Trauma as a Potential Source of Solidarity
When I first moved to Vancouver, I was immediately drawn to its Downtown Eastside neighborhood—a place where drug deals are conducted openly; crack is smoked on the streets and in the alleys; women sell cheap alleyway blowjobs to support their habits; needles lie strewn on the ground; and men and women do strange dances down the streets in time to the beat of the cocaine coursing through their veins. It is Canada’s poorest postal code, located in an opulent city with some of the world’s most unaffordable real estate prices (second only to Hong Kong).
I think the attraction had to do with what had brought me to Vancouver in the first place: on the streets of the Downtown Eastside I felt a sense of kinship among others struggling, as I was, with the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
My experiences in the Downtown Eastside made me wonder how experiences of trauma can open us to each other and serve as a new source of solidarity that cuts across class and social divisions. How might the ability to see analogies between others’ traumas and our own make us more able to see ourselves as part of an interconnected community—a community in which we are all responsible for one another’s welfare?
My Own Story
I left my home in Montréal after having been attacked by a man who broke into my apartment in the middle of the night. I got away and was physically undamaged, but the psychological and emotional damage of this event was profound and long-lasting.
In the aftermath of the attack, I developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Every time I tried to sleep, I experienced night terrors from which I would wake up screaming. Flashbacks and sudden moments of panic left me exhausted, utterly depleted. More than a year went by when I was sleeping sometimes less than two hours a night, and during that time I would wake up screaming from nightmares at persistent and regular intervals.
As a result of these and other symptoms, I was unable to concentrate. My memory failed me. I was in such agony that I used to say that I was wearing my nervous system on the outside of my skin, and every bump, every nick rattled me like an electric shock. The more I suffered, the less I recognized myself.
Eventually, I asked to take a semester off my position as a college professor in Montreal. I was granted the leave, but it brought on a whole new set of troubles. My insurance company refused me disability insurance, leaving me panicked over money and entrenched in an acrimonious bureaucratic battle. Because I had no money coming in, I felt stuck in the apartment in which I’d been assaulted, reminded constantly of the terror of that night. And at the end of my semester off, having spent most of that time in a state of extreme and protracted anxiety, I found that my employers had failed to tell me that they had opted not to renew my contract with them, as, at the time that I took my semester off, I was one semester shy of achieving the possibility of a permanent position.
After all of this, I made a decision that I don’t even remember making: a decision to move to Vancouver, which was about as far from Montréal as I could get, in order to restart my life. After living in Vancouver for a year, I began a program that introduced therapeutic massage to a drop-in center for women who are survival sex workers in the Downtown Eastside. Eventually, I began to teach photography at the same drop-in center.
Goldberg, Jill. Trauma as a Potential Source of Solidarity. Tikkun28(1): 38.