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I Don't Believe You

Updated: Jan 19

One of the hardest things to do as a survivor of trauma is to come forward. You might think that someone would be eager to turn in the one who hurt them, but trauma goes so much deeper.

Dr. Stephen Porges, the author of The Polyvagal Theory, knows a lot about what fear does to your body and mind. His research mapped the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that extends from the base of the skull, down the spine to the small of your back. From there it travels to the organs.

Dr. Porges’s revolutionary work provided a road map to trauma. Through his research and collaborating with others, he has made some remarkable strides forward in the treatment of trauma and fear based mental illness.

In his book “The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory”, Dr. Porges first and foremost describes the parameters of feeling safe. He posits that “safety is not the removal of threat and feeling safe is dependent on unique cues in the environment and in our relationships that have an active inhibition on defense circuits…”. What he’s saying is that you don’t necessarily feel safe when the threat is removed. Feeling safe depends on one’s environment.

He goes onto explain that when fight or flight is not an option in response to a life threat, the body engages a secondary defense: immobilization and dissociation. This defense in itself is potentially lethal, but it is designed to preserve the mental state of the victim. This is what makes a trauma victim capable of continuing to function on a day to day basis. It allows you to go on with life, but it is incredibly damaging to the psyche.

We don’t choose how we react to the traumatic event, our nervous systems kick in and make the best choice to handle the situation at hand. Different people react differently to the same type of traumatic event. Some people remember, some people don’t.

Dr. Porges does a very good job of describing what is going on in the mind of the individual with a history of trauma. He notes that a common side effect of trauma is an oversensitivity to sound. Loud noises are hard for the trauma victim to digest. It can be extremely difficult to decipher a voice from background noise.

For me, I describe this as sounds coming apart. The more sounds there are, the more disjointed things sound. I can’t hear the person right in front of me. If someone is projecting away from me, I won’t be able to understand them. I learned to pick up on body language cues, tone and inflection to understand who I’m talking to. I wager my best guess at what they are saying until my brain catches up.

My daughter and son both have described this in their own ways. It makes it difficult to hear the teacher when the HVAC kicks in. If someone is whispering to a friend, someone talking in the hallway, rustling papers even, they can’t understand the teacher.

My son is very conscious of whether a person is agitated or not. He shuts down immediately upon being questioned and becomes distressed the more he is questioned or asked to produce a response. He panics and then does everything he can to escape the situation or stop the bombardment. He often draws in absence of an escape route or a safe place to go.

My daughter shuts down when she doesn’t understand the teacher or the instruction. She often draws to keep herself together. She also uses her drawing to express her feelings and frustrations throughout the day. Her use of color is stunning.

I had to get both of my school age kids Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or special education, to deal with trauma based learning disabilities. My son got his much earlier than my daughter did, but he was the one on fire.

In kindergarten, he spent his days hiding behind a whiteboard in the corner of the coat closet because he was afraid of the other kids. He would freak out often, every single day. He would hit the kid or run. When he ran, he’d run out of the school, across the street, as far as he could get before someone caught him and calmed him down. I would get multiple calls home each week about his behavior.

By first grade, something had to be done. He was too afraid at school to learn. He needed intervention. The school wanted me to medicate him for ADHD. I refused. I told them it was trauma based behavior and I would not medicate my child. I put him in counseling and got a PTSD diagnosis. He did counseling for years. I also put him in Taekwondo so that he could learn to control himself.

His special education coach was pivotal to his even qualifying for an IEP. It is not easy to get one without a specific learning disability. She became a second mother to my son in school. It was what it took to get him to learn. It took until third grade to calm him down enough to metabolize learning in any capacity.

He tested above average in intelligence. It has never been about whether he wants to perform. It has everything to do with whether or not he feels safe. Dr. Stephen Porges doesn’t think our schools and universities do a very good job of making students and teachers feel safe.

For my daughter, it wasn’t until middle school that we found out she was struggling. She didn’t have homework before. But she struggled to take tests. She would cry bitterly because she was so slow. She couldn’t keep up with her peers. I remember one particularly difficult end of the year test when on the last day of testing, she was the only one still taking the test and missed the entire day of fun. She never recovered from that.

She had an F in every class except for English, because she loved to read. She would’t even try. She was afraid to be told she was stupid. She felt stupid. She couldn’t keep up at all and she felt like an outsider in her friend group.

We had her tested at Learning RX, a brain-training program independent of the schooling system. They were not so much tutors as pathway fixers. Her brain profile was badly damaged. She was processing at a second grade level in seventh grade.

It cost 10s of thousands of dollars that my mother-in-law footed the bulk of the the bill for her brain training. I am forever grateful that she made it possible for my daughter to get help. But even after intensive brain training, she still couldn’t function.

I couldn’t get the school to listen. They didn’t think slow processing was that much of a hinderance. They said it was her drawing that was the problem. They said she was sullen and would never participate. Folks, this is classic shutting down behavior and is a huge red flag for trauma. The school failed.

I ended up going to the superintendent and demanding the IEP evaluation with threat of involving a lawyer if they wouldn’t comply. The evaluation began the next week. She also had a PTSD diagnosis and did years of counseling on top of her brain training.

Suffice to say that it was not easy to get my children help. I feel sure that the school representatives that I dealt with would not count me as their favorite person. But I have always been a fierce advocate for their education and whether the school likes it or not, that is what it took to get my kids the help they needed. I have been commended for my perseverance, though begrudgingly.

My ex-husband was a terrifying man in the last year we knew him. He would fly into a rage at any moment. We were homeless, living in a hotel. I never knew what man would walk through the door: the monster or what was left of the man I had married.

Feeling safe has never been easy for myself and my two oldest children. I have never felt safe in my life. I am constantly on high alert. I always know how many people are in the room. I know what everyone is wearing and whether someone is disheveled. I am exceedingly good at reading people. But reading the room this way constantly is exhausting. It doesn’t leave anything left to connect to others on a meaningful level.

So when I come forward and speak at an event about my story, or when I write an article for strangers, it is not an easy thing to do. But it is necessary that I do it. I have a gift for explaining things in a way people can understand. This is how I want to use my gift for now.

It is especially hard to come to the people in your life to tell them what happened to you. The appropriate response to someone coming forward is something along the lines of, “I am so sorry this happened to you. What can I do to support you?”

But the overwhelming response I got from my family was, “I don’t believe you.” Or “You should talk to a counselor about this”. One by one, they turned away from me. One by one, they moved from the “safe” list to the “not safe” list. I function at a high level, but it is not easy for me to deal with other people. I am too sensitive to their impatience.

When I was a little girl, I told my mom in a number of ways that my dad was abusing me sexually. I told her that my pelvic floor hurt. She told me I didn’t wash it well enough. I told her it hurt to touch it. I got many bladder infections and ear infections. I told her I didn’t like the games the adults played with me. She didn’t believe me and admonished me for talking about such things. I told her that it hurt to ride my bike. She told me to stand up and not put my butt on the seat. I begged her to believe what my father, my aunt, my uncle, and all of the others were doing to me.

But she never once believed me. She punished me when I shut down. She compounded the fear and shame I already felt. So that when I got hurt the next time, my brain shut down and I dissociated. I got very good at dissociating. I dissociated every bad thing that happened to me after that.

I have been raped by more than 5 men as a young adult in my late teens and early twenties. Each time, I couldn’t remember the rape. I only knew by how my body felt that I had been violated. I only knew that I had somehow got home. How could I come forward if I didn’t remember what happened? Who would believe me?

All that is left is a small group of people who acknowledge what I’ve gone through. They are my 3 closest friends and 2 family members: my stepdad and my mom’s last remaining sibling. I once thought I had a huge support network. But when I needed them the most, they didn’t believe me. They suggested I go somewhere else for help. They turned away.

The last to fall were the ones that hurt the most. When someone you trust minimizes your damage, it is devastating. When that trust column is already very small, it is like a white hot fire in your heart to lose even one of those people. I lost two in the last two weeks. One of them was the person I trusted above all, and I learned that she never cared for me at all. She was only ever pretending.

“I don’t believe you” are traumatizing words to someone who is finally coming forward after a long silence. When someone comes forward, you just bear witness. You don’t compare, minimize, demand action, or judge. Treat the moment as a tender moment and take with you the fact that the person who came to you trusted you enough to tell you. That in itself is an honor. Return that honor with the words, “I believe you. What can I do to help?”

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