Sarah Charlton, Trauma and Wellbeing Lead at Changing Lives, talks about her experience as a frontline worker supporting people with experiences of trauma and what her role has taught her.
As a frontline worker, like many of my colleagues, I have bared witness to some of the most atrocious attacks on women. Women who have been beaten, abused, raped and exploited, not by monsters who creep around in the dark, although this would make it easier to digest, but by the same mortal beings that exist alongside us in society. It is hard to believe that something that is not “other” can do such things, but disbelieve we do.
It is hard to digest the fact that abuse and maltreatment really do exist and is far more widespread than we would like to acknowledge. This might be why society has a type of trauma amnesia: it is easier to forget than to listen and see the true reality.
Trauma like this is so hard to accept, so instead, we resort back to the same technique that has allowed this violence to exist for so many years: SILENCE.
Like an invisible blanket covering the surface of society, very few want to see it. It raises its ugly head in the confines of therapy rooms, or in services like ours: supporting people who are experiencing homelessness; people using substances; those seeking refuge and people vulnerable to exploitation. Like many, our organisation works tirelessly with people given these labels but at the heart of this work lie stories of violence and trauma.
By silencing people’s stories of trauma, we are sending a message. We are saying that the world cannot tolerate your trauma, we do not want to listen because it is too much, you are too much, your way of being is too much.
So we establish criteria to banish you, push you further away from the human connection you so desperately seek. We label you with emotionally unstable personality disorder, violent, aggressive and a problem, so you will go away, exiled from society because “you do not engage”.
The wounds of these warrior women are seen on their bodies, on their faces – if only you would properly look. Who are these warrior women I speak of, with such strength to survive? They are the ‘homeless women’ you walk past. They are the women that shout and scream and swear in town centres. They are the women who approach you begging to ask “have you got a light”, “do you want any business”, giving their bodies to meet their need to survive.
If only society would listen, if only society would look deeper than these women’s anger and their rage. Would you not be angry at a world that refuses to hear your pain?!
Lewis Yealland, in his 1918 ‘Hysterical Disorders of Warfare’ talks about treatment strategies based on shaming, threats and punishment. I see the same strategies used today with survivors of trauma, a system that chooses not to understand. Trauma survivors forced to live in a system that does not understand the impact of trauma, which shames and punishes them for non-compliance.
Imagine instead, a world where the stark reality of people’s life experiences was not just tolerated but understood and met with compassion. What could happen if we looked deeper than the behaviour we see and stop asking what is wrong with someone and start asking what has happened to them? What a world we could create, where we see these women for who they really are: warriors, survivors, women who bring humour, valour and creativity to the world. Now is the time to open our eyes and see what we can learn, with open hearts. Now is the time to change minds, change futures, change lives.