The first thing it makes space for is sorrow. As the rage and terror ebb away, the grief can overwhelm us.
For me, I think it was the grief, more than anything else, that I feared. I had lifted my rage against it like a shield. Hadn’t trauma cost me enough? How dare anyone, even my own life, require more from me.
But there is only one way out of grief. I had to kiss goodbye the child I could have been. I had to lay to rest the person I might have become. So much violence from men had killed and maimed too many parts of myself. I was becoming something, but it was something else.
Not the person I was born to become.
But the person I could put back together.
And I had to allow myself to rage against that. And then to mourn it.
Losing the possibilities I had once contained was a death, and I had to let myself feel it like any other loss.
* * *
I had begun to name my traumas. It would be years before I named them all, but once I could handle the memories and narrate them, I had to access the emotions around them. Reporting the facts of what I remembered might render those memories easier to digest, and less frightening.
But feeling what I needed to feel was another story. In some ways, the more I talked about the past, the more distant I became emotionally.
Numbing is not the goal of recovery.
And this is where therapy, for me, became crucial.
* * *
I first realized I needed to enter therapy when I turned and ran from a young man who simply said hello.
My friend Erin had been suggesting therapy for some time. She saw the raw rage, the distrust, the rancor that spilled out at inappropriate moments. I cared less and less who I hurt as long as it wasn’t me. “Please,” she said. “It will really help.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, glancing down at my bag like I was bored and didn’t have time for this.
But she was right.
It became impossible to ignore when a server at the Eastlake bakery leaned across the counter and said hello to me.
I had seen this young man every week for close to a year. Every Friday I bought my coffee and a cookie before sitting down with my writing group, and he had waited on me multiple times. I found him attractive. He seemed kind, if moody. He was soft-spoken and in his late twenties. He dressed like a hipster, right down to the skinny jeans and his thick black beard. I even knew his name. Tony.
None of that remotely mattered. I was attracted to him, and the last time I had been attracted to an available man, I’d ended up in a marriage initiated by an assault where I was threatened, insulted, dismissed, and even raped. I didn’t just distrust my attractions to men. I saw them as red flags.
I sometimes dropped a harsh word to my friends or used my suspicions to ward off new people. But now I was even hurting people I didn’t know at all and who hadn’t opted into this mess. This man had visibly worked up the courage to speak to me, huffing and puffing behind the counter and then, once he burst out with his hello, gripping the display case like a life preserver. As our eyes had met and I sprinted away, I had seen it all cross his face. From hope to horror to hurt.
Waiting it out in that locked bathroom, hoping he would forget, I hated myself for hurting someone I didn’t even know. And I hated myself for my fear. And I knew that, too, was a sign of things being terribly, hopelessly wrong.
* * *
“So,” Sarah said. “Before we begin, I should let you know how I approach things. I believe that each life is a tapestry. Pull one thread here, and it touches not only this moment but all these other threads back in the past. Everything is woven together.”
It was a speech she gave me several times, whenever I got impatient with what she called “the process.” Whenever I wanted to know why couldn’t we just fix this one thing, right here, and be done?
That day was the first I’d heard her speech, and I knew then, as I knew later even when I was frustrated, that it was true. It was impossible to understand why I bolted from Tony, and to stop bolting from men in general, if I wasn’t willing to understand how my father’s assaults and Top’s, Nathan’s and Jonathan’s, the beatings from the neighbor-boy and the sexual assault from a high school classmate, informed my dread around my own sexuality.
I cried so much in my first round of therapy. I remember rain pelting her office windows, trickling down the glass in silver streams, while I sat there on her couch and wept. I cradled a Kleenex box in my lap, and my upper lip was slick with snot.
Between sessions, I sat alone in my attic room and meditated. During meditation, I often crumpled, forehead to the carpet, and continued weeping. I say continued because that was how it felt. My life was one long wail of grief, and part of healing was releasing that. I had been holding it in so long. Now, it seemed, I only stopped while I was at work or on the bus or in the dance studio. But sometimes, to be honest, not even then. Sometimes, in the stacks or while I stretched before dance class, my chest would shudder and my throat would close and a tear would slick my cheek before I could stop it.
I wasn’t just grieving the person I could not now become. And I wasn’t just grieving the lusty, vibrant sexuality that would never again be mine. I had to grieve the parents I had never had. The family we hadn’t been. The husband that I had needed to believe Top was, and that I had told my friends he was—but that he wasn’t.
I felt like a refugee, grieving an entire village, the destruction of which only I had survived.
As Judith Herman writes, “Survivors of chronic childhood trauma face the task of grieving not only for what was lost but also for what was never theirs to lose. The childhood that was stolen from them is irreplaceable. They must mourn the loss of the foundation of basic trust, the belief in a good parent. As they come to recognize that they were not responsible for their fate, they confront the existential despair that they could not face in childhood.”
The longer I was in therapy, the more losses mounted up, stacked before me.
I grieved all of them.
And I did not know if there was an end. If there was an exit to this dark tunnel I walked through. Grief swallows you whole, in whatever form it comes, and if you allow yourself to feel it completely, you cannot be sure you will survive it.
It was unbearable.