Let’s talk about trauma.
The first death I remember experiencing and truly grieving was the death of our kitten, Curious, who was run over by a car when I was young. The day that it happened, I punched the trunk of our crepe myrtle tree in the front yard until my knuckles on both hands were bloody. I guess I was trying to make something physical hurt as much as I hurt emotionally. No one had taught me that. I’d never seen someone punch an inanimate object out of anger or grief or pain. I just did it. And it didn’t make my insides feel any better, but it still helped, somehow, probably just from the physical exertion and the distraction of the physical pain that came.
I didn’t remember or think about something until recently, though — that I watched it happen, watched my little kitten get hit and die. I didn’t realize that with the grief, there was an element of trauma in my response. I was a happy go lucky kid. Nothing phased me. I passed through hard things in life fairly easily, resiliently. But that one stuck with me for a while.
I remember talking about it several times, for weeks afterward, with my best friend, Corinn. I daily went out to the spot that we buried Curious, and felt like I should feel sad, but instead I felt scarred. Without closure. Different from the one pet death I’d experienced years before, and different than the pet deaths I experienced later in life. Something felt wrong inside. I never realized that I was storing trauma.
Years later, in summer of 2020 when the whole world was in chaos and I was braced for what I thought was anything that might come my way, my neighbor hung himself and I had to call 911 and at the dispatch’s relentlessly insistent instruction, I cut him down. Trauma.
I kept saying it felt like my brain was broken. Short circuiting. It took several days to even get to a place where I felt like I could manage my thoughts or emotions in any way. I still haven’t gotten to the point of not thinking about it, of not getting PTSD blips of visuals and memories that like to jump up and casually assault me without warning.
It was a much heavier dose, but it was the same internal flood of neurons and emotional reaction that I felt after Curious died. It looks similar to grief, but feels very different.
Not a month after my neighbor’s death, I walked up to a patio of a bar one night where a young man had just shot himself in the head. It had happened immediately before I arrived, it seemed. I was witnessing everyone’s reactions as they happened — shock, not knowing what to do or what happened, some calling 911, people just then realizing who had gotten hurt.
I similarly was trying to figure it out, scanning the area right in front of me until I saw him, slumped in his chair, blood on his face and neck. I felt hot bile and panic simultaneously rise in my throat as I felt myself starting to shut down, felt my consciousness starting to get drowned out by that freshly familiar feeling: Trauma, again.
I realized in an instant that I had to get out of there. I used all of my strength to walk briskly back around the corner to my car and leave. The police started to arrive right as I was pulling out, and one officer stopped me. I explained that I’d just arrived as it happened, and had recently dealt with a suicide and was having a panic attack and needed to leave. He let me.
I told some close people about it in this way: “I want to tell you about a thing that happened, but I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to tell you that it happened.”
I have never been someone to not want to or be willing to talk about hard things that happen, as I know that in sharing them, it feels less daunting, less alone, less heavy. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the capacity and in that fleeting instant, standing feet away from another dead man, I’d known that I didn’t.
I’d felt myself fading, drowning almost, and knew I just didn’t have it in me to weather another traumatic instance so soon. So I did what my family refers to as putting it in a box and putting it up on the shelf for another time.
I’d love it if I could just leave it on that shelf forever. But now that I’m far enough away from my neighbor’s death and some other hard things that were happening then, and have dealt with some of that trauma, I feel that box shaking on the shelf, asking to be taken down and looked at, held, and dealt with.
I have seen posts about him on social medias — some immediately following his death that night, and some that have lingered, being posted weeks and months after, as his friends and family still remember and miss and grieve him. Each one calls me closer toward the box, reminding me that its there, still unopened.
It feels like when you’ve had a broken bone, and you ignore it, and let it “heal” but it heals improperly, and then when you’re finally ready to deal with it, you have to re-break it to be able to set it and let it heal the right way. I feel like I’m finally ready to have it healed the right way, even though I know it means I have to break the wound open again first to do so.
What’s amazing is that our minds have the capacity to do what I did. To accept that we can’t handle this right now, and to box it up and shelve it for another time when we are ready and have the capacity to deal with it.
I’m starting to realize, though, that my mind-shelves have gotten fuller than I ever meant for them to, fuller than I even realized. That I have been feeling “healed” but frustrated with how handicapped my ‘healed’ self feels in many ways. That I am not able to lead as full a life as I desire because of things I’m triggered by, because the things that try to knock the boxes off my shelves are sometimes unavoidable, and now they’re on the floor and I’m tripping over them in ways that makes me less than my real self. Less alive than I want to be. And I’m starting to realize that some of these metaphoric broken bones that I’ve let time heal, haven’t actually been set and healed the right way.
I’m starting to understand that my insatiable desire for change and fun and excitement is rooted partially in my craving to keep my mind and body occupied with anything but what’s inside those boxes (or what will knock them off the shelves).
But I’m also reminding myself to have grace for myself as I start to unbox some of these traumas. To not be hateful toward myself for taking so long, because I know in truth that for some of these, I have not been ready until now. That’s how they got on the shelves to begin with. And others have just been there so long that I didn’t ever think about that maybe they didn’t have to be anymore.
I feel weak and insecure and —though I would never think this of anyone else who had endured things that were traumatic for them— I feel a bit pathetic to even acknowledge that I’ve had trauma at all. I know people who have endured so much more, so much worse, that I somehow believe I shouldn’t have been “traumatized” by some of the things that I’ve stored in those boxes. But, it doesn’t matter if I ‘should have been traumatized’ by something, it just matters that I was, and that I boxed up the trauma and have kept it, sometimes for decades.
I’ve heard people say things like “wow, that must have been pretty traumatic,” in response when I’ve shared about different pieces of my story. But somehow I’ve never until about 2 months ago realized and accepted that I have some trauma in my past. I am a person with trauma.
I hate admitting that even to myself because it makes me sound like a victim, a weak person who life just “happens to,” and I never want to be that. I see myself a strong and big and able to handle anything, able to roll with the punches, able to adjust, pivot, and keep going at all costs.
It feels counterintuitive to want to unbox pain and feel it again. But I’m realizing that I’d rather do it now, and heal the right way, than to just “keep going” living as a storage unit for pain that hinders my life.
So I’m starting that. You may read some of my processing along the way, as I write to process a lot of times. But I imagine there will be mostly things you will not read. Things that don’t need to be shared to be healed. Things that have been stored when they should have been set on the curb after their brief life. There are some things that simply were never meant to be kept, no matter how neatly boxed up they’ve been in storage.
I don’t have a bow to tie around this as this isn’t an ending, but a beginning. I guess I just am trying to trust the process, and I know that the process that has always been beneficial for me is to write some and share some. So, here we go.
It’s time to Mari Condo this trauma closet in my mind. I’m sure, like in life, it is a process that will be ongoing. But I’m hopeful that in the process, I will learn habits and mindsets that will help me avoid hoarding hurt as I continue through life.
If you have any resources you’ve found helpful in dealing with and processing trauma, I’d love for you to share.
As always, thanks for reading. I hope in my sharing that it helps someone else know they’re not the only one, that they’re not alone.