Humans have an amazing capacity to heal, whether physically or emotionally, from profound trauma. Maybe we never get back to 100%, but even when our bodies and hearts seem irreparably broken, there is great potential for recovery. We can tap into that even more potently if we acknowledge that this healing may not take the predictable, sequential route that we might expect or hope for.
So let’s start by keeping it real here: I am not looking forward to December 14. Last year I spent the anniversary of the Sandy Hook murders (which, by twisted coincidence, was my 40th birthday) barely able to get up from the couch. Even after spending a year processing, contemplating, grieving and, yes, healing, when the day came I was pretty much incapacitated by pain, sorrow and inability to comprehend. I cringed* every time someone said “happy birthday,” though I was intellectually able to parse out the intended substance of those wishes and to construct socially appropriate responses (e.g. “thanks”).
* Not that this is of great importance in the larger scheme, and I’d be perfectly content just to let the day pass with my birthday unacknowledged, but for those who want to say something, props to anybody who phrases such wishes in terms of gratitude that I exist/was born and skips the “happy” part.
The year since then has been one of further healing. I still think about Ana and our friends who must go on without her every day, but I have reclaimed some wounded and shriveled parts of my heart and been able to move forward energetically in ways that seemed inconceivable even this winter. And yet my heart clenches tighter with each day closer to 12/14 we get.
My rational mind is tempted to say “it’s just a day on the calendar, it’s a symbol, why would that day be any harder than any other?” My rational mind, however, also knows enough about trauma and healing to acknowledge the inevitability of bumps in the road, some more predictable than others. Heck, maybe after all the looking-into-the-grief I’m doing now, the day of will be pleasantly anti-climactic. Or maybe there’ll be moments of levity amidst moments of gut-wrenching sadness. The one thing I do know for certain is that I don’t know. Huh? That is, I am confident that the healing process has a path of its own and will run its course in ways I can’t predict. From everything I’ve seen, the larger patterns are more predictable. That is, I have faith that I and my suffering loved ones will feel better in 10 years than now and that there will be, when viewed from a distance, an upward arc. Get closer, though, and the lines have a lot more twists and turns.
This is not to say that anyone dealing with the aftermath of trauma is entirely at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. There most certainly are tangible steps we can take to promote healing of whatever sort. Indeed, a disproportionate percentage of my life choices have revolved around this. I don’t have total control over healing from any among the spate of injuries that are inevitable due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, but there are lots of choices I can (and, indeed, must) make to foster healing in that way. My process of healing from childhood sexual trauma (already addressed on this blog) has been long, convoluted and ongoing, with the one common thread being my stubborn determination to confront the demons and come out on top.
It’s important to make a distinction between healing and coping. Coping is surviving, getting through something in the moment. Coping is important on one level, but it is a comparatively finite and superficial thing. Some coping mechanisms include avoidance, distraction, intoxication-induced numbing (drugs, alcohol, etc.) and all sorts of other things that we wouldn’t deem particularly helpful. Even healthy coping mechanisms (of which there are many) exist to get through the present moment, not to address the core issue causing the suffering. If that core issue is trivial, then that’s enough (coping with sitting through a boring lecture, for example). If it’s a bigger or deeper challenge, then coping alone is at best a stall tactic. Coping is necessary, of course, as we can’t be knee-deep in our pain 24/7. The point, then, is not to denigrate coping but simply to acknowledge that it isn’t the deep or transformative part of the process. For example, many people are currently coping with the recent spate of high-profile racial injustices by moving their attention elsewhere (“I’m tired of hearing about this”), but no rational person would claim that this approach is healing anything or anybody, personally or societally.
Healing is seldom easy, but it’s a lot easier when we acknowledge and accept the convolution of the process both for ourselves and for others. It would be so much easier and more clear-cut if things WERE predictably linear. Today I feel better than I did yesterday, tomorrow I’ll feel better than I do today, and so on, and at this pace I’ll feel like a million bucks a week from Thursday. Maybe with the common cold or disappointment over last night’s Lakers game this can happen. But deep wounds and the deep healing that they necessitate don’t work that way, and the more complicated the trauma, the more layers of healing there are to intersect in ways that may or may not seem coherent. Not only are some days better than others, but there may be good parts and bad parts and confusing parts all happening concurrently and on different schedules.
This is particularly challenging when surrounded by those expecting linearity. I began contemplating this (albeit in a comparatively trivial context) a few years ago when I resumed playing tennis after years away from the game due to issues with joint health. I can admit now that my biggest fear wasn’t that I’d get hurt. My biggest fear wasn’t that I’d get into it and then be emotionally crushed when I had to stop again (which, ironically enough, may be where I find myself now – we’ll see . . .). My biggest fear was that I would undo the years of work I’d done in training people around me to understand that I had a physical disability. Most people perceive that you’re either sick or well. So for me to go on a tennis court would mean that I was better now and all the other accommodations I had needed would no longer be relevant. It is not that simple, and yet I was conscious that for some people I was pushing them beyond their comfort zone for embracing divergent realities.
And that was a physical issue. Even harder is navigating the same phenomenon while also dealing with the emotional strain of trauma. People want you to get better because it’s tiring to be around people who are in pain, because it makes them uncomfortable and forces them to confront their own demons. People see you functioning well and assuming you’re on the up-and-up and that this means you’ve crossed some kind of threshold that won’t be crossed again in the opposite direction. These are understandable expectations in the sense that it’s easier for most people to think concretely and sequentially. But it just isn’t the way these things really go. It just isn’t. We should expect, both of ourselves and others, that these things will take circuitous paths and that there is no “all better” end point like we might expect from a virus or broken bone. Failure to do this has a whole wave of consequences, none of them good (unless you believe that “suck it up” is a clinically effective means by which to heal from trauma – if so, I’ve got some books to loan you).
Is it hard to reconcile this unpredictable non-linearity? Heck yes it is. But not half as hard as it is to do the actual work of soldiering forward through loss, pain and other fallout from trauma. Those who have experienced trauma need to accept this reality so as not compound the inevitable challenges with the further struggle of unrealistic expectations and disheartening failure to meet them. Those who are not in the throes of that struggle also can work on making sense of this seemingly irrational reality. Ultimately, that’s self-serving as much as anything. How? Well, nobody is immune to trauma, so everything we do to create a world that envelops those who are suffering with, at minimum, patience and understanding (love and nurturing being bonuses on top of that) is like creating an insurance policy against being isolated, pressured and misunderstood when that moment comes. And unlike most of this stuff, that is as straightforward as it gets.
Powerful words, Mr. B. When you wrote about dealing with trauma, healing and other major issues as “non-linear”, that is what I finally discovered about the learning process this semester at QU. Many young students are afraid to let personal issues enter the discussion in our seminar for many reasons but one the most important issues is that they feel like they’re all auditioning for roles as adults, as critical thinkers, as “party animals”, etc. Literally, any thing you say out loud (and not under the guise of Facebook, Twitter or Yik Yak) can and will be held against you.
Thanks for all you do to make this world a better place!
Noah, I don’t know if I’m a little tender at the bone today, or what, but I’m brushing away the tears. For so many reasons. For so many of my students, for friends, for people I will never meet who suffer, for me.
(and hit enter too quickly …)