When I started therapy I hated the term “trauma”. I thought it was a terribly strong word for the things that happened to me. People who fought in wars were traumatized, or victims of violence but me – no way! My opinion was that everyone had to experience unpleasant things in their lives and that calling all these things traumatic would be a way of dramatizing the whole past.
In a discussion I had a few days ago I finally figured out what makes the difference between a diffcult and a traumatic experience for me personally. This is not a scientifically prepared essay but just my personal perception.
In my childhood and youth there were many things that made me feel sad, angry or scared. Things that were terrible for me and I had difficulties handling. They might have influenced who I am as a person but I think they were important in a way. Feelings such as grief or fear can be crucial for our lives, living without them, horrible as they might feel, wouldn’t be a good thing.
We all have to learn what it is like to lose a beloved person sooner or later. It’s a part of life. Just like falling in love with someone who has a crush on somebody else, like watching friends move away, like having car accidents, like ending a relationship. It all happened to me, it all hurt a lot, it all changed me in some way or another. Still, I wouldn’t call any of these things traumatic.
But then there were things that fundamentally changed something in me because they seemed so appalling, so unreal or existential that I felt utterly powerless. And this word is the one that came up in the discussion I mentioned before. Powerlessness. The one thing that (for me) makes the difference between something bad and something traumatic. Because as long as I feel I can do something, really anything, I can keep at least a certain amount of control over a situation which means I can find a way of coping. As soon as I am powerlessly at the mercy of someone else, as soon as I feel there is nothing I can do, I’m horror-struck. No one should ever feel that way. No child should ever feel that way.
In my childhood I remember a few situations like that, all of them are out-of-body memories. Even if I might have been able to react (in a different way or at all) from an objective point of view, I wasn’t when they happened. I felt powerless. Completely vulnerable, unable to do or say anything apart from what I did and said. Left without options. And those are the situations that still haunt me today, come to me as flashbacks or nightmares and make me doubt who I am every day.
These events didn’t just change me as experiences do, they harmed something in me as if they infested my very identity and never let go. They paralyze me in similar situations I come across today which feels as if I have to relive them over and over again.
I wish that I could turn back time and tell my younger self how wrong these things were. Because I didn’t know it. I didn’t know relatives weren’t supposed to watch and help you in the bathroom when you are old enough to clean yourself alone. I thought I was being prim.
Because I didn’t know that children aren’t supposed so solve all the grown-ups’ problems instead of being outside with friends. That it’s not “normal” to be the only one who is not allowed to ask for help. I thought I was being selfish.
Because I didn’t know that having to be a different person for everyone you know will destroy who you really are someday. I thought I was being sensitive.
And I wish I would have acted more egoistically with all that knowledge. I wish every child was told that these things are not “normal” and that with “these things” we don’t just talk about violence and shouting and hitting but also about the silent, unspectacular things. Events that are just traumatizing because we don’t see them for what they are until years later on some therapist’s couch. I wish I had known that even though we need to feel grief and fear and disgust we don’t ever need to feel powerlessness. We don’t need to feel so much of the negative emotions that we don’t feel anything at all after a while. I wish I could tell the little girl that she wasn’t prim or selfish or sensitive but just fucking perfect. That she should have been more of what she thought was squeamish as it would have saved her from a lot of pain.
I wish no one in the world would ever have to feel powerless.