The other night, I was watching the latest episode of How to Get Away with Murder. And I won’t let loose any spoilers, because only asshats let loose spoilers from the best and most intense cliff-hanging shows. (I’m looking at you, people on the train loudly discussing plots and outcomes that we financially challenged people cannot have experienced yet, because the movie hasn’t come out in the more accessible VUDU app format.)
But, spoilers and asshats aside, a character on the show the other night pointed out that childhood trauma was responsible for her pain and her questionable behavior. And I cheered aloud and then began to cry. Because Shonda Rhimes had brought me the validation that is so often missing from the recovery process when one is harmed as a child. She brought me the truth that today is still about yesterday for those of us stuck in trauma. She brought that truth to a huge viewing audience.
This is about that.
There are lots of people who misunderstand that way that trauma affects us. And much of the misunderstanding is due to the fact that we want to avoid trauma like the plague. We don’t like to feel it, or see it, or cope with it. We just don’t like the messy and unsolvable and uncontrolled parts of life, and trauma, especially childhood trauma, is the epitome of unsolvable, uncontrolled mess.
I don’t have the luxury of avoiding that mess. That mess is a part of my brain, and not just in the way that a habit is ingrained, but in the sense that my brain was physiologically and chemically affected by childhood trauma, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. And PTSD throws that trauma in your face constantly. It isn’t a matter of “letting go”, or “getting over it”. It is a matter of brain formation and function that is far outside my control.
So, when Ms. Keating offered the idea that her present was infiltrated by her past trauma, I related with that. I related with that HARD.
And then I was disappointed with the next character’s reply. Even though I know that his reaction is a common one, it seemed to invalidate the pain of the present being tied to the past. But it is. It absolutely is.
This is about that.
I would guess that the number of people who have told me that my choices are responsible for the situation I am in (regardless of what that situation was or what choices I had made) is in the hundreds. And the number of people who likely think but do not say that my choices are responsible for the situation I am in is probably in the thousands.
Those people are wrong.
This is the point where I would like to add that you should READ TO THE END BEFORE POSTING RAGE-INDUCED COMMENTS.
Those people are wrong because my present challenges are not simply a product of my choices, and because trauma has informed my situation for almost forty years. And it still does.
Here’s the thing: Your past informs your present. It simply does. There are numerous things outside of your control that may have shaped your life to date. You were born in a particular place, and in a particular time. Your parents, or lack thereof, shaped the way you viewed the world in your early years. Your access to education determined much. Your family finances determined much. Your skin color, and the resulting prejudice or privilege, determined much. And trying to pretend or argue away that influence is a futile thing—because we might not be tabula rasa, but we are definitely affected by the things that make up our early years, and we carry some of that with us always.
Now, having pointed to the ways that we all carry our past, I would like to return our attention to my own situation. My situation is not the result of my choices alone. My situation is the sum of many parts, but the most influential parts were the traumatic parts. And my choices—the way that I interacted with the world—were influenced by that trauma. This is about that. My present is informed by my past. And every decision has been one made under duress, because of that lingering trauma.
Trauma, untreated, compounds and builds and becomes more and more traumatic. Imagine you fall, and in doing so break a rib. It hurts, but you don’t go in to the doctor for treatment, because you don’t see an external injury. You walk about for a few days, with that pain still lingering, and then one day, while lifting something heavy, that broken bone shifts and punctures your lung. Untreated trauma, even in a strictly physical sense, can lead to greater trauma.
My childhood trauma informed how I saw the world, how I saw myself, how I viewed trust and love and care and communication. And that information was skewed in such devastating ways, that every interaction, for the rest of my life was affected by that trauma. My drug use, my chronic illness, my romantic partners, my earning potential, my friends, my jail time, my parenting style, my sleep cycles—all directly related to the trauma that I suffered in childhood. And each resulting “mistake” or misstep based on that history created another skewed belief about myself and the world around me.
It still happens today. Even with proper diagnosis, medication, and weekly therapy sessions, I still make choices based on that trauma all the time. Because you can’t just wiggle your nose and create a new narrative. It takes long, hard, painful work to even face the narrative that is mine, much less to create a new one in its place.
Today is about yesterday. This is about that. Trauma compounded makes my life a series of traumas, and that is absolutely not my fault.
Yep. I’m saying it. NOT MY FAULT.
My choices didn’t put me here, because they were based on a bullshit narrative. The narrative started with the trauma. It is the foundation of my entire life. Annalise Keating, the character who expressed the truth on the show, and I share this foundation. This is about that. When your life is built upon a foundation of pain and confusion and denial and abandonment and fear, you cannot make all the “right” choices. When your life is built upon love and trust and needs that are met, you can make decisions in a different manner than Annalise and I can. But we don’t have that to build upon. And building a life of love and trust and “enough” upon the foundation of pain and confusion and denial and abandonment and fear is an almost impossible task.
I’ve found that digging deep into my history and rooting out the beliefs that a small girl formed based on trauma is a strategy that works to help me move forward in healthier and better ways. But that process takes many years, and much effort. There are days when I jump in the ring and fight for my own narrative and my agency and my autonomy—building a more positive framework for my future by addressing that negative framework of my past. There are days when I cannot find enough energy to fight, and days when parts of my brain take over and make decisions for me and follow rote patterns while I dissociate from pain or fear or some other thing that I don’t want to feel. There are days when I make informed decisions based in new systems of belief. There are days when I still believe all the core statements that a broken little girl formed in the midst of a shit experience.
Regardless of the way I connect and interact and act on each of these days, there is always the lingering trauma. Either I am working at coping with it, or I am being overtaken and ruled by it, but the trauma is always informing my day, my choice, my life.
This is about that.
It has always been about that. It may always be about that. I don’t know if the work that I am doing to cope will ever stop being such hard work. I know that I am developing coping strategies, and learning to frame life in more positive ways at times, and seeking to understand and address the disconnect inside my own mind—reintegrating my brain and finding greater wholeness. But I do not know that my altered brain will ever be free of the influence of previous, and especially childhood, trauma.
There is no cure for PTSD. There is only coping. And while I keep working toward coping, there are lots of ways that my finances and my health issues and the area I live in and the things I own and the way I approach relationships are already saturated with trauma, and wringing out all of that history and pouring in something better is not going to be possible if there isn’t more hope and more support and more money and more security and more safety at some point. If there isn’t more good to replace the bad, then I just keep spinning around in a horrible life cycle of trauma repeating and compounding and reinjuring.
So, what is the point of this post? I’m not entirely certain. I suppose it is to voice what was voiced and challenged in the television show: this is about that, and pain, unchecked and without validation and the pursuit of justice, brings more pain and more pain and more pain.
What can solve this problem? Validation and the pursuit of justice. Those are the only things that start to wring out the trauma and fill up the broken with hope and love and trust. Believing, addressing, listening, validating, and seeking to end the pain for another, instead of running from trauma like you are being chased by a wildcat can solve the problem. Offering peace to replace pain, offering loyalty to replace betrayal, offering encouragement to replace harsh words, offering truth to replace lies, offering things and funds to replace need and poverty, and offering support to replace abandonment can solve the problem. They can’t solve it immediately, or easily, or even without any new or recurring trauma, but they can add to the work that the victim of trauma is doing, and help to create a better narrative, new core beliefs, and a perspective of blessing and kindness and good. And that is a significant contribution.
This is about that.
I didn’t make my bed and need to lie in it. The place where I lie, or stand, or sit, or walk, was made by a series of traumatic experiences that were not my fault, and I don’t need to remain there. With the help of others, instead of the flippant judgments and imagined superiority that are often the normative response to those who experience trauma, I might be able to find a better place to lie, and make a bed that is comfortable, warm, and filled with love and kindness, instead of the one that I was thrown into by the actions of others.
Because this is about that. My present struggles have been caused by the trauma of my past. And admitting that, appreciating that, and addressing that with actions that change the narrative and offer a positive perspective are necessary for my situation to change.
I’m not alone in this. Millions of people are suffering in the same way—living lives that are informed by and built on the failing foundations of trauma. And it is time that those of us not fighting against that trauma stopped adding to the weight of that trauma, and started to support those who are working so hard to overcome the past and find better futures. Become part of the solution, and stop compounding the problem. Believe a survivor. Support a person in need. Fight for justice, even when that justice doesn’t serve you personally. End the stigma. Ease the pain.
Because this is about that.