Sometimes the universe has themes. A couple of weeks ago, I’d ended up messaging with a friend a fair bit about trauma survivors and how very much not strong most of us feel.
Then last week I saw this tweet.
And I went on a Twitter rant — because it’s what I do — that I think most people need to hear. Thus this post was born.
To be clear
I’m not saying people who survive trauma — abuse, horrible accidents, severe illness, etc. — are weak. Obviously, we’ve got some fortitude.
But a lot of people see us still standing and assume that’s the whole story. They see that we’re not showing trauma right then, so we must have beaten it and any associated demons.
Unfortunately, that’s a very simplified version of a very complicated situation, and as with most things in society, it’s the sanitized version created to keep other people from feeling uncomfortable.
If you asked us (and few ever do) we would tell a very different, very layered story. And yes, I know you folks didn’t ask, but here’s the answer anyway.
Shards of me
But over the years — and with sooooo, soooo, soooo much therapy — I have slowly glued myself back together. I think it took so long for a variety of reasons, but probably the biggest is that I was shattered so young, I didn’t remember what I looked like whole.
So I wasn’t rebuilding myself, I was going off schematics my therapists gave me for what unbroken vases look like. And as anyone who’s ever put together something from IKEA will tell you, instruction manuals are maddening, and it always takes you far longer than expected to have a whole product.
So yes whole, but not strong
As I said, over time I did put myself back together. So at a glance I look whole. But the seams between the individual pieces are still there. And people vastly overestimate how much pressure — if applied in the right spots — it would take for me to fragment all over again.
And yes, before anyone mentions this, I know that in Japan they cover seams with gold because you’re supposed to take in the object as both whole and once-fractured. Beautiful for itself and its flaws.
It’s a lovely metaphor. Except gold is pretty damn strong, so things bonded together with gold are harder to break again. Thus I think more trauma survivors see ourselves as held together with glue (or maybe even tape) than gold.
Also yes, I’m aware everyone has some fracture lines in their vases. But a line that indicates a potential weakness exists is very different than lines showing where broken things were made into a now-delicate whole. A lot of people could be broken by pressure on a fracture line, but the point is they haven’t been yet.
So its a difference of having weaknesses that might cause you debilitating issues vs. having weaknesses after — and even arguably because of — fixing your issues.
A bad but useful metaphor
There’s a tendency to view dealing with trauma as a sort of war or at least a fight. If we come out the other side, people see us as victorious and call us strong for having withstood the battles and blows.
So while it’s a vastly imperfect metaphor, which I’ll get into shortly, let’s call it a boxing match.
In boxing, you have to remember that even the victor leaves the ring with injuries. Sure, the other guy is worse off, but they still usually got pummeled themselves. They won not because they’re fine but instead because they were able to work around their injuries long enough to beat their opponent into submission.
But the next day — or even later that night — those bruises will start to show. The “winner” will still be hurt, still need to rest and recover.
So just because a survivor’s hand is raised at the end of their boxing match doesn’t mean they’re not beaten and bruised. It doesn’t mean they’re completely intact.
Which is why when you tell trauma survivors we’re so strong, we know you’re not really looking. Otherwise you’d see the bruises, the eye swollen shut or just how we’re barely standing up from the exhaustion and pain.
Why this isn’t a regular fight
As I said, a boxing match is a useful but problematic metaphor. Because all fights — boxing matches, battles or full-on wars — have a definitive end at some point. And that’s not true for trauma survivors.
Unlikea boxing match, our opponent gets as many rounds as it wants — at any time it wants. We can knock it down and get a respite. It may even stay down for a while. But at any given point, it could spring back up and the bell will ring again.
And it’s worse for not knowing — either when or how intense the next round will be. We just always have to be ready for that bell. Because when it rings, we’re back in the fight again, no matter how tired we are, no matter how many times we feel like we’ve done it before.
So don’t tell us we’re strong as though we’ve won forever and the healing is complete. Because in reality we’ve accepted that the battle may never be over, and we’re just just trying to figure out how to live with the uncertainty of when/how bad the next round will be.
What “You’re so strong” really means
So when you tell us we’re strong — as though we’re permanently whole and healed — what you’re telling us is that you have decided we won the battle and the fight is in our rearview mirror. Which tells us that you don’t want to deal with our messy reality: not just that our fight will restart at unpredictable intervals/severity, but also that sometimes we don’t win — or maybe that day we just aren’t up to fighting at all.
When people say we’re strong, what we hear is that we can’t be vulnerable, that they have an immaculate image they’ve built of us, and we shouldn’t do anything to mess with that. Like struggling with trauma they’ve decided is in our past.
Now obviously it’s not people’s job to be our therapists. But therapy is only one part of the healing process. We also need a support system, people who will listen and we don’t have to worry that they’re judging us for not being completely healed.
We need to have people we can be around when we’re not okay — most importantly, ones who will make it clear we’re still worthy of love, regardless of whether we’re intact. Who we don’t worry will look at us differently if we show them wounds that have reopened.
What to say instead
Four years after I got out of the hospital, I went to see a new doctor; she came in the room and as she was looking at the file, she read out loud the note that I’d had Guillain-Barre when I was 19. She looked up and just looked at me for a second and simply said, “That must have been so hard for you.”
I had to choke back tears because outside of therapists I had seen, literally no one had ever said that to me.
Doctors found it surprising/interesting. People found it scary. None of them ever just acknowledged the trauma without qualifying it.
So if you are around someone who talks about trauma, don’t tell them they’re strong. Say what that doctor said. Or “Wow, I’m so sorry to hear that. If you ever need to talk about it, well… I probably can’t understand it, but I can listen.” Or “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” Maybe add “Do you have to deal with many aftereffects? I know sometimes the healing process is ongoing.”
Just generally acknowledge that they don’t need to be done with the trauma to be acceptable.
A slight exception
It’s worth noting that a lot of people in the early or middle stages of the psychological healing process are prone to saying that they are all better now. God knows I went through that stage. Sometimes I said it because the person I was talking to looked so scared by what I’d described. But a lot of the time, I just needed to believe it myself.
And perhaps some trauma survivors are genuinely, completely healed and done with their battles. But I think most feel that we’re rarely fully done with trauma’s effects.
So I personally believe that most folks who say they’re fine are just in denial. They are tired of hurting and they want to be done — or they haven’t even let themselves truly feel the trauma, and plumbing those depths is a terrifying notion. So they tell themselves — and everyone else — that they’re fine.
This means that telling someone at that stage that they’re strong is even worse than usual. You’re feeding into an unhealthy mindset that they’re done and it’s in the past and they don’t have anything they need to deal with.
So if you encounter someone who says they’re fine now, the best thing to say is something along the lines of, “Wow, that must have taken a lot of work to overcome. That’s really admirable. But I know sometimes things come back up, so if you’re ever not-okay and need to talk, I’m around.” Or basically anything that doesn’t exactly refute the “I’m fine now” belief they apparently need to cling to, but still lets them know that, when they’re ready. That you’re someone who won’t judge them when they realize they’re not fine after all.
What survivors can say
I rarely talk about dad crap outside of the blog or with a couple of friends, so I mainly get “You’re so strong” about having had Guillain-Barre. At which point I shrug and say one or both of the following:
- “Well, I was completely paralyzed and couldn’t talk, so it’s not like I had much choice in the matter.”
- “Well, about a year later I had a nervous breakdown so…” and just let the sentence dangle in the air while they shift uncomfortably.
Because it’s not trauma survivors’ job to save others from the discomfiting reality that we still struggle. I’m not saying that we should bury people in gory details, but we don’t have to have to play along that we’re fine either.
It’s okay for us to (even semi-passive-aggressively) educate people that a past traumatic event doesn’t mean the trauma itself stays in the past. That the healing process is likely ongoing and may never be complete.
My general attitude for a while has been that I’m about as healed as I’m gonna get, and I just kinda have to learn to live around what’s left.
I still have a rather heightened startle response. I still fight tears when I have anything vaguely resembling confrontation with a man. And sometimes (but confusingly not always) a man’s raised voice — even just nearby, not necessarily directed at me — will make my heart race or even make me tear up. Those are just facts of life for me. And they sure as hell don’t make me feel strong.
Any other broken vases out there tired of hearing they’re strong?