Trauma makes you live in 'backwards world.'

If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Trauma makes you live in a backwards world. My great uncle was test pilot during World War II. I remember one story about him taking off and finding that the controls had been put in backwards. In order to land the plane he had to do everything in reverse. He figured it and lived to tell about it.

Trauma creates a backwards world. Especially repeated trauma. In trauma the ordinary and the extraordinary change places. What seems mundane becomes the warning sign of impending danger. What is dangerous becomes normal. What seems small becomes big, what is big, seems small. If you spend years with this backwards view of the world it can become habit.

This backwards view of the world—mundane is dangerous, dangerous is safe. Small is big, big is small. This backwards view is one of the invisible wounds of trauma. It isn’t listed anywhere on a symptom checklist. There are no medications to change your thinking. But this backwards view impacts your life, your decisions, your work, your relationships.

Being in a plane like my great uncle and getting immediate feedback that everything you know is backwards is a massive wake up call—you know immediately that you are looking at the situation from a vantage point that will impact your life. But when you have lived with the view that the mundane will kill you, but danger is safe long enough you don’t even notice that you are living on the other side of the looking glass. Your backwards world is the way the world is—at least for you.

The only way to see it is to break one of the backwards rules—do the opposite, check to see if your assumption is true.

A year ago I had to get electricians in to take care of some wiring issues. I lived in very old house and I'd known that the house had wiring issues all along. I took care of it at that time because I had to, it was a requirement of sale. I had never done it before because a mundane issue like wiring was a huge issue in my mind. In my mind they would check one outlet and have to tear out every wall to rewire the house. Mundane problems trigger the end of the world as you know it. Let sleeping dogs lie. Let old outlets work poorly.

Of course, as those of you who don’t live in a backwards world know, it turned out to be no big deal. Two young guys finished in half day. They fixed everything and it wasn’t even a massive setback financially. It was a half day problem and no walls came down.

But I stayed away from it for a decade because the operating system of my brain still believes that small problems are always big problems. The problem with operating systems is that they aren’t as obvious as the airplane controls. You don’t see how they work until you put yourself in a totally new situation, and then rapidly see that the controls are in backwards.

Trauma makes you pay attention to the smallest signs: the snapped twig, the sound of the door shutting, the music that was playing, the mail on the dining room table. Once trauma learns the first small signal it goes looking for the next small signal. It creates an entire data base dictionary of what every small thing could mean.

Meanwhile, used to terror or violence, no big challenge ever seems big enough. You miss the warning signs of the big problems because you are focused on avoiding the small ones. Cause and effect in backwards world get disconnected from reality. Even when there is proof around you, you don’t see it, you don’t believe it.

I worked for years with teenagers who had lived through trauma and followed the rules of backwards world. They avoided the small tasks that might have helped them—the paperwork they needed to hand in, the homework they needed to do, and dove headlong into situations they should have gotten help with—staying up all night with a suicidal friend. This particular impact of trauma is usually perceived as ‘laziness’ or ‘defiance’ or ‘stupidity.’ But it is a problem of perspective. The teenagers saw a meadow studded with landmines and a minefield as something familiar. They couldn’t see it any other way.

This is why we need to change the conversation about trauma. The impact of it reaches long into your everyday life—and it’s the things you can’t see, that feel familiar, and the small things, that feel huge, that can be the biggest handicaps in your life as you move forward. And it’s why as we try to help ourselves and others heal that we have to help them see the world from different vantage points, and especially to try and break the rule of backwards world. With help from you. And me. And all of us. 

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD