Harassment can inflict the PTSD soul wound. Bullying and harassment can severely damage our identity, our souls. While we often think of military combat as the cause of PTSD, we can receive PTSD in several other ways. These forms of attack will damage us beyond the physical. American culture is slowly becoming more aware that bullying, teasing, and harassment can leave emotional scars and even lead to death. At times what may start as friendly kidding or teasing can morph into damaging behavior and damaging responses. And, at other times, some people will use these behaviors to bother or intimidate others because they know they will likely get away with it and also be able to make someone else feel emotional and spiritual pain. When these actions begin to treat someone as the other, a subject and not a person, a meat-puppet to be consumed, we will often see PTSD damage.
Embarrassment Can Alienate and Kill
Severe embarrassment can be physically harmful. In some cases, severe embarrassment and/or a sense of betrayal has prompted people to suicide. Often the person who arranged for the embarrassment to occur will say they were “only joking” and had “no idea this would happen” afterward. The victim of the teasing and the practical joke feels they have been so alienated from their communities that suicide is preferable to facing down the laughter, the jokes, and the bullies.
Indeed, our culture even includes phrases like, “I could have died I was so embarrassed.” Phrases like these are useful to actually keep us from committing self-harm. But when we don’t have other people we trust enough to share our embarrassment with, then the pressure only builds. If we are already alienated from our communities and don’t have trustworthy others to share our inner-pain, shame, or embarrassments with, then the pressure will continue to build and self-harm become more probable.
We Are Damaged As Individuals
Just as not every case of combat will produce PTSD, neither will every case of verbal harassment end up causing PTSD. Trauma and stress can affect us to different degrees based upon our individuality. But if we experience combat or if we experience verbal abuse or sexual harassment, we are more likely to be harmed than those who have not had those experiences inflicted upon them.
Violation of our humanity, damage to our soul, can manifest itself in the form of PTSD. When our identity, our sense of self, is perceived to be at risk, we are more likely to be engaged by PTSD. Sexual harassment can also be a trigger that activates a person’s pre-existing PTSD, even when the initial trauma was not sexual in nature.
My Latest Round of Sexual Harassment
Not so long ago I found myself the target of some sexual harassment and was surprised to discover to what extent it had activated some of my PTSD behaviors.
In one of those rare moments when I was actually walking in public by myself (I usually have someone with me in case I fall over), a car with four men pulled up next to me and started talking about my body, my limp, and my cane in some explicitly sexual ways. At first I thought they were harassing someone else and not me. When I realized they were talking to and about me in sexual ways some of my PTSD behaviors immediately activated.
In particular my Fight or Flight response (associated with the brain’s amygdala) kicked-in: I either had to make it to the doors of a store which was ahead of me or I had to sort out how to stop these guys if they got out of the car and came at me. As there were four of them I figured I would only be able to put an end to one or two of them before I went down. The thought of dealing with a manslaughter charge and prison did not enter my mind. I only reacted in Fight or Flight terms: It was get to the relative safety of the store, or put those guys down. Their continuing comments made me feel extremely vulnerable and even embarrassed. So much so that it made the Fight or Flight response seem like the only reasonable outcome.
Fortunately, they stayed in the car and the driver stayed along side me until I got to the store. As I started into the doors and the men said some more things, made some particular gestures, laughed, sped up and drove around the corner. I remained in the store longer than I usually would have. When I left I was rather cautious but they had not come back. I felt like absolute crap and slunk home in embarrassment.
Some Lessons Learned
1. Sexual Harassment, Assault, and Rape are about Abusing Power, not Sex.
Intellectually, I have always known that sexual harassment and rape rarely (if ever) have much to do with desire, beauty, or sexual horniness (remember, I used this word in a sentence!). Those four men were not interested in having sex or joking with me, they were interested in making me feel embarrassed, vulnerable, and degraded. They succeeded. Those feelings of vulnerability, shame, and degradation activated my PTSD Fight/Flight response and it is fortunate that none of them tried to stop me from entering the store.
2. PTSD Can Be Activated by Unaffiliated Triggers
As mentioned already, we can have our PTSD triggered by experiences which have nothing to do with how we initially got PTSD. Learning to identify and live with PTSD triggers is one of the activities we must all engage in. As we do so, our relationships will strengthen and we will find new reasons to stay alive and thrive.
3. Talk, Write, and Pray
If you have a PTSD triggering event, then discuss the incident with someone you trust. When we have experiences that either produce our initial PTSD or that later serve as PTSD triggers we need to grapple with them, talk them out, pray.
Later that day my wife came home and after she settled in we talked about my degrading experience, how vulnerable it made me feel, and how it was really about power and not about sex. In my own offline notebooks I also explored how and why I felt so degraded and embarrassed when it was those four men who were the ones who had done wrong.
I was the “victim” of their “teasing” and their “jokes” but it made me willing, rather it primed me, to kill or maim as many of them as I could before I went down. I hope to never be in a physical conflict again in my life, I teach courses on non-violence, but my PTSD got initiated and I went to Fight or Flight mode. Since I cannot run or even walk fast I was forced to be ready to fight. I don’t like the fact I had that response. I understand it, but I wish I was not so damaged as to have it. My talks with my wife, notebook writing, and prayer have helped me ease away the shame and anger the episode splashed me with. Now, anger and shame mostly abated, I am able to explore it again in this essay for PTSD Spirituality.
Knowing Our Inherent Worth Helps Heal Soul Wounds
Sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical is an attack on our core identity, upon who we really are. These attacks inflict soul wounds. It hurts so much because we find ourselves treated like a meat-puppet for someone else’s amusement or pleasure. Verbal and physical harassment, assaults and rape, severe teasing and practical jokes demean us. They tells us that someone believes we lack inherent value. When we experience these instances of dehumanization, we are more susceptible to PTSD and its stable of harmful behaviors, like self-cutting, substance abuse, and suicide. These experiences can render us so angry that we may lash out at those who love us and care for us. This is hard for everyone.
Love, the Image of God, and You
I wish I could say the simple solution is to have people treat one another with dignity and respect. That we would appreciate one another as members of the “Imago Dei,” that wonderful divine image in which God created us. We all have value, we must never forget it. As we withstand how some treat us poorly and as we withstand the subsequent PTSD suffering, we know we have essential value and can choose Life.
We know we are worthy of being loved and worthy of loving others, for as 1 John 4 tells us, God is Love. We share in that love given as the Imago Dei, the Image of God, in which we are created. We hope and pray, that those who treat others poorly may be converted to a position of Life, a position which seeks to build our individual dignity and not attempt to degrade us with shame.
Semper Pax, Dr. Z