Life Goes On: Trauma Revisited

TRIGGER WARNING

So I don’t talk much about trauma on this blog anymore. And you know what? It’s a relief. I started to face the abuse and assaults I survived when I was 25. Last month I turned 39. I’ve been at this 14 years. And I don’t expect it’s a journey that’s ever really done. I still have PTSD that can be triggered by scenes of sexual violence, by the casual misogyny of men out in the street. I’m still working through my rage. And I’ve been at this long enough to know: There is no destination.

But the rest of this journey is about exactly what this blog has been addressing the past few months. It’s about connecting with the things and people I love. Ideas that excite me. Books that get a strong reaction out of me.

I walked out on my abusive family. I left an abusive marriage. I opted out of abusive friendships.

But this is the part where I really leave them behind. And how do you know when a trauma survivor truly leaves the trauma in the dust? I’ll tell you. It’s when we’re able to engage with the quotidian, commonplace business of life and normal people with their dysfunctions and quirks—and find joy in it. The steadiness, the calm of everyday life doesn’t unnerve us. We find rest there.

That’s when I’ll know.

*             *             *

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There is a large survivor community online. All genders, ages, races, and nationalities. And they helped me survive the nine months of writing through my traumas on this blog. There are some extraordinary healers in that community, the members of the Twitter #SexAbuseChat among them.

The healers have come to the point of being able to make new friendships and trust wisely, to bake cookies with their children, to open themselves to life, to see and speak up for the things they need. They have learned how to accept and give compliments as well as how and when to tell their story, and how much of it. They still struggle sometimes, but they have come to peace with that struggle. Their rage has turned into generosity, patience, enjoyment.

They are an inspiration. And their commitment to supporting the rest of us, much further behind them, is a gift I will always be grateful for.

Also in those communities, one finds survivors, those still in the throes of their PTSD, who have unbelievable courage. They are able to articulate their shame, their fear, their distrust, their anger. And in doing so, they help the rest of us put words to our experiences and realize it’s normal. When someone has survived a violent trauma, these reactions are normal. It’s all right.

Which means there’s hope that we’re going to be all right, too.

And these people, too, are healers in a different way. They help the rest of us share and encourage each other and walk this road shoulder to shoulder.

But every now and then, you come across a survivor whose trauma has subsumed every other facet of their identity. They don’t know how to talk about themselves or their life experience apart from the trauma. Their passions, their goals, their compassion have all fallen to the wayside. They are monomaniacs. And they demand demonstrations of loyalty or support from followers, then shame people for not measuring up. They advocate for universal suspicion and distrust. They live from a place of intense fear, paranoia even. Everyone is a potential abuser or rapist. Their online bios are lists of traumas and mental health conditions. Everything else they have ever accomplished or dreamed of or wanted has been erased.

Their lives have shrunk. Victim-identity is all they have left. And they drift uncomfortably toward abusive behaviors themselves: coercion, shaming, gaslighting.

Their attackers have won.

*             *             *

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This started to happen to me.

Now, granted, there is an early stage of healing where paranoia, rage, and preoccupation with the trauma are inevitable, even necessary. And there is no telling how long that stage will last. It’s different for everyone.

But to get stuck there is to die, little by little. It feeds the cycle. It perpetuates stereotypes of victims as neurotic and cruel.

It is necessary.

But it is also necessary that it be temporary.

And I am not early in my recovery process. I’d moved out of that. But there is an element of online communities that can encourage us to get stuck in the rage, whether for PTSD or social justice. And this thwarts change. Rage, drawn out indefinitely, serves the status quo. Entrenches our opponents. Breaks things into false binaries, black and white instead of the smear of gray that we all are. Being a victim, a survivor, doesn’t purify us. It doesn’t dirty us, either. It just makes us incredibly complicated. The deepest, richest gray you can imagine.

But I began to realize that my traumas were overwhelming my identity. I looked at my Twitter bio, an inventory of trauma, and realized this was not who I am. I also didn’t want to spend the rest of my life angry and afraid. Which is where I’m left whenever I talk constantly about assault, abuse, and PTSD.

I decided something had to change.

I couldn’t go on like this.

*             *             *

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My traumas will always be there. But so will my ballet training and my undergrad literature classes. It’s just a part of my history. A formative part to be sure, but just a part. The kind people who came alongside me, Frank and Diana and my grandfather, are equally formative.

Nothing is ever just one thing. My past is not a bleak hell, and my future is not a field of sunshine. The pain of my past was shot through with moments of joy, the more transcendent for being so precious. And my future, although much brighter than my past, surely contains moments of profound grief and loss because, as a Zen Buddhist I know, to gain love is at the same time to lose it. There is no possible way that everyone I have grown to love and trust and be in community with will outlive me. And losing people I love, who have loved me back, will be a new kind of pain. In some ways, I expect, deeper.

Nothing is ever just one thing. My life is not a Hallmark card. It’s not a Lifetime channel movie. Triumph over abusive men. Nope. My life is the story of how someone carries the past while living wholeheartedly in the present. That past is always there. So is the present, the invitation back into life and joy and connection.

Triumphing over the past is a comic idea. Can you triumph over noon? What are these ridiculous people talking about? Time is just time. We live in it. It’s the air we breathe.

Nothing goes away. But nothing can be everything, either.

This next chapter, the one where I publish short stories and write books and teach amazing students and love the most generous man I’ve ever met—it matters every bit as the shadows behind me. For me, quite a bit more.

This is what I stayed alive for.

2 thoughts on “Life Goes On: Trauma Revisited

  1. Thank you so much for this beautiful, powerful essay. This is the place I’m striving to reach as well, and I’m grateful to writing–both my own and others’–for getting me closer than I’d ever otherwise be. Every time some innocuous sensory trigger drags me back, I feel like the abuser keeps winning. On the other hand, every time I’m amazed (whether by an awesome mountain view on a hike, the ocean I greet on my daily walk, something I’ve read, music that sweeps me away, or just being in my loved ones’ and petting my cats), that’s a time when I claim victory. I also consider it a triumph that I’ve grown into a strong and loving person, not a victim or a perpetrator. Thank you for sharing your courage and compassion!

    Mar

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your own journey, Mar. For me, healing is definitely a lifelong process. And I’m right there with you–it always gives me encouragement to hear others are getting through it, and out of it, too. Sending you good wishes on your own healing path! ❤

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