Stories Not Routinely Told: Trauma and Survival

I want to make this  clear: your experience is not a democracy.  It doesn’t need to be lined with silver so other people can palate it. This isn’t for them. Trauma does not inherently, nor does it have to, birth a resilient narrative in survival and recovery.  When so much choice is ripped away from you, violently or in subtle, almost dissolving ways, it is important to remember that you have earned the right to rule your story.  You don’t owe anyone your story.  As I began to verbalize my experiences in the past year, I flirted with understand how I’ve changed through surviving my traumas.  I’m careful to say “changed” instead of “learned” because learning implies gratitude.  While I may be a better person after these events, I don’t owe my personal growth to my assailants or to trauma, that I owe to myself and my support systems.  This essay has been bubbling and brewing in my mind for months.  As part of my private narrative became public, a curious phenomenon unraveled: people told me their private narratives.  I began to see that, unfortunately, abuse is the undiscussed norm.  And despite trauma appearing like the common cold across the human experience, we’re shamed into beleive these are isolated incidents best left unsaid.  This essay is not a plea to speak up.  It is simply a dissection of stories not routinely told, the way we never tell them, and why it matters.

Recently, someone asked me to define trauma.  I was stumped at first.  I failed to recognize the assault I weathered freshman year as trauma for over a year.  Subsequently, the aftermath that was my sophomore year of college pressed like gravity without a law to explain it. It wasn’t until I encountered feminist literature that I heard the word consent, that experiences like mine were articulated and people felt the way I did.  Law and Order: SVU didn’t prepare me for the kinds of trauma that aren’t sensationalized, that aren’t dramatic, but eat away at the richest parts of you without reason.  Media depictions of trauma are usually of the sexual or physically violent nature.  They inform the view that the incident is bloody and loud, the aftermath obvious, and justice comes in the form of a prison sentence.  Justice is an antiquated term for many survivors.  Justice implies a restoration to a previous state.  My truth is that I can’t quite conceptualize that state.  It doesn’t do well to dwell in nostalgia when you’re trying to heal.  It became a continual process of me introducing me to myself over and over again.  I voyaged into spaces where I felt empowered and whole, and in those new territories, I claimed an identity that felt good.   I claim the self I am in this moment.  My strengths, my weaknesses, my emotions– whatever their current, my body– whatever its size or shape, the things that make me laugh and cry– without qualification– I claim them.  There are days I feel too wild, frenzied, something not everyone will love, but in those moments, I remember that I cannot control who loves me.  Someone’s inability to love me is not a reflection of me.  However, I can choose to love myself, and I choose myself everyday, even when it’s not easy.

Sensationalized caricatures of our experiences lead us to believe that trauma is supposed to define us, that we owe the world admissions even if the words tasted bitter on our tongues (that is not to discount the grizzly, violent realities of some experiences). Even if it was more a forced regurgitation than gentle reconciliation.  I chose to claim my experience in a public way.  Had TED not presented itself in my life, I don’t think this is ever something I would have done.  It’s important to note that my trauma illustrated my point that feminism saved my life.  This isn’t to conflate survivorship to feminism, but simply to say that for my experience, feminism gave me the tools to embrace myself, even the parts I thought too raw to expose.

And in this way, the theory that traumas define us, that self is only understood in sensation, made me feel like a fraud.  It made me feel phony for moving on.  I doubted my own survival because time continued despite my experiences.  There are days, weeks, possibly even months that pass without a thought of my trauma.  I forget that it even happened when things are going well.  But, as life works, something or someone will press hard onto a spot I never thought was soft.  Triggers are a sneaky thing when you never thought you had them. They supercede consciousness and cognitive abilities.  Sometimes, my spine just grows tight as my eyes dart for the exit.  When the trigger is louder, I cry, shake, cannot articulate the helplessness that claims my anatomy.  But they pass.

What I would like any and all survivors to know is that your name is still your  name.  It is not replaced with “victim” or “survivor”. You don’t even have to call yourself these things if you don’t want to.  At one point or another, control was ripped away from you.  Imposing language or strategies onto us just makes the tears deeper, reinforces the notion that choice is something we can no longer afford.  I hope you choose to heal.  I hope you make this choice in your own time in your own way.  And if you chose to reject everything I’m saying,  For accomplices (I prefer this word to allies or supporters, something about a person so dedicated to another despite how dirty or uncomfortable the work may be feels applicable), personhood is a process.  It doesn’t look the same on everyone.  Trauma works the same way.  I think the best thing you can do (me being no expert on trauma counseling, so please know that) is acknowledge that it happened and ask if there is anything you can do/ how this person would prefer for you to respond, and do that.

As I was saying earlier, I was asked to define trauma.  After stumbling over a few sentences and congested thoughts, I arrived at this: any experience, event, or presence that causes a being disruption, distress, and/or damage physically/ mentally/ or otherwise– as defined by the being who experienced it.  That last part it key.  Literature, blogs, PSAs, advocates outline some circumstances that are traumatic.  This means that your are valid, but if you went through that and don’t identify it as trauma, that’s cool, too.  It’s messy.  Definitions are not hard and fast or universally applicable.  Trauma isn’t the type of beast that offers answers.

I won’t say I learned anything from survival, but I have changed.  I am more patient now because I must be patient with myself.  In the spells when my experiences lay dormant, I’ve learned to engage in an internal dialogue but accept the times when I can’t talk myself down.  I have a world class support system, but I do not expect them to drop everything for me because I want them to take care of themselves first.  Currently, I’m working through the danger of “post” language.  Inside the warm cocoon of college, certainty became all too much an expectation.  I began to discuss depression, anxiety, and my experiences in a past tense.  There is no summit when it comes to self care.  It is a process I commit to daily.  So, I try to pay this forward to those around me.  I try to be more empathetic, give people time and the space to express themselves, and honor them as they are– I’m not always great at this.  This means that I can’t be the person taping other people together if I am not whole myself. So, as guilty as it might feel, I turn my phone off so I can sleep.  If I am extremely depressed that week, I know I need to tend to myself before I can offer anything to anyone else.  And even if I feel like the worst person ever for choosing self care over quality time when I need to, I remind myself that this makes me a better friend, sister, daughter, student, and all the other roles I fill.  I pay forward what I am able to give myself.

Thank you for bearing with me.  Thank you for making it through this day.  I don’t say that in a patronizing way.  I say it because some days or months or even years feel impossible to push through, and yet somehow, even if it was barely rising out of bed, even if it was with the help of Netflix, you made it. And that matters.

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