Complex Trauma: An Interview by Kirsty Olive at Eleven Eleven

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Kirsty Olive on her podcast, Eleven Eleven. Like me, Kirsty has also undergone a healing journey from the ravages of childhood complex trauma. In this time together, Kirsty and I talk about what complex trauma is, how we internalize it, and different ways that healing happens. 

Kirsty: Hello and welcome to eleven eleven with Kirsty Olive. In this episode I’m going to be interviewing Ariana Ziminsky. She is a coach who specifically works with people who have experienced complex trauma. This was a really amazing discussion and I hope that you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed the conversation ourselves. Not only do we dive deep into what it’s like to work with clients who’ve experience complex trauma and how that differs from, say, individual traumas we [also] dive deep into what complex trauma actually is, how it’s created, what it consists of, but also we dive deep into our own experiences with complex trauma, how we have experienced them in our own lives, and also our own healing journey and what has and hasn’t worked for us. 

Hello and welcome Ariana thank you so much for joining us today. I would love to get you to introduce yourself first of all. So for everybody listening, we have Ariana Ziminsky with us and you are a trauma specialist , and I would love for you to just share a little bit about it to the women who are listening. What is it that you do?

Ariana: OK, great, I’m very excited to be here, so thank you for sharing this time with me. I am a trauma support specialist and I work with people who are adults that are now dealing with the effects of the trauma that they experienced long ago, most often during childhood. We deal with things that are coming up that are emotional and hold you back from doing what you want to do in life, so things like anxieties, depression, fears that seem to come out of nowhere, and then reactions that you may have in a certain situation that feel really out of proportion – sometimes we call those triggers or activating events – but [for example] somebody says something specific that shouldn’t be an issue at all and you have some kind of a reaction where you get very angry or you shut down or you start crying and it becomes difficult to keep living your life because these things – they seem to come up more frequently and more intensely and they’re not going away. 

These are often signs of complex trauma which is from childhood.

Kirsty: Yeah, I’m really interested to know – so when working with complex trauma in particular, what are the different differences for you – as a provider of this service – what are the differences for you in terms of working with complex trauma and working with, say, more recent trauma or trauma from like a singular event or adulthood rather than that sort of trauma you were talking about?

Ariana: There’s actually quite a significant difference. So if you have what’s called an acute trauma – a single trauma event – if, you know, some horrible thing happens and you’re robbed while walking back to your car at the grocery store at night, that event can be dealt with usually fairly quickly. There are different therapies, different ways of addressing the trauma that’s kind of sunk into your body and you can clear that and get on with your life. The trauma that happened during childhood is often what we call “small t” trauma, or smaller events.

Perhaps as a child you were ignored or your parents spoke to you in dismissive ways, saying your feelings don’t matter, or your wants and needs don’t matter, or they didn’t take care of you the way that you actually needed. Perhaps they didn’t cuddle with you or read you a bedtime story or tuck you in at night. A lot of these things we don’t even see as an issue but they build up and they become significant when we’re older, so it’s a different approach – it’s a very different approach to treating complex trauma because… there’s more of it in you, so to speak; it’s part of your system, it’s part of how your body was created growing up, it’s part of your nervous system, which is where the effects of trauma basically live. When you’re an adult and you have a single [trauma] event, it’s usually a lot easier to deal with.

Kirsty: As you’re saying that, I’m thinking as well – say, an event that happens as an adult in a singular event, you’re more likely to remember that than to know what that is and where this trauma is coming from, whereas [with] complex trauma, there’s probably a lot of those events that you don’t actually remember or even know that happened.

Ariana: Exactly. Generally speaking, before the age of three, you’re not going to have any type of memory because the brain doesn’t store memory that young, but what’s interesting is your body and your nervous system will remember things from back then. So if you are ignored as a baby your body and your brain formed in a certain way to compensate for not getting its basic needs met, but you won’t have a conscious memory of it. You’ll have this emotional, feeling sense of it.

Kirsty: Yeah, absolutely, and, I mean, your body responds even if you’re not aware of what’s happening and that’s often why – I mean, I know in my own experience, that is what led to me having a breakdown and panic attacks in my early twenties, and I ended up suffering with dissociation, panic disorder, and stuff like that because, I mean, I had thought for a number of years that, like, “Everything was fine, you know?” – and it wasn’t! And it took for that to begin to happen. It wasn’t mentally. It was actually – physically – my body began, right, to kind of scream at me, you know, to be like, “There’s something that needs to be healed. You’re not listening. You’re not fixing this,” and all of this stuff began to really come to the surface and it was interesting how, at the time, I really realized that intelligence of my body and that it doesn’t matter whether I consciously was even aware because a lot of the stuff that came up afterwards at the time, I wasn’t even aware that maybe what had happened to me in childhood was abuse. I kind of didn’t realize that. I knew that it had happened, but I didn’t know that it was abuse. But it’s as if my body knew, you know, because my body began kind of reacting very strongly to that. 

And so and what you’re explaining there about it being stored in the nervous system, in the body, is definitely something that I felt and experienced right in my own life and I know that a lot of the women who will be listening to this podcast as well can really resonate with that.

I mean, I do a lot of work around you know the womb area and with the nervous system and stuff around this work but it’s interesting to hear from yourself how you describe that and, you know, even at such a young age when it starts.

Ariana: Yeah, I mean, there’s research now showing it starts when you’re in the womb because if the mother is stressed, then all the stress hormones and stress chemicals are going into the baby as well, and there’s, you know, when you think of how it affects the nervous system, there are probably a lot of moms out there or a lot of people who have worked with kids and babies and, you know, when a baby is screaming and crying, they’re in great distress, and the best remedy is to you pick the baby up. And you may swaddle the baby; you comfort them; you’re teaching the baby how to soothe him- or herself. It’s something we pass on to the next generation.

But if you were a crying baby and nobody came and picked you up and soothed you, then you’re on high alert now, your body is learning – your nervous system is learning – “Well, I better be careful because nobody’s coming to get me and the world is a scary place. I’m feeling very scared and nobody’s helping me.”

And you don’t think those thoughts and words; it’s a feeling and that’s how your brain can develop.

Kirsty: I’m really interested to know from what you’ve just said: I know you mentioned at that young age, we’re really storing it all in the body because we’re not having the thoughts to understand it or to connect it, but we’re actually feeling it in the nervous system. So at what age is it that we begin to maybe have conscious thoughts about what’s happening rather than just kind of experiencing it in the body?

Ariana: So are you saying, like, at what point are we aware of abuse or what point are we reflecting on our past?

Kirsty: Not necessarily that it’s abuse because, for me, I know that I didn’t even realize that what I had experienced was abuse in my early 20s, but maybe at what age as a child is it that we maybe even start to think the simple things. Like, say if we’re getting ignored by a parent, maybe we think, “Oh they don’t love me” rather than just having the feeling. Is that something that happens? Or is it always just maybe the feeling of that happening?

Ariana: The feeling is pretty predominant. Because the way the trauma sinks in, you don’t have the conscious thought of, “You know, oh my parent who should be loving and caring is ignoring me and, you know, staring at the TV, or is unavailable.” You’re not thinking that because, as a child, you’re egocentric, you’re thinking about yourself: “Oh, I must be doing something wrong. This is my fault. I should be a better – I  should be more perfect. I should be a better child. I should get better grades. Oh, look, when I get good grades I get attention,” or “When I get bad grades, I get attention,” or, “When I misbehave, I get attention,” and it’s not this conscious thought; it becomes a way of behaving. 

So, generally, as children, we don’t see that it’s somebody else. Like you are saying, you don’t realize there’s – especially – emotional abuse. But even physical abuse a lot of times it just seems like, “That’s just the way life is.”

Kirsty: Wow, and so at what age do we maybe begin to, like, have this sense of … awareness just about what’s maybe going on in the world or even, you know, sometimes I remember, from a young age, I always had this sense of like, “There’s an injustice!” you know, but I just didn’t know what “injustice” was. I didn’t know what was wrong. I just knew that “something’s not right about this, something’s not right in this house, something’s not right in this home.” I didn’t know what it was.

Ariana: Right, that can happen at any age. I think it’s very individual, and sometimes it’s – you know, people just say, “Yeah, my family’s a mess, I’m out of here,” and they may be 13 or they may be 18 or they may be five. It’s really hard to say yeah and it depends on the dynamics.

Sometimes if you have an older sibling, for example, who is the the “rebel,” you know – and we put these labels, we get we get stuck in these labels and these roles and this is how dysfunctional families work – so you have an older child, perhaps, who’s the “rebel” and then you have the younger child who’s the “perfectionist straight A student” because that’s how this family dynamic fits, this is how everybody stays safe, and you’re not aware that you’re doing this, the awareness comes in often, I think, just way later in life. So even becoming aware in your 20s is miraculous.

Kirsty: That was due to a lot of factors, you know, that was due to a really abusive relationship that led to what I call my breakthrough. It was a breakdown but a breakthrough at the same time, and it was at that point where I began to realize, like, this is happening because of what happened to me in childhood, and that’s when I began to kind of understand and make that connection. But if it wasn’t for that really abusive relationship that I was in at that time – and not to give any kind of gratitude or anything towards it – but if it wasn’t for that and that would have just continued on. 

Ariana: Yeah it can continue until there’s some type of breaking point or a breakdown or somebody just realizes, “Enough! I don’t want these.” “Why am I having panic attacks?” or “Why is this relationship failing?” “Why am I constantly losing my cool as a mom when all I want to do is be the best mom and love my children? Why is that so difficult? Why am I so overwhelmed?” 

Kirsty: Do you find in your line of work from the people that you talk to – because I know obviously my situation was maybe a bit more extreme and, I mean, I had a complete mental breakdown – I was diagnosed with cPTSD, panic disorder, agoraphobia, dissociation, and I was in my early 20s. I was in a foreign country on my own without any family. I was disconnected from my family and so I remember, like, having those exact thoughts that you just said, you know, like, “Something has to change here. I will not tolerate this. This will not be my life” was the kind of recurring thought I kept having. “I’m 21 years old. I’m not letting this be the rest of my life. I have to radically change.” But I know that in my situation it was quite an extreme situation, and for a lot of women, it might not be that extreme or even to point out that for a lot of women, even the childhood situation because a lot of the things that you were mentioning … were just everyday occurrences in a household that can create that type of trauma or can create those core wounds or beliefs, but they’re not always intentional, they’re not always abusive, they’re not always malicious or nasty; it’s just things that could happen in a household where maybe one parent is very busy working in an office all the time so is very tired when they get home and they don’t have time for the child, and if this repeats, then that child is going to maybe create that core wound of abandonment or “I’m not good enough.”

Ariana: And a lot of times – what you’re describing there – the parents can have the best of intentions and they can think they’re doing a great job parenting, and it can also be part of the current parenting culture of the time. Back when I was growing up, it was very common for, I think, dads to feel like, “Well, my role is to earn money, not to hang out with my kids,” and so that’s normalized. And we were the “latchkey generation,” where a lot of times both parents were working. The children would come home from school by yourself and you’re on your own until five or six o’clock at night, and depending on what your need is – everybody’s different: For some kids growing up, that might be like, “I’m cool, this is great,” and others might say – and it’s again it’s not like you’re saying this consciously, like “I need my parents around,” but the nervous system needs that, the mind needs that, the soul needs that nurturing, and if it’s not there, that’s when those core beliefs, you know, really have kind of the soil to grow out of into something larger. [Beliefs] like “I don’t matter,” “I’m invisible.” They just take root and they grow and nothing is countering that during these really important developmental years.

And again: the parents can have the best of intentions and it may look normal from the outside, and that is what is so deceptive: you have to really sink into your own feelings, your own understanding, and accept a lot of what might be really uncomfortable, [things] like, “You know, I love my parents. I think I love them, I think they love me, [so] why am I so messed up?”

This is only a partial transcript. You can watch the full interview here:

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