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January 15, 2011

Trauma and Why First Responders Need to Know

Olga at Age 5

I've been doing a lot of trainings lately for multidisciplinary audiences on The Impact of Physical and Sexual Violence. The Impact is almost always very traumatic for victim/survivors and we depending the type of violence, the extent of it and our internal make up we develop all sorts of ways to cope with that violence; with that trauma. First Responders see us at our worst moments in life and when our ways of coping are kicked in and what they see and what they hear doesn't always make sense.

So for example I dissociated for years to deal with the violence in our home and I hid that violence in my subconscious.When I first started talking about the rapes I remembered I spoke with a very flat affect, as if I was talking about the weather. I was all over the place with what I was remembering. It wasn't at all linear and logical. At times things or people around me would "trigger" me meaning something that was happening in the present felt like something from the past and I felt as though it was the past and I was unsafe. So then my demeanor changed significantly. Sometimes I would withdraw and dissociate, sometimes I would cry hysterically, and often I got angry well beyond anything that the situation merited.

I always tried to accommodate what people wanted and could often guess before being asked. This is important because as a first responder you want to make sure the victim/survivor isn't accommodating what you want or need from them. That can and often leads to inconsistent information. To avoid that don't push. Collect the information you need as respectfully and gently as possible and refer the investigation to those who work with sexual violence victims everyday - your sex crimes units and advocates.

Remember sexual violence is always intertwined with humiliation and degradation. We feel it over and over again each time we talk about the experience. Don't expect us to tell you all of it right away. We won't. It takes trust and a comfort in ourselves and in you to feel that humiliation again. Expect inconsistencies. That is normal behavior in sex crimes. It doesn't mean it didn't happen. Bring in experts on trauma to normalize the victim/survivor's behavior for the judge or jury. It helps a lot when you understand what normal is in these situations.

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