The other Saturday morning, in a 15-minute window between my coffee kicking in and my daughter waking up, I wrote a quick little post on my business Facebook page, mostly to personally process what I went to bed thinking about and what I woke up reflecting on.
This little post – the content of which I’ll share later in the PS of this blog – went a bit viral.
It attracted over 1.7K likes and over 700 shares quite quickly.
It generated nearly 400 comments.
It struck a nerve. It resonated.
On the surface, it’s about why I don’t feel particularly panicked about COVID-19.
If you read on, if you read between the lines, the reason why, the Trojan Horse message is this: it’s about how we, as trauma survivors, have gifts, treasures inside of us.
Hard- and well-earned from our many trying experiences and how sometimes, these gifts serve us incredibly well.
Like helping us keep calm in the midst of a global storm.
I realized over the week as I watched the post get more and more traction, that this – speaking to and highlighting the positive, the potentiality of our often negatively and sometimes tragically viewed trauma histories – is uncommon.
But it’s incredibly important to talk about.
Today, I want to explore this more with you.
I want to go inside the proverbial cave and unearth the gifts, the treasures, that coming from a trauma background may hold.
I want to explore spaces and parts of this experience that often don’t get the attention that they deserve.
I want to paint a richer, more complex picture of what it might mean to come from a trauma background.
Coming from a trauma background is both/and, not either/or.
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen
Like with so many things in life, coming from a trauma background is not either/or, it’s both/and.
What do I mean by this?
Much has, very importantly, been written about the consequences of coming from a trauma background.
We know through decades of studies and rigorous clinical work that coming from a trauma background, particularly a childhood trauma background, can adversely affect an individual on physiological and psychological levels.
I’ve written extensively about the adverse effects and impact of trauma – particularly complex relational trauma – before on my blog archive category: Healing Childhood Trauma.
My life’s work is oriented towards helping people overcome these adverse impacts of coming from a trauma background so in no way do I want to underestimate, minimize, or make light of the far-reaching effects that coming from a trauma history can have.
But at the same time, I do want to acknowledge that, hand in hand alongside these trauma-informed challenges, there may also be gifts.
I deeply believe that when and if we turn towards, face, process, grieve, heal, and make sense of our trauma, what may have felt like a lifelong muddy heavy burden can sometimes or often look like and feel like glittering, golden treasure.
The very things that made us susceptible to trauma, or the very things that trauma caused within us and to us, may, instead of becoming our Achilles heels, become our greatest advantages and gifts.
Our secret weapons.
In my Facebook post of the other morning (the full text of which you can find in the PS of this post), I spoke to some of the gifts I’m witnessing in myself as COVID-19 unfolds across the world: a sense of emotional and mental preparedness for such times, a nervous system familiar and comfortable with the level of chaos and uncertainty unfolding in the world, an absence of panic (not to be interpreted as an absence of appropriate gravity and concern), and a toolbox elaborate and rigorous enough to not only support myself but also to support others in very trying times.
My own trauma history historically endowed me with, to name a few things, anxiety, hypervigilance, a predisposition towards catastrophic thinking, and an increased need for psychological and physiological coping mechanisms, a tendency to prepare and consciously cultivated and frequently employed tools to stay connected and to tolerate being alone.
Having done my own healing work now for almost two decades, I now no longer live with these trauma impacts being my default.
I have choice around them. I can regulate them.
Because I’ve done my own healing work, the trauma impacts I live with don’t rule me.
But the imprint of them is there, and I can call upon these ways of being and harness them when I need to.
The impacts of my background, which caused so much distress for me earlier in life, make me now feel more equipped to deal with and face the scary and uncertain reality that COVID-19 brings.
My trauma impacts are not just bad and unproductive. They can be good and helpful, too.
In this way, they are not either/or. They are both/and.
This – this under-discussed topic of how our trauma backgrounds might actually have gifts for us (particularly in such challenging times as these!) is, I think, important to acknowledge.
So often, when we come from trauma backgrounds, we self-describe and others describe us with a kind of pitying, victim lens.
Seeing only the downsides of what we went through and how it impacted us without acknowledging any possible strengths and gifts that also came from that experience.
Of course, it doesn’t feel good to be seen (by self or others) as a victim only endowed with weaknesses.
It’s also not the full, true picture.
Any of us who come from a background of trauma can claim both challenges and gifts from the impacts of this.
The next part of this post will help you find out what your gifts are, too.
Getting to know your own gifts.
Let’s imagine you walk into a deep, sea-level cave, much like the one that’s featured as the photo of this post.
Let’s imagine that as you enter the cave and journey towards the back of the sloping rock walls, you see a wooden chest, strapped with brass, cracked open just a bit, something glimmering from within.
Step closer to the chest and lift the lid.
Inside you see a pile of golden coins. Doubloons. Florins. Guineas. Ducs.
This pile of ancient golden coins is the treasure from your trauma background.
Each side of each coin contains both a challenge and a gift.
One proverbial coin may, on one side contain hypervigilance and a hyperaroused nervous system.
The other side of the coin may contain preparedness, readiness.
Every attribute of your trauma impact has a twin characteristic that can be viewed as a positive, as a gift.
It’s up to you to identify what your unique gifts, your treasures from your personal experience might look like.
But make no mistake: they are there.
Here’s a sampling to catalyze your thinking, organized into one side of a proverbial coin and then the other, to help you better understand the possible coins in your proverbial treasure box:
- Hypersensitivity: Emotional attunement to self and others, heightened intuition.
- Anxiety/depression: Familiarity with and aptitude for these states and what we need in them.
- Emotional lability: A great capacity for feeling, for empathy.
- Hypervigilance: Readiness, preparedness, a nervous system ready to counter what arrives.
- A greater-than-average need for supports: Likely already adept at cultivating a robust toolbox of coping skills.
- Hardship: Familiarity with and possible acclimation to living through difficult situations.
- Relational distrust: An ability to tolerate withdrawal from relationships for safety and sanity.
- Rigid routines: A greater understanding of yourself and what you need on a daily basis to cope.
- Early pain and suffering: Awareness of and experience with what it is to be fully human.
- Chaos: Adeptness with this state inside and out, an ability to find calm in the eye of the storm.
- Catastrophic thinking: An ability to imagine into, to prepare for, to plan around.
- Adversity: Resiliency.
- Survival: Persevering.
- Early loneliness: A learned ability to be without contact.
- Neglect/abuse by caregivers: Not likely to be surprised when those in power let you down.
- A history of instability: An increased ability to live in this state.
- Ambiguous grief: Comfort and familiarity with abstract losses within us and outside of us.
- Dysfunction and abuse: Appreciation and gratitude for normalcy and regular “small” things.
- Coming from little: Resourcefulness.
- Exposed to pain early on: More recognition of and capacity for confronting existential issues.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what kinds of treasures and gifts our histories may contain.
I want you to think through a few questions to help you even better understand how your past, while painful, may have served you and be continuing to serve you well now:
- What did your background equip you with that peers and friends of yours who came from more “normal”, non-traumatic backgrounds may not possess?
- When crisis and emergencies hit, how do you respond and what qualities of yours are called forth? Are these gifts from your trauma background?
- What aspects of you, that once caused you pain, suffering or even derision, are sources of strength, power and even income generation for you now?
- What comes so naturally to you that you don’t even think about it consciously, that you may not even recognize as an impact of your trauma history?
- How have the gifts of your trauma background served you in the past? And how are the gifts of your trauma background serving you now in the time of COVID-19?
Take some time, imagine into the possibility that the very things you wish hadn’t happened, the very impacts of these things that did happen, are now serving you well.
What are the gifts from your own trauma background?
What treasures did your past experiences endow you with?
I want to acknowledge that it might feel like a stretch for you to do this, to see what happened to you and the impacts it had on you as anything but negative.
So if this exercise truly doesn’t feel supportive or possible, don’t push yourself.
You are where you are, and that’s okay.
But if this imaginal exercise does feel helpful, fruitful, productive and empowering in any small way, lean into it.
Until the next post, stay well, stay healthy, and take such good care of yourself.
PS: That Facebook Post:
I want to share something: I don’t feel panicked about COVID-19.
Now, this is not because I don’t grasp the gravity of the human life or the economic tolls.
It’s not because I’ve got my head in the sand, ignoring news and science.
It’s not because I’m existing in magical thinking, imaging all will be back to normal by Easter…
It’s because I had a chaotic and dysfunctional childhood.
For me, like so many of us raised in dysfunction, there may be a sense of familiarity right now.
When you grow up being unable to visualize a positive future for yourself, when you grow up used to and expecting the adults at the helm to fail you, when you grow up hypervigilant and possibly needing to guard against catastrophe and threat to your body and soul, this time in our history, this experience of COVID-19, may feel normative in some way.
So like I said, I don’t feel panicked by COVID-19.
I do feel appropriately concerned, but I also feel in a way, as Simon and Garfunkel presciently sang, “Hello Darkness my old friend…”
I feel like I’m in familiar territory.
Can you relate?
Does this experience feel at all vaguely, weirdly familiar to you?
You know, in a bizarre way, in a way I wouldn’t have wished on myself or on any other child-turned-adult, I feel particularly equipped for these times (especially since I’ve done decades of my own healing work to re-write what normal is and what my nervous system can expect).
I feel like a kind of a guide in a foreign country to a bunch of new visitors who have never been to my strange land.
“Hello friends, welcome. I know this is overwhelming and scary. Here are safe places to rest, here are things we locals do, here’s what you can expect, try not to stray down this path but if you do, here’s how to get back onto the main road. I’m here to help answer any questions you have.”
My writings, which are normally geared towards adult survivors of childhood abuse and adverse early beginnings, include psychoeducation on childhood trauma, yes, but also essays on self-soothing, pep talks for hard times, coping with depression and anxiety, fundamental self-care supports.
Google analytics with all its magic and mystery is telling me that these articles are being shared and read more widely than ever before.
Which, to me, says, that there’s a surge of tourism to my land.
So if you, like so many of my regular blog readers, are someone who comes from a background of child abuse, chaos, neglect, dysfunction and adversity, know that we locals now have many new visitors to our land then ever before.
Many, many people are feeling collectively traumatized and upended.
Millions are now feeling lost, at the mercy of, scared, and unsure.
They may experience, for the first time, what we grew up experiencing and what parts of us – deep down parts of us – still remember.
I’m saying this, not to celebrate how we might be particularly well-equipped (I think what’s also true is that trauma survivors can be particularly triggered right now – more on that in tomorrow’s blog post!) but rather to help normalize your experience if you, like me, haven’t been as panicked as you would imagine you would be.
If you – if any part of you – have felt a strange sense of calm and familiarity as COVID-19 has unfolded, if you’ve felt surprised by your response when you see so many different responses around you, please consider the possibility that the chaos and surreal gravity of what’s unfolding right now may be reminiscent of your childhood.
Don’t shame yourself for how you’re feeling.
Recognize that it makes sense you would be feeling this way given where you come from.
You and I have inhabited this land for a long time, and now there’s a surge in tourism.
We wouldn’t have wished it on anyone and yet here we are.
So what is there to do?
As ever, be kind to yourself. Be kind to others.
And please seek out those proverbial tour guides if you and they need extra support in your travels right now.