Self

Stop Minimizing The Impact Of Trauma

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When I was about four or five, my parents acquired a wooden paddle. It was a gift from one of their friends, a man I loved dearly and called “Uncle.” And its sole intended purpose was to spank me.

One day, I was outside across the street from my house, kicking around some gravel when I saw a weird-looking rock and picked it up. It reminded me of a wasps’ nest somehow, but in retrospect, I think it was probably an oddly-shaped chunk of cement. Regardless, it creeped me out and I wanted it to go away.

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A shiny, blue pickup truck drove past just at that moment. I thought it would be a pretty fantastic idea to try and arc the rock over the truck so it would land on the other side of the road in front of my house.

I wound up for the throw and let loose.

Clank.

My heart stopped and my face screwed up in horror. The rock has landed in the bed of the pickup truck. The truck slowed, pulled into the next driveway, backed out, and came back toward me. I ran as fast as I’ve ever run in my life. Across the street, into the house, and up into my bedroom, where I hid under the covers, panting, until the knock came.

I crept to the top of the stairs and peeked through the rails, heart pounding, as the man’s voice and my parents’ drifted up to me. After a minute, my dad called me down to question me. “I wanted to get rid of it,” was all I could say. “I’m sorry,” I said, blinking fat tears down my cheeks. I was sorry, but I was also terrified. I knew I’d be getting the paddle that night.

Rock incident aside, I never got into much trouble as a kid. My parents attribute my good behavior in large part to that paddle, carved and shellacked, hanging menacing and proud in the kitchen next to the wall-mounted telephone and accompanying message pad.

It’s become a joke in my marital home. My kids will do something ridiculous — something that would have earned the paddle if I’d done it— and my husband will say, “Did you ever act like that when you were a kid?”

“No,” I’ll say. “My parents beat it out of me.” Chuckle.

I feel compelled to say here I was not ever punched with a closed fist like a child, nor was I ever kicked. I was never hit in a way that would leave a bruise or other mark. My parents spanked me on the rear end, with a hand or a paddle, and never struck me in any other way.

I feel compelled to say this because, as my family members have been quick to remind me when I’ve accidentally let slip the above joke in the wrong company, I was never beaten.

The distinction was made very clear to me growing up. Spanking was discipline; beating was abuse.

My father grew up in an abusive home and was very clear that he would never beat his family. My mother rarely talks about her childhood, but I would wager there was a good deal of abuse in her upbringing as well. This difference was so important to them, and they are quick to highlight it even today because they refuse to think of themselves as abusers.

What they neglected to consider, though, was that the effects of trauma can’t be determined by counting bruises. While I was never left with physical scars from my childhood, the psychological ones are deep and lasting.

There will always be someone who is worse off

Some people like to compete in the Trauma Olympics. You know the type. You’ve had a bad day, but theirs is worse. You lost a parent, but they lost three family members in the same week. Your car won’t start, but theirs drove itself off a cliff with the family pet inside.

Others don’t talk much about their trauma, but you know from piecing little bits of stories together that they’ve been through some messed-up things. You don’t want to bring up your bad day, or your sadness over your parent’s death, or your car troubles, because you believe you’ve got no business suffering while there are so many people in the world who just can’t get a break.

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Whether it’s from the outside or within, comparing our traumas never makes anyone feel better. It only discourages us from talking to one another. In turn, our feelings of sadness and anger get more intense, and then guilt over feeling those emotions just piles on top, making an unpalatable negative-emotion cocktail that poisons us from the inside out.

We have all experienced trauma of one form or another. Rather than competing, we should be commiserating. Instead of minimizing, we should be supporting each other, bolstering our fellow survivors by sharing strategies that have helped us overcome our pain.

People may say you turned out just fine

What does it mean to be just fine? Does it mean that, after being surrounded by drug and alcohol abuse throughout your life, you’ve managed to not become addicted? Does it mean you’ve done well in school and secured a steady job? Does it mean you are a good spouse and parent, a contributing community member, an activist for some noble cause?

Because let me tell you, I fit every bit of the above description and I am most certainly not fine.

I grew up with an unhealthy attitude toward sex. I got myself into abusive relationships. I drank too much, smoked too much, did too much coke. I developed an eating disorder that I battle each and every day. When I get overwhelmed the only way to release my emotions is to explode them all over the people closest to me. I am, ever so slightly, unstable.

From the outside, it might look like I turned out just fine. But that’s an image I work really hard to convey. In reality, I turned out to be an adult in all kinds of recovery, writing about my experience with childhood trauma in an effort to move the conversation forward, to help ensure our children aren’t traumatized the way we were.

You might be advised to get on with your life and stop wallowing in self-pity

There are plenty of people who go their entire lives without acknowledging what they’ve been through. Any time they think about their parents’ emotional unavailability, or that unwelcome experience with a family friend, or that time they were locked in a shed for an hour “as a joke,” they push it to the side.

RELATED: 3 Ways Traumatic Childhood Events Really Hurt Your Adult Relationships

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It wasn’t really that serious, they think, or, It’s in the past. What good would it do to rehash it now?

Those people live out their days feeling anxious, angry, or sad, without thought to the fact that these feelings come from somewhere. They busy themselves to avoid looking at the events in their lives that caused these feelings to persist. And, in many cases, they can’t deal with people who do acknowledge their past and talk about their issues, their traumas, and their feelings.

But it’s healthy to talk about these things, and the best friends in the world are the ones with whom you can discuss all the awful things you’ve endured (and also the joyful ones!) without feeling that you’re going to be minimized, shut down, or told to get on with your life.

Our experiences (even — especially — the traumas) play a huge role in building the person we are today. There is a difference between wallowing in self-pity and using this knowledge to move forward and build the person we want to be.

Minimizing sends the message that your feelings are invalid.

It’s no secret how I feel about my parents’ paddle, and about corporal punishment in general. I’ve never once spanked my kids, and I’ve been very vocal that I don’t support physical abuse as a form of discipline.

But I’ve learned to be careful how I frame my feelings about this and other experiences in my past because I know from experience not everyone will appreciate my reflections. My feelings have been minimized so much that no one even has to do it for me anymore. It has become a part of my unconscious inner monologue.

Every single argument above is one that’s been used on me and that, in turn, I’ve used on myself. And of course, I would be inclined to use these lines on other people. Because if my feelings don’t count, why should theirs? It’s a convenient little system we’ve created here, an echo chamber that minimizes the effects of our traumatic experiences so we don’t have to face them — ours or anyone else’s.

After spending years sifting through the pain and anger that have come from my experiences, I realize that all this minimizing — the rationalizing of things that can’t be rationalized simply because others have had it worse, or because we present as functioning members of society — all it does is keep the cycle of trauma alive.

And we need to stop. Stop minimizing our own feelings, and other people’s, too.

Only by talking about the ugly bits, only by sharing with others how we’ve gotten through the worst and hardest parts of our lives, can we as humans move past it. Together.

Nikki Kay writes about fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.