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How I'm Navigating the Muddy Waters of Trauma

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

“Hey Aunt Crispy. I know you’re probably working, but I wanted to say thank you for being you. You are an incredible aunt and I am grateful for you being there. I miss you, but I hope your day is wonderful because you deserve it!”

• What is PTSD?

Will she ever truly know the weight this text carried? The hidden meaning behind her words? The joy I feel in knowing I haven’t failed her completely?

My niece, who is now 13, moved out of state with her mom and dad (my brother) a few years ago. She just recently got a cell phone, so it’s been a few years since I’ve really been able to communicate with her easily. I made sure to send gifts on her birthday and holidays, and random times throughout the year when I saw something that reminded me of her. The gifts always came with a handwritten letter and lots of love. Whenever she visited her grandma, she’d call me from her cell phone to chat. I always made sure to answer those calls because I never knew when she’d visit her grandma next.

To have spoken to my niece on the phone, I would have had to call either of her parents. Most would assume this a fine way of staying in contact with a younger relative; however, it’s not always so easy to keep in contact with family when you have trauma, especially if that trauma involves family. What would I say to her mom if she asked why I didn’t call my brother to speak to my niece? How could I call my brother to speak to my niece without having to talk to him? I couldn’t ever answer these questions, and forcing myself to have a relationship with him had long taken its toll, so I just awaited her calls.

It was always the worst when she called from her dad’s phone. Seeing his name pop up unexpectedly on my phone caused immediate panic. Is it him or is it my niece? I’d sit there staring at my ringing phone, frozen. Battling with myself.

If it’s my niece, then I want to answer it. Sliding door moment here, what if she’s calling to talk about something important and I’m not there for her? On the other hand, what if it’s him? What in the world would he be calling me for? Is he calling to admit what he did, or to further pretend my accusations are false? The swirling thoughts from all my parts always spoke louder and longer than the phone would ring. My heart would sink at the thought of the missed connection with my niece, but my body would relax knowing the moment had passed. After so many calls going unanswered, my niece had learned to send a text saying who it was and to call back. I am so thankful she learned to adapt to the unconventional ways in which I operate. Though she doesn’t understand it, I’m keeping myself safe.

Sometimes, safety isn’t what we think it will be or what we necessarily want it to be. Yes, I want a close relationship with my niece, but the ways in which I would have to achieve that would jeopardize my sense of safety. A double-edged sword; nobody wins. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I abandoned my niece due to my inability to face trauma, so I’ve made the best efforts I could in ways I felt safe. It truly warms my heart to know my efforts over the past few years were noticed and appreciated. Someday, I hope she’s able to see the transformative journey I’ve been on and understand why I had to distance myself while I figured it out, and I pray her dad will be strong enough to share his story someday as well.

Facing trauma is no easy task, and for some, it’s a battle not worth fighting. For the longest time, I told myself I was doing a favor to those around me by keeping the secret. I wanted to protect everyone from the discomfort I felt each and every day. As the secret aged with me, I began to lose myself. I drifted further and further from loved ones and stopped doing the things I loved. At one point, I became someone completely different, moved out of my house, became polyamorous and nearly divorced my wife.

After keeping the secret for so long, it had caught up to me. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I didn’t have the energy to keep battling myself, riding the highs and drowning in the lows. It’s been almost a year since I told another soul my brother molested and raped me when I was a little girl. It’s been 10 months since I began attending weekly therapy. It’s been six months since I told my wife and my mom what happened to me. The past year has been wild to say the least.

Choosing to face my trauma and share the secret I was told to never tell is the bravest thing I have ever done. I have no idea what I’m doing, and it’s a terrifying process, but for the first time in my entire life, I feel like I’m actually living. I’m daring greatly and learning how to have hard conversations, advocate for myself, set boundaries, feel safe, tell my story, forgive and reconnect.

There is no guidebook for each of our very specific experiences with trauma, so we’re all winging it, together. We’re all learning how to navigate the muddy waters of trauma and all the discomfort that comes with it. Here’s to leaning into that discomfort and figuring it out! We all deserve some recognition for wherever we’ve made it in our journey, the challenges we’ve overcome and the progress we’ve made.

The secrets we’ve told. The truth we’ve shared. The hard conversations we’ve had. The burdens we’ve lifted. The parts of ourselves we’ve discovered and accepted. The emotions we feel that we’ve noticed and named. The help we’ve asked for and found. The sessions we’ve attended. The connections we’ve made along the way. All of the firsts we’ve walked boldly into, no matter how afraid. The arena we step into each and every day. The immense love we have shown ourselves. Here’s to celebrating ourselves while we continue to trudge through those waters and everything else that comes our way.

Unsplash image by Annie Spratt

Originally published: March 5, 2021
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