When Your Trauma Isn’t Traumatic Enough

TW/CW Sexual Assault

“When people come to America from the old countries, they maintain a snapshot of their homes as they were when they left. They don’t imagine progress, or change, or improvement. The old country stays the old country.”

I can’t be sure if my father fully grasped how powerful this observation was when he made it to me all those years ago. He certainly felt the effects of it, both long-term and short-term; his maternal grandfather was the descendant of German immigrants who came to America in 1750. His maternal grandmother was herself a Dutch immigrant. Not much is known about his biological father’s side of the family, except that they were also tough, hardy, austere, and dirt-poor people from the northernmost reaches of Europe.

My mother’s side likewise invaded slowly over the course of three hundred years–hale and hearty and hopeful folk, braving months at sea to leave behind the misery and squalor they’d known in the snowy lands of long nights and deadly winters.

To America. They came from Wales and Holland and England and Germany and Poland and Russia and Denmark and Scotland. They came from mud, ice, darkness, disease, famine, tyranny, oppression, and poverty. By comparison, the gorgeous hills and forests of western Pennsylvania must have seemed like paradise to my father’s side. The mighty rivers and endless fertile fields of Indiana were Heaven to my mother’s side.

Agriculture, then coal, then factories kept my people fed for generations. A child in the 1950s might complain about the cold when the temperatures reached 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and his father would slap him and tell him to be grateful it wasn’t 5 degrees, like it was when he was a boy. Because his father slapped him and demanded gratitude that it wasn’t 0, like it was when he was a boy. Because his father slapped him and demanded gratitude that it wasn’t 5 below, and so on, and so on.

It is selfish to wish for anything better than what you have, because the people before you had it so much worse. But no one ever had it as bad as they did in the old country.

Ancestral trauma is worn as a badge of honor by Americans. We can’t so much as express gratitude without asserting our position on the pain hierarchy. You certainly don’t have a right to complain unless a list of arbitrary standards are met first. Otherwise, it’s “Not that bad.”

    *     *     *

I was with my parents at the grocery store on a busy Sunday. I couldn’t have been older than 4. The conveyor belt was fascinating, and every time a scratch in the rubber surface passed by, I would run my fingers over it. My father picked up the divider between our groceries and the next person’s and cracked my knuckles with it. “That wasn’t necessary!” said my mother.

“I didn’t mean it. It was a reflex. My mother did it to me,” he said, sliding the plastic rod back into place. “In fact she used to take the switch to me. Abby doesn’t know how lucky she is that she’s never gotten a real beating.”

My father only struck me five times before I reached age 10. I still feel he deserves a trophy for every day he wanted to belt me but didn’t. I’m thankful the desire to treat me better than his parents treated him won out. But I still wish things had been wildly different for all of us.

    *     *     *

The women in my family all suffered from crippling anxiety disorders. Undiagnosed, of course. Psychology is a junk science. The answer is Jesus. Don’t worry so much. I had my first panic attack at age 12 and thought I was dying. I thought I was losing my mind. I thought I was being possessed. I ran to my mother for comfort, only to have her promptly tell me to stop being dramatic. Pull yourself together. Your life isn’t that bad. You don’t know how lucky you are, Abby. Try not to think about it. Ignore it until it goes away.

My mother lost 180 pounds in 6 months once the chemo started. What should have been a standard hysterectomy to remove ovaries ravaged my cysts revealed a truly shocking amount of cancer. Doctors couldn’t believe she was still walking around. She was so touch she could push past the bleeding all day every day and still make it to work on time.

Becky’s physical and emotional strength were equally famous. She was such a powerful woman that it was the butt of affectionate jokes. At 5’9″ and 300 lbs, broad shouldered and strong-willed, she was the muscle of the house. Her life’s passion was taking in strays, feeding them, and giving them a warm place to rest. She collected delicate porcelain figurines and tiny glass animals. She enjoyed needlework and sewing, and it seemed impossible to believe that her large, solid hands could be dexterous enough to create such intricate patterns.

How she longed to be thin and willowy and fragile.

In the six months between her diagnosis and her death, she looked as though an outside force was draining her until she caved in. I was 17 when she died. I was alone in the room with her and the nurse. The hospice floor radio station was playing “It Never Rains in California.” Later that night I received word that my mother’s mother had also died.

 *     *     *

I went to school the next day. Teachers and students extended platitudes and condolences, but my mood, performance, demeanor, and overall stability were not expected to change. Losing your mother is no excuse for becoming a total bitch, Abby.

 *     *     *

I left Haubstadt, Indiana (population 1,770) for Chicago, Illinois (population 2.8 million) in September of 2006. It had been one year and six months since my mother and grandmother’s double funeral. I soaked up everything college had to offer me, except alcohol, drugs, and sex. I do not have the words to describe the lack of appeal those activities held for me. Sororities? What even are those? Get out of here with that. I got work to do.

Working two part-time jobs and going to school full-time while also moving apartments three times a year and jumping on every internship I could eventually took its toll on me. I put some cash toward a Greyhound bus ticket to go see my friend at Ball State in Indiana, sometime in the autumn of 2008. The bus was only half full. I took a seat in the back, against a window.

A tall, thin, old man in a maroon sweatshirt took the seat next to me.

My instincts immediately told me something was wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything that was specifically wrong. I remained quiet, told myself to think nothing of it.

The bus idled for several more minutes in the parking lot of a Burger King on the border between Illinois and Indiana. Additional passengers filtered in slowly and settled in for the late-evening departure. Soon, the bus was full.

The man to my right elbowed me. “Did you see that guy?” I blinked politely and shook my head. “The guy outside of the Burger King. Did you see him? Boy. He made me nervous, the way he was looking at you. The guy wearing the leather jacket. He was smoking and staring at you through the window. He’s on the bus now, but don’t you worry. I’m here now. I’ll keep you safe. And if you get scared, you can just hold my hand like this.”

At that point, he grabbed my hand in his, and pushed it onto his crotch.

Every muscle in my body froze all the way to my heart. Surely this isn’t happening. And if it is, it’s not what I think it is. This can’t be happening, not to me. People had always delighted in telling me how unattractive I was, so I thought I was too ugly to be assaulted. During high school, I had been told more than once that I was so ugly I should kill myself–doesn’t this guy know who I am?

I looked across the aisle to the woman sitting in the seat across from us. Our eyes locked. She took in the situation and turned away.

Time seemed to dilate, and all these thoughts and observations flashed through my mind in less than a second.

I yanked my hand away. The man looked into my face, my wide-eyed, disbelieving, pleading expression. “Hold my hand if you get scared,” he said, “I’ll pretend to be asleep, but you hold my hand. Like this.” He grabbed my hand again.

The lights dimmed to allow the other passengers to rest as evening faded into night on our eastward journey.

When I got my hand back, I pressed myself as tightly as I could into the window. The man stayed in the seat between me and the aisle, pinning me but no longer touching me, for the remainder of the three hour drive.


  *     *     *

I spent years thinking that my response to the incident was somehow inappropriate. When I stepped off the bus in Muncie, I felt awkward, but certainly not traumatized. The overwhelming emotion running through me was relief. At least he didn’t rape me. At least he didn’t beat me. Thank goodness I didn’t shout and draw attention to myself on a crowded bus while dozens of tired strangers slept.

In my mind, It didn’t count as sexual assault, somehow. I considered myself wholly un-traumatized. I never brought it up when other women discussed their own stories of men doing horrible things, because my story wasn’t nearly as bad as theirs. Don’t worry about me, I’d say, I can handle anything, but these ladies have real nightmares to deal with.

The long-term effects of the incident seeped into me very gradually. If I’m being honest, I only recently came to terms with my experience as the violation that it was. Examining some major life decisions from a new lens certainly puts some pieces into place.

*      *     *

I cannot stress enough how helpful therapy has been. I’ll shout it from the rooftops! Therapy! Do it! Asking for help is hard, but fighting the monsters that live in your head is harder.

Yes, psychiatrists are prohibitively expensive. Counseling may be available to you on a sliding-scale.

Yes, low-cost counseling offices have waiting lists backed up to the next century. Privately-run mental health services are jumping into the 21st century, and you can now talk, text, or email a real life human being 24/7 with the right apps or connections.

Yes, therapy is hard. Working on yourself is hard. Coming to terms with the darkness inside of yourself is hard. Here’s what you have to keep in mind:

You are worth the effort.

Being sent out into the world with no coping mechanisms other than “Try not to think about it” worked for me for approximately 17 seconds. If you are at a point in your life where reaching out for help from the outside isn’t a realistic option, I have some pointers to get you through til tomorrow.

Never stop moving. Be sad if you need to be sad. Allow yourself to feel your fear when you’re scared. Acknowledge your anger when you’re angry, and find a safe place to direct it. Don’t take it out on those around you, and don’t turn it in on yourself. Experiment until you find your release.

There will be ups and downs for you. The universal truth behind the fluctuation is that you’re still moving forward. Be gentle with yourself. Be patient with yourself. But keep moving.

Here comes the part where I give you the tough love. Remember this– Everyone, absolutely everyone, is going through their own stuff. No one rolls through life without challenges. It’s not up to you to decide whose pain is legitimate, whose trauma is serious. It’s also not important whether someone out there has it worse than you. You’re allowed to cry over your broken heart even if there are starving children in country X,Y,Z. Separate yourself from comparisons to others. It’s better in the long run.

My final piece of advice came to me from my experience working with the Disney company, many years ago. Above all else, find your pixie dust. Figure out what keeps you going, and come back to it when times get hard. What feels good? What feels like you? What’s good for you that you can keep coming back to? Because burnout is real, depression is real, anxiety is real. But so is the magic of every little thing that brings you joy. Find it.

When all else fails, remember that puppies exist.

Submitted by: Abby

You can read more from Abby here.

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