Dr. Leanh Nguyen on the Effects of Trauma

As news are being spread about Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes in sex trafficking, and the world is pondering the extent of Epstein’s depravity and the reach of cover-up and corruption among his powerful friends, Dr. Leanh Nguyen wants to call our attention to the effects of such de-humanizing crimes on the victims.

From her extensive clinical work with human rights violations and chronic extreme sexual violence, work that spans over 2 decades and  covers victims from all over the world, Dr. Nguyen has intimate knowledge of the psychological injuries that these victims sustain.

For many years, she has made the passionate point that the desire for connection and the capacity to hold on to one’s humanity is the most heart-breaking, most costly after-effects of traumatic violations such as the ones that Jeffrey Epstein (purportedly) perpetrated upon the young women that he had ensnared.

Dr. Nguyen believes that the journey back from loss that trauma victims traverse can reveal much to us about the challenge of being human.  In her view, trauma is fundamentally an experience that breaks down a person’s humanity.

It is an experience that splits people apart from who they are.  They remain haunted by the experience, frozen in the sense of self that emerged in that moment in their life, and imprisoned in the narrow, traumatic meaning of that event.

Growth is thus derailed as they are no longer the proactive, generative agent of their life experiences, but are forever captured and merely reactive to the triggers and meaning of the traumatic experience.

Trauma may interfere with the natural drive toward growth, as it necessitates post-traumatic survival responses that are designed to protect the wreckage but paradoxically entomb the person.

To see who has treated legions of survivors, the tragic irony of post-traumatic living is that, in order to survive an experience of being dehumanized, the victim is compelled to suppress, hide, or deny his humanity –in the name of self-protection—and thereby hampering his own chance of becoming human again.

Survivors and Growth

Dr. Nguyen states that people who have survived and come back from the experience of trauma are in possession of exceptional knowledge and special power.  They have experienced dimensions of human existence in a way that is not accessible or imaginable to the rest of us.

Trauma is a kind of death, as in the death of the person’s previous self and the recreation of another.  Unfortunately, many people who experience trauma never truly come back to life but are chained to their past.

The doctor quotes the Persian poet Rumi, who lived in the thirteenth century in Persia, who states that “the wound is where the light enters.” Dr. Nguyen believes that this can describe the journey back trauma victims of all kinds –and can be applied to the vagaries and triumphs in the life of all of us:  There is great potential for growth from being wounded.  Castles can be built from ruins.

Tremendous beauty and strength can be gleaned from loss and suffering.  Some people who have experienced trauma, however, turn inside their wound and close the door to growth, choosing to live in the darkness of their pain and fear.

This darkness means that we, as a society, need to commit to the practice care and compassion –as a way to help the wounded among us find their way to the light.  To Dr. Nguyen, the key to true survival is finding the way back to one’s humanity, a humanity that has been violated and broken but that awaits to be reclaimed and refashioned with new meaning and with the knowledge and power earned through the journey of loss.

The practice of kindness in society helps trauma victims go toward the light and stave off the darkness of further hate and pain. Only by finding a way to let the light enter one’s wound can we truly survive and break the cycle of violence and hate.

The Definition of Trauma

Dr. Nguyen defines trauma as a psychological blow that “damages the apparatus of being.” A word that is overused in the popular sphere, trauma is more than a terrible event; it is a form of violence which psychologically splits open the person’s psychic integrity.

Trauma violates a person’s sense of self and leaves an irreparable fracture in a person’s psyche. The “before” and “after” the traumatic event has to be marked and cannot be reconciled seamlessly.

Dr. Nguyen has witnessed numerous examples of events that are considered traumatic: violence which happens in war and torture; rape is another violent, traumatic loss. Divorce can be considered traumatic, as can assassination and deportation.

The attack of September 11, 2001, was a deeply traumatizing event as it split apart the American identity as safe and invincible.  To Dr. Nguyen, the trauma to America from that attack was the loss of innocence and the brutal reckoning with our mortality and vulnerability.

After-effects of Trauma

Psychological trauma is that which originates from another human being (as opposed to the natural world).  It dismantles a person’s sense of self, including her capacity to love, feel, and experience the world as a safe place and a source of nourishment.

The experience of being violated –de-humanized—by another human being also disrupts one’s basic understanding of the laws of motivation and desire that organize the human world.

Trauma leaves the victim with a deep sense of the world as incomprehensible and uncontrollable.  It thus disrupts the sense of trust and desire for love, and robs the person of the fundamental faith in human communication and connection.

Many people who have experienced violent psychological trauma are more likely to end up in abusive relationships. They believe that they are not worthy of care and concern, so they gravitate toward people who will reinforce this idea in themselves.

Moving on is very difficult for victims of psychological trauma. Falling in love with another person or bringing them into the trust circle of their lives is extremely difficult. People who have experienced trauma are often revictimized by their daily lives without knowing why.

Traumatized people also feel that they must keep themselves sealed off from life in an effort to prevent future harm. They also refuse to speak of their experience, convinced that theirs is a story that will not be heard, that cannot be understood, and thus is impossible to share.

To the victim who has been ruthlessly violated and silenced, any degree of misunderstanding can be a new death.  The choice that is often made is to stay silent and isolated.  Though understandable, this is often a strategy that keeps one isolated and further silenced.

The way back from trauma

To Dr. Nguyen, the way back to one’s humanity and to the laws and gains of human existence is through the connection with another human being.  No chemical or surgical intervention can restore the faith in humanity.  No medications can show the victim the light that can enter through her wound.

What can help retrieve the trauma victim from darkness and the living death of post-traumatic survival is the kindness and tenderness of another human –the commitment to make contact with her from one’s own vulnerability and woundedness and the willingness to extend to her one’s own flawed but steady, genuine humanness.

Dr. Leanh Nguyen believes that the key to trauma recovery is deep, authentic contact with another human being.  In her clinical work, as in her radio program, she builds on the thesis that kindness –the ability to behold and to speak to another person from one’s vulnerability is key to authentic and healing engagement– and tenderness –the willingness to see and be impacted by another person’s beauty and vulnerability—is what is needed for trauma victims.

More broadly, she proposes that we all, as a species, are currently living in an age of traumatizing and dehumanizing forces and need to practice kindness and tenderness toward one another.  More than suggesting this as a strategy to break the cycle of psychological violence, she maintains that this is an ethics of being in order to preserve our humanity.

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