Friday, 31 July 2015

My Book nearly completed and musings on Virgina Woolf, Amy Winehouse and the nature of trauma.

As I near the completion of my soon-to-be-published book 'The scar that won't heal'; healing everyday trauma and unresolved emotion', I realise I have learnt to  notice the effects of trauma so well that I can spot it in the stories or lives of others. Yesterday watching the new BBC series 'Life in Squares' about the Bloomsbury Group, it suddenly occurred to me that the reason that the writer Virginia Woolf suffered from such debilitating depression was maybe due to a traumatic incident in childhood. Nothing in the series indicated that fact. It was purely from the evidence of her early struggles with mental illness, the triggering of severe relapses by the death of her parents (which I read about subsequently) and something about the strict Victorian upbringing which the series so clearly shows, which stultified the two women.

The Victorians were notorious for their sexually strict morals (outwardly) and the therefore unfortunate fact that many children were sexually abused in secret. What differs then of course was that no-one dare talk about it - Freud when he first declared that much of the neurosis he saw was due to sexual abuse of his clients as children scandalised Viennese society and he was forced to retract the idea and declare instead that these were children's fantasies (after all doesn't every child want to have sex with their parents??). Sadly these ideas were universally accepted as he was so influential no-one dared to disagree for many years. Even in the 1970's a standard psychiatric textbook declared incest to be so rare as to be unimportant and in any case had no significant effect on the child!* Today after the Jimmy Saville enquiry and the grooming of children in major UK cities we know differently..

Children are profoundly affected by such experiences, as well as lesser traumas such as being unloved or betrayed and the result, when their brains are still forming, is permanent dysfunction from subconsciously triggered traumatic memory. And, as my book makes clear this has very real physical results; dizziness (fainting), tinnitus, depression, migraines, panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome and so on. These effects are real and they could be the basis of much mental and physical suffering including bipolar disorder which Virginia is believed to have suffered from.

I was incredibly saddened but also vindicated to read that she and her sister Vanessa, had indeed been abused by their half brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth, as she recalled in an essay ' A sketch of the Past' written in 1939. Could our current understanding of traumatic memory have saved her if she lived today?

Would Amy Winehouse be dead if she'd had trauma treatment rather than standard addiction detox therapy (the eponymous 'rehab' of her famous song). This relies on abstinence which deals with the effects of addiction but not the cause. As soon as the stress builds up again, the cravings return. Although she did not have abuse in her past, she most definitely had trauma - the divorce of her parents when she was 9, was, to a highly sensitive child, hugely significant. And then, in later life,  her father wasn't able to provide the boundaries she so needed. Add to that meeting a similar addictive, traumatised partner, and her death was assured. Trauma is no respecter of talent.

But would she and all the other people who have these hidden scars be healed now?  To be honest it's unclear whether this information has filtered down to mental health professionals, or certainly primary care where most people first report mental health issues. There is still much work to be done. I hope in writing my book, which details much of the science behind the stress response and how it relates to traumatic memory, will help elucidate this information to a sceptical public and other professionals. The science is there. It just hasn't been joined up sufficiently yet to be understandable within a specialised, fragmented medical model. I hope to redress that balance.

* Bessel van der Kolk, one of the worlds' leading figures in the study of trauma, read us an extract from the manual as part of my trauma training. It was mind-blowing.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. But is there a childhood with no trauma? the examples of Wolf and Vinehouse are at the extreme end of the scale, I guess. Is it possible for every one of us to dwell into the past and hope to heal it? Or is it childhood trauma part of life and has to be accepted as such? your text certainly got me thinking!