My top favorite podcast in the whole, whole world (this is how my little daughter speaks) is called The Fundamentalists. The hosts, Peter Rollins and Elliot Morgan discuss all kinds of beautiful, wonderful things, such as philosophy, theology, religion, psychoanalysis, comedy, freedom and tyranny. I feel this podcast has done more to help me appreciate life than any church community ever could. With that said, today’s post is my reflection in response to their episode called “On Trauma.”
The pair distinguish between two different types of trauma: ontic and ontological. Ontic trauma is the psychological distress and disturbance that occurs in response to specific life altering or perspective altering experiences; whereas, ontological trauma is the emotional distress and disturbance inherent in human existence from the moment of subjectivity in infancy. Ontic trauma is the result of what happens to us. Ontological trauma is the result of our very existence.
As humans, we have a tendency to gravitate towards experiences and people, which and whom we think will ease the inherent trauma of our souls. There is trauma embedded within humanity itself. We wish to escape this trauma. Our attempts to escape lead to destructive cycles of abuse that perpetuate and exacerbate the trauma we already have. This cyclical process is called repetition compulsion, whereby we re-enact ontic traumas in new and varied experiences and/or relationships, successively over the course of our lives.
We can break this cycle by acknowledging and embracing the inherently traumatic nature of human existence. By accepting our lack and refusing perpetual attempts to fill the void, we can (in some cases) intercept ontic trauma before it occurs.
I find this idea most liberating! For starters, it validates my personal experiences of trauma. As a person who has endured a fair share of abuse over the span of my existence, I often diminish my experience, comparing it to the “worse” experiences of all the others out there. This idea that all humans experience trauma validates my own experience, disregarding the degree of trauma as a necessary means of evaluation. Second, by recognizing the trauma inherent in human existence, I can offer myself (and others) more grace, and I can recognize–or at least, attempt to recognize–the variables present in my own repetition compulsion. This could help me to break the cycle of my personal experience of ontic trauma (at least, sometimes).
Reflecting over my (near 38) years of life on this planet, I can see, all too clearly, how this repetition compulsion has played out.
CHILDHOOD (emotional abuse): My mother and brother are emotionally volatile humans. Only within the past decade have they each been diagnosed with ADHD and other depressive disorders. Thus, they were both untreated during my entire childhood, and the effect was intensely emotionally abusive relationships with each. Being a pleaser with un-diagnosed OCD, I was exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation. Add to this a father who retained strict authority over the one individual he could (that was me), and the ingredients amalgamate for a pretty f***ed up psyche.
ADOLESCENCE (repetition of emotional abuse): As a means of coping, I became obsessed with ballet. I devoted myself to training and performance, but to my own detriment, because my ballet teacher/coach also was severely abusive (emotionally) and manipulative. An eating disorder ensued.
TEEN RELATIONSHIP (repetition): The two years that I dated my sexual assailant were the most terrifying years of my life. I still cringe when I think about things that occurred during that time. My boyfriend emotionally, sexually, and physically abused me, and I had no one to talk to, and feeling nothing but shame and fear of damnation, I couldn’t escape…until I did. Thank God, thank the stars, thank my own will to survive–whatever it was that buoyed me enough to detach–thank you!
CHURCH LIFE (still more repetition): After the break up, I became involved with evangelical Christian groups, and the first major relationship I had was with a girl a few years my senior, who decided to take me under her wing and “disciple” me. What I could not perceive was her fierce envy of me–and again, I was the victim of emotional abuse and brainwashing. At the same time, I was ardently “courted” by a young man who abruptly–and without any explanation–halted his pursuit of me–cold turkey–and I later found out–through a new love interest of his–that he didn’t want to proceed with our relationship because of my sexual past, which I would like to emphasize was out of my own control, entirely, as I only had a sexual past as a result of coercion and manipulation and blatant exploitation!
CAREER AS AN EDUCATOR (will the repetition ever end?): The endless pressure to meet unattainable expectations subjected me to emotional abuse by my principal.
And there are certainly more examples of the ways in which I perpetuated my own ontic trauma by failing to acknowledge the lack inherent in my existence, by trying to fill that lack, and by belittling myself and subjecting myself to undue abuse because to me, my failures constituted justification for such abuse.
But the thing is, reader, I am not alone. I am willing to wager that as you read through my account of my personal repetition compulsion, you could identify yourself in the pattern. This is part of what unifies us as a human race. We all carry the affliction of trauma, and there are no remedies! There is no magic eraser that can clean our souls. However, that is what brings meaning to the grief of human experience. This knowledge brings grace. This knowledge brings authenticity. This knowledge strengthens relationships, builds bridges, and generates sublime creation. Thus, I am happy to have shared my experience with you, in hopes that you might find some peace for yourself.
Much love from the Cornflower.