woman in white crew neck t-shirt covering her face

Comparing my trauma to others’, and saying mine was “not that bad,” undermines my healing

“Nikki’s got such a positive attitude about stuff,” I overheard my mom saying to a friend of hers when I was a young adolescent. “Everything happens for a reason, she always says.”

It was true. I never seemed to let the setbacks in life get to me. Something shitty would happen, and I would think to myself, Well, that’s over. It sucked, but it could have been worse. Hearing my mother gush about my positivity, I doubled down, taking all upsets, large and small, in stride. After all, I figured, I shouldn’t waste my time dwelling on something that was already over and couldn’t be changed.

I used to think this blind acceptance was a good thing. It certainly served me well, growing up in a house where uncomfortable feelings weren’t supposed to exist, and if they did, you were expected to deal with them swiftly and privately.

But, as I try to work through the roadblocks I’ve unintentionally set for myself over the decades, I’ve been realizing that, for all these years, I’ve been saying my mantra out of order.

It could have been worse, but it still sucked.

There. That’s more like it.

It may seem like a subtle difference, but that simple rearrangement has been nothing short of life-changing for me.

I feel like an imposter when i acknowledge my own trauma

When I was eight or nine, I endured unwanted touching at the hands of a relative. This experience, along with a handful of other factors, worked behind the scenes for years to set me up for a youth full of seeking attention and love in some very dangerous places.

As I was growing up, I would hear about extreme cases of child sexual abuse and think, My sexual abuse was not that bad. Eventually, I even came to wonder if it had been abuse at all.

In college, I was psychologically abused to the point of tears on a daily basis for over a year by someone I considered to be my boyfriend, but who made it a point to sleep with as many other women as he could — women who were prettier, skinnier, better than me — and then tell me all about it when he was drunk and angry.

I read stories about physically abusive relationships, ones where one partner physically harms, or even kills, the other, and I think, My abusive relationships were not that bad.

In 2018, I had two miscarriages in the span of five months.

I am aware of friends and family members who have lost their living, breathing children. My  miscarriages were not that bad, I tell myself.

I have such empathy for the anguish of others. These people — these survivors — are my kin, and they have suffered immensely, and I feel their pain even more deeply than I feel my own.

And that’s the point, in a way.

Comparing my situation to other, similar situations, has been my way of separating myself from my feelings about the trauma I’ve experienced.

Nice try, but that doesn’t get me off the hook, as much as I’d like it to. Burying that trauma, and the feelings and actions it caused, has led to some pretty profound and lasting dysfunction involving how I process new situations, and how I work with my loved ones through their emotions.

It’s true: No matter what I’m going through, there are people in the world who have it worse. But that doesn’t make my experiences any less real. It is possible to empathize with others while acknowledging and working through my own pain.

But what will the others say?

Last night, as I was about to drift off to sleep, I came across John Gorman’s amazing and candid story about how controlled use of Ketamine (under the supervision of trained professionals) helped him disappear his depression and anxiety. I immediately connected with the story, particularly with John’s description of his mother’s reaction to his depression at the age of eight: “Your life is not that bad!” she said. I thought back to this piece, which has been simmering for weeks now.

Sadness, anxiety, and depression are uncomfortable, and I grew up in a home where these feelings were everywhere, but went mostly unacknowledged. “Suck it up and don’t bother me,” is the vibe I most remember.

Every time I write about my childhood, I imagine my mother reading my words and saying exactly what John’s did when she read his unwitting admission of depression at the age of eight. “What are you talking about, Nikki? Your life was great!”

And, by extension, I imagine sharing my story of sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, or pregnancy loss, and being dismissed and minimized by others who think my story isn’t extreme enough to have created such lasting trauma. And who do I think I am, anyway, to claim a place among real victims?

Rational or not, it’s a strong fear, and one gained implicitly by witnessing the minimization of victims (including myself) over a lifetime. If things are bad — if someone is being abused, or having a depressive episode, or experiencing a miscarriage — and we acknowledge it, then that means that we need to do something about it. And doing something about it is so hard.

Certainly harder than burying your head in the sand, along with all those negative feelings, and going about life pretending Everything’s Just Fine.

Because, after all, it could be worse, right?

My subjective experience is real

That is real.

That is the truth.

These things hurt. They affected me. They made me sad, and anxious, and depressed. They affected the choices I made and the path I took in life.

I still believe that everything happens for a reason.

But I realize now that minimizing my feelings by comparing my experiences to the most extreme possible version is only getting in the way of my healing.

Just because these experiences didn’t kill me, doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt. And I owe it to myself to allow that hurt to move through me, uncomfortable or not.


A version of this story originally appeared on Medium.com.