The Trauma Effect: Fraught Space, Healing, and Moving Forward

As two weeks of pain, trauma, and viciousness comes to a close, I find myself more than a little broken. I've spent the last two weeks issuing public statements, promoting radical self care, and trying to keep my own trauma responses handled with self care so that I could help others. It's been exhausting, drowning, and unrelenting.

Everyone has had their own reactions to the last two weeks. If you're not familiar with the last two weeks, goodness do I hate to tell you what's been going on. A notorious and known online harasser was revealed to be horrifically abusive to his ex wife. The level of pain he caused was deeply unsettling. Several more women came forward after to tell their own stories. Their stories paint a terrible reality.

To follow this, the indie game world broke as accusations came against one of our own. It's complicated and terrible and I can't comment on it because of various positions of power I hold, but basically what happened was a well known designer and community member was accused of abuse by multiple people. His wife is accused of being complicit and using her positions of power to shield him.

These weren't people most of us in the community saw as terrible. They were community leaders, organizers, and friends. They were people we trusted. People we ate food with. People we loved. We were all shaken by the news of the toxic abuser from another community. But we were all broken by the news of what was in our home turf.

My time has been filled with counselling friends, creating policy, launching investigations, answering to the masses, and finding quiet ways to reach out to others who are as broken as I am. The grief we are experiencing is nothing compared to what the victims have endured and are enduring as they come forward with their stories. As a survivor of abuse, I have never been brave enough to name my abusers publicly or to decry them out loud.

I can't imagine how that feels and I wish those people all the strength and love. They are some of the bravest amongst us.

The good news from all of this, before we move onto the bad, was that victims were believed and harmful, abusive people are being removed from the communities. That's amazing and suggests positive growth. I'm proud of the community for this and I hope you are too.

The other news that came from these revelations was that the gaming community, if we can even call it that, is full of people who are waiting to tear each other down at the first opportunity. That the community still has a deep and concerning participation in racism. And that the community is full of people who have been hurt, bruised, traumatized, abused, and harassed, and that frames the way they function and the way they interact with others in the community.

The first and last points are interconnected and are what I'm going to be focusing on. That being said, I feel it would be unethical of me to not address the very real and obvious racism that happened in the last two weeks. Understand, I'm white as cake. Which means despite people attacking PoC in a company I work for, I didn't receive any harassment, call ins, or call outs. Neither did another white creator who has worked with them. But the two PoC associated with the company got attacked.

No matter how you feel about the company, that obvious and painful truth remains. Our community forgave someone with a questionable reputation, who had worked directly with the abuser himself even after knowing the online harassment the abuser participated in. We said the white guy's apology was fine, while we attacked multiple PoC for not doing good enough despite having even less contact, never having worked with the abuser, and less to do with the abuser. That's bullshit and that shit has to stop.

On top of that, I had multiple PoC reach out to me expressing their fear. They were afraid to speak out because of how vicious and harmful white designers and freelancers were being. We scared them. Our behaviours and our actions hurt and harmed PoC in the last two weeks. We made it painfully obvious it isn't safe to be a PoC in our community.

If our industry and community is ever going to try to be a safer space, we must begin to recognize these vulgar patterns and not participate in them. We must call them out. We must fight back against them. And we must learn to step back from our own view and see the wider picture of just how many white people are yelling at PoC and who isn't getting harassed versus who is.

These patterns matter. And they bespeak a deeper trauma we are perpetuating, where we enact violence on the internet to PoC because they aren't performing how we, white people, want them to. Healing can't really begin, in earnest, until we approach our industry from a perspective anti-oppression. We can't heal until we become accountable for these transgressions.

Step one is acknowledging that. Step two is listening and not fighting back when it turns out we're being racist. Step three is owning it and apologizing for the harm we've done. Step four is doing the work to do better and learning from our fuck ups.

Beyond the trauma we're causing PoC by being white assholes, there's the trauma that I saw all over the place as I watched the blood start dripping from open wounds we gave each other. There are some patterns we need to note, work on, and do better. Because rather than become a unified front to help remove abusers from the community, we became a group of angry white people tearing each other and PoC down in the name of trauma.

We know a fair bit about trauma now a days. We know, for example, that what happens to you trauma wise literally changes your genetics and your biography becomes your biology. We know that trauma has specific and non-specific manifestations. We know that traumatized people traumatize other people because of their trauma.

We also know that trauma care is wildly unavailable and under sought. That many of us are hurting deeply and can't receive the care needed. Further, many of us can't fathom seeking help. We've become so entrenched in the idea that surviving is enough that we think we're doing okay.

Despite our best efforts as a group to acknowledge that people are hurt and hurting, we are also a group that walks away with our hands in the air when those same people are turning that hurt outward and hurting others. We are complicit and active participants in the way trauma ripples outwards, traveling through our friends and loved ones.

You'll be hard pressed to meet a marginalized person in gaming who hasn't received harassment. This incurs trauma. Beyond the gaming scope, many of us are victims of abuse in other ways: through our society, through friends, and through partners. That trauma changes us. We will never be the same. This is a core truth that can be one of the most brutal. At least, for me it is.

At first, our trauma becomes us. We move through it in real time, living it fully. As time progresses, we begin to develop coping strategies. Most of them, without therapeutic guidance, are unhealthy and will be problems later in life. Untreated, trauma runs rampant and becomes a pattern of behaviours that can and often are, harmful and hurtful to ourselves and to others.

But what does that look like? It looks like stress responses. There are three core responses to being triggered. Fight, flight, and freeze. Freeze is the instinct to just stop and hold still and hope whatever it is stops noticing us. Flight is the urge to run the fuck away, withdraw into ourselves, or leave what's hurting us. Fight is the impulse to lash out, dig in, yell, say shitty things, or do shitty things to scare whatever is hurting us away.

What are the symptoms? How do we recognize trauma? And more importantly, how do we recognize it on the internet? It can be easy to recognize an irritated, restless, crying, or panicked person when we're in the flesh. But how does that manifest on the internet? And how are the relational and social symptoms of trauma portrayed through text?

Consider these social and relational (relationship) symptoms that are common with trauma survivors:
- Hyper-sensitive to criticism, being exposed, authority figures or roles
- Hyper-vigilance, including waiting to be disappointed, hurt, attacked, blamed, or abandoned
- Not trusting self or others, such as doubting intentions like "they won't like me" or "they're trying to hurt me on purpose"
- Difficulty with boundaries, feeling easily manipulated, having a hard time saying no or stepping away
- Extremes of people pleasing behaviours or abusive/defensive behaviours towards others
- Inability to relax or experience joy
- Loss of purpose, meaning, or spirituality

These social symptoms, when combined with what we know about flight, fight, or freeze, leads to one really sad picture of what happens on the internet when trauma and triggering content begins to appear. That picture suggests that those trauma victims who respond with flight or freeze are likely to be quiet, hide, or shut down. They won't be on the internet. They won't be able to handle it for more than a few minutes before their panic response kicks in.

That means the ones who will be on the internet are people whose fight response has been triggered. But not just their fight response. Rage, fear, agitation, and restlessness are normal presentations. Lashing out and abusive behaviour, combined with neurological symptoms like trouble processing what's happening, trouble retrieving or processing memories, and the emotional symptoms of self-blame, guilt, shame, self hatred and feelings of hopelessness means some very potent and volatile people who are simply enduring a trauma response are posting on the internet.

What does that mean? It means angry, hurt, often paranoid people who are not in a state where they can properly assess what they're doing, who they're hurting, or the fact that they're being hurtful are lashing out at each other because they are triggered.

It isn't intentional. While they may recognize that they've been triggered, they often don't recognize how their symptoms are manifesting. They can't see that they're in a fight response and they're hurting people. All they can see is their pain, their emotional responses which we enforce as right and valid, and that someone they perceive to be harmful is speaking on the internet.

I have yet to meet someone whose trauma response is arousal/fight who recognizes this component of their behaviour. It shocked me to see so many people taking to the internet to tear each other down. People who were friends. People who proclaimed to care about community health. People who were either terrible people and liars, or were trauma victims not recognizing their own behaviour patterns. I need to believe it's the latter.

I've come to recognize the symptoms pretty easily in others, but it's harder to see in myself. My tactics have been radical self care and knowing that if I'm triggered, I need to not be on the internet because there's a very real chance I can hurt someone. That's me being responsible and accountable to myself and my actions. I have actively recognized that being a victim of trauma has made me more likely to lash out and hurt others.

Not all of us have. And there are times when I'm caught off guard. I have lashed out and hurt people not knowing I was in an arousal state. Afterwards, I needed to apologize, journal about my behaviour so I could recognize it later, and try to do better next time. Being a trauma victim doesn't absolve me of the hurt or harm I've caused.

It's my job to recognize that I'm being hyper-vigilant. That I am not reading posts on the internet with the best of intentions. That I am assuming bad intention and not truly listening but have instead dug in for a fight and am unable to see the situation clearly or from any distance. It's my job to do a body check to see if I feel anxious or nervous, to regulate that, and to step away if I am experiencing trauma symptoms.

Regulating myself, regardless of what happened to me, is my job.

When we sit on the internet picking fights, attacking each other, and tearing each other down over subjects that are triggering us, we're causing harm. We're perpetuating cycles of abuse. We need to recognize this and learn care for ourselves. And we need to learn to recognize it in our friends, gently talk to them about it, and our friends need to learn to listen and internalize.

Our feelings are valid. We are scared for reasons, sometimes good ones and sometimes less good ones but those feelings are real. I am not saying traumatized people don't have valid feelings. What I am saying is our response to those feelings, through our actions, can be the opposite of our intention. Often we intend to be doing good, and what we do is cause fear and harm. It wasn't an accident that PoC came to me telling me how afraid they were. So many of us were weaponizing our trauma that they should be afraid.

In a room where a bunch of people are yelling and screaming at each other, there are plenty of reasons to be afraid. If we think of our conversations on the internet as all of us being in a big room, it's easy to see how those trauma behaviours become loud, aggressive, and harmful. We don't blame the people leaving the room. But was that our intention? Were we deliberately driving people away who are good people? Or once we're done raging are we gonna feel shitty for driving people out of the room?

It's time we start recognizing these behaviour patterns and do our best to work on them. It's time we start creating support groups, being open to call ins, and actively stepping away when we've been triggered. It's time we own our complicity in perpetuating the cycles of abuse and in recognizing that our trauma responses do not belong on the internet when they could be harmful, just as we would recognize they shouldn't be directed at our loved ones for the same reasons.

It's time we tried to heal each other instead of harm each other.

Healing is a complicated process. We all know it requires therapy, and that's just not available to most people. As a community, we can come together to form support groups, to gather resources online for our traumatized friends, and to care for each other. We can help guide each other through breath, through body relaxation, through accountability actions like napping, walking away, or brushing our teeth. We can check in, provide space if we're able, and help find space if we can't provide it.

As traumatized people, we can form support networks for ourselves, learn to lean on them, learn to step away, learn to talk to ourselves about what's true versus what isn't, to assume best intentions, to breathe, to self care like no tomorrow. We can learn to journal about our triggers and begin to recognize our own patterns. We can listen when we're being told our behaviours are being hurtful. We can do self checks.

Stepping away from anything that I know can be triggering to talk to someone or journal about it helps me clear my head. It helps me get onto paper or in the air what I'm thinking and allows me to be reflective instead of reactive. To me, the goal of do no harm is the greatest guide I can find. Can I step back from what I'm about to post and say "Does this hurt people potentially? Who am I writing this for? Why am I writing it? Am I in a clear headspace?"

These questions help guide me on what I should be posting. When I'm reading a post, I often step back to ask myself "Am I having a physical response to this post? What is it? Am I reading this with the best of intentions? How does this post make me feel emotionally? Is that a good space for me to reply from?"

I don't always get it right. I fuck it up all the time. And we all will. But moving forward can't mean giving up. Moving forward has to mean recognition and then trying our hardest to do better. I don't want to be a force in the world that silences marginalized voices because my PTSD kicked my ass that day. I want so desperately to be able to see it, recognize it, and get the fuck off the internet. My trauma is not a valid reason to perpetuate harm.

Moving forward means self reflection, owning what we can, and starting to put real practices into place to ensure we're acting with our best intentions and those intentions are translated into real, solid actions that leave good impacts behind. Moving forward is saying "I want this community to be healthier and I am going to live that to the best of my ability."

It's the promise I've walked away with these last two weeks. I will do my utmost to recognize my trauma behaviours, to walk away when they're impacting my ability to be a good community member, and to own when I've hurt people because of them. I will be accountable for my actions, good and bad, and do my best to act as a support to myself and to my community when I am able.

I'm tired of seeing the community do this and of cultivating despair because it's so painful to experience and to watch. I know most of us are tired. This isn't going to fix everything, but it is one healthy step towards accountability and ultimately, to starting to heal the trauma we continue to cause one another.

All journeys begin with a single step. Walk with me?

Here are some trauma resources that may help you on your journey. As always, take what you find helpful and leave the rest behind. Know that you are loved, worthwhile, and important.
- The Sidran Institute Resources for Survivors and their Loved Ones
- 7 Strategies to Help Manage Trauma
- RAINN's Self Care After Trauma
- Self Care as a Trauma Survivor
- 5 Self Care Tips for Abuse Survivors
- Six Elements of Self Care for Childhood Abuse Survivors