For all my transparency on facebook, in real life I’m actually pretty terrible at letting people see it when I’m not ok. (Fyi, right now I am pretty much ok, and if that changes I have support systems in place – this post is a theoretical unpacking, not a cry for help.)
I was thinking recently about how the kind of trauma we experience growing up shapes how we deal with trauma as an adult. As a child with an abusive parent, I was mocked for crying, so I learned to be stoic. As a young woman with an abusive boyfriend, I was scorned and yelled at for displaying sadness or anger, so I learned to appear cheerful. So as an adult, when I go through a rough patch, it’s usually incredibly difficult for people to tell – unless I tell them, flatly, with words.
I have been conditioned to feel that I am only allowed to receive help if by all appearances I seem not to actually need it, and there’s a cruel irony to that, because essentially I’ve been programmed to lock myself out of receiving care. Abusers don’t just hurt you while they’re abusing you; they shape the way you interact with the world going into the future. They affect the decisions you make for yourself, the things you do and do not allow yourself, the ways in which you respond to new traumas that occur. In my case, self-sufficiency was drilled into me, and crying in front of others became its own trigger. Losing my ability to use my words? Unthinkable. I guess in a sense it’s useful to come away from an abusive situation with the superpower of being able to not act like a trainwreck no matter how terrible you’re feeling, especially since it comes in handy when you have to make professional appearances or get work done or in any way interface with the general public. There is a safety in knowing it’s unlikely you’ll be an embarrassment.
But I sometimes feel a pang of jealousy when I see someone who feels no compunction about being the squeaky wheel. And it occurs to me that in barring myself from that role I’m being denied full expression, and then I feel like half a person, silently broken beyond repair and not worth saving because, well, she doesn’t really need it – because her very wounds gave her the skill set to survive, and it would be selfish to choose to burden other people when she could just, you know, not.
I’m good at asking people to listen – hell, lately with my friends I don’t even ask, I just start talking, because I can trust them to take care of themselves and bow out of conversation if that’s what they need/want. But I’m good at asking people to listen because calm, thoughtful, articulate words are safe. As long as I’m remaining by all appearances unemotional, I can describe – often beautifully – what I’m feeling and experiencing. I can text and write and tweet and facebook about my inner landscape until the sun comes up (like I’m doing now), and I often do. But the purpose of that thoughtful verbiage is precisely to communicate “I’m fine, I’m ok enough to be rational, so this is not an emergency.”
I’m not sure I would know my own emergency if I saw it. Before I came to understand that my first longterm relationship was abusive, I would jokingly describe it as “relationship bootcamp,” as in, having survived it I was equipped to handle any future situation with the calm detachment of a trained soldier. I’m my own medic, my own triage, my own strategist, my own war room. But like… that maybe shouldn’t be an entirely good thing – because like I and many others have said before, you can’t experience true intimacy if you never let anyone take care of you.
I sometimes miss the version of me who prioritized her own emotions over the comfort of other people, who allowed herself to scream and cry like a hot mess and let her feelings be more important than other people’s opinions. I would really like to feel that, barring hurting anyone, I could have full space to express myself in whatever ways I wanted and still trust that my loved ones would not stop loving me.
But honestly it feels easier to just… not. So in the meantime, if you have the ability, please offer me emotional support even when I am happy, please celebrate with me when I go out of my way to create joy, please tell me you’re proud of me when I do things to try to make the world a better place, and omg if you catch me trying to make you laugh, PLEASE give me your warmth and affection – because probably I am doing all of that to make it easy and fun for people to take care of me. It’s kind of convenient to use the purposeful creation of happiness as a coping mechanism for pain, like, literally cheering myself up seems like a smart and healthy thing to do – but that by itself doesn’t always erase the pain that birthed it. If you want me to look like a basket case before you show concern for me, you are literally asking me to recreate my trauma, and I don’t want it to have to get to that point before I know people care about me.