The Trauma-Informed Life

Yesterday I attended an event that crystallized some thoughts I have been having. It was a symposium hosted by Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute as a part of their social determinants of health initiative. The focus of the symposium was healing from community trauma. The thesis of the entire event was that we need to develop trauma-informed systems to combat environments in which both children and adults experience traumatic experiences on a regular basis. Unless we have schools, courts, hospitals, churches, and governments that are sensitive to the needs of those who regularly exposed to jarring experiences, it was continuously argued, we will not only be ineffective in dealing the issues in urban communities, we also run the risk of re-traumatizing those we had hoped to serve.

I have been acutely aware of the ways that my own experience of childhood trauma are impacting my health as an adult. Many of the issues that have around depression, self worth, and even my health seem to represent what the research suggests are the normal signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. I’m also aware that the trauma visited upon me was mostly done by others who had also been traumatized in their youth. patterns and cycles of trauma that go un-addressed are almost destined to repeat themselves. I see other friends dealing with adult repercussions of childhood trauma. So many of close female friends have dealt with childhood sexual abuse and molestation that I almost assume it now when I make female friends. So many of my African American friends count what should be called “abuse” as discipline that it’s no wonder that we’re all confused about what love really is.

As a nation we’ve been traumatized by images of war and terrorism on our television screens.  Film history teaches us that the rise of the horror genre in American cinema came in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. What a strange thing the human mind is that we would use violence as a catharsis for violence! There was a renaissance in the genre in this country after 9/11. It’s not a coincidence. We  deal with the chaotic violence of the world through images of controlled violence. Is it any wonder that the NFL, violence in a neat controllable container, is so popular? We do sometimes forget, however, that the players are not actors. We remember when their violence bleeds over into real life.


When I was in late elementary school, I started having nightmares. The antagonist in these dreams was Chucky, the main villain of the “Child’s Play” series. Chucky was a two-foot tall doll who came to life and went on murderous rampages. I don’t think I actually watched any of the movies, but the premise terrified me. I do not like murderous dolls! One of the things that helped me in that period was watching behind-the-scenes documentaries about movies. I watched how special effects were made. I watched how shots were done. I was particularly in puppetry and creature effects as I was a puppeteer at the time. There was something about knowing how the scary effects were made that helped me to overcome my fear. And, more importantly, it’s helped me as a parent to talk to my kids when they see something scary on TV.

“Dad, is that real?”

“No, Buddy. It’s not.”

“Okay, then I won’t be scared.” (actual conversation)

Being trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive is, for me, a new way of thinking about the world. Everyone has experienced some level of trauma so it’s best to come into interactions gently, particularly as we’re getting to know people. This gentleness needs to increase exponentially as we become aware of the potentially traumatizing experiences one may have had in their lives. When I come across some of the young people that I see in the streets of Baltimore, I have to assume a certain level of traumatization that I didn’t necessarily have to assume with interactions in a suburban bookstore. That assumption shouldn’t lead to fear. It should lead to humility, gentleness and an openness to listen.

Trauma is another way of thinking about the privilege conversation.  Every layer of privilege that we have is a shield from traumatic experiences. Being white shields one from the traumas that black people experience. Being male shields me from the trauma that women experience. Education, wealth, health, and environment all shield us (to a large degree) from adverse experiences. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t matter how many layers of privilege you have if you’re in a car accident or in the wrong place at the wrong time. What it can protect you from is the day in, day out traumatization that occurs in many of our urban centers, especially people of color. To paraphrase one of yesterday’s symposium presenters, there’s nothing “post” about the PTSD for someone living in poverty. The trauma is a present and recurring reality, not something in the past.

Over the next few days I want to try to write about ways we develop trauma-sensitivity in some of the systems I know best. I’ll be writing about the trauma-informed self, the trauma-informed family, the trauma-informed church, and the trauma-informed community. Maybe someone else will chime in on trauma-informed schools or courts and I can post that here as well. I’d love to have this feed into some larger conversations. I think this line of thinking is very important.

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