The nature of trauma is this: Those who do not reconcile their history are destined to relive it.
I was having a familiar conversation with a new friend recently. We spoke of living with fractured memories and the problematic nature of putting the pieces together. My challenge to her is that too many of us try to maintain a level of detachment from our past trauma(s). Saying it out loud makes it real. My friend is a gifted writer and so I challenged her to write what she’s not sure she can speak.
Friend: The importance of documenting history is that it allows us to understand and piece together what happened. Having a written record makes it a hell of a lot easier to put the “puzzle” together; how well would you rate a coffee table you purchased from IKEA, if it didn’t come with an instruction manual? All events of the past are either recorded and respected as proven truth or placed in the category of “folklore” or “myth”: things that cannot be described fully as fact or fiction but mysteries of the past.
Jim: I know this: History is written by the winners and mysteries demand to be solved. Not knowing our own truth makes life unmanageable. Piecing together the memories of our past is anything but straightforward and there’s no real instruction manual. Trauma adds an additional challenge in that the mind sometimes reacts in self-preservation; a certain amount of forgetting or detachment is a natural biological response.
Friend: When an event is categorized as folklore, its validity is questioned. Did it really happen and if so, did it happen in the way it’s described? When I was either 4 or 5 years old, I was molested; but there’s no way I can prove this to be true. I didn’t know how to write at that age, I had no concept of keeping a journal, so documenting the event was, needless to say, difficult. Even trying to describe it to my mother was difficult as my vocabulary wasn’t developed: “I feel like he turned his back on me mom,” (surely an expression I’d heard on TV or somewhere).
When I received no validation in my meager attempts to tell someone, the task seemed futile. So what did I do? I buried it deep; buried it until the memory became dim and murky, full of holes like a spaghetti strainer. This, as I write it, will be the first time I’ve ever openly talked about it, save for very private conversations with my one-time boyfriend. However, even talking about it now, I still struggle with the validity of my experience because as I’ve grown to acknowledge that “something happened”, the facts don’t appear clear-cut. I can’t make a neatly numbered outline of the event to organize it in my brain; hence, being able to describe it to someone else is daunting.
Jim: And scary, and painful, and (sadly) shameful…
Friend: What I’ve done for years instead of surmounting that daunting task, is let the festering event linger in the shadow of myth and folklore. I acknowledged, like I said, that something happened, but asking for help with it hasn’t seemed appropriate. How can I ask for help with something I can’t fully describe? I can’t even decide what to call it: being molested, raped, tortured….? There are too many variables for me to say for sure. I wonder though, no matter how much I do remember about my experience, will it ever be enough? Or is it less about documenting the event and more about letting the shame overwhelm me into thinking I don’t deserve the help either way? Maybe it’s a bit of both….
Jim: If I brought you a child with similar experiences, would you say that the child ought to be ashamed? I don’t yet know you well but I’m confident you would say that child has naught to be ashamed of in their history nor in what they can remember of it.. Yet, if they grow to be an adult who didn’t tell or wasn’t believed, we’d predict that they feel ashamed and that what they survived continues to limit them in the here and now. All of that is unjust.
It’s not necessary to recall every detail. It’s not important that you categorize what you survived. What matters is the release of pain, the integration of the pieces, and attaining freedom from ways in which the past continues to hinder and inhibit us in the here and now.
A parting thought from a hero of mine:
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.” – Robert Fulghum