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.


No Place for You Here

There is no place for you here.

This is an apology I would rather give you than myself.

In so many ways, you were the first:

The first I unlocked my titanium gates for and welcomed you wide open,

The first I let see me fresh and weeping and raw,

The first I dared to be sincerely uncool in your presence,

I was lucky to unravel toward you and thread my frayed edges to yours.

It is at these times, I remind myself that though this is true,

You were lucky to feel my silk after years of burlap.
But There came a time when my alone felt better than your company,

When your smile grew into a question mark I was weary from punctuating.

I found myself alone with memories of you, no actualities.

There came a time when your company became more effort than your absence,

When there was more peace in the silence than a reminder that I cross your mind.

You are a beautiful visitor,

The kind who ventures once, but is always better in memory than in return,

The kind whose language I don’t speak aloud but sways into my lullabies.

You make a fabulous figment,

Adored in an unconscious afterlife,

But in this now,

My present,

There is no space for you.

My mind is invaluable terrain.

My heart is precious real estate, unwelcome to those who may scorch or tarnish it.

So, you, with the matches,

You cannot enter.

Can stare at me from a distance,

Checker your mind with my reverie self,

But no,

I am sorry,

There is no place for you here.

Trying to Sleep

In closed eyes and slowing breath,

I lay myself to take a rest.

These lungs still broad from the gasping day,

In the dark stillness, my thoughts run astray.

I gorge myself on nocturnal notions,

Untangled ideas devoid of emotions.

The universe freezes,

Sound dies down,

it’s a lot less simple with no one around.

Tomorrow is unclear,

But that’s not now,

Not here.

I’m trying to sleep,

Wade into stillness

Counting sheep.

Body tranquil, forgetful of every ache,

It’s quiet and peaceful

Until daybreak

It Makes Me Mad– Overhearing Responses Post-Supreme Court Ruling


It makes me mad,

To hear politicians talk about “getting rid of marriage”.

Indifference is a luxury of privilege, after all.

Some cannot afford to toss aside a gavel that grants them union.

Some people pleaded for a paper for health benefits,

Legitimacy to adopt,

A mark that says “your love matters”.

It enrages me that he said “do away with marriage” after his “I do”,

As if all had access to white gowns and tuxedos.

His words hailed from never knowing rejection in a chapel,

Never looking through stained glass to wonder if God loved him, too.

Never hearing “get out” through the notes of a church organ.

You can have the other days,

Any the calendar offers.

But June 26, 2015.

You do not get this.

This bleaching of a rainbow too vibrant for your comprehension,

This limiting of a spectrum,

Some denunciation you have no power to spit out.

Love is louder, naysayers.

Love is the loudest.

In a nation marred by bullets, using black bodies for target practice,

In a nation stricken by poverty and income gaps,

In this nation,

My nation,

Love triumphs.

And I refuse to let you say otherwise.

Un-crushing in the Digital Age

I liked him, I did.

Not an idea,

A cinematic fantasy of Austen-esque heroes.

I didn’t want the veneer.


I wanted him.

My cheeks bloomed pink at the sight of him,

His thoughts were cities I wanted to tour forever.

I did not dream him into anything outside of earthbound.


I wanted him.

I wanted him even after I knew not to.

We weren’t made of the same matter.

There was no atomic intention for us.


The best visitors aren’t always meant to say.

What was I going to do?

Clutch until my knuckles were as white as the ghost he is?

Hope the dead weight of what this wasn’t didn’t burden me more than disappointment?

The idea of him is always the hardest to part with, you know.


This is how it ends,

Not with a bang,

But with a Twitter unfollow.

This is how I lose him,

Swallowed into my newsfeed.


It’s so anti-climactic

Spaces reserved for him house something else now.

He was a tenant where I held the deed.

His name blends into the sounds of traffic.

Once in a while, I’ll remember him.

And I wish him well,

The very best,

Because  I really liked him.

I Hope You Pick Yourself

I hope you pick yourself.

Out of the billions spanning the globe,

I hope you select you.

There will be days it feels like you are the last kid left for dodgeball,

That you are stuck with a team eerily aware of your weak arms and quaking knees,

Call yourself anyway.

In anthologies of digitized Venuses,

Do not shrink.

You are not pixels,

Not removable with several strokes of a mouse,

Remember this when you are with yourself.

Remember these truths when your mind is the school cafeteria,

And the last thing you want is to be alone with your thoughts.

Recall this when you inflate into your biggest bully,

Sparing no punches.

Remember this because you’ll also be the only one who can grab you an ice pack.

You’ll be the only one gazing through a black eye from your own blow,

The only one who tastes muffled words through a swollen face.

You beat the real monsters,

So why do they get the prize of your thoughts?

Of making you like them?

I hope you pick you.

I hope you pick yourself in the same way I would–

With love and care and generosity and challenge.

Pick yourself like you are a first round draft pick,

Because in a way,

You are.

On Mortality and Living Fully

I think about mortality through the lens of the T.S. Eliot poem “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The sense of regret, tangible loneliness mixed in with a symphony of words that softens the blow of a hollow life struck me at seventeen when I first read it. Perhaps it was the notion that we believe we have infinite time to mold with what we will, but we don’t. We move in perishable vessels, and that fabled future is something you realize today (even if it isn’t in the fashion originally dreamed) or don’t.
I’m twenty-one. The first time I recognized mortality, I was six. My maternal grandmother passed away almost a year before that. But a year later came grandparent’s breakfast in the first grade. In the flurry of greying figures ushered by their tiny legacies, they marveled at our cubbies and poorly drawn art projects. It was then I knew no one would be that for me. It was then I knew that life ends and you develop relationships with memories.
I realized the fragility of my body in between twelve and thirteen. Purging was a daily ritual I practiced starting in the third grade. It hadn’t sunk its teeth into me until the onset of puberty. The miles my feet circled for track and twirls and turns landed in my legs took a toll on my hips. September of eighth grade—after one previous stint in the physical therapist’s office—I began to limp. My uneven gate did not deter me. No, I ran more. Harder and faster, more frequent became my work outs. My eating disorder matched the pace of my exercise. Then, at the end of September, I couldn’t walk. My hips gave way to the war I declared on myself so long ago. My body surrendered. I felt helpless and weak, confided to the ragdoll frame I created. The benefit of youth is the resiliency. My body bears almost no signs of the utter devastation I inflicted on it a decade ago. Physical resilience is a privilege of youth, and enables us to believe that our bodies can come back from anything. They can’t always revive themselves, though.
For this brief moment, I’m still one of those few lucky people who never witnessed someone die slowly. Yes, my father has precancerous skin cells all over his face, and I wince when he walks through the door after a dermatologist appointment with bandages wrapped like cotton flesh. My uncle, the man who raised my mother, died of AIDS amidst the peak of the AIDS the peak of the epidemic sweeping New York in the 1980s-1990s. My maternal grandfather died of lung cancer roughly 3-4 years before his son passed from AIDS. I have a little brother, Matthew. He is buried outside of Washington, DC, where we were living at the time. Early in the pregnancy, my mother was told Matthew had anancephaly, a failure to develop the cranium and in some extreme cases (my brother was one of them), closure to the spine as well. Babies affected by anacephaly are born blind, deaf, unable to feel pain; 50% do not survive the pregnancy; and 99% of babies affected by anancephaly do not survive the first ten days outside the womb. My mother made the choice not to abort Matthew. He did not survive the pregnancy, and on June 14, 1995 (sixteen days after my second birthday), he met this world in a stillborn body. The years that followed ushered in a steady stream of funerals and miscarried siblings. I mention this for temporality’s sake. Because mortality has always been a reality, but as an adult concept with emotional dimensions, I have been spared for now.
Living fully, for me, starts with my values. Living fully is disabusing myself of the “shoulds” or “when I get this/that then…”. It’s about assessing my needs and understanding each day as an organism. Some days are spent zip lining and giving speeches, others in bed with Netflix. One isn’t better than the other as long as the address my needs in that moment. It’s giving myself permission to exhale.
I’ve stopped visualizing my life, and starting sensing it, feeling it. A life that is ripe and full and vibrant means sucking sometimes.  It’s riddled with mistakes and apologies and mending in ways that make me stronger than before. It involves saying that I’m wrong, and hanging onto something when it feels right. Most importantly, I want a life of courage, something wholehearted. Bravery is first on my VIA assessment because I actively seek the uncomfortable, the uncharted, the places unfamiliar to definition or challenge. For me, that’s essential in a pursuit of my future. I’m completely an utterly disinterested in complacency. Nothing about surface satisfies me. I want depth and variety and understanding that these things can be draining as well. But always authentic, always courageous. As long as I have these things, I will be fed.
The larger piece of living wholly is understood in the purpose of my life is what I can give and do for others. Like I said in my first entry, connection is key.  Brene Brown describes this as a fear of being ordinary, and that in celebrating the privilege of even touching the ordinary, narcissism fades away. Texts asking how someone’s day is going; lending a hand; making a friend; being a mentor – seemingly ordinary things build a purpose and connection to the world around us. Everyday this semester, I have tried to reach out to one person, letting him or her know how deeply I care for them and how proud of this person I am.
For now, for this moment still in the carefree splendor and recklessness of my early twenties, I’m not Prufrock. Life still feels unmarked and uninhibited. Honoring my life today and living fully bears no weight from fabrication. It’s whole and honest. It’s saying things difficult to articulate and harder to deliver. It’s reintroducing yourself to yourself over and over again, sometimes being surprised and sometimes disappointed by the encounter. It’s abandoning conclusions of past generations to find your own questions and feeding curiosity. Living fully is understanding that the thrill of standing atop Arthur’s Seat two years ago with the quilt of Edinburgh sprawled before me does not compete with that one time this semester I skipped my 8 am because I needed to sleep and it felt so damn good. They don’t compete because each is necessary in this shambled patchwork of personhood I’m sewing. I’m not the best seamstress, but the thread is in my hands for as long as I have to hold it.