I love language. I love the power that can come in the right word, the right phrase; how one can be reading or listening to music, or even talking with a friend and the right words come together in a way that one is caught off guard and pleasantly surprised.
For me, it often feels like a breath of fresh air on a cold morning. If I’m reading, I go back to the sentence again and again, actual happiness is felt as I marvel at a person’s ability to create, to express. Sometimes, however, happiness isn’t the emotion I feel. Sometimes I am filled with such a deep mixture of emotion -happiness, sadness, relief, fear, regret, longing, pain, hope – when words express profound feelings I didn’t even know I had.
That happened to me recently. I was reading a novel set in France during World War II. The main character’s father had been a soldier during World War I and had come back from war “different.” He had come back with what was then called “shell shock” and what we now refer to as PTSD. Before the war, this man is described as a loving father, someone who would take his wife and daughters to the beaches of France and laugh and run with those daughters through the ocean; after the war, he turns to alcohol and becomes a dark presence in the life of his family, he pushes everyone away and ends up abandoning his children.
During this new second World War, and towards the end of the novel, a line is used to describe the father as he tries to come back from the darkness that had held him so closely, a line that literally stopped my reading and left me in that state of deep emotion that I described above; the line being,
“He had lost too much, and in his loss, he had thrown away more.”
I read that line and couldn’t breathe. I read that line and felt connected to my life experiences in a way that I never have before. That is what life after abuse looked and felt like for me and finally I had words to fit what I believed had been so much of my struggle.
Sometimes as I write, I worry at what others think about me. I worry that others see me as a highly negative person, focused on pain and hardship, without being able to be positive about life or look for the good in difficult experiences. I worry about that because I don’t feel like a negative individual. I also worry because life to me isn’t structured around binaries: good/bad, light/dark, negative/positive. The human experience, human emotion is far more complex than that. To assume that because I chose to talk about darker feelings or emotions means that I walk around in negativity is just as ridiculous as to assume that because an individual portrays outward positivity all the time they must have never known struggle or pain.
I believe it is only over the last few years, as I have allowed myself to give voice to the reality of my pain and struggle that I have begun to fully embrace the positive experiences of my life when they do come. Before now, I can honestly say I was faking it. Before now, my outward expression of positivity wasn’t real. I have been hiding for most of my life, from myself, from others. My watershed moment, the moment behind why i hid for so long, was sexual abuse at the age of 11.
What I lost during that one experience was immense. What I lost was more than I could take or understand at that time. When I lost has affected every area of my life. When I first read that line, my soul focused on the first part: he had lost too much. I became hyper focused on it; I wanted to scream to anyone who would listen, “I lost too much too! I lost too much damnit! I want it back! I lost too much!” I felt the injustice of it all, the pain at experiencing something 100% outside of my control; the fury that can rage when one realizes that yes, they did lose so much and yes, more was thrown away in trying to deal with the first loss.
And there it was.
The part that was and has been the hardest for me to acknowledge as real. I had lost so much in my moment of trauma and I had thrown away so much more as a result of that loss – I turned inward after the abuse, I stopped trusting, I became angry and full of self hatred, the self hatred fueled the self destructive habit of using food to cope, I struggled with relationships, I communicated poorly.
The regret of all of that has been so overwhelming that instead of looking at it, I have run from it, thus the cycle of losing more has continued, which then brings regret, which then fuels the avoidance, which then triggers the loss … and on and on and on. You can see how this can be never ending right?
To me this highlights the aspect of trauma and PTSD that can be most taxing, the aspect that no one wants to talk about because it harbors such deep emotion. For those who experience it, at least for myself, the emotion comes in how overwhelming it all looks, how never ending it seems. For those who haven’t experienced trauma, I often feel the emotion comes in a sense of not understanding why the person can’t just, in often the most loving of terms, “get over it.”
Now, believe me, I get the desire to just “get over it.” I have said it to myself a million times or more. During moments of feeling the same never ending cycle, I have reached out to a few individuals telling them once again my same story or my same pain and understandably and with love, but also frustration, they have essentially said to me that I should just let go, move past it, get over it. I used to feel hurt by someone sharing with me their frustration in my lack of being able to let go because I felt more deeply than they could ever know or express that I was trying to do just that: get over it. I don’t anymore. I have learned something about trauma.
As I worked through my Master’s in Social Work and studied trauma and I was given the chance to have an internship with Primary Children’s Safe and Healthy Families, an organization that provides treatment for children who experience trauma through maltreatment, I have learned that trauma isn’t something as easy to get over because it affects individuals at a biological level.
Now, in society, we are prone to overuse words to the point that their original meaning often gets distorted. Take “trauma” for instance; I have heard “traumatic” be used to describe failing a test, a favorite team losing a ball game, tickets to a favorite artist’s concert being sold out. Those are not the types of trauma that get attached to one’s DNA, that become a part of someone’s biological makeup.
An amazing TED talk about how science has proven that trauma impacts a person’s biology can be found here. Watch it! Seriously, it’s powerful. Please watch it, share it; it matters so very much. Towards the end, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, expresses why she believes the idea of trauma affecting our biology, especially if it has happened in childhood, to be currently marginalized in society isn’t because we believe it doesn’t apply to us, she states, “We marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. It’s easier to see it as being in other zip codes because we don’t want to look at it. We’d rather be sick.”
What a powerful and sad statement. In my opinion and in my own personal experience, it isn’t so much that I’d rather be sick, it’s more that if I have to experience pain I will stick to the type that I am used to, the type that has been with me for all these years rather than to face a pain that could bring healing but which first is uncomfortable, different. Our minds follow patterns and although it seems counterintuitive, leaving patterns etched in pain is difficult and requires a lot of work, effort, and consistently walking into fear and the uncomfortable.
But I’m learning to seek for more courage. I am learning to seek for more courage because truly understanding how trauma has affected me, as well as those with whom I work with as a social worker, has opened me up to compassion. I can no more tell myself to get over my trauma as I can tell someone with liver failure or heart problems to get over their ailments.
Not getting over it doesn’t mean I stay stagnant in it, doesn’t mean I don’t look for better ways to live with it or get through it. So often in my own personal improvement and that of others, I feel the focus of change is on getting results quickly and results that can be measured and seen; it seems logical and understandable. However, for years I sought after results and change but did so without much movement, with continuous frustration.
I have since realized that all along I was missing a crucial component; I was missing what I now believe to be the catalyst of change: compassion. Lasting change will not come if compassion for present conditions and circumstances is not acknowledged. Lasting change will not come if we seek it by brute force, using underpinnings of anger and hatred.
I have written before about the principle that looking back can be an explanation not an excuse and I still believe that to be true, what I hope to add is that as we look back we must do so with compassion for self and others. I believe that as we add that principle of compassion we will have the courage to seek for lasting and positive change in our own lives and those with whom we come in contact.
Talking about pain and darkness doesn’t mean I seek to stay there, what talking does for me is opens my heart to compassion. Compassion is not a principle of weakness, it takes strength to look at the weaknesses of self and others and not jump to judgment or hatred. I have lived my life for twenty-two years after my abuse in a constant state of self-judgment and self-hatred. It has not been the best state to produce the results I long for, it has been damaging, painful, and sadly I know that it has allowed for me to live in that cycle of throwing away more in my loss.
But I seek for courage. I seek for compassion, for myself and others.
My hope is that you will too, my hope is that you will see that if change is what you want, do it through a lens of compassion … oh, the difference it could make.