Open the Can of Worms

By Tracey Farrell, a mental health social worker and passionate advocate for overcoming childhood trauma and adversity, this poem was written after speaking to many survivors about their experiences of the mental health sector, and practitioners who described asking about trauma histories as ‘opening a can of worms’.

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I heard you talking as I was walking

by your open door

Telling each other to

stick to the presenting issue,

Don’t go opening a can of worms

keep to our core

Let’s do this on our terms.

Yet you don’t realize that this can of worms

That you don’t want to open

Stays stuck inside of me

wriggling and squirming,

gnawing and chewing

Eating away at my insides

with each toxic bite,

until I learn to fight

and show my might

through snide words and worse.

Or worse still,

‘till I have no fight left,

no will to live,

no reason at all

And I wonder do you remember my name?

That I told you my dad

died by suicide when I was five?

Do you smile when you see me,

or roll your eyes?

That dread you feel as you

answer your phone

and the receptionist says in that tone,

the one reserved by people

like her for people like me,

“It’s her…again”

“Give me ten”, you sigh

and then wonder why

I scream at her and hang up,

not just the phone but this time

my never to return sign.

So my appointment arrives and I don’t arrive,

and you note with rising glee

a DNA or an FTA on that file of my life.

I wonder what might happen

if instead of that being attributed to me,

it was attributed to you.

What would you do?

If that failure to attend meant

You failed to attend

to trauma-informed practices

that might have made the difference

Or if I didn’t have to pretend

that I care about your therapy

With their cute little acronyms


All the letters except M and E


I want you to see me…work well with me,

and open that can of worms

Not to watch you squirm

but to help me see

That I am not rotten,

That my ‘mental illness’ and my addictions

Are just a symptom of trauma not forgotten.

My body, it remembers

Even when my mind can’t join the dots

From A to B and to C


It’s your way, or the highway

With your policies full of risk adversity

That trump the ones about trauma

and make me jump

through hoops made of government red tape.

Believe me

I know it’s not just you, it’s the whole system

I don’t expect

Blue tights and a cape

You don’t have to save me

But it would help if you’d see me

through a lens of understanding

and take time to develop


Built on trust so that when you do what you must

The scales might tip

Towards me being supported and vindicated

And you could ask and respond,

rather than tell and react

So that I can learn to ask

for what I need and respond

with my truth rather than

tell you what I think you want to hear

and to stop me reacting from my Trauma,

so far out my Window of Tolerance.

Zero tolerance

Isn’t just a poster on a wall

Warning me that you require safety

It’s how you and I feel both about

My sadness and pain,

no tolerance at all

So it masquerades as rage

And fills the page you write about me

Confirming my non-compliance

With the treatment that you do to me.

I’m trapped in your paragraph prison

There’s precision in the way you wield that pen

Severing the human parts of me

Without me ever having made a decision

About how it would be

How I wish I could be openly defiant

To ask for what I need -

Just open the can of worms!

Barriers exist that you can’t even see

They stand rock solid before me

Telling me that no one cares

So when you run late it just confirms

That the worm of self-hate

Crawling through my mind

That it is all on your terms.

Those terms are clear

You can see my fate,

Mood states turned to personality traits

The doctor has ordered

My mind disordered

Borderline, Antisocial….

ain’t so far from the truth

If we’re talking about the mess

That is my social engagement system

shot to pieces by toxic stress.

Where rules about my body got broken

By people who said rules shouldn’t get broken

At least not by me

And here I am breaking rules again

Speaking the unspoken,

Asking you to see

That the one tool you need

Is this -

Open the can of worms!

Tracey Farrell

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This article originally appeared in Blue Knot Review, an electronic journal chronicling recent developments and new perspectives around complex trauma and trauma-informed practice published quarterly by Blue Knot Foundation, National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma. Blue Knot Foundation empowers recovery for the 1 in 4 adults who have experienced childhood trauma, by supporting survivors and those who support them.

Blue Knot Foundation, a thought, policy and practice leader in the fields of complex trauma, vicarious trauma and trauma-informed practice delivers professional development training, supervision and consultancy services across Australia.

The Blue Knot Helpline offers information, support or referral. Our trauma counsellors support adult survivors of childhood trauma, their partners, family and friends, and any professionals and other personnel working with survivors. (Australia Only)

Blue Knot Helpline 1300 657 380 or email between 9am-5pm Monday to Sunday AEST/ADST.

Subscribe to Blue Knot Review.

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