look at your face your face
is old but suffering is
—Anne Carson, Red Doc >
The holidays are here again and so are all the articles about what to be thankful for, how to be thankful, the importance of being thankful. I am supposed to be thankful for the job I have (which I love), the winding path that got me here to a place where I am able to do work that I find so valuable. Which means I have to think about all the things that happened to me that put me here. I have to think about the things that were wonderful and the people who gave me so much to feel gratitude for—and I have to think about the people who took so much from me, and in such irreparable ways that I could not do this work without being able to source my passion from my hurt. But it also means that I have to acknowledge, again, the depth of that hurt.
Which, naturally, means I’m feeling more than a little ungrateful. I am feeling ungrateful because it’s been another year and I still remember things that I don’t want to. Because it’s been another year and there are still ways I can’t be touched, still doors I can’t have my back to—men whose eyes I can’t meet.
There is an expectation of survivors of trauma that we don’t discuss: that they be grateful.
Gratitude for having lived through it where so many other people didn’t. To be grateful for the fact that we traversed Tartarus and come back. But all these years later I’m still not grateful. I’m not thankful that I can call myself a “rape survivor”—I’m not sure what in that sentence I’m supposed to even be thankful for.
There is an expectation of survivors of trauma that we don’t discuss: that we will be wise.
Because there is an expertise in returning from hell. And if you haven’t returned, well, you must not know it. And that wisdom is precisely what allows us to continue that upward march, the slow ascension, into the white light of graciousness. I’ve been thinking a lot about being thankful because I’ve been thinking a lot about the expectation I had for the shape of my life when I was younger. And how, after I was raped in a bathroom stall by a stranger, those expectations changed. How they went from career goals (successful writer) and relationship goals (husband, dog, and children—all appropriately well heeled) to being “today goals.” That today I wouldn’t wake up sad, that today I wouldn’t have any flashbacks.
When I think about trauma I’m struck by the theoretical underpinning that’s encoded in our idea healing—to feel better. Progression through healing is the amelioration of the presenting illness. You get better. And if part of that illness is feeling bad then part of healing is that you stop feeling bad.
But I think it’s time, and necessary, that we recognize that there is a possibility inside trauma that you won’tfeel better. You’ll get older, you’ll manage, you’ll develop coping skills (someone will praise you for your resiliency); but you won’t feel better. And in order for us to begin to interact with survivors of trauma, to build systems that are responsive to trauma and don’t retraumatize people, we need to make sure that that’s understood—and that it’s ok.
During the brief time I did clinical work I tried, as often as possible, to plainly acknowledge whenever someone told me something horrible. I didn’t ask people to find the light in dark places. I framed my interactions in the understanding that part of using a strengths-based practice was also having the strength to face down and name the bad things—to hold them up and be able to say, “This is shitty.” And when something is shitty you don’t have to be grateful that it happened to you. You don’t have to be happy that you drew the short straw. Being happy is not the same thing as being resilient, as coping.
This doesn’t mean I won’t have joy, or that I won’t have meaningful relationships—I do. And I will continue to. But it does mean that I still wake up sad a lot. I still get flashbacks.
And that’s fine. It has to be. In order to open up new dimensions in understanding and managing trauma (both public and intimate) we have to understand that there is nothing in survival that is inherently tied to happiness. We have to give trauma survivors the room and space to be angry, to be complicated, to move through ranges of affects without forcing notions of healing that hold up the progression towards being grateful for having survived and then finally happy about the lives we’ve been able to live in the aftermath.
More importantly we have to finally acknowledge that there is often no “return” from trauma. That to live through the trauma is to be fundamentally altered by it—the person I was before is not here anymore; and he won’t be returning. The term “trauma survivor” implies that the me that existed before has some continuity with the me that exists now and the final, burned down to baseline, truth of it is that those two people are not the same.
So when we put trauma survivors on pathways to healing that include reclamation of a fragmented self it is crucial that we ask: which self? I don’t want my ability to survive to be mistaken for wisdom. The me that came back was not wiser, did not learn a secret for which I should be grateful. It was all dumb luck. There’s so little that separates me from the one’s who did not make it back that it’s enough to keep a person up at night. And sometimes it does.
In my own path I’ve found that it’s been important to understand that, for me personally, I will not ever feel better about what happened to me. I still feel rage, I still feel sadness, I still have a grief in me for a life I will not have, kinds of intimacies that will forever feel strange to me. And outrage that I live in a world that allows this to happen to people everyday.
This outrage has become the reason that I do the work that I do everyday. If I learned anything it’s that it happened to someone else before me and it happened to someone else afterwards. If there is a reclamation of the self I once had somewhere out there in my future it feels deeply contingent on the creation of a world where these things can’t happen to people anymore.
There is so much work to do. And I simply can’t say that I’m grateful for that.
Image by Jeff Olivet.