Guest review by John Pollard.
Trauma is a complex and dense subject. Developing something approaching a full understanding of it can take years. In Trauma is Really Strange, Steve Haines and Sophie Standing have produced a solid and digestible jumping-off point for those wishing to begin an exploration of the topic. It is clear from reading this comic that it is not just written for those who may have an academic interest in the subject: it is also appropriate for those who are struggling to understand their own firsthand experience of trauma. As in their other comic, Pain is Really Strange, Haines and Standing offer up a clear, humorous and affirmative description of many of the fundamental elements of this issue.
Throughout the course of this comic, in particular during the first half, Haines and Standing touch on elements of the trauma experience and how trauma relates to our basic self-preservation reflexes. Haines’ scripting works very well with Standing’s artistic style: Haines providing crisp and concise introductions to the essentials of subjects like the fight-flight response, while Standing’s artwork communicates, powerfully and economically, the complex emotional and physical experiences such as dissociation . Indeed, there are elements of the trauma experience that seem to defy verbal description, and Standing’s artwork serves as a vital element in what makes this comic work as well as it does.
Haines and Standing primarily describe common expressions and symptoms of trauma from a general point of view, but also use some references to individual experiences here and there. The overall narrative of the comic offers an optimistic outlook on responding to and overcoming the effects of trauma, emphasising how resilient human beings are and highlighting the message that all of us have the ability to endure, overcome and learn from overwhelming events that occur in our lives. Although some experiences relating to trauma are discussed in detail, my only real criticism of this comic would be that the experience of reliving a traumatic event ( a common occurrence in those seeking therapy for trauma recovery) is only given a mention in the comic’s footnotes. Having said this, the scope of this comic is very broad, as it touches on the effect of accumulated stress and the experience of traumatic events in early life (developmental trauma) as well as the currently popular subject of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Haines and Standing acknowledge that they cannot do justice to the full complexity of subject: in the latter part of the comic the authors discuss how the psychological and physiological elements of trauma interact, the preverbal nature of elements of trauma, and the importance of working with the body’s response to trauma as a cornerstone of the recovery process. Haines’ knowledge and experience on this subject comes through clearly, and he provides a well-researched narrative on how our understanding of trauma has developed over the years. He goes into some detail about the neurological elements of trauma, and brings together a sense of how mysterious and confusing the experience of living with trauma can be.
Finally, the authors introduce tips for developing good self-regulation when feeling overwhelmed, but only touch on these points lightly, without entering the arena of self-help material. Haines and Standing do not attempt to provide a substitute for professional help, but encourage readers to reach out to others, both professional and otherwise. Trauma is Really Strange provides a hopeful, encouraging and empathic message about how we can understand and recover from trauma, which people living their own experience of trauma may find useful. As a psychological therapist I would be happy to recommend this comic to some of my clients, and, depending on the client I might be working with, can see myself discussing it during therapy sessions . I was very happy to see a comprehensive reference section on the inside of the back cover: a lot of very well respected texts on working with trauma are listed here, making this comic a great starting point for further learning. In fact, a colleague of mine has referenced this comic in a recent academic case study she was writing, which is a recommendation in itself, I think.
Trauma is Really Strange represents an important contribution to a growing number of comics that help to clarify complex mental health issues, and would happily recommend it.
John Pollard is a psychological therapist working in primary mental health care for the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. He is completing his clinical doctorate in counselling psychology and psychotherapy at the Metanoia Institute. He is currently conducting research into the use of comics in psychological therapy.