Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Observed Trauma

The Truth Shall Set You Free. This is such a glorious aphorism. It's certainly one to live by whenever possible. And yet, I struggle with it in certain venues. A while ago, Elizabeth Bear posted at length about the trauma in her life, mostly to help herself and some close friends process current and past trauma that had flared up to get in the way of life. I remember reading that and having a riot of reactions for days. I have no trauma like hers. In fact, most of the trauma in my life is observed, secondary instead of primary. It's had a profound impact on the shaping of my life, of course, but I can't really purge it in a blog post because it's not mine.

Honesty is a great thing. Outside of the dark places in my mind that I prod for writing ideas every now and then (or from which writing ideas tumble out and scare the piss out of me), I could quite happily post at length about who I am and how I came to be that way. (The dark places, given time and the light of more attention, likely will fall into the "share and share alike" category. But I think I have another decade of knowing myself before they get there. At the least.) Unfortunately, I can't. Because the shaping of me is the product of others' pain and suffering and secrets. I can't out their trauma to explain me.

It's a strange thing to always be there to watch your loved ones take a traumatic blow while you emerge more or less unscathed. You don't think about your scratches. You collect yourself after the shockwave and go rushing to the loved one's aid. You get the urgent needs cared for and settle in for the long wait by the hospital bedside. Maybe that's when you notice that there's a long scratch on your arm or a shallow gash under your eye or maybe your neck has some backlash or maybe your ankle is a little stiff from the fall you took due to the shockwave. You make sure your loved one's attention is elsewhere, then you clean and bandage your minor bumps as best you can and go right back to the bedside. This is usually when you start replaying the event over and over in your mind, looking in hindsight at all the warning signs, berating your lack of attention, swearing to be more vigilant in the future.

And maybe months later, you'll notice that the scratch left a wicked scar or your ankle acts up whenever a storm comes. You set that aside, feeling guilty for even daring to catalog your own injuries given what your loved one had to endure. Eventually, you learn to take care of any bumps and bruises that life deals you, always comparing them to that observed trauma. You don't mention them until the wound festers and suddenly it's so much bigger than it should have been and it embroils those around you. You berate yourself yet again for letting things get so bad, for burdening those who already have too many burdens because you failed in taking care of yourself properly.

It's not quite survivor's guilt, because the other person is still alive and struggling to meet each day, and you weren't really in the same boat anyway. You try to make yourself perfect, to be strong, to be there whenever you're needed, to help with the recovery, to protect against future trauma. You get used to denying your own pain and needs because, damn, how can you even begin to impose when the comparison is so off?

Of course, that enables those around you to think that you don't need help and to dismiss your problems or to hear them as an attack (either reaction may or may not be due to the presentation of the problem), prompting you to delay sharing your problems in the future so as to prevent those reactions. The Circle of Hidden Pain. And it's a pain that makes you feel guilty for even having it because you haven't really "earned" it like those whose trauma you've witnessed.

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