Saying “I turned out just fine” is a way to avoid facing a traumatic past
When I was too young to remember, I dislocated my shoulder. Or, perhaps more accurately, my shoulder was somehow dislocated. As family lore goes, I was home with my father, who had left me on the couch looking at the “Funny Papers” section of the newspaper and gone into another room. Moments later, I began wailing and he ran to my side, only to find me inconsolable. He could find no source for my distress, and so he rushed me to the hospital.
Mean Mothers’ Jerk, the doctor called the injury, which apparently had become normalized enough in the early 1980s that, rather than call child protective services, hospital staff chuckled and gave it a cheeky name. I can only imagine the knowing look the nurses exchanged over my father’s shoulder before moving on to the next patient.
I’ve been assured many times over the years that, despite its colloquial name, my father did not in fact cause this injury — that it just happened somehow. I’ve always been a bit uneasy with many parts of this story, from the mysterious nature of the injury to the casual attitude of the medical staff. I may never have the full story of what happened that day, but now that I am an adult, and a parent, I have some theories.
How it happened, though, isn’t the point. Soon enough, the injury itself was healed and mostly forgotten. I don’t remember anything about the circumstances that led me to the hospital that day. But, just like most of the injuries I sustained during childhood, it turned out to have lingering consequences.
I am a master of Compensation
My neck started bothering me when I was in my early thirties. After waiting, characteristically, for the pain to become rather unbearable, I went to see a physical therapist. He was good at his job, and I certainly put his skills to work. Each week, he’d find a new movement I wasn’t performing properly and set about retraining my muscles to work the way they were supposed to. It seemed my body was beat up from head to toe, and I didn’t even know it.
What I realized after months of physical therapy is that I am a master of compensation. When a movement is bothering me, I find a different way to accomplish the movement, which doesn’t bother me, and I adopt this new movement pattern for life. The result is often an out-of-whack body that looks super normal to everyone else.
It turns out the earliest example of this is my dislocated shoulder, which, by the time I sought treatment, was so weak and droopy that it was pulling my neck out of alignment. I’ve been working for months to get my body’s muscles working the way they’re supposed to, but it’s not an easy journey.
It took decades for this dysfunction to reveal itself, and it’s going to take a lot of work to fix it.
Dysfunction Doesn’t Go Away
This is the story that came to mind as I sat on my therapist’s couch, trying to answer the question, “What would it mean for you to dig down and reveal those emotions you haven’t allowed yourself to experience?”
“I dunno,” was my reflexive and truthful response, delivered with a shrug that would give any teenager a run for her money. Reluctantly, though, and sensing she wasn’t about to let me get off that easy, I thought for another minute. And, at first, the story about my dysfunctional shoulder is what came out.
I’m fine, is what I really wanted to say. I went through some shit as a kid, but I turned out just fine.
As I sat facing my therapist that day, recounting a particularly horrific incident from my childhood, able only to laugh manically and dismiss the entire event as absurd, I began to realize something I’d been avoiding facing head on. The possibility had been creeping into my awareness as I endured numerous personal challenges during the last year or two.
I’m. Not. Fine.
I’ve just compensated so convincingly that I look fine.
The result was the appearance of someone who is well-adjusted. I passed really well as someone who had dealt with her shit and come out the other side, and who didn’t need any help processing her emotions about the latest upheaval in her life, thankyouverymuch.
Turns out, though, I was all out of alignment, achy everywhere without really knowing why.
Before I could begin the process of healing, I needed to dismantle the myth that, despite the trauma I’d endured as a kid, I’d turned out just fine.
I needed to stop minimizing My trauma and get to know the real me
Just as my physical therapist had to dig through all the workarounds I’d unconsciously devised over the years to avoid addressing the physical dysfunction below, I’ve now got to peel away three and a half decades of emotional compensation if I want to see what’s at the core.
Do I want to? Will my life be somehow better if I stop minimizing my trauma, if I let myself access and process the feelings I buried so long ago? I’m still struggling with the answer to that question. What I’m coming to realize, though, is that one of the core beliefs I hold about myself is — well, maybe not wrong, but not quite right, either.
I went through some shit as a kid. But I did not turn out just fine. I turned out, well, kinda broken. And it’s going to take a lot of work to fix me.
A version of this story originally appeared on Medium.com.