Before I was strong enough to speak my truth about surviving childhood trauma I would consider myself as one word: fragile. The vulnerability within the core of my character was one of the first things people noticed when they met me. I became familiar with terms like, “you seem so nervous”, “are you scared?”, and “it looks like you’re about to cry right now”. I didn’t know how to respond, and mostly, I just shrugged it all off.
But, parts of those statements were very true.
I was nervous, because I was so afraid to do something wrong and increase my already dominating anxiety. I was scared because I was so accustomed to feeling as if I was in “survivor mode”. I was scared of letting anyone within my inner circle because my trust had been broken as a young girl.
The statements made to me about my demeanor hurt my feelings from an early age, but it’s something I’m learning to leave behind. I now carry myself as my Mae Flower mantra, “a timid turned confident warrior”. I’ve lived my story through and recognize the huge progress I’ve made after deciding to speak my truth – which inevitably, did set me free. Being able to reflect now, even embarrassingly cringing at some of my uncontrollable behavior, I often wonder: if my behavior was viewed as “irrational”, “messy”, “nervous”, etc., why didn’t anyone ask me if I was okay? Because, frankly, I wasn’t okay.
I struggle with this thought – and it’s a subject I breach with my therapist a lot; usually resulting in tears. In this article, I want to create a space for myself and others that relate, to think about the reasons to that question, with a stripped bias and an open heart. Let’s “name and claim” together.
Symptoms and behavior in response to trauma:
Source: HelpGuide.org (link below)
Emotional & psychological symptoms:
Shock, denial, or disbelief
Confusion, difficulty concentrating
Anger, irritability, mood swings
Anxiety and fear
Guilt, shame, self-blame
Withdrawing from others
Feeling sad or helpless
Feeling disconnected or numb
Insomnia or nightmares
Being startled easily
Edginess or agitation
Aches and pains
I can confidently say, I have experienced every emotional and physical symptom on this list, in varying degrees, for years. I can imagine most people who carry the weight of trauma can identify with a lot or most of the symptoms above. With so many responses that seem like bright red flags, how could an observer, friend, family member, or mentor ever ignore the signs of trauma from a victim?
People who never asked me if I was okay: My college colleagues who watched me cry during every acting class. My college professors who watched my hands shake during every closed-door meeting. My high school friends who never came over to my house once. My 1st grade teacher who I was too afraid to speak to, because he was a male. My older siblings who had moved out of the house years before. My high school therapist who blamed my demeanor on my car accident. My dad who only saw me on weekends. My choir teacher who treated me like her daughter.
Benefit of the doubt: If the people in my life had seen my trauma signals as anything but normal for my character – I would like to make the assumption that more questions would have been asked. In extending the benefit of the doubt to the circle of people watching me, I’m able to put myself in their shoes. The real question is, would I have seen obvious warning signs from someone else experiencing trauma? Have I come across someone balancing trauma and their journey of healing, and not said anything? If I knew, what would I have said?
Taboo Talk: Saying, “The trauma I have comes from __________” or “_____________ happened to me”, is not a comfortable conversation. For the victim who is in an emotional space that allows them to voice their past, it can be relieving in unimaginable ways. Until the survivor is ready to have that uncomfortable conversation with themselves, the words will never be voiced. However, when the trauma is addressed by the victim, in a space they have created that they are emotionally ready for (I’m not referring to trauma that is “exposed” or “outed” without the victim’s consent or desire to address), the uncomfortable party tends to be the listener. The friend. The teacher. The counselor. As a victim who is ready to tell their story, the observer is often the one that starts to feel blame, shame, or guilt. Questions such as, “why didn’t I see this?”, “why didn’t I say something earlier?”, start to become part of the dialogue, although the observer has nothing to do with the initial trauma. Learning a friend, family member, etc., has been carrying unspoken hurt for an unimaginable timeline can be shocking. For the victim, it is part of their story in which they have read every word of… for the observer, it is groundbreaking in the worst sense possible.
That being said, connecting this thought to the benefit of the doubt paragraph above… if hearing about someone’s trauma is hard enough, how could an observer feel comfortable enough to connect the dots between symptoms and the root of the cause without context? I imagine my trauma is something no one would ever wish upon me, so how could I assume an observer would want to make that assumption in the first place?
Actual reality: No, no one ever asked me, “do you have childhood trauma?”. Honestly, I don’t even know how I would respond to them if they did, especially if I wasn’t ready to address it yet. But, as much as I deny anyone noticing my trauma, they did. People in my life did notice something was wrong, and they asked or tried to pin-point the behavior as best as they could, with the emotional comfortability they had with me at the time. As someone who has had a hard time with “letting people in” and “lowering my defensive walls” with friends, I can only reflect and consider that had to have put a thicker barrier between myself and the observers at hand.
Forgiveness: I’ve found the practice of forgiveness, especially within trauma victims, can be a very controversial statement. No one wants to forgive people who have hurt them badly. No one wants to forgive people they’ve felt neglected by. Can you move on without forgiveness?
My personal belief (which you can take with a grain of salt): Forgiveness is not required for the person who has done wrong – but it will give the victim peace-of-mind they have never imagined. Forgiveness does not require a formal meeting, a written letter, phone call, or conversation with the wrong-doer. Forgiveness provides a sense of relief to the victim only.
Now, this article is not intended to address forgiveness for a victim-abuser situation, however, I would like to open that conversation up in future blog posts.
Choosing to forgive those you’ve felt neglected by, or never saw your “warning signs” gives the power back to the victim. The observers to the aftermath of your trauma have nothing to do with your initial hurt. By forgiving those who didn’t see your warning signs, you are not only removing the observers from the base of your hurt, but you are choosing to pursue a relationship with them that is not rooted in unmet (and sometimes unrealistic) expectations.
Why they didn’t ask if I was okay: My college colleagues were not paying for university classes to make sure I was holding it together. My professors had classrooms full of other students and a family at home. My high school friends had known me since I was 5 years old, my behavior was “normal” to them. My 1st grade teacher reached out to my mom, recommending I take extra time on assignments with specific tutors. My older siblings were in their mid-twenties, who had escaped from a situation that may or may not have been similar to my experience. My high school therapist couldn’t read my mind. My dad was struggling with alcohol dependency issues. My choir teacher loved me, but I wasn’t her daughter.
Moving Forward: I’m still working through forgiveness, in all honesty. Progress from trauma appears to be a never ending road, but one thing is certain: healing is yours for the taking if you are strong enough to acknowledge that you deserve it.