The Universal Message of Trauma
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Trauma has a mouth.
Not a quiet, puckered, whispery, thin-lipped mouth with careful, clipped words.
Trauma's mouth is more like a foghorn. It is loud and low and meant to jolt you from your sleep. It's a midnight fire alarm with no off-switch, even when you don't smell smoke. It is a malfunction. It persists.
And that mouth, regardless of the individual experience of trauma, is always delivering the same message. And that message is this:
YOU ARE NOT SAFE.
One of the most challenging and brutally unraveling aspects of losing my daughter has been the trauma. I have experienced death and grief before, but I have never experienced traumatic loss, or any trauma for that matter, of this magnitude. Traumatic loss is its own animal. If grief is a rain cloud that follows you around like Eeyore in Winnie the Poo, then grief + trauma is the monster tornado from the Wizard of Oz picking you up and depositing you in an unknown world.
It's not that I was any safer before Evelyn died. Or that I am in any greater danger now. It's that I am now unequivocally aware of my vulnerability in a deeply experiential way and not just a cognitive one. Trauma makes sure you never ever forget your own powerlessness again.
If the root of trauma's message across the board is, You Are Not Safe, then it is in the words that follow that trauma gets to personalize that message according to our unique experiences. Because my trauma is a result of finding my child dead, my message goes a little something like this:
YOU ARE NOT SAFE ... because you can die at any moment and there is nothing you can do to stop it.
To which I shrug unfazed because the down and dirty truth is that I don't give a shit about my own death anymore.
So trauma takes a deep breath, regroups, narrows its beady little eyes and says, "Okay. Then how 'bout this one ...
YOU ARE NOT SAFE ... because the people you love can be taken from you at any moment and there is nothing you can do to stop it."
And that's when I go fetal. That's when I drop to my knees and my hands shake and my bowels turn to liquid and the world spins on its axis and I cry, "Uncle! Uncle!" Because trauma has just voiced the one truth that I cannot live with but must. And for good measure, to make sure I never ever forget it, to make sure that I know it's not just making this all up, it throws in a handful of flashbacks on a regular basis, the things I can't unsee—my Evelyn's discolored skin and sightless eyes. Her smiling face only hours before. Her frozen one only hours later.
If your trauma was the result of being grabbed in a parking garage and sexually assaulted, then your personalized message will be different. It will read, You Are Not Safe ... because any man can grab you at any time to do whatever he wants to you and there will be nothing you can do to stop it.
That message may make you leery of parking garages or strange men or being alone in public. Your particular "triggers" are always contained in the second half of your message from trauma. But like me, those first four words will haunt you whether you avoid parking garages, carry a loaded pistol, or attempt any other special measures to avoid falling into the same trap you did before. Like me, those first four words will do their darnedest to undermine your every move, every moment of every day for the rest of your life.
That is what living with trauma is all about. It is living with the hard, blind, ugly truths up close and personal. It is knowing the nightmare is real and unavoidable ... inescapable. It is being a walking, involuntary testament to the dark side. One moment you are whiling away the hours in ignorant, run-of-the-mill, beloved Kansas, and the next you are picked up in a great vacuum, tossed about until you don't know your up from down, and dumped the worse for wear firmly outside the bubble. But there are no ruby slippers here. No Glenda to watch over you. Even if you make your way to Kansas again, you can never go back home.
I'm not sure it's possible to eventually drown out the foghorn of trauma. You either learn to live with it, or it drives you over the edge of sanity and reason. And even if you carry on with the constant screaming in your ears, you pay a price for it. You lose focus. You forget. You appear distracted, even damaged. But I do believe that with time the sound softens. Probably because you lose a bit of hearing as a result.
Trauma isn't the enemy, but it sure isn't a friend. I am getting better at nodding silently when it screams in my face. I find that arguing with it only makes the voice louder. And in some ways that might be perceived as positive, sharing my most intimate space with the most horrific truth has caused me to live differently, to choose differently. Trauma has changed me, and it continues to reshape me each and every day. Whether that's for better or worse is debatable. But it's important to say it. It's important to acknowledge it. I won't live as if my worst nightmare didn't happen.
I'm sorry if my jagged edges threaten to burst your bubble. I truly don't wish that for you, but I am incapable now of softening myself for your comfort. I have only enough energy to keep me going when so much must be directed at managing the constant pain of grief and the constant wail of trauma. I understand if you must stand apart from me to protect your bubble of false security. I truly do. The truth is, there is no difference between you and I. You cannot catch the condition of vulnerability, but you can catch the awareness of it.
And to those who are willing come close, to risk their own comfort in order to comfort me, you will never know how precious you truly are.