If you enjoy understatements, here’s one: healing after trauma is hard work. I often find my lips have glued themselves shut when my therapist zeros in on the traumas most alive in me. I’d be terrible at poker.
But here’s the thing–I’m great at putting my head down and getting through. I am strong in multiple ways. When it comes to healing, I don’t give myself a break. We found the tip of the iceberg? Great. Let’s haul that whole sucker out of the water and chip it into slush in the next 45 minutes. Go! It’s a game of catch and release for me with transformation in-between. But sometimes, even with my therapist grounding me, I get lost in the process.
An aspect of trauma is it can make reality slippery. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from violence in my early years. It comes with periodic flashbacks and anxiety attacks. Both experiences are expressions of a disconnection from reality. While a flashback will end itself, an anxiety attack won’t.
Consider this: if you’ve ever panicked you know that you get lost in a possible outcome, however likely or unlikely that outcome is. Maybe you’re standing on a bridge on a windy day and you start to think the wind will blow you over the edge. Maybe you are lying in bed at night and you are suddenly afraid there is a monster under the bed even though you checked before you got in and you know, rationally, that nothing is there. It doesn’t matter. You still have to work to calm yourself down.
In my trauma writing classes and as a writing coach, I invite participants to access their trauma and transform it on the page. The first step is saying, “Yes. This happened to me.” Even though people come to me with that as their goal, it is fucking terrifying.
It’s easy to get lost during step one, so I have a whole toolbox full of tools designed for the trauma writer. It includes relief projects and objects, writing prompts geared toward grounding, reminders that writers are safe where they are right now, breath work and the mantra for every trauma session I teach:
I repeat it at intervals. I keep it written on a notecard and prop it up during classes. I send it in emails. I shout it at myself when I am alone with my computer and I find myself in tears and shaking, my body numb and cold and my seat seemingly disappeared out from under me. Panic is not a joke. Fear is not a joke. But neither of them define or own me. I own them. I am not my work.
I am not the words I write.
I am not the experiences I’ve had.
I am not even the body that was hurt.
I am not what I was told I would be. I am a success.
I am more than what I was said I could be. I am more than my anatomy. I am a friend, lover, mother, mentor, writer, teacher and WHO I CHOOSE TO BE.
Trauma is my work, but I am not my work.
If you find yourself panicking, no matter your situation, remember that the disconnection does not define you. You are not this moment. WE are not this moment. We are more complicated, more capable, more beautiful than any aspect of ourselves being expressed in this moment and any we may choose to put on the page. We are not our work.
Do you have a mantra? I would love to know yours.