By Evy Yeager
I was lucky. As an adult recovering from PTSD that followed childhood sexual abuse, I had several supportive friends and family members, a therapist who specialized in trauma, and a stable home even when I could not function steadily enough to earn consistent income. I would enter my therapist’s office with a shaky handful of notes, eager to continue the work of piecing myself back together. I had more support than most, and I was committed to doing anything that would make me better, faster. But even under the best conditions, trauma recovery is back-breaking work.
We tend to think of emergencies as situations that demand bystanders’ attention in overt ways, but this is not always the case. Trauma is an emergency with a very quiet siren. Because signs of trauma can take time to surface and often appear deceptively minimal, survivors can navigate their days appearing healthy enough to others. Internally, however, they may be struggling to function.
For two key reasons, it is imperative that we recognize the relationship between mental and physical health, which are inextricably linked.
First, mental health conditions can have immediate physical symptoms and can increase the likelihood of developing other physical health conditions in the long term. Second, mental health issues threaten our ability to do the things that make us feel human at all, and a threat to this sense of humanity is as dire and debilitating as a threat to life.
Trauma recovery means more than just establishing a safe environment and cultivating a social and therapeutic support system (although these steps alone require myriad resources to which not all survivors have access).
In her pioneering work Trauma and Recovery, renowned psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Judith Herman asserts that trauma recovery requires the study and practice of re-imagining yourself as a whole person. This is just as abstract and as difficult as it sounds.
Talking about my trauma symptoms was like speaking a foreign language; I was in a strange new place, in search of someone who could understand me.
Each task I attempted couldn’t be done the way I used to do it, if I could manage to do it at all. Crippling anxiety, uncontrollable sweating, nightmares, inability to focus, sensitivity to noise and heat and touch — trauma pummeled my confidence and capability from every angle. I had to figure out how to do everything within the confines of this new, deficient capacity, while the image of the stable, productive life I had imagined for myself drifted further and further away. People told me I seemed “okay,” and I wanted to believe them. But if I couldn’t manage to work full-time, be present to friends and family, trust myself to make even routine decisions, or do the things that make you feel at all like a real, functioning person, how “okay” could I be?
Earlier this month, CNN interviewed Karla Jacinto, a 23-year-old human trafficking survivor who was groomed to enter an inescapable child prostitution ring at the age of 12 and was rescued at 16. The headline read “I was raped 43,200 times.” Karla’s story of survival is powerful, and her ongoing advocacy work is a testament to the ability of survivors to endure unspeakable acts yet turn their focus to helping others. It might be easy to to mistake this self-assured young woman, who speaks clearly and directly about her experience to a global audience, for one who is not facing staggering challenges to her present and future, but that would only compound her tragedy.
Karla Jacinto has emerged from the horror of sexual violence to become an advocate for others. Her story demands not just praise and awe but also, primarily, action. Trauma carries lingering threats not just to physical health, but to survivors’ sense of security in their own humanity. Karla is not a typical survivor; she is a marvel.
So what can we do for survivors of trauma, particularly for survivors of human trafficking? We can begin by calling things what they are.
Mental health is physical health. A threat to someone’s sense of humanity is a threat to life. Trauma is an emergency.