Nothing prepares you for traumatic experiences. That’s part of why they’re traumatic in the first place, right? Isn’t the element of surprise an integral part of trauma?
Trauma comes in different varieties and intensities. It doesn’t need to physically hurt, that’s for sure. Getting hit by a car is obviously traumatic. But that one time your parents made you eat broccoli when you were a kid and you didn’t like it and it made you dislike vegetables for the rest of your life? That type of trauma isn’t so obvious. Yet I’d argue it’s still a form of trauma.
Pro tip: if you toss the broccoli in olive oil, roast it in the oven at 350º, and use enough salt it tastes way better.
My intention isn’t to minimize the word trauma. Trust me, I’m familiar with intense traumatic experiences.
Some forms of trauma feel like small things you should be able to get over. Like the time in high school when my teacher told me I interpreted a poem wrong in front of the whole damn class. That turned me off to poetry and literature, in general, for a long time. I mean, isn’t poetry supposed to be subjective? Is there some objective truth to every poem ever written that I’m unaware of? I’m still upset about it. I can’t remember the teacher’s name or what poem we read. I wish I could find her online and tell her off. I probably wouldn’t though. I’m too nice most of the time. Instead, I’ll let it continue to stew in my mind for eternity like a decent person.
Other small traumas are sneaky big. They build up over time. Things like the little comments or jokes people make at your expense. Like the kid in high school who wouldn’t shut up about how skinny I was and called me Lyle McSkinny. Back then I couldn’t put on weight if I tried. I could’ve eaten a burger and fries every meal and not gained an ounce. I know, I know, lucky me. I wish I could still get away with it these days. I suppose my heart is happy I can’t. At first, I didn’t think much of his comments. But they started to nag at me and make me more self-conscious about my body. I played high school baseball; imagine how I felt putting on the tight baseball pants I had to wear. Those things aren’t flattering on anyone. Pretty sure he became a male model, so someone got the last laugh. I did, of course. He for sure has body image issues.
Finally, there are the big traumatic experiences. Those are easier to spot. And they're easier to talk about in therapy. Well, not exactly easier, but they’re more obvious topics to bring up. For me, they were the impetus for why I even started seeing a therapist. Both times. Impending divorce the first time and having a kid with special needs the second time.
I’m not suggesting that the smaller traumas don’t matter. In some ways, they might be more damaging to me in the long run. The little things that build up over time and distort my thinking or hold me back. The criticisms that make me think, “You know what? Maybe I am a hopeless piece of shit person who will never amount to anything.”
We don’t start off as neurotic babies worried about what other people think about us. Instead, we vacillate between being hungry and tired. And not caring much about anything beyond that. Then we grow up a little and add in being angry, although that’s usually because we’re either hungry or tired. Anger evolves into a whole range of things. Like getting pissed off when I stub my toe on the kitchen island that has never moved and I should totally know where it is. Or slamming my fist into our rug because my daughter won’t stay asleep for more than a 30-minute nap after it took over an hour to rock her to sleep. Later on, our brains throw in a dash of loneliness and it haunts us until the day we die.
Are our lives just a series of traumatic experiences that nudge and morph us into the people we are now? I’m not sure how you’d test that theory, but it feels like it’s right. It’s science, I’m sure of it.
Why are even the small traumas so pernicious? Maybe it’s because we’re all in our own heads so much. I’ve probably never met you, — unless you’re my Mom reading this, which, in that case, “Hi, Mom!” — but I know for a fact you talk to yourself in your head too damn much. And most of the time you’re not nice to yourself. It’s like how someone will say, “I’m my own worst critic.” Wait, unless they’re saying it ironically because they’re actually a narcissist. In that case, yeah, no thanks. On second thought, maybe this paragraph doesn’t apply to them at all. Now I kind of wish I was a narcissist. It sounds freeing.
Sometimes it feels like I have a devil on one shoulder and he has another, second devil on his shoulder whispering even worse stuff about me into his ear. The second devil says, “Man, can you believe this idiot stubbed his toe on the kitchen island again?” And then the first devil says, “Wow, you’re right, he is a complete idiot.” And then I think, “Damn it, I’m such a complete fucking idiot.”
What’s the secular version of the angel and devil on your shoulders concept? Is it Mr. Rogers saying nice loving things on the angel side and Gordon Ramsey yelling obscenities and calling us worthless on the devil side?
How do I get over these things and move the hell on? Self-help books only do so much for me. Their effects are fleeting. I get inspired, make some changes for a little while, and try to reduce my negative self-talk. But lo and behold, the Gordon Ramseys show up again and start berating me. The little bastards. It’s like Mr. Rogers is asleep at the wheel on the other side. Come on, Mr. Rogers! Aren’t you supposed to be my friendly neighbor and have my back? Or at least my other shoulder.
Maybe this is all hopeless and the point is to roll with it and let our traumas shape who we are. After all, they’re a part of life for all of us— rich, poor, and in-between. There’s no such thing as a life free from trauma.
But really though, I am a complete fucking idiot sometimes.
Special thanks to my fellow fellows in the OnDeck Writers Fellowship for their help editing and reviewing this piece: Nate Kadlac, Mohammed Malik, Padmini Pyapali, Liz Koblyk, and Kyla Scanlon. You’re all awesome.
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