We, at TBINAA, wish to acknowledge and hold space for those people who do not feel safe about participating in the hashtag, #MeToo, because of how sharing trauma can be re-traumatizing if not shared with the right folks.
About a year ago, I had lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. I was looking forward to reconnecting, yet dreading the ‘telling my story’ part. When I have no good news, I tend to want other people to talk. But if you haven’t seen a close friend in a while, that’s not gonna cut it. They’re gonna want details.
That week, I finally had plans with a few people I had been trying to connect with for ages. It meant I had three social outings in four days, which was more than I’d attempted in months. To meet my friend for lunch, I had to walk my max, .5 miles, to the bus stop. Then wait. Then be jostled on the bus for forty-five minutes (only a few miles, but the buses are painstakingly slow), and then walk a short distance. By the time I got to the restaurant, I was already feeling the pain of the walking, sitting, and jostling.
At lunch, we caught up. Catching up meant telling my friend the story of my injury and the whole downhill slalom that followed. It’s not a ball I like to get rolling, but I don’t like to withhold from friends, either. On the short walk back to the bus, I felt drained. As I sat on the bus for the trip back, my body stiffened. I realized I might not be able to walk when I got off – in fact, getting off seemed questionable, and indeed, was challenging. I spent time at the bus stop, which thankfully had a bench to lean on, before beginning the slow, painful walk home.
The next day, I had a coffee date. Luckily, I got a ride both ways, but again, the story had to be told. By the time I got back from that meeting, my body was done. It was the beginning of a relapse that lasted for many weeks. I was depleted, mentally and physically.
I knew I’d pushed myself that week, but the extent of my exhaustion and return to pain was too great to be caused simply by overextending myself. My self-care routine was on point. I was fully aware I might need more rest after the outings. My body’s reactions to the small additional exertions seemed out of proportion. It took me a while to put things together anecdotally, and even longer to uncover evidence of something I was becoming pretty sure of: talking about pain and trauma can actually cause pain and trauma.
What I thought I was doing was sharing. Our culture encourages sharing. This is why we have friends, and when they get bored of us, talk therapy. This is why we develop support networks. The idea that talking about it is the cure seems to be fairly pervasive. We ‘shine a light’ on hidden issues, we ‘air them out,’ we ‘come clean,’ we ‘get things off our chest.’ All of these idioms show the high regard we have for employing narrative as a cure. Verbalizing events in our lives that may be troubling, shaming, guilt inducing, violent, or traumatic is seen as a way through.
What if it’s not? What if talking about it makes it worse? This was certainly not a question that had occurred to me previous to this event. I am a spoken word artist, a poet, someone who writes and talks about a version of me on stages and who facilitates workshops for others to do the same. It’s true, I can get a vulnerability hangover post-performance, but I’d never connected that back to chronic pain, exhaustion, or the state of my health. I was aware of the perils of possible over-sharing with strangers, but it should be different when I tell supportive people close to me the events and details of my life.
It is different. It’s worse. Instead of freeing the psychic pain around the physical event, this kind of interaction can cause me to relive the whole thing. If an emotional trauma is linked to a physical one, or if somehow they have linked themselves together in my body, I’m actually summoning them back into action. I’m putting my systems on high alert. I’m triggering inflammation. I’m triggering the fight/flight response. I’m triggering shutdown mode. What I think I am doing is being honest about my experience with someone I trust. What I am actually doing is opening a Pandora’s Box of internal cues that I may not be able to shut.
The truth is, sometimes talking about it is self-harm.
According to trauma researcher and clinician Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.:
Even years later traumatized people often have enormous difficulty telling other people what has happened to them. Their bodies re-experience terror, rage, and helplessness, as well as the impulse to fight or flee, but these feelings are almost impossible to articulate. Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.
This state of re-experiencing is far worse than the real thing. The real thing happens, you don’t know what it will be, and then it’s over. With re-experiencing, as soon as it starts, you know exactly what to expect. You’ve been here before. You hoped you’d never get back, but now here you are. On top of what you are experiencing, you are also feeling the dread of what you know will happen inside you physically and emotionally.
The real event was one isolated thing. The re-experienced event might call up any and all physical, emotional, or psychological traumas previously experienced and not fully released. It might link them together for later terror. The real event had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The re-experienced event isn’t an event so much as a mode. It starts, and there’s no telling when and where it will end.
The first few times it happened to me, I had no idea that it was even occurring. I just knew I was in all that pain again. Once I made the connection, and then found outside corroboration, I began to gather some coping mechanisms. “This isn’t real” and “This isn’t me” are incredibly helpful mantras to keep in mind. Letting the waves of pain pass through me, rather than flood my system, is also a neat trick when I can do it.
I call it permeability. It’s what I cultivate following vulnerability. It’s not even a little bit easy for me, but if I keep it in mind, I can sometimes pull it off. I think of my whole being as permeable, rather than as a container. It’s not my job to hold pain, but to experience it and let it go through me. Releasing it from the body is the goal. I think of the physical or emotional torment as pure energy, and therefore, not harmful to anyone or anything outside of me. If I think of it as damaging, I cling to it so as not to cause harm. Remaking the negative as neutral is a hard but necessary step. It allows me to let it flow away and sometimes even tricks my brain into standing down from its high alert.
What happens to the body is often best processed by the body. Linguistic articulation can be challenging and triggering, sending signals to the brain that it’s all happening again. Visualization and meditation can be beneficial, but alone they are not enough. Movement, even when the body is reluctant to move, can be the expansive gesture the brain and breath need to restart working in tandem. There is space that needs to be recreated internally to counter the clamping down feeling that trauma induces. There is a joy that gets devoured by trauma, and it must be reclaimed through the body, rather than the analytical mind. Even when I am encountering physical pain or mobility issues, I find ways to re-engage with the physical and disconnect the literal brain. Lay on the grass. Take the shortest walk possible. Get in touch with water. Turn the headphones up all the way.
Our emphasis on speaking our stories has its place, but speaking, writing, and sharing are not the whole recipe for healing, and each can hide the lurking threat of re-experiencing trauma. When I need or want to tell the ‘what happened’ story, I work to make the conditions supportive and safe. That may mean different things at different times. Sometimes, it means not talking at all. I’m okay with that.
[Headline image: The photograph features a light skinned person with light brown, shoulder-length hair seated outdoors next to the right of a darker skinned person with brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. The person on the left is wearing a brown jacket and holding a white coffee cup. The person on the right is wearing a brown jacket and a green scarf. They are looking at each other and talking intently.]