Nothing, other than chronic illness, has acquainted me more intimately with death than trauma. Through the violence that one body can do to another, trauma demonstrated my fragility, my transience, my mortality. It showed me, too vividly, that my bodily autonomy, and even my life, could end at any moment if a man decided to end it.
On the other side of trauma, too, there is another kind of death. The death of the self that is PTSD. Trauma, like slash-and-burn agriculture, sets the fields of oneself ablaze and leaves nothing but ash. New growth can sprout from that. You can become stronger than you ever were before. But you will never be the same.
* * *
My intimacy with death, and particularly the death of my body, had a price. It disconnected me from life. It alienated me from other people. Up in my attic room, I sat at my desk and listened to other people having conversations I was not part of. Men brought women home on dates, and they flirted on the couch. Housemates asked each other awkward things—could you be quieter when you have sex? could you use a cutting board when you slice things? how serious are you guys?—and their responses ranged from compliance to outrage, uncomfortable humor or quick escapes.
I had nothing to do with any of that. I sat in meditation. I ate dinner alone. I watched sunsets from my window. And I wrote.
If I had retained any of my humanity at all, it was the humanity of the ascetic. The recluse.
* * *
Healing from trauma is hard won, each stage a prayer. A devotion to bridge death and return to life. Each stage in the survivor’s life after trauma is a station of the cross.
It can seem unfair at times because it is. I felt as if I were doing penance for the sinner. I was the one who atoned, not the men who had hurt me. They had wandered off as if nothing had happened. No scars. No mental health crisis. No depression or suicidality. No consequences.
I was the one left behind in that burning field, the one who had to make reparations to life. The one who had to take on the role of the perpetrator and the amends they should have made in the aftermath.
But I was also the redeemer. The only one who could resurrect me, in community with others, was myself.
* * *
The believer who follows the stations of the cross ends at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, whose death Christians believe saved humanity from our sins and restored us to eternal life. Each station is another step on Christ’s path to sacred death and resurrection.
Healing from trauma, as with passing through the stations of the cross, leads through suffering, beyond death and towards new life. Each stage echoes the suffering that others have inflicted while giving hope for a future, one in which the transformation from victim to survivor may be complete:
The end of this journey is, as Judith Herman puts it, to recognize trauma and its scars “as part of the human condition” because “everyone is a prisoner of the past.”
I don’t believe I am there yet, but I have come a long ways.
And first, I had to discover the safety that was possible in my body itself.
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