Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin. ~Danielle Bernock, Emerging with Wings: A True Story of Lies, Pain, and the Love That Heals
When my son was five months old he fell from a changing table at an art museum onto a concrete floor. This led to him having a fracture in his skull and us spending a night for observation at the children’s hospital (which in and of itself was a frustrating and somewhat traumatic experience.)
My son was fine, with no long term brain injuries or impact. I’m sure there is trauma that is living in his body from this which we will work through when the time is right.
I know there is trauma living in mine.
One day, when my son was four, he was wearing a pair of my shoes and was about to go down the steps onto our (concrete) walkway to go look at the moon with his dad and sister. I saw him starting to do this and very quickly grabbed him and told him to take my shoes off, I’d carry him or he could walk outside barefoot.
Long story short, Little Dude wasn’t having it and ran away crying while my husband got upset that I had stopped him from going outside. The truth is my response was automatic with no thought beyond seeing how his head was going to meet the concrete. I reacted on impulse, my mama instinct for my child’s safety, rightly or wrongly, engaged.
My body reacted in that “I will save my young” way that mammalian mothers tend to respond, but it was more than that. It was a trauma response. Because, in my mind and body, I had failed to protect my child when he was 5 months, I will be damned if I won’t protect him now.
Of course in the moment I didn’t full understand why my reaction was so strong. I didn’t see the connection to his fall at five months. I only knew I had a strong reaction to potential harm coming to my child.
In the days following the shoe-step-moon incident, is that all of a sudden the trauma that my family experienced the year before, not related to my child’s safety, was front and center. I was overwhelmingly sad, anxious, scared. I felt alone and yet wasn’t letting others in. I didn’t even have words for what all was swirling inside, but my body was reacting and then my mind would race and I was bringing all my practices for calming and soothing into play as best I could.
And sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t.
Mostly though, I didn’t understand why I was hurting so much, now, from the trauma from last summer. There was nothing that related to that trauma that had happened. There was no apparent logic to why I was feeling so sad and angry.
I chalked it up to this is part of the cycle for this relatively new trauma, and perhaps it was simply time again for me to feel my feelings again and process another layer of it.
Then a week later, I had an a-ha moment and remembered the fall when my son was five months old.
This thing that had been evading me, coming forward as the most recent trauma in my life, finally came out of the dark recesses of my unconsciousness.
And I cried. And sobbed. And wailed.
For not being there for my son in the way I needed to be when he was five months old up on that changing table.
Something finally released. And I wasn’t feeling so sad and angry about the trauma from last summer.
I named The Thing. I processed a bit more of the The Thing. And The Other Thing was no longer at the forefront of my mind and body.
Our bodies and even our minds, don’t always understand separate traumatic events as distinct. When one is triggered, often others – and particularly the most recent – come flooding forward. For those of us who have experienced multiple traumas in our lives (everyone), this can be incredibly confusing. It means we can’t always see how the dots connect or even that they connect.
It means one trauma is activated, but it presents as a completely separate trauma.
This is confusing and frustrating. It is illogical to our linear ways of considering logic. It makes no sense.
This is how it works. Our bodies especially can’t differentiate distinct traumatic events. It knows (perceived) danger and acts. It doesn’t matter what the (perceived) danger is or is about or is related or similar to.
It takes a while for our minds to catch up, too. Which is its own frustration and layer of confusion.
There is logic to the trauma from last summer “just popping up.” Sometimes that’s how trauma works.
But this time, my body and mind responses actually weren’t about that most recent trauma but were about an older one. My body reacted. My brain didn’t comprehend what the hell was going so, so pulled from most recent events.
It took me slowing down and thinking about the shoe-stair-moon incident in a more detached way to piece together that all my upset about last summer’s events wasn’t really about last summer, but about something that happened more than three years ago.
I don’t know that I could have done this, this slowing down and breaking down and shifting apart, two years ago. I don’t know that I ever would have had my a-ha, been able to name what was really happening, and then move on, at all and definitely not within a matter of days.
Which is to say, this work takes time.
All our traumas are interconnected within us. This can be confusing and frustrating and takes time, energy, patience, and connection (with Self and others) be able to unravel.
Sometimes what we think is making us “crazy” isn’t what is making us “crazy.” Taking the time to slow down requires practice. Being able to slow down and unravel requires curiosity. Learning to allow ourselves to feel and be curious about ourselves requires patience and self-compassion.
And a lot of un-learning of ingrained and internalized patterns and ways of being.
To our un-learning, together.
This essay was originally written for my weekly-ish newsletter in February 2018. It has been edited for publication here. To read my most recent essays you can subscribe right here.