Sometimes fielding people’s responses to a trauma ends up feeling more traumatic than the trauma itself.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, it’s no surprise that navigating through public space is a challenge for me: Repeated traumas over the years have left me with a hypersensitive body. That hypersensitivity in turn has made me vulnerable to those who find it more important to shave two seconds off their walk or drive than to gracefully offer those around them an extra bubble of body space.
A few weeks ago, I took the risk of sharing with a friend the grief I was feeling over my latest challenge navigating space. Being that she was a person who lived with chronic pain, I anticipated she would respond with understanding and empathy. Instead, she remarked, “Why do these things keep happening to you?”
I suddenly felt judged and unsafe, which I said. My friend and I got into a deep conversation, in which she revealed that the “everything happens for a reason” approach has been very helpful for her in coping with her own series of repeated traumas and resulting pain and disability.
When I challenged her thinking – pointing to the overwhelming levels of randomness, chaos, and violence in our universe – she shared that she suddenly felt confused about how to process her own experience. I encouraged her to stay true to it, ie, if you believe everything happens for a reason, and if that approach helps you keep on keeping on, then go for it! Don’t let me stop you.
And I really mean that.
The problem is when the “everything happens for a reason” camp talks about their belief system as if it is indisputable fact, and worse yet, when they impose that belief system on me. That’s tantamount to telling me that the reason X happened in my life is because Jesus distinctly wants me to do Y. Yeah, you go sing your Christmas carols to your heart’s content, but don’t come knocking on my door on December 25! I’ll be busy eating Chinese food.
Which is all background for what happened today: This friend called and said, among other things, that she had read my blog post about the recent injury to my ear, and that she “wanted to comment but didn’t know what to say.” She repeated that twice.
Maybe I’m projecting here – I haven’t talked to her about it yet (because I didn’t and still don’t have the energy), so I recognize up front that I may have misinterpreted where she was coming from. But I got the distinct impression that the reason she “didn’t know what to say” was that she perceived the incident not from a place of compassion, empathy, and interest in supporting my recovery, but rather from a place of removal, evaluation, and commentary – ie “why do these things keep happening to you.” I presume that knowing I would not appreciate that kind of comment, she didn’t leave one. Which of course is better than leaving a comment that will piss me off.
But don’t then go and imply what you were thinking, because it’s almost worse than just saying it straight out. Moreover, when I’m faced with a health challenge, no matter whether it’s my first or my millionth (come to think of it, especially if it’s my millionth), how about a little cheerleading pom-pom action — comments like this:
- “You’ve overcome worse. You’ll kick the ass of this injury and further deepen your self-healing powers. I have faith in you!”
- “Remember to dance out your pain and angries. If the stereo is hurting your ear, dance to the music in your mind!”
- “I’m sending you healing energy, prayers, dancing angels, fairies, and sparkly elves to support you in your recovery.”
- “Let me know if there’s anything you need. I’m here for you!”
You know, be present with me in the moment of what’s happening, instead of stepping out and looking at me through shady glass, or worse yet, stepping out and looking down at me through shady glass. Love me. Hold my hand. Sing me affirmations. Support me in self-healing.
Anyhow, as soon as she made that comment about her non-comment, I wanted to get off the phone. I exited gracefully, but by the time we hung up, I was shaking in my core. Again, maybe I’m projecting all over my friend. But I’ve had enough experiences with people telling me (in my weakest, most vulnerable, and frightened moments, I might add) that I have bad luck, bad karma, that I “must have done something horrible” in my life, that I’m “attracting this energy”…that I think it’s worthwhile to explore the impact these responses have on me. So let us begin:
There are a whole lot of things that can be freaking me out right now:
- How long will the pain last?
- Is the hearing damage permanent?
- How can I function, when even the sound of cracking eggs is hurting me now?
- Will the lost work hours irreparably undermine my ability to get my company off the ground at this critical time?
- How can I afford body work treatments when finances are tight?
- Will Western medical diagnostic tools be able to detect the damage that obviously happened, or will it be another case of my pain and suffering being invalidated?
- How might dedicating my self-healing energy to this injury effectively drain my reserves for other healing, or as OAR puts it, “How many times can I break till I shatter?”
- How can I afford going to a hotel when finances are tight?
- If I don’t go to a hotel, will my situation get even worse?
- Will the apartment manager be open to helping me out with the expenses that resulted from the explosive noise? Will asking for his contribution lead to conflict that at the end of the day will simply exacerbate what I’m going through?
Despite all these uncertainties and anxieties, I have been bringing my attention – again and again – to what I can do about the situation at hand, instead of focusing on that which is outside my control:
- I’ve been pouring my energies into self-healing and affirmations.
- I’ve gone ahead and committed to a hotel for the week if need be, and I have scheduled two cranio-sacral appointments — putting my health and wellness first and leaving the rest up to Providence.
- I’ve stopped even trying to move my business ahead right now, knowing that it’s more important to take care of my body and rest. And rest I’ve done — sleeping up to 16 hours at a shot.
- I’ve asked the manager for the accommodation I’ve needed to rest, despite feeling super-uncomfortable about asking.
That there is a lot of mental discipline, considering the number and weight of uncertainties right now. And the discipline has paid off: When I woke up this morning, the pain and hearing weirdness was not only at an all-time low since the incident, but I felt peaceful and happy.
Then I got that phone call and the non-comment comment. Not only did I start shaking, but my ear started hurting. And I felt so rattled that I suddenly was afriad to get into the car to teach my class. I felt unstable and did not want to therefore end up in a car crash.
Telling someone they have bad luck or bad karma or that they are attracting negative energy or any of the other permutations of this same notion can only serve to undermine whatever confidence someone who has been traumatized needs to heal from that trauma.
Self-healing takes tremendous focus, power, and resolve. All our energies must be lined up in service to this one goal. Each comment someone makes or action someone takes that distracts our focus or otherwise pulls us out of this alignment can impede our healing progress significantly.
What’s more, there is a cumulative effect of being faced, again and again and again, with people responding not from a place of love, compassion, and support, but from a place of judgment, ridicule, dismissal, invalidation, and so on. The million ways so many people — friends, doctors, random strangers — choose to respond. It’s absolutely depleting. It’s traumatizing in its own damn right. I dare say that at this point in my life, I have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from people’s response to the traumas I have endured, more so than from the traumas themselves.
Which leads me to conclude this: Friendly fire is worse than enemy fire. For starters, it’s totally unexpected, so we’re not even braced for what’s coming. The filters are off, so it can really get under our skin. It also can mess with our sense of trust, safety, and support – effictively leading to a sense of isolation in the moment that we need support the most. In addiiton, it can lead to self-silencing: People can get so afraid of the response to the trauma they have endured, that they dare noe even mention it. And we all know how healthy it is to internalize distress!