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(Image via psypost.org)

Gerry Georgatos shares excerpts of his research into the effects of trauma and a radical alternative for its treatment.

OUR DAYS ON THIS EARTH are not many and what we do with our days, matters, not only for us but for those around us and for those whom we leave behind.

Trauma is a part of life, few are unscarred. However, for far too many, trauma overwhelms them and subsumes their personality.

Trauma becomes the core of who they are; it becomes their predominant identity. For too many, recovery from trauma becomes impossible, debilitating them. However, I argue that we have both inadvertently and intentionally created the perception that trauma is something to be dealt with gently, patiently and that it is a lifelong experience — a whole of life approach of management and coping. Well, I argue that this should not be the case.

Trauma is always damaging but it should not be allowed to dominate an individual. We are educating trauma into the modern human experience as debilitating, that it needs to be unpacked. It needs to be acknowledged – in many instances understood but in the briefest stretch possible – and reduced to a scar. Who we are should not be reduced to the traumatic events in our lives, avoidable or unavoidable traumas. We should be the sum of all our experiences, contextualised in the dawn of daily meanings that appear endless.

Skewed understandings of trauma have borne industries of rogues – some who are well-meaning and others who are carpetbaggers – all of whom perpetuate trauma, displace increased levels of trauma on the affected individual and compound trauma with a relentless accumulation of stresses.

Trauma should not corral people into miserable and unproductive lives, into a constancy of the fearful. How many people state that I cannot do this or that because of trauma? No-one should thwart people by paralysing them into blame narratives, whether of the self or through a fear of perpetrators.

Particularly during the last half-century, we have complicated the negotiation of what we are as a result of a traumatic event and how we should respond to traumatic events. There is now a perennial default position of medicalisation and effective incapacitation. At best, we are sold vacillating, emancipatory approaches of how to re-engage with society, but that steal years of life, or imprison the mind lifelong, or that require someone affected by trauma into a daily management of the self. This is a diabolical education of how to respond. It destroys the positive self. The ability to discover the truth should not be outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit.

We need to educate that trauma – whether incidental, cumulative or collective – should not be allowed to dominate the individual, a family, a collective, society, or the human discourse. This is not about “moving on”, but about not allowing trauma or anyone who professes to be a trauma recovery expert to corral someone within trauma. We must identify and acknowledge trauma and do away with it, reduce it to that scar, transform it into a protective factor, at most use it to embolden, empower and strengthen. Trauma should not become an oppressor and, therefore, forever injurious. The way we deal with trauma today is disgraceful, degenerating people to negative selves, aggressively trapping people into multiple and composite traumas. These discourses are a massive violence.

There are horrific and abominable cruelties by human beings – the slaughter of humanity, genocide, horrific punitive actions and abuses – however, we are a species, like all other species, with adaptive processes.

Recently, I wrote,

It is possible to change the lives of the poorest and most neglected. Behavioural issues should not be trapped into mental health issues and trauma subsume the human experience.

Let us improve lives and contextualise traumas to wounds, scars as opposed to letting them predominate. I am part of projects successfully mentoring, training and employing the poorest, those who were chronically unemployed, without an education, illiterate.

I and colleagues brought scores out of homelessness and prisons into tertiary education and, with relentless multi-layered psychosocial support, we got them across the line, they graduated and they are leading the way for their families, breaking and ending cycles of poverty and aberrant behaviour.

I believe in radical approaches that ask of people who have endured traumatic events to remain steadfast in their belief of their positive self — that it need not be interrupted or reduced. I am a bleeding heart and my compassion for others defines my values, but I have a "no time-wasting" approach in that trauma-affected people have to get back on their feet, to stay solid-in-their-thinking. I am part of projects that are working with people that others surrender to the "too hard basket". We need to spread the love but not distort that love to a point that we debilitate others.

We need to forgive at every turn. We need to speak solidly with a salt-of-the-earth approach. We must never steal days, weeks, months, years and decades of anyone’s life. Even the most affected traumatised people I have worked with, I have urged the radical approach and that you can get back on your feet immediately. The success stories are another article.

Where we can assist with love and forgiveness where necessary we must do so.

"We all have a story, I have a story — but you just turn up each day to the training."

Years ago, I wrote:

There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiving of others validates self-worth, builds bridges and positive futures. Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people into the darkest places, into effectively being mentally unwell. Anger is a warning sign of becoming unwell. Love comes more naturally to the human heart despite that hate can take one over. ...

I have worked to turn around the lives of as many people in jail as I possibly could but for every inmate or former inmate that people like me dedicate time to in order to improve their lot — ultimately there is a tsunami of poverty-related issues and draconian laws that flood offenders and fill prisons. Jailing the poorest, most vulnerable, the mentally unwell, in my experience, only serves to elevate the risk of reoffending, of normalising disordered and broken lives, of digging deeper divides between people, of marginalising people. It has been my experience that, in general, people come out of prison worse than they went in. We push maxims such as violence breeds violence, hate breeds hate, but yet we incarcerate and punish like never before. Instead of prison sentences working as some sort of deterrent, we have reoffending, arrest and jailing rates increasing year in year out. One of society’s failures is the punitive criminal justice system and the penal estate.

However despite the punitive penal estate having clearly failed society, we continue with it. For some, it has become easier to lie and act as if the failure is a success or as if there are no alternatives than to accept the workload in another direction.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the 'Brothers Karamazov', wrote:

'Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.'

We have lied for so long in this capitalistic meritocratic society that, for far too many, especially for those in the consummation of privilege, they have ceased to love and to forgive. The psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being of others, of those most vulnerable, lost to them. The mantra, these days, is the suffocation of "self-responsibility". Dostoyevsky, who also authored Crime and Punishment and the House of the Dead, wrote, 'The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.'

Socrates understood that esteem was imperative to the striving for justice and goodness. This is where we fail people, we are not there to build or rebuild their esteem, to strive lovingly.... Socrates would have us believe evils are the result of the ignorance of good. I am with Socrates, we have a society that is not bent by reinforcing the innate, of reinforcing "good", but we are a society that demands an impression of what good might be and punish those who transgress.

As naïve as I may appear, the Socratic view aligns with what I have seen in prisons – of people who want to be good, innately are good, but who have accumulated despair, displaced anger, resentment from impoverished or disrupted upbringings.”

An inmate said to me:

“It is best I am here and best I keep on coming back, because it is the only hope my children have.”

Another inmate said:

“I have no hope in here, but it’s even worse out there.”

The penal estate is not rehabilitative, not restorative. There are limited job skills programs, limited education opportunities. The penal estate should have been an investiture in people rather than a dungeon, an abyss. The opportunity for healing, psychosocial empowerment, for forgiveness, for redemption, for education skills and qualifications, are continually bypassed.

It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who argued forgiveness as the only way forward to “true enduring peace”.

People are more likely to be good without having to go to prison but who are instead supported. For those who are sentenced to prisons, these must be places where people come first, not last. But there must be forgiveness. They must be assisted in every way to forgive themselves. As a society, our focus must be on forgiving and redemption. The most powerful kickstart is a society – the justice systems and our governments – who are forgiving and, hence, the message of love will rush to everyone. For far too many people, repentance without forgiveness is torturous. But we must be a forgiving society to make this possible and, for now, the odds are against us as for too many forgiveness is a radical, gratuitous proposition.

With one project I am involved with, I visited Acacia Prison outside of Perth and spoke too soon-to-be-released inmates about believing in themselves. They had spent the prime of their life going in and out of prison with no substantive education or employment. Three days later, three of them walked out of prison and, on that day, walked through the doors of the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation and into five-week training week courses.

That was 18 weeks ago. These three young men completed the training and are now employed, earning thousands of dollars each week in remote housing construction. Their lives had been consumed by trainwreck childhoods, cheated by narratives that their traumas were insurmountable.

I said to them:

"We all have a story, I have a story — but you just turn up each day to the training."

Trauma is real, but trauma should never dominate anyone. No-one should ever be cheated of their positive self. Our days on this earth matter. Live them.

Listen to Gerry Georgatos discussing Indigenous incarceration and the Ngalla Maya Aboriginal Corporation prisoner reform:

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos. This article first appeared on The Stringer and is republished with permission.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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