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.
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.