I sat on the couch at my therapist’s office, back when we could still go into offices for therapy so I know it was before March of 2020. How much before, I won’t hazard to guess. But it wasn’t all that long ago. I don’t know what the topic of the hour was, only that I had one of those ugly crying moments as I heard myself say “if only I could make the voices stop. That voice that is constantly telling me how horrible I am.”
The voice of my childhood. I heard it every day for as long as I could remember until I was around 9 years old or so and the person behind the voice—my mother at the time—went away one morning and never come back.
What’s funny about the voice, though, is that it was originally yelled at me in Spanish. Yet I’ve translated it into English so that I could keep it alive much easier in my psyche since I stopped speaking Spanish decades ago.
So whose voice is that now? Aida (my adoptive mother) has been dead for over 12 years and out of my life almost entirely from that morning she left 40 years ago. Still, I blame her. They aren’t called the formative years without a reason.
How long, though… how long was I going to let her keep torturing me?
Trauma is so arresting that traumatized people will focus on it compulsively. Unfortunately, the situation that defeated them once will defeat them again and again.Waking The Tiger by Peter L. Levine
At some point in the last few years, I realized that the people who abused me aren’t physically in my life anymore. Most of them aren’t even alive anymore. They exist only in the space I allow them in my own mind.
Those voices I hear are no longer theirs. The ones calling me worthless. Telling me I’d never amount to anything. Berating me that all I do is destroy other people’s happiness. Those voices are my own, internalized. I have become my own abuser. I am now the one causing myself pain over and over again. I am the one keeping the echo alive.
Although identifying as a victim or a survivor can be absolutely legitimate, they are both also identities created by the residual effect of living through trauma. No one decides to become a victim. Over the years, many of us have claimed “survivor” as a way of becoming more than a victim. It can help transition to a place of strength. Yet both of these identities can also reinforce trauma. They can become wounds themselves, cast upon us without consent, a jacket wrapped around us without choice.
For those of us who have, indeed, survived trauma and are on the other side of being actively harmed, we also have the choice to become more than who our histories would define us to be. We have agency regarding who we are right now. Having survived whatever person and situations wounded us, we can choose to hang the jacket up, to acknowledge our history and how it impacted us, and to find ourselves in the world as someone more than those events.
If the very thought of this is upsetting, I get it. I once wrote the questions:
“Who am I if not my trauma? What are my strengths if not that of a survivor?”
There are no easy answers.
The healing of trauma is a natural process that can be accessed through an inner awareness of the body.Waking The Tiger by Peter L. Levine
We heal. Given the right circumstances, our body heals. That’s the story, right. Is it true? Sometimes we do not heal. Sometimes things fester, become infected. Those are also natural processes.
It isn’t a given that we can heal, either emotionally, psychologically, physically from any type of trauma, illness, or harm.
We are simultaneously fragile and robust beings. We improve the odds by working with a specialist, doing the work that needs to be done (much like physical therapy), resting when rest is called for, listening to our bodies. Whether it’s a broken leg or a broken heart, that “inner awareness of the body” can be a place of healing.
How do we learn to listen, however? Especially when surviving trauma is sometimes only possible by disassociating from that very body that can help us heal.
I needed professional help to learn how to heal. How to release the grip the events of my past had on my present. And how to release my grip on being a traumatized person.
I hesitate to even write that because it isn’t as simple as it sounds and more than once I’ve wanted to punch someone in the face for suggesting that what had happened was done and over and I should just let it go. So please know that isn’t what I’m saying.
I’m saying this is a process, a journey. And at some point, we can engage with the process of healing. And that itself is its own journey. A painful, difficult, journey for most of us. But no more so than remaining traumatized–and with a much better view along the way.
An associate of mine, Hrvoje Šimić, was writing about how Beethoven’s best work came after he became deaf. Simic wrote: You can’t really hear yourself until you’re able to turn down the volume on everyone else.
Things are not any quieter in my head these days but the voice I hear is mostly free from my history of trauma. It is full of ideas and poetry and wonder. It talks far less about me and who I am and much more about this amazing world I have found myself becoming more present within.
I have hope that the echo has quieted enough that I can continue to hear who I truly am. Perhaps my best work lies ahead of me as well.