A poetic glimpse into the prison of trauma
“Are you ever coming back?”
I never fully left –
You made sure of that
You trapped my past self behind bars
Silent screams echoing
Swapped innocence for scars
My stolen youth, still frozen in time
Waves from your stones reverberate
Rippling across decades, resounding in my mind
I carry your shrapnel in my body
Fingerprints on my arm, bruised indentations
Voices in my head, faces in flashbacks I see
Depositing love, I withdrew pain
Maybe that’s why you say “give until it hurts”
I swear, my only sin was trusting
Reaching through time you stole
Marring moments that were mine
Claiming my emptiness was a God-sized hole
You took away what I didn’t even have yet
That was my inheritance, my change you spent
Hating a version of me you hadn’t even met
Reducing the chances she would ever be born
Protecting your agenda, eliminating threats
Intimidated by a woman who can weather the storm
Mining my soul for power and control
Extracting what you needed from my lifeless form
You felt tall by pushing me low
The old me is still back there, a square in your quilt
You’ve stitched her in between colorful demons
Hemmed in, a brick in the empire you built
I’m cursed, but I swear I wasn’t born with this fate
Cornered, held down, I couldn’t escape
Fangs sunk in deep, cold venom contaminates
Now it oozes out my pores, infecting those I love most
I cower, I lash out, I hate this master
I’m contagious, watch out, don’t get too close
Everything I touch crumbles under my weight
I test each foothold in case the floor falls through
As I approach, healing waters evaporate
Splash in the rain only to find pools of blood
I breathe in sweet nectar only to cough on dust
The oasis was a mirage, I sink into mud
Every shadow looms like a monster, every tree a beast
The wind chases me, strangers leer
Each new sound a potential threat – dangers never cease
Is joy even real or are y’all pretending?
I have a vague a distant memory
Is happiness a carrot on a stick, to keep us running?
New life springs up in tender green leaves
Delicately sprouting forth, from my younger, decaying corpse
I lay petals on her grave, wipe snot on my sleeves
Life is so cruel and unfair
She should never have had to die
But if she didn’t, would I be here?
Leaving the church is like finally escaping an abusive relationship
But when you go home, all your family talks about is your ex-partner
And they constantly ask about your abuser, like when you saw them last
And they announce being disappointed in you for leaving
And they ask you to call up your ex before eating at the dinner table
And they beg you to apologize to the person who mistreated you. You’ll be forgiven and granted a second chance
And your uncle pats you on the shoulder and assures you that your ex will always want you and will forever pursue you
Then your parents tell you their greatest desire is to see you get back together with your ex.
Leaving the church is like finally walking away from a narcissist
Only for everything else in your life to suddenly fall apart because it all hinged on that one relationship
And you lose your friends because they “liked you better” when you were with your abuser
And everyone staunchly defends your ex, even those who don’t know your situation
And they inform you that your efforts to protect yourself were morally wrong
And any place you go, you run into the narcissist’s friends – everywhere you turn someone is singing their praises
And people only refer to you as “so-and-so’s ex” – that’s all they can see you as
Then they hand you a Relationship Self-Help book, saying they are worried about you and this will fix everything.
Leaving the church is like finding the strength to break up with a toxic, controlling, co-dependent oppressor
Except instead of support, your friends say you’re breaking your abuser’s heart
And they give your ex credit for anything good in your life
And they tell you you’ll never find meaning or purpose apart from your ex
And folks you’ve never met before are personally offended at your decision to end the relationship
And even your therapist sides with the narcissist – with subtle jabs and snide remarks
And distant acquaintances comfort you with reminders that they’re talking to your abuser on your behalf
Then years down the line you’ll still meet people who declare they know exactly what you should have done, but they weren’t even there.
This will happen for years, for decades, for the rest of your life.
And you’ll wonder if you can ever truly be free because you weren’t breaking up with just one person – it’s millions against one.
“Ten spears go to battle … and nine shatter. Did the war forge the one that remained? No… All the war did was identify the spear that would not break.” – Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer
Trauma didn’t make me stronger. It revealed my strength.
Trauma didn’t make me better. It proved I am good.
Trauma didn’t teach me anything – I sifted through the sand looking for diamonds and gleaned goodness where I could find it, rare as it was in that hell.
My abusers gave me nothing of value – in my own wisdom I recognized a kernel of truth amid their array of lies and took it with me, leaving behind the rest. I get the credit for lessons learned and growth gained in the chaos, not the havoc wreckers.
Abuse has no silver lining – the hidden treasure was always my ability to emerge from the deadly storm alive, never the merciless wind or harrowing waves.
Trauma has no upside – it held me back, knocked me down, inflicted serious injuries. Yes, I got up time and time again. Yes, I nursed my wounds and healed them as much as they could be healed. But without the setback, who knows how much farther I could have gotten? What more could I have accomplished without years of my energy going toward surviving something so unnecessary and harmful?
Trauma is fundamentally and irredeemably bad – always. The urge to find a bright side is a coping mechanism for avoiding the unpleasantness of sitting with the finality of an immutable and irreparable event – a moment passed, frozen in time; once birthed, eternally existent. Looking for a reason or projecting meaning is a surface level distraction from the pain and unfairness of it all, a wrestling with our own powerlessness against the past.
The blessing isn’t the unthinkable survived but always the survivor. Trauma reveals those who are made of gold so when passed through the fire they emerge changed, but not destroyed. Trauma reveals the extraordinary person otherwise overlooked in an ordinary life.
Trauma is never good – the person who weathers it without becoming a monster is good. The person who can escape a changing maze, who can set their broken bones despite the agony, who doesn’t give up after being pushed down again and again – that person is good. The person who is clever enough and creative enough to invent new ways of escaping, resilient enough to keep inventing when they are exhausted, and shrewd enough to seek help – that person is good. The person who can experience injustice without repeating it, the person who can look outside of themselves while carrying something so consuming – they are good. Trauma never is. If the bleakness of it all is too much and you need to find the light in the darkness – look to the survivor, the hero of the story, whether it is yourself or a person you love. The survivor is hope in a depressing narrative. Don’t give credit to abusers or the trauma they inflict by looking for the silver lining – instead celebrate the person who is gold.
One year today.
Before I was a grieving person I didn’t understand the experience of a “traumaversary”. I figured on days that marked a loss, the grieving person was sad and remembering it more because of what day it was.
I didn’t realize it’s more than sadness. I didn’t understand there’s really no such thing as “remembering it”, because you never forget. It’s not a thought you have. It’s a constant reality. It’s a gaping hole woven into the fabric of your being. It’s part of who you are now.
I didn’t know when a traumaversary comes around, especially the first one, both the brain and body are reliving the initial loss. In a lot of ways the body thinks it’s happening all over again.
I didn’t understand a traumaversary isn’t just a day, but it’s the days and weeks and even months leading up to it. I had no clue a grieving person’s body feels on edge, waiting for the unthinkable. I didn’t know its like reliving the past while getting a window into the hellish future. I was unaware it feels like knowing what will happen on that day but being powerless to stop it. I had no idea a traumaversary isn’t just a day.
I didn’t realize a traumaversary isn’t just a day, or the days before it – it’s the days and weeks and even months following after it too. I had no clue following a traumaversary a grieving person’s body relives those early days of grief, struggling to survive the unsurvivable. I didn’t know a grieving person’s mind goes through the cycles again of trying to reorient itself to its new damned existence. I was unaware it feels like reliving the past while knowing experientially just how utterly devastating the future is.
Now I know that at the one year mark there is a jarring realization that you can no longer say “this time last year” when referring to special moments with your person. It’s the traumatic reality that linear time is dragging you further and further away from their touch, their voice, their smell. A traumaversary isn’t just a testament to what happened in the past – it’s proof the world keeps moving after your world ended. It’s tangible evidence you are still here and they are not. It’s the sometimes paralyzing fear that your memories will fade. It’s the terror of recognizing that shared moments with your person are taking up a smaller and smaller piece of the pie of your life. Its the suffocating epiphany that the percentage of your life spent with your person is shrinking with each passing millisecond. It’s wondering what new memories would have been made by now if things had been different, what they would be doing now, who they would be.
I’m finding now that a traumaversary isn’t grieving only the initial loss. It’s grieving a month, or six months, a year or many years worth of missed memories, empty holidays, unfulfilled dreams, lonely adventures, reaching for shared goals alone.
I’ve learned now that you should be gentle with yourself on traumaversaries, whether it marks a loss or abuse or some other terrifying event. Be gentle with yourself because your nervous system is terrified. Be gentle with yourself because your body is reliving something it didn’t think it could live through. Be gentle with yourself because a traumaversary isn’t just a day.
Some days it is hard to love myself.
Today is one of those days.
Some days I wonder who I would be without this PTSD.
I want to know what could have been, if the abusers didn’t win.
Who would I be if I wasn’t shaped by what those people did to me?
I am on hyper-alert. My senses are sharpened to the slightest movement or sound; immediately noticing a subtle smirk or frown. My body is tense and ready to fight. But I can never be sure if I’m paranoid or right.
My mind is always at the defense, ready to state my case and stand my trial. I make snap judgments and assume the worst. My nervous system is tattooed with a survival manual.
My reflexes learned how to be a step ahead of the attacks that always came; prepared to guard my honor and ward off the blame.
I’ve mastered the art of reading between the lines. Shallow breath, darting eyes – mind games and word traps I’m quick to recognize.
Playing detective, constantly on edge – my testimony is told by unlikely witnesses: my own skin, blood pressure, metabolism, my muscles. Chapters of my story are written on pages of medical bills.
On bad days my verbal processing center shuts down. It’s difficult to follow what’s being said or articulate what’s wrong; I stutter and falter. My face flushes with the shame and self-disgust familiar to survivors.
On good days I’m still haunted by the me that never was. I feel her, but I don’t know who she is or what she does.
If only she would talk to me – show me what it would be like if I was never given PTSD.
Sometimes I think about what potential lived inside that little baby born on a stormy August afternoon thirty years ago. Is her potential still inside of me or is she a ghost? Am I honoring her memory? Am I fulfilling her purpose or at least getting close? Some days I long for younger me, willing her to come alive.
Or do I have it all wrong? Perhaps a lesser me entered the flames and came out the other side refined, forged in the fire. The perilous journey making me determined and strong.
Without trauma I could be happier but probably more shallow. Maybe I was fated for this journey, but I’ll never know.
I do know I’ve gained wisdom, experience, empathy and compassion. I know I’ve developed resilience and character and faith. I’m a fighter and a survivor – but what will the healing process create? Who will I be when this label becomes a smaller part of my identity? Will I lose myself? Will I find my true self?
Or is this fluid, ever-changing, adapting, always growing and morphing and evolving me, the only me there ever was?
All I can ever really do is embrace the now, commit to the process, look for the beauty within the chaos. I can celebrate my victories and focus on what I have more than what was lost.
And while other people’s actions have been huge in shaping the person I am, that was the extent of their power. I still get to decide who I am becoming, and the best part is, they’re not going to like her.