In an ideal world, everyone would have access to the essential housing, food, and health care we deserve. But we also need resources to deal with trauma and loss or to get out of abusive situations so that we can begin the process of healing. Mental health and the ability to find emotional and financial stability does not come from hard work alone. In a similar vein of telling someone to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” telling someone it’s their responsibility to fix themselves and find peace with their trauma is short-sighted and dismissive. Without support and systems that acknowledge inequities in marginalized communities, people can’t cure their mental health problems any more than they can work their way out of poverty. It should be everyone’s right to take care of themselves, but sadly it takes some privilege to heal from trauma.
I’m 42 years old and am still processing the trauma of what I experienced as a child. I was abused and taken advantage of in many ways for most of my childhood. While I’m frustrated that I’m still not “over it,” I know that’s not how change and progress work. My experiences shaped my view of people and relationships; they also rewired my brain and created coping mechanisms to survive.
I will always be in some state of healing my trauma and am so grateful for the lessons I have learned during many therapy sessions, breakdowns, and supportive conversations with people who love me without condition.
I didn’t get to this state of understanding and gratitude without some opportunities others may never see, though. I had the grades and scholarship money to leave my hometown; yes, I worked hard for everything I had, but my success was not in a vacuum. I had coaches, teammates, teachers, and some family members driving me forward. Those people and the gift of understanding that I needed to leave and get away from the people who hurt me pushed me to new people and growth. I knew I had to leave, but I didn’t know I needed therapy until a group of new friends I met in college suggested I see someone.
I wasn’t aware of the red flags my emotions were waving in response to finally being away from abusive family members because red was just the color of my life. I had a lot of shit to process, connections to make, and work I needed to do. Mental illness, breakdowns, and addiction seemed to be the price to pay for physical safety from abusive family members. But therapy was a foreign, expensive, and unrelatable word to me when I was 18.
The college I attended had free mental health services, so a friend made an appointment for me. While that therapist didn’t work for me, they referred me to someone else; I saw her until I graduated from college and she knew of services I could apply for so that my sessions were free. She helped me build a foundation of understanding to launch me into the next phase of my healing.
After college I had a safe, supportive house to live in with a partner who encouraged therapy, medication, and time I needed to get better. I wasn’t fighting external demons in addition to my internal ones. Year after year, I got a little healthier even through mental health backslides and finding my way into sobriety and a life of recovery. None of it was easy. But layers of privilege have made it easier. My ability to heal and to really dig into my trauma is not something that is accessible to everyone.
Let’s look at my most recent appointment with my therapist. We decided that today’s session would be a phone call while I went for a walk. Before we hung up, I told her I would email her a photo of my insurance card to be sure she had the most up-to-date information. I would send her a check to cover the copay.
I have a therapist I trust and who I want to talk to.
I had the safe choice of a video call or phone call (which I didn’t have to hide from anyone) and chose the one that was most convenient for me. (I also have a reliable car I could have used to get to my appointment if we weren’t still dealing with COVID-19.)
My schedule is flexible enough to take an hour out my day to talk to my therapist.
Even though I lost an hour of work, my financial security is intact.
I have financial security.
My body allowed me to move freely while I talked which relieved some anxiety that was present.
I have health insurance.
I have the money to cover the copay.
I have friends and a partner who support and encourage my relationship with my therapist.
These benefits do not take away from the severity of my problems, but they sure as fuck make them more manageable. Healing can happen without having to choose or sacrifice other essential pieces of my life.
The trauma that happens to us is not our fault; I or other victims are never to blame for the loss or abuse we experienced. It’s not fair to also claim that it’s the victim’s responsibility to become a survivor who is in complete control of their mental wellness and stability. Healing from trauma can never be done without help, and not everyone has access to that help.
Healing isn’t linear — despite my desire on some days to get my certificate of trauma completion — and it looks different for everyone. Memories, repressed emotions, and physical reactions that can’t be explained can throw off a whole day, week, or month. The relationships we have and the roles we experience can help us, but they also trigger old wounds.
We should never blame someone for not taking responsibility for their healing, especially if they aren’t in a position that allows and supports the unpredictable process of trauma to rise and fall. Too much has already been taken from a person experiencing trauma to expect them to take sole ownership of making it better.
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