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When You’re Stuck in ‘Story Limbo’ Before Deciding to Share Your Trauma

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I was recently asked to “share my story.” I paused. It felt like several minutes passed in those few seconds. I smiled awkwardly at the person awaiting my response. I had to decide. What was my story?

• What is PTSD?

The moment when you have to decide to tell your story, or not to, is a nameless feeling. There is simply not a name for it. It is a feeling arising from the difficult choice whether to be honest, dishonest or somewhere in-between. To take the risk of being seen as attention-seeking, or of not being seen for who you are and what you have overcome. To swallow a story, or stories, an answer, or answers, that have come to define your life, or at least largely impact it. To share something that may not be received well, or that is just too big for the audience or the situation you find yourself in. The English language lacks a word to define that feeling.

So many of us live with stories that are unsettling, upsetting or don’t make for polite conversation. They are stories that upset people, that some may find hard to believe, that may have political overtones or religious ones. Stories that are so much of who we are, but that we just don’t want to share right now. Or maybe we do, and that is where that nameless feeling comes in.

How you feel in those moments, when you have to choose to disrupt the mood of a conversation with your truth or hide your experience because it is unpleasant and you don’t want to be unpleasant — that is a nameless feeling. There’s a long list of nameless feelings associated with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma. Most of them impact the survivor specifically, but this one involves others: their reactions; their perceptions; their empathy or sympathy, either genuine or fake; their words, or lack thereof. The very fact your life story may make another person feel uncomfortable.

Your decision to share may be perceived as attention-seeking, or signs of an emotional imbalance, or mental illness. Conclusions will be made, assumptions will fill the room and awkwardness will settle like a heavy blanket.

Your decision to share may be perceived as brave, bold and strong. Cheers may rise, hugs may be offered, tears of commiseration may be shed. You may just find a colleague-in-arms, another battle-worn but still-standing warrior.

But how do you know?

You don’t, and in an instant, you must choose.

I am a survivor several times over. Although I am deeply grateful I am still standing, and proud of myself for how I have persevered and for the life my husband and I have built together, I am not happy to be a survivor. That would mean being happy I have had to survive awful things. Of course, my life would have been easier, happier, less painful without those experiences. I sometimes feel envious of people who have not had them. It would be nice to not have the stories I have to tell, the truths I live with. It would be lovely to not have to decide, to live with that nameless, debilitating feeling.

But decided, I have. Decide I must.

For those of you who have a loved one with a diagnosis of PTSD, complex PTSD, or who has experienced a significant loss or trauma, I hope this serves as an invitation to help the decision come a little easier. I hope that when they want to share, or need to share, you can listen without assuming they want attention, or that they are owned by their emotions, or, worst of all, that the need to talk implies weakness. Remember: a decision not to share is a personal one, with more thought and strife behind it than you can imagine. It does not mean they do not trust you or love you. It simply means… not now.

And for other survivors reading this, I wonder if we may call this feeling “story limbo” — the pause that seems to last an hour, even if it is only a second or two. That quick evaluation of the risks versus rewards of being honest. The acknowledgment of what has happened versus the denial of something unpleasant. That moment when your story, and so much of who you are and where you have been and where you are going, is hanging in limbo. I cannot tell you which choice to make, but I can remind you that the reaction of other people is not something you can control, now or ever.

I’ll meet you there in story limbo, where we can all look one another in the eye, knowing why we are there, even if the details are fuzzy. And maybe, just maybe, the decision will become easier in time.

That night, when I was asked what my story was, I made the choice that felt right for that person and in that situation. And maybe next time, the decision will be different.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Originally published: April 12, 2019
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