I recently finished listening to Bruce D. Perry’s, “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: what traumatised children can teach us about loss, love and healing” during my solo car journeys and short morning runs.
Straight away, I need you to know that this is an incredibly powerful book. It chronicles Dr. Perry’s journey in understanding how trauma impacts children, learning how to make a difference in those who have undergone trauma, and sharing the stories that helped him with both of those things.
If you have a history of trauma yourself, this will not be an easy read. The stories are told with vivid details and the impact of those traumas will have a familiarity that may be difficult to deal with. However, if like me you have a passion to support those whose lives have been ravaged by trauma, the insights throughout this book are priceless and worth the cost of entry.
As I believe this book is a “must read”, I’m not going to give it all away here. There are three stand out things that I learned from the book that I want to share with you though:
1. Retelling a traumatic event is only therapeutic if the person who was traumatised is in complete control of that retelling. Otherwise, it is just more trauma.
Over the years I have referred a number of people to counselling agencies to help them get more support with their PTSD. A lot of these individuals often found themselves worse off after a few weeks of counselling, even after a few months of counselling, than they were when they started. I now believe this is largely due to this point.
Dr. Perry shares how he would often meet with a new client every week for months before the client would share about the traumatic event that led to them needing help. Week after week would go by in silent colouring or even just sitting in a room together, waiting for the client to decide when and what they would like to share. And when they did decide to share, because they were then in control of when, how much, and the point that they chose to stop sharing – it brought forward important healing.
Because time is precious, and we know talking about what happened is an important part of the healing process, we often gently push people into sharing their experiences. “Tell me what happened” gets expressed in a hundred different ways, but it never leads to that healing if we are the ones who initiate it and have control over it. Next time you are in that position, try to be more patient and wait for the person you are supporting to take the lead.
2. In addition to our stress arousal response system, we have an equal but different response to stress called dissociation.
I hope by this stage we are all familiar with our stress arousal response system that triggers our brain to fight, run away, or freeze in times of danger. The purpose of this system within our brains is to PREVENT us being hurt in a time of threat. Like me I am sure you see this response in individuals a lot, especially through angry outbursts and intense panic attacks.
However, sometimes our brains interpret the threat we are facing as being inescapable. In other words, our brains work out that no amount of fighting, running away, or freezing is going to stop us from being hurt. So, our brains enter a dissociative state in order to SURVIVE the threat that we are facing. This dissociation is a disconnecting from reality, and particularly your body, as if you are no longer in it. Your heart rate will drop massively, your breathing will slow, opioids will be released deafening your body to pain, the hippocampus stops recording memories, and the brain prepares to survive whatever is coming.
Perhaps someone you support has experienced this survival mechanism. It is common amongst young children who suffered abuse, and is more common in females than males. Just as our brains can develop a hypersensitivity to the arousal system, we can become hypersensitive to the dissociative system as well. Some PTSD sufferers who use self-harm to cope will be manually putting themselves into this dissociative state, even if they don’t realise it, to try and survive the stresses that now feel inescapable; because it helped them survive when the threat really was inescapable.
3. The most powerful tool of both prevention and healing when it comes to trauma, is a community of healthy relationships.
One of the stories in this incredible book that I found most emotionally moving was of a little boy whose class of fellow six year olds became a powerful therapeutic community because Dr. Perry took the time to explain to them why the boy’s brain was different to theirs and how they can help him develop it.
Relationships are so important, especially at the beginning. The more time a new born baby is given healthy attachments and care at the start of its life, the more likely it will be able to recover from whatever trauma awaits it around the corner. A child, or adult, in a healthy community of relationships to adults and peers is much less likely to experience PTSD after a traumatic experience. A child, or adult, in a healthy community of relationships to adults and peers is much more likely to recover from trauma and develop their brain to a state of high integration.
In a society of family break-down, gentrification, the loss of communal gathering points, and increasing isolation – is it any surprise why so many young people are struggling more and more with the impacts of trauma? I believe that this is part of why God’s vision for church is so important, now more than ever. We need these communal spaces of safety (no judgment), where we are seen (accepted and valued) and soothed (treated with compassion and empathy). There is no where in our communities other than church that could possibly offer this on the scale and degree of diversity needed. We need the church more than we ever have.
Thank you for reading this far, I hope you support Dr. Perry’s great work by purchasing a copy of this book and learning what you can from the masterclass in trauma therapy that sits inside these incredible stories.