What Healing From Trauma Looks Like in Real Life
My sister, Lizzy sarcastically mocks, “I’m so cool guys, wearing my football jersey to dinner.” She turns her head in the direction of a middle school boy with blond shaggy hair who is in a football jersey who is following his mother, brother and sister out of the restaurant.
She continues, “I mean really who needs to wear their football jersey to dinner? No one else is dressed like that. You can’t tell me he has a reason.”
Without thought, I react using a white lie and high intelligence to attempt to make her feel less than and empathize with him. My goal, without even realizing I am doing it (as it is a subconscious reaction rather than a conscious response), is to protect myself from the uncomfortable emotions that are quickly making their way through my body.
I sit, a 30-year-old woman in a sushi restaurant with my father and sister, safely enjoying a meal and out of what appears to be nowhere I feel an overwhelming weight in the center of my chest. The weight is what I call “the dead place.” It’s so dark and heavy that it often takes all of my mind and body energy to hold it when it arrives. It demands my attention. It screams for me to take notice — to see it, to feel it, to hold it, to care for it. I try to speak despite its presence:
“I saw him earlier Liz and I honestly think he may have a disability. There could be a lot of reasons he’s in a jersey.” I say the words calmly in an attempt at an honest tone. Liz continues talking for a moment, but I go blank. I retreat from the table in my mind and flashback.
I’m 10 years old and I’m at Golden Corral, our family’s favorite buffet, getting myself ice cream. I’m in my black figure skater skirt that ties at the hip and goes over my black leotard. My thick nude tights are underneath and my tennis shoes and socks don’t match well. I have my hair pulled back in a bun with a scrunchie and show makeup on. My brother and sister are at the table with my mom and stepfather who are all talking and eating. I just finished a competition for my synchronized skating team. A woman in her mid 40s approaches me and gently touches my right shoulder as she says,
I look up and say nothing. I know my mother wouldn’t be pleased to see me talking to a stranger. That would break one of her many rules. I stay silent and wait for the woman’s reaction so I can plan the safest move. She goes on,
“Your skirt is open and those kids over there…” She nods her head towards a table of preteens who are laughing and whispering as they look mockingly in my direction.
“…well I just wanted to come to tie your skirt for you if you’d like.”
I stay silent. Fear and panic start to rise inside me. A lump forms in my throat as I consider the other kids laughing at me and how that’s not an uncommon occurrence. Tears well in my eyes as I think of the ways I don’t yet know how to dress perfectly, and perfection is required to stay safe in my life. Tension builds in my shoulders as I prepare for the verbal criticism this woman will soon give for my blatant clothing error. My heart races as I consider the consequences of my mother catching me conversing with this stranger. My thoughts twist as I try to remember what my mom has trained me to say to people who approach me, as I must keep her carefully created illusion of love and safety alive.
And just as it all begins to become too much… the pleasant relief of the start of dissociation takes place. My heart slows, thoughts quiet and emotions dull until there is nothing left but a foggy mind, numb body and cold heart. I am safely wrapped in the clouds of dissociation. I can rest in this place, allowing my mind not to think, my body not to feel. This is my normal. This is where I spend the majority of my childhood. This is where I spent the majority of my adulthood— until I started healing.
Several silent seconds pass as my once animated body goes blank. The woman asks, “Would that be OK?”
Without thought or feeling, I respond, “Yes, please.”
I turn my right side towards her. My black skirt hangs loosely on my hip with a slit that reveals the shape of my leotard below. The skirt is held together with a black bow, the strings of which dangle down to my thigh. The woman gently unties the bow, lifts the skirt to my waist, wraps it not once but twice, and then ties a bow. With that, the skirt is secure, without a slit, and the bow is the perfect shape and size.
“Thank you.” I said, as I faked a smile and walked away. I felt no relief and no fear of returning to the table where my mother and consequences await. I am safe in the clouds of dissociation.
I look down at my skirt and think back to earlier in the day when my figure skating coach tied my skirt for me. My team and I were in the locker room getting ready to take the ice and my coach asked me to approach her. She untied, then retied my skirt. Meanwhile, other girls had their skirts tied correctly or their mothers were in the locker room helping them. Our usual skating outfits were one piece, but this one was two. My mother never came into the locker room and rarely came to the ice rink. I hadn’t remembered the intricate way my coach tied my skirt that day so later, after the competition and before the buffet when I used the restroom, I had retied it myself… incorrectly.
I return to the present moment. The weight of “the dead place” is still heavy on my chest. I breathe deeply and try to practice what I’ve been learning along my healing journey. First, I take notice. I feel my tense neck and shoulders. I notice my eyes are staring at the table, my legs are crossed, hands are in my lap, back is curved downwards. I have made myself small. I have morphed in response to the flashback. I feel embarrassment, abandonment, fear and sadness. They all show up in different ways and different intensities in my body — these residual emotions bleeding out in response to the flashback.
I breathe deeply and try to practice what I have been learning along my healing journey — I adjust. I relax my muscles as best I can and return my eyes, legs, hands and back to a more neutral posture. I breathe into the emotions rather than trying to think my way through them. I do this for several moments, allowing whatever is happening at the table between my dad and sister to go on without my being present.
The weight of “the dead place” begins to lift. It does not leave me, as it often stays with me for several hours once it sets in. However, it becomes light enough for me to accept it, carry it and nurture it. In my healing journey, I have come to learn that the constant dissociation I engaged in during my childhood was my brain’s way of protecting me. It was an act of neurological kindness, one that in my adult life no longer serves me as it leaves me numb and unable to experience the world and all it has to offer. I have come to learn, that it is only by sitting in “the dead place” that all the repressed emotions of my past will come to light, and it is only by letting out all of the repressed emotions inside me that I can truly live in the present moment — free from my traumas, my past. I have come to learn that it is my job to nurture myself when flashbacks arise, as these are not symptoms to run from, rather these are opportunities to release my traumas, break my internal chains and set myself free.
Having come to a more neutral state of mind and body, I pause. I realize that what I said to Liz was intended to belittle her. I wanted to make her feel like she was bullying the boy in the jersey because her words about him felt like the kids in the buffet laughing at me. My comment to Liz was not a healthy present-day response rather an unhealthy subconscious reaction. With this knowledge, I return to the conversation.
“I know this is awkward, but I just had a flashback and this is what I have been going through and if it’s OK it’d be awesome if I can share for a second.”
My dad and sister have grown increasingly used to and accepting of my healing journey. They tune in as I share with Liz that I had a flashback and that I realize what I just said to her about the boy was about me and my emotions. I share with her that my level of emotion at that moment was higher than appropriate because I was reacting as if she had attacked me, even if I remained calm while talking with her. She listened attentively and smiled kindly as she accepted my amend with grace. With that, we returned to our meal and other topics of conversation.
I continued to eat despite my upset stomach, a casualty of frequent flashbacks. I continued to converse, despite “the dead place” still sitting in my chest. After dinner, I took time to reflect. I had reacted to a trauma trigger, caught myself in the process, responded with self-compassion, then made amends. I was healing.
Getty image by d3sign