I’m sitting here puzzling over how to start, and it occurs to me that the above is a complete sentence in itself.
Trauma isn’t something that comes into your life and then leaves again. Contrary to the opinions of quite a number of intelligent people, you don’t just get over trauma and move on. It’s like death this way. It is a deep scarring of the way things should be, of what ought to have been, a rupture of the world. It is a continuation of that first “No” which wounds us all so much that it resulted in the best, most beautiful, most wonderful part of all that is being spat on, verbally abused, brutally beaten, mocked, abandoned, and killed in one of the most degrading and humiliating ways that people up to then had managed to come up with. It is the people who swore oaths of loyalty and love literally turning away and saying, “I don’t know you. I have never been your friend. You don’t exist to me.”
For several years, the worst of my trauma was lifted from me. During that time, I found something I had forgotten the very shape of: self esteem. Self-respect. Joy and comfort in my own skin. I began to believe that I actually am beautiful. I really am smart, and more than that, capable. I’m funny, interesting, and I can see clearly the joy I bring to other people. I’m not going to save the world, or cure cancer, I’m not going to bring world peace or discover the secrets of interstellar flight. But right here, right now, to paraphrase Joseph Pieper, It is good that I exist. Of course, during this period, my health collapsed and I found myself dealing with a fresh hell of another kind, but I was able to bring so much more of who I am to bear on learning how to maneuver through this new phase of my life. I didn’t have to spend half my time combatting thoughts of worthlessness and the shame of being a burden.
I knew it was a gift, and I knew that gift wasn’t for me. So I tried as best I could to answer the call of God wherever it presented itself.
And then it was gone.
Or not all of it. I had time enough to develop healthier habits of thought, of self-care, and so forth. It is important to note that this gift of freedom was from trauma, not from the depression that runs in my family. That’s neurological, biological. My brain chemistry is still as screwed up as ever, but that’s what my antidepressants are for. No, what came flooding back was the deep mental anguish of everything I have been through. The fear, the anger, the rage, the helplessness. My gift was gone. It was never intended for my benefit, that was just a bonus. I knew that. I know that. I even know why now:
I’m safe. I’m living with people who make it physically and emotionally safe for me to deal with these issues now. I have the necessary support from them that when I fall apart, its ok. So I did. I hate it. I hate losing that interior freedom and peace. I hate how this is affecting my life. In September, I had a misunderstanding with my best friend, my anam chara, my sister. All the pain and terror of my trauma came roaring out of me and I screamed at her. I raged. My housemates, instead of understandably pointing out that screaming when it’s past the kids’ bedtime is not appropriate, my housemates asked if I needed anything. E held me as I fell apart, while my sister tried to soothe my from two thousand miles away. She made me tea, brought me my anxiety medicine, and gave me the strength I needed to take the first step to getting back into therapy. She even drove me to and from my first several sessions.
I love my therapist. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s genuinely helpful. He does a great job of intermixing talk therapy with EMDR, and I’ve made definite progress. I cleared up a lot of mess in a really short time, and that felt really good. It was scary, but rewarding.
As time goes by, I’ve found that was the easy part. I’ve developed tools to help psyche begin to uncover and deal with my trauma. Along the way, I have found that there is a vast difference between what I want to do and what I need to do. I want to fix it. I want to make it all go away. Like my appendectomy. Pain, drama, surgery, recovery, done. Look, I’ve got a cool little scar, what a brave little warrior I have been!
Fixing isn’t going to work. I can’t make that happen. To do that, I would have to actually cut off part of myself, like Bob the Skull in the Harry Dresden novels, and that can’t be done.
As part of my therapy, I’ve developed personas. I suppose they are interior metaphors for parts of myself which I exteriorize as a distinct persona to make it easier to deal with. It’s normal. It’s complicated. While tackling memories and fears, I found the part of me I refer to as Goth Girl. I found her in a dark, cold cave, with no windows, no doors, no exits of any kind, not even cracks enough to let in light, or air. I found her coated in a thick layer of some kind of black tar, which seemed to be seeping from her pores, her mouth, her ears, her eyes, even her hair and nails. The room was covered with it, layers so deep and old that the cave is permanently stained by it. I tried to speak to her. She screamed in rage, vomiting black tar everywhere. She attacked me and tried to claw my face off and the black kept pouring from her mouth in a heavy stream. I could hear her screaming day and night for more than a week, like the pressure that builds before a storm. I could feel her clawing to get out, right under my skin. Rage. And terror fueling that rage.
I eventually managed to get her to stop screaming. To accept the possibility of a small window, a pool of cool, clear running water. The black vomit slowed to a trickle, then stopped. She let me wash her. Her skin is pale and smooth, without blemishes. Her eyes are still black, as is her hair and nails, but she looks like a person now instead of a monster. I was even able to draw her out of her cave for brief moments. But she wouldn’t speak to me and I stalled out. My steady flow of progress ground to a halt and I didn’t know what to do. With my therapist’s help, I circled around trying to understand what was going on in my psyche.
I hit a trauma trigger, had a panic attack, and found Goth Girl had retreated back into her cave. She was suddenly willing to talk, but it was ceaseless ranting. She tried to throw me out, resisted any hints of stepping outside. The clear water was gone, and every window, every opening into the room was gone. I tried opening more and she screamed, slamming them shut and trying to force me out. Her repetitive ranting reduced down to, “It isn’t safe! It isn’t safe! This is the world, and they can’t come in. You can leave or you can stay, but no more doors, no more windows, it isn’t safe, it isn’t safe!” But worst of all, “I don’t care what you say or do, I don’t care what you think; I’m in charge, not you. Me. I’m in charge!”
I don’t want my fear and anger in charge. I’m not willing to cede that! But it appears that all this therapy, all this willingly exploring my pain and giving it a voice has, well, given it a voice. And it is far more in charge than I would like. Today in conversation with someone I respect and care about, I hit another trigger. I hate finding new triggers, I can’t see it coming. It’s like walking through a meadow on a lovely spring morning, and everything is wonderful right up until you step on a land mine, and suddenly the world is ending. I stepped on a landmine and all my pain focused on her. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it was seriously messed up, and I can’t even apologize because she has, completely understandably, decided not to talk to me. Who wouldn’t after having someone go crazy on you? It’s rather a sane decision.
At the moment, I’m still working on how to untangle an apology from all the bullshit in my head, so perhaps that is for the best. I would hate to attempt an apology and butcher it because I’m still so afraid that I am still working on not being defensive. Goth Girl thinks that defensive isn’t good enough. She wants to attack and destroy every threat. I think being defensive against someone who never intended harm, and didn’t actually do anything wrong is something I need to stop. Goth Girl is pretty damn sure that her needs come before anyone else’s dignity of person, or the respect and love I owe not only to a fellow child of God, but to someone I would like to count as a friend.
I figured out what Goth Girl is on red alert and behaving like an insane Cold War officer with too many weapons available. In the back of that cave is a narrow opening, descending deeper into the earth. If I could get past her, down that tunnel, I would find tiny pieces of me. A hoard of little, screaming, terrified ghosts.
At some point during my panic attack today, I realized that this is precisely what Goth Girl is protecting. She has spent nearly three decades guarding all that pain. I got to feel safe, happy, and free. But she didn’t. The hoard of memories didn’t. For them, the trauma is now.
I spent more than an hour, tears pouring down my face, alternately gasping and holding my breath, in the grip of a pain that pushed out the possibility of anything else, feeling like I was struggling to not drown. And that was after the anxiety medication kicked in. It was hard, but I managed to reach out to some friends for help, and they did. They stayed with me in my pain until I could breathe again. When this pain first happened, I didn’t have friends like that. I didn’t have anyone to sit with me, I begged God for help, and I felt abandoned. But today, I could bring a piece of the past into the present to meet friends who care enough to spend time with me in an embarrassingly low moment.
Embarrassing because I hurt someone today.
This is what Goth Girl is protecting. The gates of pain. When she let me soothe her, it was about her. But when I tried to get past her, she would not be soothed.
This really sucks.
Trauma doesn’t go away. We don’t get over it. And let me tell you, it isn’t for lack of trying! No one wants to be held hostage by the past. No one wants to drag around this kind of weight.
I was watching a show recently, a show I really enjoy. There was a moment when a woman confronts one of the main characters about an incident from their youth, when the main character and her friends tormented the woman, tying her up and leaving her alone in the woods, all night. It is quite a scene. The main character, one of the tormenters, tells the woman that it was a joke, it was almost thirty years ago, get over it. Let it go and move on. I was so angry. No one, especially not the tormenter, gets to tell a victim that their trauma is a joke. She doesn’t have the right to diminish the other woman’s pain. She doesn’t have the right to define it, characterize it, or prescribe how it should be handled. She sure as hell doesn’t get to tell someone to get over it and move on. For that woman, just as for me, there is a part of her still tied to that tree, screaming for help, begging to be released, terrified and alone and hurting. Forgotten. Unwanted. In the minds of her tormenters, she had ceased to exist.
I exist, dammit. I exist and I am in pain.
And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, for the woman I hurt today, for lashing out, for everyone and anyone I’ve ever hurt from that pain. I’m sorry.