A white Caucasian male in his mid-to-late thirties sits down for lunch in his mother’s kitchen. He slowly enjoys the sandwich he has made for himself, along with a handful of Sea Salt and Vinegar potato chips, (which for the sake of losing a few pounds) he knows he shouldn’t be eating. He has a set of headphones on, with which he is using to listen to his carefully constructed playlist on iTunes. To the left of his lunch sits his laptop, on which he is casually- and without much thought- working through his e-mails. He suddenly and unexpectedly receives an e-mail from his lawyer regarding his recent job-loss and the American’s with Disabilities Act and defamation lawsuit which ensued. He grows discouraged by what he is reading; and as he glances up, his eyes catch a hand of bananas. A flashback emanates, the likes of which he has never experienced. Before long his wife finds him blacked out on the kitchen floor, in a cold sweat, and hyperventilating…
One of the most overlooked aspects of Sigmund Freud, and his psychoanalytic theory, is the notion of afterwardsness in the experiencing of trauma. This is incredibly relevant to not only our personal journey/story, but also to the collective consciousness of our society- especially right now as we find ourselves in the throes of a major pandemic. How do we experience trauma? Does it have lasting- sometimes repressed- effects? We definitely need to be careful about making major generalizations, however, one can certainly make connections between the transcendent/universal effects of trauma, and what we understand about it both individually, and as a society.
Sigmund Freud’s most concise- and easy to understand- explanation of afterwardsness can be found in his translated letters to Wilhelm Fleiss. Here Freud used a schematic of ideas to articulate the temporal, overarching effects of trauma in a person. The prevailing concept goes like this: the subject will experience an intense idea: A; and A causes the subject to weep or act out in hysteria and/or neurosis. The reality is however, that the subject doesn’t consciously know or understand why A, is causing them to act out in this way. Upon further analysis, the revelation of the existence of another idea: B, is made manifest. B, as an idea/concept/prior experience does, and should justifiably lead to weeping and/or neurosis. “What’s going on in this paradigm” you ask? Well, Freud postulated that an event must have occurred in which B+A were conjoined in the subject’s experience. The incongruity for Freud, was that while B was the appropriate cause and origin of the neurotic response, A, had become a symbol for B; A was B’s substitute in the patient’s consciousness and experience. Freud asserted that the very notion of B, played no part in the psyche, or the “psychical life” of the subject. “The symbol,” Freud argued “has taken the place of the thing itself.”. So, in Freud’s estimation, “A is compulsive, and B is repressed.” In other words, trauma, has a unique way of speaking into and through both major and minor incidents we experience in our daily lives; even if we don’t fully realize that it’s happening, or when it’s happening.
It should be interesting to note (especially in a world in which evangelicals have wholly dismissed Sigmund Freud and his legacy) that St. Augustine recognized the reality of afterwardsness in the brokenness of our lives. In his seminal work, Confessions, St. Augustine argues that memory does not present a one-to-one correspondence between past and present. St. Augustine recognized that the paradox of forgetting, is that we cannot know we have forgotten unless we already remember. St. Augustine, like Sigmund Freud, believed and asserted that humanity is very capable of repression- especially in cases of deep brokenness and suffering.
What we have to understand- especially right now, with where we are as a society, is that the original experience/trauma is often- for a variety of reasons- “missed” by us, and the postponement of that experience is manifested in anyone who has undergone significant changes and developments since their initial traumatization. In other words, where trauma is concerned, especially in the psychotherapeutic context, nothing is ever linear. As counselors we have a responsibility to our clients to correctly interpret and subsequently, appropriately create avenues of intervention. This means that we have to take into account the temporal afterwardsness of the client’s trauma, by rightly interpreting the hermeneutic of the client. Translation: AVOID REDUCTIONISM AND LEAN INTO COMPLEXITY!
The story at the beginning of this post, is that of someone close to me. He was diagnosed with severe and complex PTSD a few years ago; as a result of both his time as a veteran in the U.S. Army, and as a victim of childhood trauma and abuse. When he was four, and his mother was out of town, his father found a banana peel on the kitchen counter; which my friend, in his childhood “laziness” forgot to throw in the garbage. His father proceeded upstairs to his room with the banana peel, flung open my friend’s door in a fit of rage, threw the banana peel at his face, and said “enjoy your meal for the next two days!” He then locked my friend in his room for the next 48 hours, until his mom returned home. He remembers two things specifically from that experience: first, the shame of having to defecate in the closet during that time, because he didn’t know where else to go; and second how extremely parched his lips were from not having access to any water. This traumatic event was both repressed, but also reverberated down through the years and experiences of my friend.
This horrific story is a part of his Nachträglichkeit; which he is always cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually living forward, but remembering backwards.
It’s so important that we both within the counseling profession, as well as members of a broader society, carry and hold the complexity and tensions of our afterwardsness, especially, as well as those of others. We consistently carry our hurt and pain- quite often in ways we can’t predict or understand. This is part in parcel of the sanctity of both who we are, and the complexity that we consistently harbor in our minds and souls. We carry the past forward- which makes us so much more, than how we often present in the here and now.
Billy Robinson | MA, LLPC