This blog post was guest authored by Sandra Smith, PhD, vice president of Via Hope. She is a Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist and a Certified Reentry Peer Specialist. At PeerFest 2024 she will be presenting the session, “Creating Trauma Responsive Reentry and Mental Health Solutions Globally.”  She is a published author of her true-life story entitled Choices. 

PeerFest 2024 is all about lived mental health experience and recovery. Texans with lived mental health experience have created this educational and celebratory event for their peers who have also faced mental health challenges and are on a journey to wellness. Likewise, my own lived experience of incarceration informs my work with others who have experienced trauma. 

My experience has shown me that trauma does not start and end with a singular event. For this reason, I’ve coined and trademarked the unique term Thrauma® to use when discussing my real-life experience with incarceration. It’s an unusual term to be sure, but it’s also in keeping with a tradition of people with lived experience building a new vocabulary to describe their experience, rather than trying to make their experience fit the old vocabulary. Thrauma encompasses a throughline of life experiences before the singular traumatic event, during the traumatic event, and the after-effects of the traumatic event. The theory of Thrauma looks at trauma as an experience rather than a one-time event.  

Healing is not linear

Designed as an opportunity to learn about self-care and wellness tools, to explore taboo, alternative, or inaccessible topics, to play and connect with peers, and to relax and rest, PeerFest also recognizes that healing from trauma doesn’t happen all at once. 

Healing does not consist of waking up on an uneventful morning and realizing that today, you are healed. You might wake up one day and believe that you are healed. You might think you will never again relive the traumatic experience in your head. And yet, before even realizing it has happened, you may find that you have been reminded of it once again. That’s okay. It is of the utmost importance to your healing journey that you acknowledge these feelings and reminders of trauma rather than try to deny or bury them inside of you. The more feelings you acknowledge, the more you will learn to cope with them as they come, potentially repeatedly, in the after-effects stage of Thrauma.

Educate the home team

PeerFest was created with the vision of a place where people facing mental health challenges could connect with peers who share similar experiences and support one another in living their best lives. Being surrounded a support system is also central to the healing experience of Thrauma. 

A supportive “home team” might include your family, friends, pastor, therapist, or doctor. You’ll want to educate your home team about your Thrauma experiences if they’re not already aware. This education will be difficult for both you and the team members; it’s not an easy topic for you to talk about, and it’s often difficult for loved ones to hear about what you’ve been through. But without that education, your support system won’t know how to help you to the best of their collective ability. Additionally, be sure to be part of a mutual support system for the people who support you.

What thriving looks like

To every single person experiencing Thrauma: you’ll thrive with the help of your support system. You’ll thrive by facing the feelings that come with your Thrauma instead of denying or invalidating them to yourself. You’ll thrive by not surrounding yourself with other folks who invalidate your feelings. You’ll thrive by understanding that thriving is a process that often follows the pattern of “one step forward, two steps back,” And finally, you’ll thrive by offering forgiveness to yourself. 

One day you’ll realize that you have not reacted to an outside stimulus from a mental place dictated by the central event of your Thrauma. Rather, you will have reacted from a place of healing and fulfillment and respect. And with each such occurrence, you can congratulate yourself. The Thrauma timeline will be different for you than it will be for others experiencing their own Thrauma. Similarly, the journey toward wellness will be different for every person attending PeerFest 2024. 

But an essential part of getting there is sincerely believing that we will. We can only move forward by acknowledging the Thrauma, unraveling the related feelings, and learning to integrate a different narrative into our everyday lives.  


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