Updated: 2 days ago
Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event such as abuse, war, medical procedures,
the loss of a loved one, a life-threatening illness, poverty, systemic racism, loss of a job, or witnessing violence. When we experience trauma, our reactions to the environment around us shift, and our ability to process information, our understanding of ourselves, and our place within the community are altered. The brain will sometimes hide particularly stressful, traumatic, or fear-related memories, and when memories come back, they are often fragmented.
People who experience trauma, especially repeated traumas, are at greater risk for suffering from emotional dysregulations such as aggression, addiction, depression, and anxiety as well as physical illnesses such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other inflammatory illnesses.
It is hard to live in this world and not have faced trauma in some form. The question is, how do we overcome trauma so that we can live a healthy and healed life? For some insight, I spoke with Ramatulahi, a former refugee and first-generation attorney who advocates on issues related to international law and human rights.
Ramatulahi was born in Sierra Leone -
a country located on the western coast of the African continent. When she was around 4 years old, she and her family fled her homeland and took refuge in Lagos, Nigeria due to the civil war in her country. She came to the United States as a refugee when she was 13 years old.
As part of her culture, when she was about 8 years old, she underwent a procedure called female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is a cultural practice, not just within her culture, but in at least 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Due to migration, FGM has been performed in North American and European countries as well. It is estimated that over 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone this procedure. The purpose of the procedure is to ensure ‘purity’ before marriage. This tradition has been part of many cultures for ages and often is accompanied by a ‘rite of passage’ type ceremony. The practice is mostly carried out by a traditional circumciser, who is typically a woman. Often the procedure happens without anesthesia. Most procedures are done in a home, with only about 18% of procedures taking place in a medical facility. Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth, and increased risk of newborn deaths. FGM has been recognized internationally as a violation of human rights since 1997.
“When it’s the only thing you know, you don’t think much about the practice and how detrimental it is.”
It was during college that she began to understand the trauma she experienced both due to her displacement from her home country as a result of war and as a result of FGM. She has pieces of memories of the events - especially the pain that came with the procedure - but much of that past is hard for her to recall.
When I spoke with Ramatulahi about what she has done to work through the trauma she experienced, she told me, “In every trauma, you have to have knowledge of it. It wasn’t until I had acknowledged what happened to me AND recognized that it was wrong, that I was able to move forward and heal.”
She was born in a culture where this practice was completely accepted so growing up, she did not see anything wrong with it. Due to the customs and ceremony leading up to the procedure, there is excitement around the procedure and many women do not question it because it is the only thing they’ve known. As Ramatulahi says, “When it’s the only thing you know, you don’t think much about the practice and how detrimental it is.”
It was only by getting out of the culture that she was able to get a different perspective and truly understand the implications of the practice both from a medical and human rights perspective.
For Ramatulahi, she had to distance herself from the thinking of her culture and began educating herself on the facts related to the negative consequences of FGM. Once she came to recognize the harm of the practice, she realized she needed to begin to speak up about it - another piece to her healing and yet another area for resistance. Due to the long history of FGM and the honor and purity it represents, changing the mindset of others around the practice has been difficult - not just for Ramatulahi, but anyone. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and many other international organizations have been trying to educate people and raise awareness of this issue, yet it continues to be practiced. Ramatulahi recognizes that there are people who will reject her for the stand she is taking, but she recognizes that whether you do something good or bad, people will always have something to say. For her, this issue is too important to remain quiet over.
How often have we experienced something that was accepted within the culture, yet has serious negative impacts - physical or psychological?
The challenge in these situations is that speaking up, getting help, and creating changes are even more difficult. When you are asking for something to change that so many others have accepted as ‘right’ or ‘not a problem’, who is there to be your ally? Many may say that you are rejecting or bringing shame to your culture, your family, your community. Finding the inner strength to stand strong, especially when you’ve gone through trauma is not easy, but it is possible.
In addition to educating herself about FGM, Ramatulahi has leaned into her faith to help make sense of her past and strengthen her as she moves forward. It is through her faith that she recognizes that our time on this earth is just temporary and we were never promised it would be without suffering. Through her faith, she knows that her worth and value do not change, even though circumstances might. She counsels people to be strong-willed and have the conviction to know you don’t have to listen to negative people and at times may have to remove certain people in your life.
She also practices gratitude - finding the simple things in life, such as a roof over her head, unconditional love, a family, food, etc to be thankful for. Focusing on the present moment and connecting with positive ‘energy’, whether it is people or information, are essential as part of the practice of gratitude.
When you dwell on the past, the pain, or the negative, it drains your energy and begins to control you.
Ramatulahi is not interested in being controlled by negative weights. There is too much in life to appreciate to be held back.
The good news about trauma is that it does not have to control one’s life. Through counseling/emotional support, exercise, prayer/meditation/mindfulness, nutrition, and other deliberate actions, one can overcome the effects of trauma. If you have experienced trauma and need support, please reach out. You don’t deserve to be held back by these past situations and there are resources available to help. Open up to someone and share your struggles. Whether it is a friend, a therapist, a pastor/clergy/rabbi/imam, or a support group, find someone to talk to. Organizations such as the American Psychological Association, NAMI, and SAMHSA have a wealth of resources on how to cope with mental health conditions, therapists, treatment centers, and support groups. Many towns have local social service departments that are also great resources.
For those who are interested in learning more about FGM and advocacy around this issue, check out these 20 Organizations from around the globe that are fighting FGM.