[this is a bit of a raw post, so I have added a bunch of puppy gifs, because, puppies]
When I was 16, I was told by my youth leader, whilst getting reprimanded for some questionable behaviour, that the silver lining of this is that if you never make mistakes and never experience these things, it is hard to understand and empathize with people when they are struggling. He advised me to not beat myself up for making questionable choices, because it is experiences like this that will allow me to be supportive to others when they are having hard times.
It might have been an off-hand comment for him, but I have carried this lesson with me ever since, that my mistakes and missteps have given me the gift of empathy and understanding for flawed and struggling people, because have earned that designation over and over again.
I am a master struggler.
The past few weeks have been tough and there has been a lot simmering just below the surface. Several dear people around me have been grappling monstrous beasts and my own dragon from many years ago decided to pop out of the dark corner where I had stuffed him to let me know my classic “ignore him and it is like it didn’t happen and he will probably go away” approach was perhaps not as effective as I had led myself to believe.
So, ever the researcher, I find myself reading the extensive literature on trauma. The literature consistently indicates that there are three steps to recovering from trauma [in greatly simplified terms]:
- Safety and stabilization – The best illustration of the first step that I read about is to imagine you are a bottle of soda. When the shitstorm hits, it is like the bottle gets shaken up, and the pressure and emotional overwhelm builds. The goal of this step is to find ways to release the pressure, to emotionally regulate so you don’t explode.
- Remembrance and mourning – Putting into words what happened, adding emotions to it, making some sense and meaning of it. This is a heady and heavy one because it also involves recognizing and exploring the other losses associated with the traumatic event, which may reach much further than you had expected.
- Feeling good, building relationships, and doing good stuff – This final stage is the point at which you are no longer defined by the traumatic event, that you have a sense of empowerment and self-determination about your life, that you are able to establish healthy relationships, and possibly, you may become active in causes or activities that help make the world a better place.
These steps seem quite logical, but this is kinda how I feel about them:
So instead, I tried to take a short cut and skip to the end.
For the most part, I rarely acknowledged that something bad happened. Because if I didn’t admit to myself that a traumatic event had occurred, I didn’t have to deal with the loss that accompanied it. Logic, right?
Basically, I tried to skip to step 3, wanting so desperately to just to ok, I jumped into “doing noble things for the good of all” in order to make meaning from the madness, without taking a minute (or a month, or a year) to work through the grief and loss.
But skipping to the end doesn’t mean you are strong and it certainly doesn’t mean you are fixed. In fact, I find myself 10 years later confronting what I should have dealt with long ago. Skipping to the end is simply running away, and being able to tell ourselves a nice story about how “I must be better because look at all the amazing stuff I am doing!”
These elaborate distraction techniques helped me avoid all the “bad” emotions – grief, anger, shame. I didn’t want to exist in the pain, I wanted to immediately move onto joy. But light and darkness go hand in hand. I finally realized I need to let the darkness in, to acknowledge the hurt before I can heal in a positive way.
And guys, it feels dreadful. It is like re-breaking a bone that hasn’t set properly.
It does suck when the universe is like “OK. Here are all the things. Deal with them now!” but I also think that this is sometimes a sign of growth. I think that my elaborate and sophisticated repression techniques existed for a really important reasons: that sometimes we squish things down in order to survive, in order to wait for the day that we have the resources, tools, and support to deal with the issues in a positive way.
The bottom line is that you can’t skip this… but this shitstorm is part of the bargain of being alive. Everybody gets a big serving of living nightmares. Some people get more than their share, and some people get fewer, but eventually, we’re all crawling over sharp rocks on our fucking knees. The pain is unthinkable. Why keep moving?
All I can tell you is that my shredded knees made me tougher and also weaker, bigger and also more fearful. – Ask Polly
The thing is, pretty much everyone I know has skinned knees and broken hearts, which amounts to a huge amount of hurt in the world. But these people that bear bruises and scars are also the warriers that I want by my side when the dragon wakes up. These are the tough and weak, big and fearful, strong and sensitive warriers I want on my team. At times, I pay a therapist to be on my team, because the hard stuff sometimes needs a professional.
So I may feel like I am 90% struggles on most days, but I also know that I am my scraped knees are starting to heal and that I might be slowly figuring how to move forward.