What Happened to You? – That *is* the question

Many books claim to be life-changers but few live up to the promise. Let me give you a head’s up about What Happened to You? by Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD and Oprah Winfrey. It ***will*** change your life.

First things first: This was a difficult book for me to read. I mean that in *every* sense of the word.

Physically: This is very tangible and literal, the font and colors were hard on my eyes. Dr. Perry used a regular font in a dark grey which was the easiest to read. Oprah used a light blue font, which I could barely read without a strong light and even then, I struggled. When Perry told stories or “others” spoke, it was written in dark grey italics, also difficult for me to see. That’s my only criticism but for people like me with vision problems, it can be enough to put the book down. So, if you have vision issues, may I suggest the audio book?

That taken care of…

As you’ve noticed, I’ve been reading a lot about trauma. I think it’s because of my dad. He died and it was horrible because I loved him dearly. However, the trauma for me lies in the fact that because of this epidemic, I was not able to get to him and still can’t be there… not even now, three months later… to spread his ashes. It is subjective, which we will be discussing. Others can sympathize or empathize, of course. We’ll also be talking about that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the word, “Trauma”. Some might say – and it’s certainly supported in the book – that it’s an overused or casually-used catch-all-word for anything bad that happens. Luckily, Dr. Perry clears it up early in the book. He says that for most people, it is experienced as the one that “sticks” – that you don’t forget and has an enduring impact on you. (page 100)

And here’s the thing: It’s totally subjective.

Perry uses the example of a fire in an elementary school through the eyes of a firefighter, a first-grader whose classroom is on fire and a fifth-grader in a different part of the building.

The firefighter would be doing his job and there would be no trauma attached. For the first-grader, the experience could include fear or terror, confusion and helplessness. For the fifth-grader, it may seem interesting or exciting as he never felt the threat.

Any long-term impact is related to the level of trauma to each individual person. THE SAME EXPERIENCE will elicit a DIFFERENT RESPONSE.

And … we still haven’t yet DEFINED trauma. In fact, in Chapter 4, we learn that trauma is on a spectrum. What is a spectrum? A spectrum (plural spectra or spectrums) is a condition that is not limited to a specific set of values but can vary, without steps, across a continuum (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Wowsers! Just sit on that one for a moment. Syndromes can be HUGE and complicated. Not surprising, is it? No wonder we can’t really DEFINE trauma down to a pinpoint.

The book also includes The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Survey. It’s… uh… eye-opening. If you’d like to take it online, NPR has one. It determines the level of trauma you may have endured.


We need to remember that bit I mentioned above about trauma being subjective. One kid’s neglect, abandonment and abuse are not necessarily another’s… or at least… not *experienced* in the same way and therefore may not “stick” in the same way.

Remember that!

Man, are you feeling (as I am) that this is a HUGE subject?

As I read along, I did one of those cardinal sins of reading… especially a brand new book. I turned the corners of pages I wanted to come back to, put more than one bookmark, underlined and highlighted.

There is just…


And this is where it gets really hairy and snarly! We’re going back to the beginning…

Of our lives. Yours. Mine. Long before we can even BE subjective.

As Oprah said in one of the interviews about this book: I hope that if you only take away one lesson from our book, it’s that what happened to you starts the second you are born. The first two months of a child’s life is the foundation for how the synapses in the brain allows you to connect, regulate, and to feel safe. The earlier the trauma occurs in your life, the harder to overcome.

Holy heck, people! Now, where will we go?

Well… let’s talk about the importance of community. You know, “It Takes a Village” kind of stuff… especially… ESPECIALLY for parenting. Oh my FREAKING God! What a different world it would be if everyone had the support they needed as young parents!

I seriously feel like throwing my arms up right now and calling it a day. I can’t begin to write everything I need to about this book! I haven’t even gotten to the healing part yet (although a case could be made for the community being a healing modality. Certainly, in many cases, it is!).

There are discussions on people-pleasing and cutting, both maladaptive forms of “self-regulation” that I personally know fairly well. I never cut but my ex-husband did. He also did something else I do, he bit his nails to bloody stumps. As I read about how cutters feel, I could SOOOO relate! This was not “news” to me however, as I made this correlation several years ago. It can be anything that inflicts pain (biting nails, picking skin, punching self, etc.). Used in this way, pain releases an “opioid burst” (page 176). <<< WELL, that makes sense!

AND AND AND, these kind of self-regulating behaviors can be a way of dissociating, which is also discussed at length… even comparing reading… yes, you read that right… READING… as a way to disassociate.

As I read along… I kept coming back to this point: ALL OF US tend to gravitate to the familiar, even when it is unhealthy or destructive. That is… unless we change things.

And this, my friends, is where a new catch-phrase (I’d never heard of until my recent studies) comes into play… and it’s one not-entirely embraced by Dr. Perry.

It’s called trauma-informed careread this University at Buffalo paper on the subject if interested.

Instead, the book seems to say that asking, “What happened to you?” is where the importance lies. Then, using the awareness, act accordingly and respond appropriately. (page 220)

Sounds almost simple. And it would be, if not for clunky humans in a constantly-changing world.

We have trauma, disconnection, isolation and loneliness that play out as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and substance (of all kinds) abuse…. all used to as a means of deadening pain. I’d say it’s become an epidemic… and we all know a few things about that!

So, we have trauma, disconnection of one kind or another and healing. How do we get to the HEALING places?

Awareness coupled with connectedness. <<< Love this!

Empathy. Community. Techno-hygiene. Rewrite the script. <<< I’ll leave it to you to get the book and read about how these things factor in… although, my guess is that you already know and resonate with each one. I know I do!

As I’ve said… this book is packed to the brim with great stuff. I have two more books to read… and yes, you’ll be hearing about them, too.

One final thought on this book:

Your actions are absolutely predictable based upon what happened to you.

Now, let’s rewrite the script!

Click here to watch conversations with Oprah and Dr. Perry about this book on Facebook

Click here to watch a conversation with Oprah and Dr. Perry about Oprah’s favorite quotes in the book


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