I don’t want your help. Leave me alone. I’m fine.
“The inability to receive support from others is a trauma response.”
Make a picture in your head; a faded olive-green WWII duffel bag. The string draw is pulled tight but some light still gets in. How do I know there is light getting in? I am in this bag. I am 5 years old.
My mom has put me in this duffel bag and set it on the front porch for the ‘Ragman’ to pick up. She has determined that I have done something that warrants such punishment. I have no idea what I have done. I don’t remember being frightened. I learned early to pretend and forget. All I truly recall is a feeling of wonder as I look up at the light shining in. Decades later, in therapy, we discover an amalgamation of feelings that fit the situation; it does me little good to name them, especially at $125 per hour. The therapist encourages me to not just name them, but feel them.
“Close your eyes, Philip, go back to that day on the porch. What are you feeling?”
I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I am thinking that this is a silly exercise. After a few minutes, she asks again: “What are you feeling?”
“I feel unattached, adrift, neither afraid nor safe. I am floating between fear and wonder.”
“Those aren’t feelings, those are observations”, she says.
But I really don’t feel anything. I am thinking about my feelings which is not the same as feeling my feelings. After a few more seconds I simply say, “I don’t feel anything.”
“Okay”, she says.
My therapist is convinced that I have suppressed the feelings associated with this traumatic (her label - not mine) experience, or that I never “properly” felt them. I have no interest in the exercise and I think she is wrong. I felt them once as a child, processed them as it were, and that is enough for me. I am of the opinion that picking at ones’ wounds in therapy reopens injuries that have already healed. The idea that one didn’t heal properly belittles or denies the body/mind’s innate ability to mend itself. Worse yet, it causes you to bleed twice from a single cut.
In the duffel bag, I sit quietly and accept my fate as well as any 5-year-old can understand fate. Perhaps, due to a number of terrifying moments in childhood, I have learned to love being in a closed space with just enough light to see. I say terrifying moments rather than a terrifying childhood because there were glorious moments as well. Like the time I hit a home run playing fast pitch at St. Boniface school yard or the time Mr. O, the football coach, yelled “nice tackle” on the one singular play in my entire elementary school football career. Such victories and kudos from outside the home offset the fears and anxiety of my early home life.
Now, looking back on my childhood, it’s tempting to paint it with brighter colors than it calls for. I do not suppose I am particularly abnormal in this regard. Quite possibly, my siblings remember it differently, some better, some worse. Strange convolutions of memory play around the edges of everyone’s life. In attempting to write a true account, I find that truth can be slippery and memories are sometimes created out of mere wisps of suggestions. But strong emotions create strong memories and I trust mine.
There is a line of thought that suggests that nobody gets out of childhood without trauma. It’s an integral part of the human experience, akin to the traumatic journey through the birth canal. I am never absolutely sure of anything other than knowing we die and are prone to wondering. But, let’s say this is true. As Flannery O’Conner observed, “If you survive childhood, you have enough material to write for a lifetime.”
Let’s say it happened when I was a fragile, impressionable little boy, stuffed in a duffel bag. Or, I could ascribe trauma to being born and growing up in Cleveland. And perhaps, coming from a family with seven siblings and in, what is nowadays called, a “dysfunctional” home. And perhaps being raised Catholic. And perhaps being told I was a dirty little boy. And perhaps having been smacked and yelled at by Sister Mary Bernadine. And perhaps being taken to the principal’s office for the crime of sliding down the banister. And perhaps because I was caught in a moment of “puppy love” with Sandra in the cloakroom. Or perhaps being picked last for the kickball game. I mean there are potentially a lot of people, institutions, and ideas that contributed to my trauma. If these people wanted me to remember them fondly, they should have behaved better.
Somehow, I was never aware I had experienced so much trauma until it was pointed out. I suppose that in some cases trauma is like that. You have it. It impacts your life. But you are unaware, or deny its existence and the impact on your life. In therapy, I had to go back and repaint the whole picture of what happened and put arrows and thought bubbles pointing to specific contributors.
It helped a smidgeon. I identified the source of some behaviors that followed me into adulthood and needed to be discarded, but I cannot say that my life changed significantly based on this new found knowledge/awareness. Furthermore, a long list of incidents that could have, in fact, traumatized me (or anyone for that matter), I did not experience as trauma at all. I can assign trauma to various events/experiences but I am not convinced this is an accurate picture. Regardless, I am fascinated by the fact that I still find it difficult to receive or solicit support from others. I am not even sure this is a liability, but stay with me.
Upon reading that, “the inability to receive support from others is a trauma response”, I decided to test how extreme my inability to receive support actually was. I decided to visit my friend, Steven, knowing he would suggest breakfast at Jerry’s Diner. I am not certain if someone providing breakfast is considered support but it was close enough for this little experiment and I felt (a generally reliable indicator) that it was. To be on the safe side, I brought him three Chestnut trees that I had started from seed, a dozen fresh eggs from my chickens, a book about the American Chestnut Tree, and a beeswax candle for his lovely wife. I loaded my side of the support cart before even getting behind the wheel. I do not wish to be beholden to anyone.
My therapist says rather forcefully, “Extreme independence is a preemptive strike against heartbreak.”
“Like that’s a bad idea? Who, after countless heartbreaks, wouldn’t welcome a pre-emptive strike?”
“You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable”, she says.
Oh no, not that ‘be more vulnerable’ shtick again.
I am a tad weary of individuals and authors who urge, oftentimes with heavy emphasis, that happiness depends to a large extent on one’s ability to be vulnerable. There’s no denying there is a strong element of truth to this and that my opposition to it reflects the fact that I know they are speaking a truth to me. That is, in part, why I write these missives and post them on Facebook. The therapeutic value of writing out my thoughts, not to mention the discipline of daily writing, has proved to be quite useful.
The irony is that the sharing these missives is to be vulnerable. They awaken a fear that I am opening myself to criticism, judgment, correction, or even worse, being ignored. Like so many, I have spent untold energy worrying about how other people perceive me. But it is also likely that caring what other people think of us is an evolutionary adaptation that helps ensure that we will find a tribe that accepts us. Being accepted is critical to survival.
I enjoy the supportive breakfast with Steven. I am proud to say that even though hobbled by trauma (wink, wink), I let Steven pay and did not even contribute to the tip.
I am not a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. I am a rather old man looking back and searching for the meanings (plural not singular) in my life and for the experiences that helped shape me. It’s an exercise in truth telling and discovery. To be sure, there was trauma. Again, no life is spared trauma. But, in my life, I see trauma as the grit that helped form pearls. Most therapies seem to focus on re-feeling, understanding, and then exorcising the traumatic experience and, in my opinion, risk losing the pearl. No one can deny that some trauma is so powerful that it must be exorcised or it will surely destroy the individuals ability to live a meaningful life. Nevertheless, in a perfectly constructed universe, there is a purpose to everything, even trauma. In my case, I wish to honor it. It helped shape me into the fellow I am today.
I have come to realize and believe that we are each on a unique path, superbly crafted for our particular personalities. Whether or not we like the experiences along the way, it is simply life unfolding. The experiences themselves are actual only for one time and one place and are ideally felt in that moment. But some traumas are too great to bear at impact. The angle of incidence is in terrible alignment with a tilt of the emotions and the cut is so deep that processing is impossible at the time. Consequently, survival adaptations are pressed into service. Although impossible to process in that moment, the resolution of trauma remains possible and this is where good therapy does its best work. The healing act of revisiting trauma under changed circumstances can enable one to find peace and closure. This can end the cycle of projecting fear onto people and experiences incidental to the trauma and we can rise above the shadows of the past to recognize and commend the beauty of our lives.
I have no idea why some personalities can withstand and recover from trauma while others do not. There is also no way to figure out what might have been had trauma not altered our trajectory. One might have been a contender or, just as likely, may have been knocked out. Looking back with new eyes and accumulated knowledge and trying to understand what happened and why has value, but once mined for whatever precious metal may be found, for me, I think it best to stop digging.
In the film Sybil, the psychiatrist is focused on helping Sybil incorporate her multiple personalities into her total being. At one point, Peggy, one of Sybil’s personalities, recalls a memory of the time her mother locked young Sybil in a wheat bin in the barn. After years of work, all but this one personality have been integrated. Peggy is suicidal, full of anger, hates herself, and wishes Sybil dead. At the end of the film, Sybil must confront this most dreadful aspect of herself. As she walks towards Peggy, she begins to tense up, clenches her fists, and begins to assume the shape and look of Peggy. Sybil, who has always been frightened of Peggy, comes to face to face with her at last and is surprised that she is only a young girl. As they approach, Sibyl reaches out and embraces a weeping Peggy and becomes whole.
I ask my therapist, “Will I ever be fully integrated, fully healed?”
She responds; “You’ve come a long way in dealing with the scars and becoming whole.”
“Am I going to have to live in the real world one day?”
Without looking up, she smiled and said, “Jesus, no, absolutely not.”