It has been twelve years since I went to therapy consistently. I was sixteen, about to turn seventeen, when I started seeing a psychologist for an hour once a week. It was state-mandated after I purposefully overdosed and almost died. The reason I overdosed was because of a boy, my first boyfriend of over a year, who broke up with me and started dating his fellow grocery store worker, who he had sworn to me for months he wasn’t interested in. We can say that was the “reason” but that event was more of a catalyst. The end of every first love is heartbreaking for those experiencing the young love, but I was completely unprepared for the end of something he promised would be forever. I am certainly not laying my suicide attempt at the feet of some stupid teenage boy driven by hormones. The ultimate reason I lost my shit was years of trauma in the making, trauma I am still coming to terms with and trying to address in a healthy way instead of continuing the cycle as I would until my mid-twenties.
The word ‘trauma’ makes me uncomfortable. Hearing it reminds me of the term “blunt force trauma”, which is what occurs when an object strikes and enters a person’s body, sometimes harming them so intensely that they experience a concussion or death. Over time, I’ve had to accept that trauma is sometimes unseen, and experiences can be a form of blunt force trauma to a person’s mental state, affecting them for years to come. In a society that is torn between rejecting the snowflake mentality and embracing victim worship, it can be hard for a person suffering the long term effects of trauma to identify and work through trauma. We don’t want to be labeled as weak, or labeled by our trauma, so we bottle it up, forcing our body and subconscious to carry the effects of trauma that manifest physically and emotionally.
People who hide behind their trauma as an excuse for treating people poorly are just as bad as those who scream “snowflake” to every person who acknowledges something terrible in their life. The former should have the personal responsibility to take ownership of their actions, reactions, and interactions, while the latter should begin to study their own actions, reactions, and interactions to start the journey of healing from their own shit. Because everyone has experienced life differently, we need to approach our interactions with people with empathy while also maintaining our personal boundaries of acceptable treatment.
In my journey of emotional growth and healing, I have had to experience some extremely uncomfortable conversations. When telling people stories of my childhood and young adulthood, I have to see their faces fill with discomfort, disbelief, shock, dismissal, and a multitude of other reactions. With my interpersonal relationships, I try to be as upfront as possible with my past, with my emotions, and with my level of current accountability. This isn’t so I can hide behind any of my experiences. This isn’t so I can receive sympathy or armchair psychology from someone who went to a self-improvement workshop; this is so the people I am entrusting with a deep connection will understand why I struggle so much with certain things, hold me accountable, help me grow, and, most of all, care. It is hard to have a true and deep connection with anyone without understanding their core. Unfortunately, I have discovered that my willingness to lay out my struggles only made it easier for manipulators to learn my weaknesses and use them against me. Experiencing and moving past those bad connections is all part of a continual uphill spiral learning to trust my instincts again.
Childhood trauma is horrible, and many times it is invoked by parents who are struggling with their own issues and are unaware of how they are continuing a cycle of abuse or neglect. It is devastating that parents, who generally don’t want to fuck up their kids, don’t know how to heal themselves. Self-awareness is an extremely important step in breaking a cycle of trauma, and self-awareness is uncomfortable.
I am back in therapy for the first time in twelve years. I picked a man, suggested to me by a friend, who I have seen once a week for a few months now. I am paying out of pocket, a luxury I know many Americans cannot afford. A book my therapist recommended I read was “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk, a doctor who pioneered scientific research on post traumatic stress in the 70’s and continues his research today. The book is fascinating, delving into the physical reactions of the mind and body when it experiences flashbacks, discussing the sympathetic and parasympathetic reactions of a traumatized nervous system, understanding smell and time compression, missing and contorted memories and other things I have experienced. The author discusses PTSD in war, childhood experiences, and rape, all of which are applicable to me. He also discusses how difficult it is for people who have experienced trauma to remove themselves from the cycle of continuing to expose themselves to traumatic experiences. Trauma is what people who have experienced trauma know, it is what we expect, and physically, our body reacts to trauma in a way that can be addicting because the discomfort is what we crave.
I went to my sister once about our childhood. Something she said stuck with me, “Yeah, it had bad moments, but I have moved past it. Other people have it way worse.” This dismissive comment made me question everything. Why am I so affected by my childhood experiences? Why am I still struggling with stuff? I was panicked about how sensitive I must be for being pretty fucked up when she claims she is okay. But then I had to look at it this way: her childhood was not my childhood. Yes, we had similar experiences, but I was experiencing our similar experiences five years younger than she was experiencing them. Additionally, I had a lot of stuff happen to me that she didn’t. Essentially, we are two different people with different natures and nurtures. Of course other people had it way worse. But we cannot dismiss our reactions to trauma simply because other people had it worse.
My conversations with people of all backgrounds, ages, and experiences have shown me that while there are a ton of people who have had it worse, there are a ton of people who also have had it way better than I did. As I exchange my stories with more people, I am uncomfortable and jealous with how many people had relatively normal childhoods and normal interactions in their early twenties. We all have shit we are working on, but there is definitely a sliding scale of what constitutes as “bad”. As I surround myself with people who have rational mental states, normal coping mechanisms, and healthy relationships, I am becoming more aware of how much more healing I need to do. I feel like an outcast. It is exhausting. When I think of the time I swallowed over fifty seriously damaging pills, ultimately throwing up dust on the blue seats of my mom’s van and convulsing, I feel sad for sixteen year old me. I had a lot going against me, and I would continue to struggle for many years with my deployment to Afghanistan and a string of really shitty interpersonal relationships. But I simultaneously had/have a lot going for me. So I will keep learning, keep growing, and keep trying. Thank you to all who continue to be there for me as I advance, backslide, and advance again.