Content/trigger warning: The second paragraph discusses some vague instances of child and spousal abuse and briefly references a violent incident that could trigger trauma in a person who has experienced violent abuse.
To be clear: I am not a counsellor. I am not formally trained in psychology. I have been reading books about psychology and self-help since I was 12, intently studying human psychology by observation since I was seven, and I studied psychology in university. At age 12, I began a routine of watching Oprah every day after school. One day, Marianne Williamson appeared on the show during the L.A. riots to speak about her book A Return to Love and she referenced her previous book, A Woman’s Worth. I immediately began reading it with interest days later when I found it in my local library, and then bought the book on tape, twice. It changed my life, starting me on a self-help journey. I was desperate for my life to change.
I was born into a family with a history of abuse of every kind. My great-grandfather was raised and abused in a Catholic orphanage. He abused my grandfather and his twelve siblings. My grandfather left home early, met my grandmother, a French Canadian woman who spoke poor English. He got her pregnant when she was 16, beat the French out of her, and together they had seven more children who were raised in a very small bungalow, one floor, one bathroom, three bedrooms, in a small Northern Ontario mining town. Ten people, no dishwasher, one toilet. He lost a finger and injured his arm in a mining accident. He drank a lot. He was verbally abusive every day and occasionally beat the children, making his sons fight and punch each other for the entertainment of his drunk friends. And though he quit drinking suddenly after splitting my grandmother’s head open with a fat candle he threw at her head, he remained scary throughout my childhood, even when sober. He was alternately a charming, loving, giving man and an abusive tyrant who focused on all that was negative about the world. Often upset by the war in the Middle East and sympathetic to the First Nations peoples of Canada, his heart was in the right place but he had no tools to cope, so he was just angry, every single day.
Naturally, after such traumatic childhoods, his children were angry too. The younger children were better off, having more mature parents by the time they were growing up. I spent summers with different family members where every single day there was fighting, arguing, belittling, abuse, drinking and chain smoking. I hated summer vacations and loved school. The examples of my teachers, my friends’ families, and TV shows like The Cosby Show and Family Ties all helped me to recognize my family as unusually dysfunctional.
In some ways I was incredibly lucky because if they weren’t so extreme I might have believed it was okay to be like them. When people grow up in families where dysfunction is subtle or interspersed, balanced with a healthy dose of love and happy experiences, they adopt dysfunctional behaviours and patterns along with positive ones because cognitive dissonance is too painful and because kids are black and white thinkers to start with. People are either the good guys or the bad guys when you’re a kid. If they’re good, then all the things they do are good and you adopt them all, and then learn to shed the baggage as you grow into adulthood.
A Woman’s Worth led to many other books which I devoured in my teens. Happiness is a Choice by Barry Neil Kauffman became my bible, until I traded it in for The Bible and The Book of Mormon, at age 16. At the same time, I found Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, who explains how he found happiness even in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. It’s a wonderful book everyone should read, but I accepted his ideas dogmatically. I took one example of one guy being able to do something as evidence that everyone should be able to, without taking into account what might have given him advantages. These men much older and more experienced than me laid out a convincing argument. The next step was to surrender my life decisions largely to the men who ran the Mormon church, marry a prosecuting attorney, and spend the next fourteen years blaming myself for my unhappiness in the Mormon religion and in my life.
Then I discovered social justice.
If you don’t already know, social justice is the idea that an imbalance of power in our society—our systems of government, education, commerce and law—creates oppression for some people and undeserved advantages for others, and that we need to evenly distribute power to self-actualize as a world and to alleviate pain. Because this oppression is so systemic, so pervasive, so powerful, it can keep even the smartest and most talented among us from reaching their full potential.
If you’re smart and tough and in good health, maybe you can push past the barriers you encounter everywhere you go as a disadvantaged minority. But if you’re smart and sensitive and deeply empathetic, or smart and weak from illness or incredible trauma, you might not stand a chance. Wealthy white people like to point to occasional examples of disadvantaged people overcoming and say, “See? They did it. It’s all about mindset. Just stop being so victimized and make your own success like I did,” without recognizing that this disadvantaged person was actually advantaged by privileges that other even more disadvantaged people don’t have. Take Tony Robbins, for example. He had a horrible childhood. But he’s white, male, super tall, and I think he’s largely considered to be attractive. If he was short or black or unattractive, would his success have been as possible? There is a reason (well, multiple reasons) that we do not see tens of black or First Nations or Latinx self-help gurus out there. It’s not because white people are smarter or more enlightened. It’s partly because white people own the media, but it’s also because too many people of colour are are too busy trying to keep themselves and their families and friends alive. It’s a lot easier to overcome negative thinking when you simply have had some negative events take place in your life and you’ve had space from them and time to recover. Or when you’re surrounded by healthy people who can support you, who aren’t also experiencing trauma. When every day is hard, or when every year a new deeply traumatic event happens, I think it’s almost impossible.
My childhood gave me some insight into what it might be like to grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood full of crime and violence, because I grew up in the calmer, white version of that. My family members weren’t shot and they didn’t go to prison. But they were assaulted and some of them should have gone to prison. Some of the children in our family didn’t get put into foster care; they merely should have been put into foster care.
Studying sociology, social justice, anthropology, gender studies, and psychology in university, I encountered a wealth of data which white personal development gurus—and even Oprah—largely ignore. I heard tragic stories, read theories about societal oppression and consequences, all while I was experiencing injustice in my own life related to class, gender, and sexual orientation.
I got very angry.
And because of how I was raised, and maybe because of my genetics, it was easy for me to express my anger.
And when you’re queer and intellectual, looking for community, it’s easy to find other marginalized people who are very angry. You can find them on Facebook, Tumblr, blogs and at house parties validating (and feeding) each other’s experiences and anger because society, their religion of origin, and their families sometimes aren’t validating their experiences.
I started to see how sometimes marginalized and hurting people come across as “happy victims,” how they seem by outsiders to kind of enjoy being victims of harm. I think there are two main reasons for this misunderstanding of what they are going through:
- People need love and belonging almost as much as they need food and shelter. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you cannot self-actualize without love and belonging. So, if the only place a person can get support and find love and belonging is with fellow hurt and oppressed people, they plant themselves there. They will share their similar stories, getting angry at each other’s experiences of injustice, which remind them of their own experiences, and then they will get angry on top of that. They may not even subconsciously want to heal because then they won’t fit in with their community, and then where will they find belonging? It can seem like they are choosing to be angry, but really they are choosing to have a feeling of belonging; anger is just the side-effect of the circumstances happening within that community, which centres around talking about and fighting injustice.
- They’re just so traumatized and haven’t healed yet. Maybe they don’t know how to heal. Maybe they have no outside help. Maybe their trauma is constantly triggered by their community. Or maybe the same trauma or something similar keeps happening to them. You can’t get over the past if it’s the present, too.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how individuals need to take responsibility for their own happiness, how they need to rise up and change what they don’t like, and be happy no matter what. And I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how responsible we are for each individual’s ability to be happy because of how we can hurt, handicap and traumatize each other.
I’ve spent a lot of time around people oppressed and traumatized by abuse, poverty, and a lot of time feeling that way myself. I’ve spent time as a queer person stuck in a straight marriage in a homophobic religious faith, and have experienced some of the worst trauma of my life since then. And I’ve spent a few years’ time as a privileged upper middle class hetero-appearing white woman in a fancy-ish house with almost guaranteed stability.
This cross-section of experiences has allowed me to be empathetic with a lot of different people and view points, which has left me confused. Who is the most right? How should people be expected to find happiness? Is it the individual’s job to overcome everything? Or is it our job to prevent their problems through fair and unbiased hiring, policing, educating and assistance through social programs like health care? When are people bringing attention to a real problem that needs addressing socially, and when are they simply dwelling upon and entrenching a problem they could solve on their own instead of burdening others?
I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions and trying to talk with people about it. I keep finding polarized opinions. Hardly anyone I’ve talked to recognizes the truth in both perspectives, which makes it difficult to find out where they intersect.
I think at least one answer is this: Hardship and trauma are different experiences with different consequences and expectations for recovery. People cannot be happy or self-actualize where there is unresolved trauma. Struggles are good for us. Trauma is bad for us.
To read more about trauma, how it manifests, how to heal it, and more, click here.