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Work hard, pray harder: Recognizing trauma

Sarah Yacoub

By Sarah Yacoub, Attorney at Equal Justice Inc.

Coming off a vibrant Domestic Violence Awareness month in October and an even more inspiring annual Turningpoint breakfast at the end of November, it's clear that domestic abuse is not only a conversation people are having but that it's getting the attention of those best positioned to effectuate change.

If you haven't yet tuned in to the seven-part HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, it's powerfully insightful and worth watching. If progress on social issues goes in phases, with Phase I being

"general unawareness of a problem" and Phase II being "general awareness that a problem exists," Phase III, or "competent handling of the problem" can't come fast enough. While it is refreshing that people within local politics, mental health services and the justice system—particularly family law, judges and guardians ad litem — are more commonly recognizing the toxicity that comes with domestic abuse for not only the intimate partner but any children involved, we're still in need of one very big step: Recognizing trauma and trauma responses in survivors.

Historically, we see the following: Abuser comes to court or a joint counseling session and acts controlled and calculated. Maybe he/she is emotional or frustrated at times but those times are infrequent and conveyed as justified. Given the dishonesty that so often parallels abusive behavior, typically, abusers have no problem taking the stand and calmly lying through their teeth. In contrast, the survivor—someone who has been made to feel like he/she is crazy, someone who has lived day in and day out with the abuser and knows that he/she is lying under oath, someone who has been physically, emotionally, verbally and/or sexually assaulted by the abuser such that he/she has a physiological stress response to the abuser's presence akin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — is too often the one sitting at the counsel table or therapist's chair shaking. The survivor is the one using too many words desperately trying to prove that the abuser is lying, desperately trying to prove his or her reality. Maybe if the court sees the manipulation and the blatant dishonesty then the abuser won't keep getting away with it and the survivor and his/her children will be protected. The survivor is the one whose mind also draws blanks when the stress of the situation becomes overwhelming. To untrained eyes, the controlled calculated abuser appears calm, collected; the survivor gets perceived as emotional, unstable and disorganized. Throw in the attorney for the abuser who is all too quick to point to the survivor's demeanor and say "See what he/she has to deal with?" and it paints a very powerfully distorted picture of the dynamics at play.

The misreading of abuse dynamics in therapy or courtroom settings is not categorically irrational. People who are perceived as being calm are generally received better than those who are anxious. People who confidently offer concise answers are generally received better than those who try to explain a lot, which can make them sound defensive. As we as a society move forward in our progress on the incredibly important and far-reaching issue of domestic abuse, it's important that we educate ourselves on what trauma looks and sounds like. It's important that we not just fall back on what feels comfortable in our interpretations but make efforts to seek truth and really listen to understand. For our judges, commissioners, therapists, guardians ad litem, that means having a willingness to learn and to think about a situation they've seen for years, even decades, differently. For members of the community, that means holding elected officials accountable with our votes on election day and recognizing/supporting those who are doing the work for our community to move forward on the issue of domestic abuse.