Writing Trauma: Truth & Consequences

Last Updated on Sun Jun 20, 2021 by JR Rioux

Ah, trauma. Caused by so many things but so misunderstood. Humans are far from impervious to harm – both physically and mentally. Beyond half of the world’s population will experience some trauma at some point in their lives. In some places, it’s all but guaranteed. Just seeing those you know who have ill intent can be heart-pounding, as you pray they don’t attack you or someone you know. Imagine being a schoolgirl in parts of the Middle East where there are groups who firmly believe girls don’t deserve an education. Anyone in a country having a civil war, or being one of an ethnic group who another group wishes to destroy, or simply being a man/woman who is perceived as attractive but potentially vulnerable.

The Jews during WWII, the schoolgirls kidnapped and repeatedly raped by Boko Haram, the bombing of schools in the Mid East, genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, and Uighurs in China. The attack on 9/11, the bombing in Oklahoma, Vietnam, WWI, WWII, Korea. Those are big examples, but most trauma is experienced individually. None of it is made equally, and everyone responds differently; both short term and over the long haul.

We’ve all seen people like the Walsh family who moved to drastically change laws regarding child kidnapping and he spent decades hosting America’s Most Wanted to help ensure some victims receive the justice they can and that the criminals will have their freedom taken for good, in the years following their son’s kidnapping and murder. Others have done very similar things, spent thousands investigating in an attempt to find their child, while others seem to die slowly from sadness and hopelessness. The reaction to trauma is extremely different between the type of trauma and the individual who suffers the trauma.

As someone with an extensive history of trauma, I have had some things that barely phased me, yet other thing that haunt me still, decades afterward. As a result, I have a tendency to react strongly if I see someone hurting another. I may call the cops or interfere directly, even violently, depending on the situation. Aggression toward me tends to get an aggressive reaction – and I will do whatever necessary to defend myself. Could I kill? I don’t know and I hope I never have to find out.


Rape & PTSD

Let’s start out with some facts. In the US, at least 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men are raped at least once during their lifetimes. Additionally, people who have been victimized in childhood are likely to be victimized again. More than half of women are assaulted before the age of 18, are assaulted as adults. While many expect rape victims to have serious injury, most are too afraid to resist, sustaining little to no injuries.

A person who has been sexually assaulted will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward. The trauma of being assaulted can leave you feeling scared, angry, guilty, anxious, and sad. The stigma associated with sexual assault may cause some to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

In addition, survivors of sexual assault have an increased likelihood of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, nightmares or intrusive thoughts and memories may occur. They might feel as though they are always in danger or need to always be on guard, and may distrust other people.

Matthew Tull, PhD Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD on April 09, 2021 -2021

The percentage of the total female population who have been forcibly raped (counting them once no matter how many times it has occurred) is estimated between 12-18%. While men are affected at a lower rate (according to available data), their numbers are not far behind. These do not include other sex crimes, such as groping, molestation, or attempted rape.

Data from a large probability sample of psychiatric patients with serious mental illnesses found that the lifetime prevalence and past-year prevalence of rape was substantially higher in female patients than the estimates just reviewed.7 This suggests that a history of rape victimization is not uncommon in patients with psychiatric disorders.

Dean G. Kilpatrick, PhD , Ananda B. Amstadter, MS , Heidi S. Resnick, PhD , Kenneth J. Ruggiero, PhD – Psychiatric Times June 1, 2007

One study found as many as 1/3 of all rape victims showing signs of lifetime PTSD. This number is higher than a significant other type traumatic events. Sadly, experiencing trauma is not rare. 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. Trauma to women are largely related to sex crimes. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.

There are a number of external things that could contribute to developing PTSD, most out of control of the sufferer. In addition, many victims of rape report multiple instances of trauma, increasing the risk of developing PTSD. They may have been groomed, beaten, mentally abused, and molested, which will cause them to be more likely to have PTSD. Other factors could include having or being prone to mental illness, receiving serious physical injuries: broken bones, stab wounds, gunshot wounds, other others that could require surgery, significant hospitalization, or some other other factor.

The good news is people can recover, for some may only need a few weeks or less, a few months, or a year or so to get back to normal. Still, you would not expect a rape victim to jump right into sex immediately after, or participate in certain activities. Being forced can be really painful. While it may not be technically an injury if nothing is bleeding, it’s still very uncomfortable for a couple days or so, not to mention the violated feelings involved. Being touched may cause them to be jumpy for a while, as would be getting snuck up from behind, getting startled in the dark, or being cornered.

Now, I’m a long way from an expert on this topic, but I have experienced it myself. I don’t have the flight response in me unless running is the only solution, so I fought and struggled every time. I was fortunate there was no binding, no striking, and no weapon involved. It wasn’t pleasant; I was torn up and bleeding once, then bruised wrists a couple times. We didn’t even talk about rape back then. The whole topic was mostly taboo, even in the 80’s and 90’s, though the latter decade it started to be a hotter topic. Sadly, there are many places that still see it as taboo, and also there is a lot of victim blaming – even by parents who could be married to the abuser, dating them, or be related to them. I could be a babysitter, a family member, someone from church, work, a friend.

Everyone’s reaction is different, but you have to consider your character. What is their background? Does their family have any mental illnesses? How badly were they injured? What is her family history like? What happened with prior or current relationships? Have they experienced other traumas? I have seen the strong break and the weak rise.

Which character is yours? Connect with them emotionally, then think of the helplessness, the fear, revulsion and pain and someone violates them for their own sexual gratification and you are just an object. The shame fills you… and then remember they may have an orgasm and how utterly humiliating that would feel. It’s a natural, biological response than cannot be controlled. Then imagine days, even weeks, months, or years of the memories haunting you, as you go through it again, and again, and again in your mind, no matter how much you try to shut it out.


One of the most common misconceptions: the vast majority of rape victims are attacked by someone they are familiar with, not strangers.


Recovery Time & Injuries

No one, not even police, firefighters, or military, experienced trauma after being involved something that is one of the things their job may require, can avoid the aftermath of the trauma. It’s why that police are required to see a psychologist after a shooting (may require specific elements such as death or severe injury). It doesn’t matter how tough you are, you’re going to need some time to recover. Just processing it can take a while. Writing a character who acts totally normal the next day is not (generally) okay. If they are, then they are either still in shock (which can last hours, days, even weeks), in denial, or are trying to hide any sign it is affecting you – none of those things are going to end up good.

So, if they don’t get PTSD, how WILL they react? Well, that’s the interesting thing, because everyone responds differently. Unless they absolutely have to, and sometimes even then, they will likely take a day or more to themselves, just giving them space and time without anyone around, or only specific people. Some will cry, some will be angry, some will be indignant, remorseful/regretful, devastated, and so on. If they have to, they will go to work, but it’s incredibly common for people to be a bit withdrawn for a bit after.

Sometimes the physical wounds are close to the mental wounds, and the person only cares about getting out of the hospital and back to their life; yet others may commit suicide or never leave their home again (or move to something more secure). But, as a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to give your characters at least a few days to a week to start showing some return to normalcy. Even then, depending on the type of character you have, will be looked at or asked if they’re ‘sure’ they want to be there or offered to be able to go home.

From my conversations from others over the years, they and I feel like they’ve been slapped in the face when someone writes a scene where they are acting perfectly normal the next day, or able to do anything else they normally do if they’ve been raped or injured. It seems like nothing happened at all. That would happen to pretty much nobody. No one is that cool. You’re just hiding it and someone will catch you lying.

So, a dose of reality for your stories – while rape doesn’t always hurt, I’ve never known anyone who could sit easy or properly the following day. Get into a boat in choppy water? No freaking way. Get whacked in the head hard enough to go unconscious? Better get to a hospital – you at least have a concussion and other potential issues can be extremely serious. Good chance you’ll have a serious headache for at least a day or two (sometimes quite severe) and may have trouble focusing. If you have anything more than a mild concussion, you will be hospitalized. Also, it hurts on the surface. Don’t touch it or you’ll find yourself at least hissing, or yelping. Either way, waking up is going to suck badly. Kicked repeatedly in the side/abdomen/lower back? Get to the hospital. Internal injuries can go unnoticed until you’ve nearly bled out. Bruised, lacerated, or ruptured organs, cracked/broken ribs, collapsed/punctured lungs, and damaged arteries can cause lengthy hospital stays. Get punched with enough force to make you stagger back? Well, you may have just cracked your head on the wall behind you, but either way, you’re going to have a pretty big bruise there. Expect dark, dark blue-purple. Get attacked with a bladed weapon? There’s an excellent chance you’ll have defensive wounds. These are generally located in the lower arm and hands, as you hold your hands up trying to protect your face, neck, or chest. If you are directly attacked with a knife in a stabbing motion, you are likely to come away with some deep cuts, some of which can be debilitating or life-threatening if it hits an artery, tendon, or nerve bundle. If it severs either of the two main nerve bundles, you can kiss half of the use of your hand good-bye. A tendon? Major surgery is your only hope. It has to be sewn back together and sometimes re-pinned to a bone. Then there’s 6 months of PT once you’re passed to move the thing again, because you may not be allowed for the first while after the surgery.

Yup, I’ve had to have that done.

And all that’s just in modern times. The old style weapons did a LOT worse damage, whether fatal or not. Lots of fun crushing stuff there.

While you might walk away and function rather normally after getting some bruises, any head injuries is going to take at least 24 hours to be sure you are safe and capable of functioning, and damage to the abdomen will take longer. Broken or bruised ribs make you wish you didn’t have to breath, if that gives you any clue. Internal damage can take weeks, even months to heal if it’s more severe. While you might be able to pass some of it off, anyone who pays attention could potentially notice any stiffness or guarding you may have might draw some questions or altered behavior of those around you who may not be willing to ask but can tell you’re off in one way or another. Your doctor will also have a cow and his head will explode. Internal injuries – you aren’t supposed to be out of bed for weeks, usually, not days, depending on the incision size, the organ damaged, the risk of further damage with movement, etc., etc., etc..


Child Abuse

You have a higher chance of sustaining life-long trauma if you are abused as a kid. I’m going to be very blunt here, because there’s really no easy way to explain it all. So, we’ll just get through it as quickly as possible.

Children’s bones do not break as easily as adult bones because they’re still soft. With this said, there are certain parts of the bones, called growth plates, that need to remain undamaged to ensure the child will grow. Having one of these broken is a big deal and could affect the entire future of the child’s life. However, breaking bones is very common among children, and are usually relatively easy to treat, depending on if the bone pieces moved apart, shattered, or came out of the skin. The last is a bigger deal because they have to pull the bone back in and put it where it’s supposed to be, which means it’s exposed to the outside world, your skin, and whatever else. That is an excellent situation to get a real nasty infection. However, there is a specific type of break that will always set off a doctor’s radar, and that is a spiral fracture. It’s caused by grabbing someone’s arm and twisting. There are a limited number of ways to break it like that, and children generally aren’t around things that can potentially cause that.

Now, I’m going to go through sexual abuse, and I’m going to try to be as brief as possible. If you don’t write about child sex abuse, please skip this section.

Child sex abusers aren’t just men or women who sleep with teenage boys. No, grown men and grown women have full on sex with their children or someone else’s. If they have the time, they might start with grooming, to attempt to ‘normalize’ the sexual behavior for the child, so they trust the adult, even when they get to the level of penetration. Children of ANY age can be and are victims of this. From newborn to adulthood – every child is vulnerable. Children’s bodies are not designed to take adult sized objects inside of them. Everything is much smaller and compact. There can be incidents where the colon can be ruptured, permanent damage related to the stretching and/or ripping of the vagina and anus, including internal scarring that may inhibit them in some way for the rest of their life. Boys and girls could be abused by people of any gender, sexual preference, etc., and you will be scarred for life, in one way or another.

Abuse is also sometimes touching, words, lack of words, striking, and general treatment. Some parents have sold their children into slavery because the family desperately needs the money or they don’t like the child, or they just had the child to sell. Children have been chained to beds, kept in cages, locked in the attic, stored in a secret part of the basement, and so on, usually for the worst of the worst. Then there is child abduction and slavery. Some are sent to be manual workers, other are used for… the sex trade. They might be bought for a particular person, a brothel, working the streets, even as a gift for someone else. Most are sent to do some sort of labor or are working as prostitutes. These children all become emotionally scarred, and many turn to drugs and/or alcohol. Some run away and end up on the streets – children who were orphaned or escaping abuse, and their life isn’t much better in most of the world.

In South America, there was a serial killer who murdered children. Quite a few, but they can’t confirm the number. He claims it was hundreds, but the street kids are a whole subculture of their own and most of the kids he killed weren’t kids that anyone would notice was gone. Thousands of children disappear from the US ALONE every single year. Many of them are never found, and there’s no clues to indicate where they could be. Around the world, there are more slaves now than there were at the height of slavery. There’s no country that isn’t affected (except maybe Iceland) in one way or another. Slaves are not only taken but owned by people in nearly every single country across the entire world. It isn’t just Africa or Asia, either. It’s Russia and Ukraine and Germany, the UK, the US, Canada, Japan, Spain, Greece, and so on. Both the undeveloped and the developed worlds – and the sex trade is huge. Children may not be the most sought after, there are plenty who take no issue with purchasing children for… whatever.

As a child, long term abuse tends to cause you to form an internal and an external self. The one that exists in the environment, and the you that put on for the outside world. Don’t let anybody see. Never tell anyone anything. There’s always a threat. Something bad will happen. Also, most kids won’t want to be separated from their abuser, even protecting them – a highly common thing. This is the thing they know. The thing they don’t will shift their entire world sideways. It’s terrifying to suddenly be yanked from your comfort place, no matter how bad it is, then be thrown into the hands of a bunch of strangers who are all of a sudden moving to you off to be handed off to more strangers.

Many children don’t realize what they are experiencing is abuse, or even that it’s wrong. They may grow up thinking it’s normal, or it’s their fault, and so on, and be afraid to let other people see it. God forbid someone sees what a horrible kid you are that your parent has to beat you. It’s embarrassing. Unfortunately, they may also have been taught that it’s all perfectly normal and made it… ‘fun’ in some way. And we return to sexual abuse. They may show videos or pictures, and work their way up until they don’t think anything about the abuse that’s going on. They always have some big incentive or subtle threat that children may not quite understand, or make them feel so low they would never admit to it, and trust me, kids can lie when they need to and convincingly. It took 6 years before I admitted to anything – by then I was a teenager. No one had a clue, in spite of some of the injuries being quite bad. I have permanent scars and damage to my spine from a particular incident right before I finally told someone.

Depression, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and other conditions can start developing and showing up in mid-late teens. But, children abused for a long time are excellent actors. Lying becomes second nature, and you learn quickly how to keep your story straight. Good thing that most kids aren’t clever enough to fool a good shrink or therapist. But this is still only a portion of the overall effects on the children long-term.

Verbal abuse can stick with you far longer than beatings, and hurt a thousand times more. The other thing is, that in some very severe circumstances, the children come out extremely delayed. Two children found raised in animal cages outside, having been left isolated, left to themselves, and no significant interactions for almost their entire lives. After tests, they had permanent physical damage from insufficient nutrients during the developmental years, neither could walk fully upright, and they had the minds of small children with no communication skills. Some of them will never be capable of speaking, because they can’t learn the language. There is a window where interaction is critical for child development. They have shown that babies who were ignored tended to have issues, and the worse it was, the more likely they were to develop RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), which is like childhood psychopathy. Some of them can be incredibly dangerous, beating and/or murdering those that live around them.

The child murderer, Mary Bell, was a budding 11 year old serial killer. She killed 2 younger children, and ended up convicted of it in youth court in England. Sounds dangerous and scary as hell, right? Well, the abuse she was living through at home was mostly to blame. According to Mary, her prostitute mother sometimes offered her up to her male clients, she had sex wherever she wanted with whomever was paying, out in the open where the little girl could see. No doubt, her mother wasn’t even a little kind to her, and would have certainly forced her into prostitution regularly once she began developing. It was a horrible life that few can imagine. Can you really blame her for acting out? She’s just a kid. She can’t think the way adults do, it’s just not possible.

After a lengthy sentence where she received loads of therapy, schooling, and had specialists working with her, Mary left prison and her name was changed. Reports say she’s lived a quiet life, and now has grandchildren. But most of the world doesn’t take the effort to reform the kids and remove them from parents that have no business being around children. Even in the US, the courts will trip over backwards to try to keep children with biological families, even against worker’s recommendations and the child’s pleads.

Unfortunately, some children with RAD can grow up to be psychopaths. Abuse can twist the mind, but it’s not the only factor. If they start killing animals, then you better get ahead of that, or you may end up on the news one day. There is treatment, but it can fail, like any other type of treatment.

When writing these things, there are sources you can use to learn more about all of this online. Just remember to check and make sure the site is a legitimate source. There are loads of documentations, statistics, and research done in many various areas involving child abuse and it’s long-term effects.


It’s just fiction, why does it matter?

Well, technically, it doesn’t, as long as you are ok with alienating potential readers. And not just in the United States or the Western part of the world. Victims are everywhere, and in some parts of the world, the rape or other abuse statistics can be MUCH higher. I’m not saying all of us would be alienated, but I know several who has that same kind of issue.

For example: An opposing army, or a branch of it, may rape every single female in an entire town, regardless of age. In fact, that has been a military tactic used for centuries in various parts of the world. Not only do they now have their own cultural stigma from having been raped, but now they also have the risk of becoming impregnated along with other members of their community to carry the children of their rapists. There are no options, either. No chance of abortion or getting justice. In some societies, it makes them complete outcasts, even though it’s not their fault, and this will include being shunned by their own families in some situations.

In other places, a woman being raped is automatically blamed and sometimes even treated as a criminal for allowing their virginity to be taken or having sex outside of marriage. Some are even punished or given death as the sentence for their ‘crime’. Stoning was rather common and still exists in some places. Others are ostracized and/or kicked out of their community, forced to find somewhere else to live and a way to support themselves. Whether stranger or family member/friend, the woman is left with a mark that can last her entire life among her community, on top of the trauma she has suffered with.

In the US and most of Europe, she would be treated like a victim of any other crime, with (hopefully), a bit of dignity and empathy. We offer counseling, crisis numbers, shelters, hospital care, police support, and so on. Not that you’re likely to get justice, at least in the US, but it’s at least possible. The more it happens in society, the less likely a victim will ever see her attacker go to jail or see any consequences.

This is why it’s important to consider how you want to approach it. While a lot will not mind, in part because they have no idea what it’s like, those who have been victims and those immediately around them may find it too unrealistic to bother with. I happen to be one of those people, and I can’t name anyone around me who doesn’t agree. Curiously, people who’ve been traumatized may gravitate toward others who are also traumatized, almost as though their pain can be sensed by the other or others. It’s rather easy to compare notes, since we all speak the same kind of language, in a sense. Over the last 35+ years of my life, I have met or befriended dozens of other victims. I fact, I’ve known more victims than I have people who’ve never experienced trauma. This includes people of both sexes, as well as some of the men I’ve dated. A fair few had been sexually assaulted as well.

Straight, bi, gay, trans – no one is exempt.

So, I would strongly advise anyone who’s going to write a character who’s suffered a trauma, you find a doctor or survivor to talk to (assuming you’ve not been affected yourself), so you can get the information you need to write it to the best of your ability. Certain topics do have to be approached mindfully, and trauma is one you need to approach with your eyes wide open. If you tell them you are writing a book, there will be plenty willing to help you get it right.


Summary

Always think of your audience and the realities of life. Fiction is designed to provide distraction from reality, but there’s a limit how far you can go, depending on the genre you’ve chosen. If it’s fantasy or science fiction, you have a lot more leeway, but there are certain elements of humanity that simply cannot be changed. Well, unless you have some kind of quick working healing potion. We all have to potty, breathe, bleed red, and, we all die.

So please, for my sanity, take all this into serious consideration. Consider the reality and include it when writing these types of characters.


Sources

RAINN
National Institute of Justice
Very Well Mind
US Department of Veteran Affairs
(Other sources include documentaries, news articles, research studies, etc.)

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