re-opening, freezing in place a pathological image of the self. It’s as if the pathological image starts to tell the story, repeats it again and again on the tongue and in the nervous system, and within new relationships. The past always threatens to break through and repeat itself in new ways.

For this reason, the process of reflection needs to widen out the context of what’s happened, such that what was missed in the violence and alarm of the original encounter may be storied back in by the listener. Often metaphor is the best way to do this.

In the series of video’s Jo and I do this, hearing metaphors deeply, listening to what’s said and not said in the vignettes that the young people offer, providing neurological, relational and psychological contexts that work against the isolation.

We hear about the differences between a traumatic event and complex trauma of the impact of witnessing violence on a young boy and a young girl. We hear of how being part of a marginalised community like being gay, or trans or black can add a significant twist to existing trauma, adding further psycho-social dislocation, and how this can be worked with.

“Closed gate to garden” by Toby Chown

Storymaking as treatment for trauma

Narrative methodologist Arthur Frank, (author of “the wounded storyteller”) once wrote “anything can be borne so long as it is a story”. However, to tell a story, mean that someone has been listened to – stories don’t exist without a listener.

Traumatic stories can be hard to tell and hard to hear, because they activate something of the original experience in the telling of them. Or they can also become told in rote ways and so become defences, ways of protecting a deep vulnerability. Unreflected, familiar stories about people can hold a pathologised image of the self within them; a frozen view of the self. They can act like a hedge of thorns keeping people out. Or they can be threatening, a like huge dark snake that devours the body of a new bride each day. In the video series we want to hear the stories in new ways and offer new ways of hearing familar stories and so learn to help transform them.

Healing Fiction

As a dramatherapist in clinical practice for 13 years, working with children and families affected by addiction I’ve seen and worked with many wounds in families. Wounded children, teenagers, mothers, fathers. In each case, if there has been healing, it has been due to a laying out of a story in a particular way. It has involved working and reworking a story through dialogue, art, symbolisation. It has meant these things taking place in a particular place and in a state of safety, in a way that allows the psyche to create its own images.

When Hillman writes “trauma is not a pathological event, it’s a pathologised image” he refers to the way that in the face of intolerable experience, a image gets fixed into the unconscious. Fiction and fantasy acts to dissolve this tendency to take the image as fully and literally true. The pathologised image relaxes into it’s imaginal backdrop as the creative process turns towards it and reclaims it for it’s true home.

In the same way, the stories of the young people find a home in these training videos. They become meaningful, as the young people relate what happened and their reflections on it, amplified by our own bring meaning and depth back to places that these have been taken away. We find a new purpose in listening to them, in knowing the challenges of dealing with a violent father, of a drunk mother, of being gay in an intolerant household

Telling stories broadens out our contexts. Stories, don’t only happen to humans, but pour out of the earth itself, and are told all the time not just by humans, but animals, plants, fungi. In this way, stories also connect us to the Living Earth, remind us that our stories are tributaries to the great story we are part of.

“Monkey puzzle trees and industrial units” by Toby Chown

The Listener and the Wild Redeemer

In the poem at the start “When” the context reaches out further than the isolation, reaching out it’s tendrils towards something that all stories and all tellers also grope towards, which is the experience of beauty. Trauma can systematically destroy the feeling of beauty, can leave us feeling mute and ugly. Yet mature ecosystems continually work to re-knit together woundedness. To witness the blue of a wandering insect or the lonely cry of a bird acts in the way story does; it offers an imaginal mirror to our own sufferings, and places them within a greater story.

The wild redeemer waits in the far woods, just like in the native american story “the Listener.” Traditional stories often are able to cast a deep sense of relief on the literal stories of trauma, and offer a healing fiction. In “The Listener”, the child who is acting out and repeating violence he has experienced has to go to an Uncle. He is instructed to sit in the deep of the wood and simply listen.

That story tells us that it’s only by listening to such things that we can really tell our own story, that what the listener hears is something that the whole community needs to be told of. It is his deep listening that enables him to face the dark mother, to climb the over death mountain, to not get frozen when trapped in ice. In each case something he listened to in the woods comes to help him.

All of us work with trauma in some capacity, as we all have to bear with and listen to deeply traumatic events, be they simply in the news from Ukraine or Syria, within our families or embedded in our work. The trauma may be in ourselves, and often we need to help others to know how to do this for ourself.

In these training videos, we look at ways to respond to complex trauma in young people, in family systems and within ourself.

Back to the woods, into and beyond trauma.

Trauma might be a wound in ourself, or it might be a wound in our family. It might be a wound in our culture. It is almost certainly a wound in the earth itself. Most likely, all of these overlap. Here, the way we figure the problem starts to matter because it’s easy for the three frames to work against each other – such that my personal wounds are eclipsed by cultural political or ecological ones, or such that my cultural or ecological wounds push any question of the personal story and it’s problems out of the picture.

Perhaps the differences might not be so far away as we would like to keep them. Somehow, across the threshold of the imaginal, there is a desire to pull out pain from all these and place them back into a deeper context, one that can hold it. As “When” states, adolesence can be a moment of isolation, when the dissonance of the world itself, it’s violence and it’s lack of justice seem stark. Adolesence is not trauma. It is the discovery of the psyche in all it’s complexity and immediacy, not simply an “inner world” but as something seeded with potential, to relate, to find friendship and a guiding star, and a way back to the woods, and towards the deep potential that lies beyond the pathological image of our and other’s trauma. It’s a journey we must make now more than ever.

May you enjoy the videos as much as we enjoyed making them. If you want to access the online training, it’s free til the end of May and you can sign up here

“Towards Chanctonbury Ring” by Toby Chown