This Is What It Feels Like When Trauma Resurfaces
Trigger warning: child loss
When I was little, I wanted for something that could never be. That thing being, a summer birthday. Yeah, it was irrational, impossible, and never going to happen, but an Indiana girl with a January birthday could dream. Little did I know then, however, that it wasn’t a summer birthday that could somehow make my life feel more complete. Instead, it was growing up and becoming a mom to a summer baby.
Our daughter was born at the beginning of summer in 2016, and this June, we should be celebrating her fourth birthday. I say “should be” because I’m not sure if babies who died here on earth as an infant ever truly age where they’re at now. But from where I’m sitting, we are weeks away from her special day.
Like any bereaved mother, I want my daughter to be remembered for who she was while she was still with us. I don’t want her entire existence to become fixated on that one horrible day. I want to think of her and remember who she was for those four months and two days we were lucky enough to have her. And though I will always grieve, I don’t want that to stop me from truly living. At the same time, I feel like a hypocrite when I realize that these desires of my heart and my as-of-now thoughts don’t always match up. Because to me, it’s as if the trauma from her loss has bound itself to the everyday, ordinary things.
It could be a smell, a calendar day, a nonspecific location, a nightmare, or even just a song that plays on the radio. Honestly, I don’t always know what might trip me up or what tomorrow’s emotions will bring. Because that’s the thing about those of us who are living after trauma — every single day holds so much uncertainty.
Oftentimes, we want to put our own feelings on hold. We long to “just be done with it,” because living it over and over again doesn’t feel like it’s doing anybody any good. It’s tedious, relentless, and at times, it feels so far beyond the reach of our control.
Just when we think that we’ve finally got a handle on the flashbacks or that dull ache in our throat, it seems there is always another obstacle lurking around the corner, one with the ability to breathe life into traumatic memories that once laid dormant.
To understand it more clearly, picture a huge piece of valuable glass shattering all over a ceramic floor. If you witnessed the crash, you’d initially find yourself in shock and overwhelmed by the great big mess. You might stand back to assess the damage, all of those teeny-tiny pieces of glass laying where they fell, before asking yourself plainly, “Did that really just happen?”
It’s instinctive that you would already know to protect yourself from the glass by putting shoes on. Even after gathering up as much of the wreckage as possible, you would still stand on guard and walk on your tip-toes. But even being hyper-aware of your situation and surroundings wouldn’t be much help. Sooner or later, there would come a day that the shards of glass still managed to impale your foot.
It could be months or years later, you could have cleaned your house a million times and completely gone back to resuming your normal way of living, but those pieces would never leave you — they would have been there this whole time. Yet, the cuts they leave would be fresh and still hurt.
That’s what trauma does — it sticks with a person. Through no fault of those who have been subjected to its hold, it hides from us for our own good. It nestles itself in, dissociates us from the reality of our current situation, and breaks off into a million teeny-tiny pieces until it’s stepped on and brought back up.
In the immediate days following trauma, there is a great lump sum of our emotions (the many shards of glass on the floor) which are plainly visible at first. But just as big pieces of glass can scatter, so do our emotions stemming from trauma. In the same way that we wear shoes to protect ourselves in the event that a vase falls to bits all over the floor, our body instinctively works to protect us by repressing past memories, feelings, and thoughts that are associated with our trauma.
We don’t want to be reminded of horrible events because of something as simple as the smell of freshly mowed summer grass or a song on the radio, but we don’t get to choose what does or does not bring up a traumatic episode.
For those of us who have lived through trauma and are still reliving it today, it’s not that we have an inability to look towards the future. We don’t carry a victim mentality, and we don’t need or want to be on the receiving end of an outsider’s pity.
We have simply stepped on old, broken glass.
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