Complexities of Complex Trauma

For years, I had no idea why I behaved so horribly, why my relationships never lasted, why I kept going back to drugs, alcohol, unhealthy relationships…. why did I keep going back to The Game? It was always THEIR FAULT!!!!

Then one day while sitting is a training session, I got it… I was a VICTIM and suffering from “Complex Trauma”.

Allow me to back up for a moment, my name is Tammy, I am a CSEC Survivor, I am from Hawaii, I was born and raised on the Island of Oahu I am going to share my life with you and how I realized I have suffered from Complex Trauma.

What is Complex Trauma?

Complex trauma generally refers to traumatic stressors that are interpersonal, that is, they are premeditated, planned, and caused by other humans, such as violating and/or exploitation of another person. Child abuse of all types (physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect) within the family is the most common form of chronic interpersonal victimization.

For me, the abuse started when I was four years old, how you may ask do you remember back to 4 years old?  Well, that’s easy for me because I have seen the same incident in my mind for over 47 years.  You see my favorite aunt and my dad were the abusers and I could not understand how my favorite aunt would allow my dad to do those things to me. So, I relived the incident over and over in my mind.  The last time my dad abused me he violently raped me I was 13 years old.  All the years in between there was constant sexual abuse, some call that incest.

Rather than creating conditions for protection and security within the relationship, abuse by primary attachment figures instead becomes the cause of great distress and creates conditions of gross insecurity and instability for the child including misgivings about the trustworthiness of others. Whatever the case, the victim usually does not have adequate time to regain emotional equilibrium between occurrences and is left with the knowledge that it can happen again at any time. This awareness, in turn, leads to states of ongoing vigilance, anticipation, and anxiety. Rather than having a secure and relatively carefree childhood, abused children are worried and hypervigilant. The psychological energy that would normally go to learning and development instead goes to coping and survival.

I remember always dreading being alone with my dad.

Unfortunately, when such abuse is observed or a child does disclose, adequate and helpful responses are lacking, resulting in another betrayal and another type of trauma that has been labeled secondary traumatization or institutional trauma. It is for these additional reasons that complex traumatization is often compounded and cumulative, as well as becomes a foundation on which other traumatic experiences tragically occur over the course of the individual’s lifespan. Research studies have repeatedly found that when a child is abused early in life, especially sexually, it renders him/her much more vulnerable to additional victimization. Such child victims can become caught in an ongoing cycle of violence and retraumatization over their life course, especially if the original abuse continues to go unacknowledged and the aftereffects unrecognized and untreated.

When I finally told about the sexual abuse I was taken away from my family, my little sister was just 5 years old, and now who was going to protect her from our abusive dad?

Occurring later in life, are often traumatic or potentially traumatic and can worsen the impact of early life complex trauma and cause the development of complex traumatic stress reactions. These adversities can include but are not limited to:

Ongoing sexual and physical revictimization and retraumatization in the family or other contexts, including prostitution and sexual slavery

To summarize: complex traumatic events and experiences can be defined as stressors that are:

(1)  repetitive, prolonged, or cumulative (2) most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation, and maltreatment including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers or other ostensibly responsible adults, and (3) often occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life, especially in early childhood or adolescence, but can also occur later in life and in conditions of vulnerability associated with disability/ disempowerment/dependency/age /infirmity, and so on.

Now in foster care without any therapy for the sexual abuse, I turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the anger and pain I felt. Which led me to make poor choices, one that would change my life even more?  I met a pimp at age 15 and did not go home instead I went on the run for 9 months and was sold for sex in Waikiki and later Anchorage Alaska.

Although some individuals who were traumatized as children manage to escape relatively unscathed at the time or later (often due to personal resilience or to having had a restorative and secure attachment relationship with a primary caregiver that countered the abuse effects). For me my saving grace was my older sister she understood me, she helped me and encouraged me to do good. But when I was 16 years old she committed suicide. After she committed suicide I felt angrier and lost, my life spiraled out of control.

Aftereffects include the following: Anger and of tendencies towards self-destructiveness; dissociative episodes; ongoing feelings of intense shame; not being able to trust the motives of others and not being able to feel intimate with them;  “lesson of abuse” internalized by victim/ survivors is that other people are venal and self-serving, out to get what they can by whatever means including using/abusing others; abuse survivors may be unaware that other people can be benign, caregiving, and not dangerous; chronically abused and traumatized individuals often feel hopeless about finding anyone to understand them or their suffering.


Exposing these patients too directly to their trauma history in the absence of their ability to maintain safety in their lives or to self-regulate strong emotions can lead to retraumatization, associated decompensation, and inability to function.

I feared ever seeking therapy or talking about any of my abuse or being with a pimp because I thought if I talked about it I would lose my mind.

The early stage focuses on safety, stabilization, and establishing the treatment frame and the therapeutic alliance.

The middle stage of treatment begins only after stabilization skills have been developed and are utilized as needed.

The late stage of treatment involves identity and self-esteem development and concurrent development of improved relational skills and relationships

The important consideration is that new and different approaches to the treatment of complex trauma are now available and effective. Survivors who were once confused by their symptoms and who despaired about receiving understanding and assistance now have the opportunity to receive effective treatment, to heal, and to get their lives back and on track.

I have never received formal therapy for Complex Trauma, I did, however, begin going to Church and found healing in forgiving others, found an identity in who I am because I have a Savior who is Jesus Christ.  The layers of my pain that I masked with drug and alcohol abuse were exposed and dealt with in a way that has allowed me to remain drug and alcohol- free for over 13 years.  I can now trust another and am in a healthy marriage of 10 years. During a training as I sat listening to the instructor I realized that I had suffered so many of the same symptoms he was describing as Complex Trauma, today I still contend with some symptoms but I am on my way to freedom.  I have done the Virtual Mentorship Program with RBI and learned more about who I am… There is hope! There is healing! There is a new normal for me and for YOU!

Do you know what Complex Trauma is?

Tammy (CSEC Survivor, Volunteer, Advocate, and Community Outreach Manager) is a wife to Jonny,  mother to Chad and her furry baby Frankie Boy, sister to Jo and many brothers. She is a friend to many & is a leader at her home church Legacy Christian Church located on the Island of Oahu.  She is a full charge bookkeeper for a prominent Honolulu law office. Tammy is a volunteer for Hoʻōla Nā Pua (A New Life for Our Children) a Hawaii-based, 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to provide renewal of trafficked girls who have been commercially sexually exploited (CSEC) through a comprehensive and holistic approach to Health, Education, Advocacy, and Reintegration. Tammy oversees the Annual Gala and Golf Tournament and as the Community Outreach Manager, she coordinates speaking engagements, awareness events, and fundraising events. In addition, she uses her powerful testimony to convey the reality and scope of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the Hawaii islands.