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Tethered (Another Trauma Metaphor that Has Helped Me) - by Crystal



Something I struggle with immensely with respect to my trauma is how dramatically different my experience of it is at different times.

People tend to speak of trauma as if it's inherently an experience of horror, helplessness or terror.

Sometimes that's what my trauma is for me. Sometimes it overwhelms and grips me in a way that's horrifying and renders me helpless.

Other times, it's just an irritant, a source of frustration.

Sometimes it's nothing, just an empty space that's eerie in its lack of dimensions, in contrast with everything that surrounds it. In those states I'm often bored of it. I want to be done with it, but I feel I'm carrying around this heavy burden of empty nothingness. It makes me feel dead inside, lifeless, nothing.

Sometimes, it's a foil for my shiny experiences of hope, meaning, and optimism: a backdrop for some grand and beautiful vision of "post-traumatic growth." ("Someday I'll look back and be glad this happened because x, y, z flowed from it").

Sometimes it seems to be a reflection of me and who I am, not something that merely happened to me. I am the ugliness. I am the darkness. I'm merged with it.

And there are so many other variations, sometimes in dramatic painful contrast to each other, sometimes confusingly and chaotically tangled and/or blurred together.

During the experiences themselves, the feelings were often muted. Not even an experience at all. Discomfort and waiting for it to be over as flatly as possible, so I didn't have to really experience it. Sometimes no feelings. Sometimes feelings that were very restrained and distant. Not fear but maybe a shadow or an echo of fear. Not horror but maybe a sense of something intense and heavy lurking that would overcome me if I didn't hold tight to blocking it out. I often have an image of finding an eye in a storm to wait it out, so I don't have to experience the high winds and destruction even as it rages on all around me. I'm safe in the eye as long as I don't move a millimetre or breathe too hard or speak or feel or think. Other times it's like retreating into myself so I have no corporeal or even emotional reality. Either way, it's like dimming/receding the inconvenient dimensions of whatever particularity the world around me contains, and whatever particularity/dimensionality my self may have.

And, of course, because I've had many different traumatic experiences: even the above description rings a bit false. Because there was so much variation across different stages of my life. Sometimes different feelings burst forth or palpably lurked. It depended on so many factors, some by chance and some by design. The experiences I had as an adult and teen had the extra-dimension of having to manage not only the experience itself but also the memories of past experiences that it risked invoking. I had to shut down my normal responses to what was happening in order to not be overcome by a past that I'd been trying so hard to escape. I wanted my shiny beautiful post-traumatic growth and the presentation of new traumas was sometimes inconvenient and irritating, other times life-threatening.

All that is to say that it's really fucking complicated and the complexity itself has been one of the greatest harms for me.

And like the trained cross-examiner that I am, I use this complexity to tear myself to bits.

When I feel nothing, I remind myself of the horror I felt at other times to belittle my calm. "Your calm is an illusion. You always get drawn in by this stuff again and again."

When I feel overwhelmed, I remind myself of the nothing I felt before and will feel again: "You are a faker. You feel totally fine sometimes. How can this horror you feel now possibly be real?"

The ever-changing, storm-system-like nature of my feelings makes me feel like something is wrong with me, like I'm a liar. Like none of my feelings are valid because they're so contradictory and irreconcilable. Calm, then various stages of a storm, then calm again.

Recently, however, an image helped me.

I let go of the conception of trauma as an event that happens at one point in time and has a particular emotional essence ("horror"). It may work that way for some people but not me.

I pictured instead what it would be like to be chained to a monster over an extended period of time. Naturally, of course, the feelings could change at various times. Sometimes there would be horror and grief. Other times, it would be natural to grow tired and feel sleepy. To be hungry and have to eat. To be irritable and restless. To experience inexplicable periodic bursts of unrealistic hopefulness. To lose patience and be angry. Eventually maybe it would settle into long stretches of emotionally flattened helplessness. But then maybe sometimes it would seem like the chain is finally broken resulting in relief and bliss only to be hard hit by the reality that the monster is still there and the chain is stronger than ever.

The threat that doesn't go away will naturally evoke a range of responses in us because having one singular emotional state all the time isn't sustainable much of the time. It might change depending on what's happening inside and around us or just in a normal cyclical way. It's so basic and maybe not much of an insight for anyone else but it helps me to think of it in these terms.

My feelings change because I'm living my life in the shadow of a monster (my traumas) to which I'm tethered. I live my life in the shadow of the monster rather than having a singular experience of it/them and moving on to "heal."

It's not a linear experience. It's not something that exists in the past and is remembered now. It's something that always keeps me tethered even as I move through time. And the experience will be correspondingly varied, complicated, rich--and exhausting.

As an aside, when I was younger I was deeply moved by the pilot episode of Star Trek DS9 in which the non-linearity of trauma was explored. I won't explain it (links to it below in four parts), but ultimately it culminated in the revelation that his trauma (the death of his wife) wasn't a part of his past: rather he came to realize "I exist here." Every experience he had was filtered through that tether (my words).

For me it's more complicated because I had so many experiences of severe trauma, many of which unfolded repeatedly over long periods of time at different staged of my development. But the idea of the non-linear nature of their effect on me was a profound realization to help me accept their complex and seemingly paradoxical (when looked at in a linear way) impacts on me.

The solution for me? The best treatment?

What's helped me most is to introduce a different kind of non-linear experience to weave in with that feeling of being tethered to something monstrous. I can't just break the chain, but I can weave in new powerful experiences of comfort, kindness, safety and connection: Trauma-informed therapy with a wise, kind and humble therapist. Connections with other survivors and supporters who greet me and don't ask me to hide my suffering. Who meet me where I am and offer a different experience of what it means to be tethered to something horrible even though they can't evict or kill the monster.

For me it helps to visualize this. At first it was like weaving in some small new elements: a lamp in the darkness even as I remain trapped. A kind voice of someone who understands and wants to offer comfort even though they can't break the chain. Some comforting and decorative objects that made my confinement feel a bit more human.

Eventually it grew into an entire sandwich house, a safe space I could go to sometimes if only in my imagination where the monster couldn't see or touch me, and I could genuinely connect with others who understand and could meet me there.

The solution for me to non-linear horror is non-linear kindness. Something good to hold and/or be held by even as I still haven't managed to break free of the ugly stuff that I've lived my life in the shadow of. There are people who clearly don't understand and even go so far as to mock this. Who say the suffering must not be real or severe if it can be redressed by something as soft and gentle as kindness. Those people have no right to weigh in on my suffering. If they've never spent any time in the shadow of my monster, they have no sense of what it's like. Thankfully there's a whole community of survivors and supporters who get it and offer gentle support and I'm lucky to have found some of the very best of them.

A black and white senior hound dog partially buried in the sand looking at the camera

Originally posted on another blog site on February20, 2022

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