Trauma in Context


I’ve known for years that I am carrying a lot of trauma from living in the men’s prisons. It took leaving for me to realize just how badly.

This makes me think about the social construction of trauma. As long as a person remains in the context which their trauma first developed, it is a survival strategy. It is not until a person leaves that context, when their reactions to various stimuli no longer matches what is actually happening, that their reactions are considered a trauma response.

Now that I am in a woman’s facility, my survival strategies are no longer relevant. My head’s on a swivel, I’m jumping at every random noise, and I look like idiot. Because I’m no longer one of many doing these things, I’m the only one doing these things.

This has become even more obvious to me since I was assigned to work in the kitchen.

I started off on pots and pans, a job I’ve done multiple times over the years. As normal for me the banging of the pots, the dull roar of the kitchen behind me, people shouting over the sound of dinner being prepared for 600, all of these things triggered my PTSD as they normally do. But… I’m safe. No one is going to attack someone for no reason in this kitchen. Actually, (intellectually) I don’t believe anyone is going to attack anybody in this kitchen.

At the end of the first week I was offered a job putting together the carts for IMU, the hospital, and etc. Normally, I wouldn’t accept a position like this. It’s a more isolated area, less staff supervision, and a small group of inmates. In the men’s prison a spot like that would be a prime place for me to be attacked, but here, not so much. So I took the job, and now I’m struggling. Thus far, I don’t think my coworkers have noticed how often I have to take a deep breath and reorient myself. They just think I’m a bit ditzy for the first part of the day. Usually by the end of our shift I’ve gotten a handle on it, but the next day I have to start all over.

Intellectually, I know I am safe. I can’t seem to convince my emotional mind of that.

My context has changed. I am surrounded by different humans with different values than the humans I was surrounded by when I first developed the survival strategies of: Turn while tucking my chin when I hear a loud noise, because I don’t know if someone just grabbed a pan to attack with. Keep track of where people are in my immediate area, so I know when they are getting close to me. If I’m on break, sit with my back to the wall, or remain standing, or not sit in the middle of the break area. And those are just the ones I’m consciously aware of. Here, those same behaviors are strange and create distance between me and my coworkers and impact my ability to be a part of the social landscape.

I know I’m safe, but it will be a long time til I KNOW I’m safe.


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