Aftermaths of Trauma: Living in Twilight

I was sitting with the father of a dear friend of mine, when he turned to me and asked, “Do you live there too? I don’t know what to call it, so I call it the Twilight Zone.”

I knew exactly what he was talking about.

“You know, it’s that other world that we live in now, the one where evil things, strange things, these horrible things just happen, and there’s no way to explain it to people who don’t… who don’t know. Who don’t live here too. They just don’t live in the same world that we do.”

“Yes. I live there too.”

His son suicided a couple of years ago.

A year ago I was brutally attacked in Florence.

We are not alone in these experiences.

For most of my life, I have struggled to find a sense of belonging that has proved to be elusive. Through this trauma, I have been initiated into an extraordinary, global community of people who have suffered. People who send private messages, take you aside at a party, ask you unexpectedly for dinner; and with quiet words or a tightly held hand, they tell you the story of how they, too, came to live in this other world and that you, too, can build a life again here. Through this trauma, I was finally understood. What a strange way to join the world.

I had thought, before the attack, that I understood something of suffering. What I actually knew was denial, how to be tough and how to quietly feed my own self-destruction. I hurt, therefore I understood. I was tough, therefore I was wise. I administered my own pain, therefore I was deep. I understood nothing. These struggles are painful, but by their nature of being in my own control, also useless as transformative experiences. A fool’s guide to believing you have agency over what you’re going to feel in life.

Transformation comes from the experiences that hit you like a truck running through a red light, crumpling into twisted metal your entire understanding of the fundamental laws of existence. Cause and effect. If I am a good person, bad things won’t happen. If I love my children, they will love themselves. If I am surrounded by other people, in the daylight, on a sunny afternoon, I can’t be violated by a stranger. We build ourselves around these rules.

If I do…

Then this will…

Until all the rules are broken.

Now, it isn’t enough to muddle along as best you can. It will no longer serve to drink a smidgen too much, or to get a little too high, a little too regularly, but kid yourself that it’s all in the name of fun. To use food instead of feelings, sex instead of therapy, silence instead of screams, and stoic toughness instead of tears. The old tricks won’t work now. You are no longer dealing with a quality of life issue, these are no longer choices that will simply colour your experiences into shades of live-able. That old filing cabinet of coping strategies won’t help you, they will simply hold your hand and walk you six feet into the ground. When all the rules have been broken, you have to choose whether you are going to live in this new, volatile world, or whether you are going to die in it.

Choosing to live isn’t easy. It is a war with yourself, your instincts, your grief, your incomprehension, your justifiable urges to retreat into a black hole. You have to fight a war against that sucking pull into numbness, and you have to make it out alive. That’s why we’re strong. That’s why they call us Survivors.

Strong doesn’t look the way I thought that it would. It isn’t smiling in the face of adversity, gritting your teeth until it’s over, or reassuring the people around you that you are fine, everything will be fine, such is life, “don’t worry, I’m a survivor.” None of that means anything. Strong is the process of learning how to have your feelings. How to hear them, understand them, hold them and comfort them. How to feel your anger, go deep under its water and find out what is inside it, because there is always something hiding inside of it, usually some unspoken fear. In some cases, a screaming, clawing, desperate fear that knows that the worst horrors aren’t imaginary, but concrete and real things that have already come for you or the people that you love in the night, or even in the light of day.

Strong is realising that the feelings will never actually leave you, it’s just that you’ll get better at managing them, at making the decision to live over and over again, every time you flashback and the horror rushes in to smother you.

Strong is living in the space between night and day, between light and dark, between the world that you thought you knew and the world that might reach out and slap you at any moment.

Strong is realising that you have to take better care of yourself than you ever wanted to do. It is understanding that you are vulnerable in so many ways, and therefore you may have to ask for special treatment when you can, even though that feels weak, pathetic, or unnecessary.

It is learning to care more about what you think of yourself than what other people do. It is learning not to accept being uncomfortable as a part of being polite. It is learning how to let people know when they have hurt you.

It is learning how to draw lines in the sand, because some things are important to you and you are allowed to have boundaries that other people can’t cross. It is learning to walk away from people who won’t respect those fragile, ephemeral lines because they can’t or won’t understand why they’re important.

Strong is learning that love is the bare minimum you should expect from people. To not be so excited by love’s very existence, as if that was all that mattered. It is learning that it’s how that love is expressed and shared that counts for everything. Strong is accepting your alone-ness, rather than filling all the hollow spaces inside of you with “whatever you can get.”

Strong is never giving up on the search to find other people who give you a sense of belonging.

Strong is a father asking his daughter’s friend if she understands him, when he tries to articulate the new world that he has been plunged into, needing to find companions there.

Strong is taking the hand of someone you just met, because now you’re both living in the Twilight Zone.

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