Trauma Recovery and Independence
Navigating complex trauma, emotional dissociation, and support systems
Memories should be safe. Should be things we look back on and smile about, laugh about, maybe even cringe. I mean, I can’t be the only one who has been kept up at night reliving that time I wore the wrong thing to middle school and the things the mean girls in the hall behind me said. Or the dumb thing I said in a job interview. Or, or, or. The point I’m trying to make is, these memories are blush-worthy, but not crippling. Not the way trauma memories are.
I’ve been circling finally being ready for trauma therapy for years. For a long time, I thought that just writing a book about a young woman overcoming sexual assault would free me from the memories of my own. I thought I could, like Alexander Hamilton, write my way out. After all, I — a strong, independent female — was not going to let one moment control the rest of my life. Because that’s what we’re told, isn’t it? Move on. Move forward. Look forward. Except no matter what I did, I couldn’t escape reliving the worst moments of my life. Stuck on repeat, I lose my breath and stop seeing what’s going on around me and just see what happened. Not relive it in the traditional sense, but watch myself, outside of myself, a lone witness to a horror show.
Normal is a word I have a tenuous relationship with. When my therapist had me walk her through my traumatic memories, she had to keep asking me about feeling. Yes, I could give her very specific details about very specific moments, but I left emotion out of it completely. What details were hazy, I left out too, quick to blame a brain injury, quick to blame myself for the lack of good memory. When she mentioned dissociation, I drew a blank.
I had no idea what the hell she was talking about.
Me, someone who knows how hard the medical system is to navigate. Someone who goes into doctors appointments after researching scholarly articles so I can be the best advocate for myself. I had no idea what the hell she was talking about.
So we went further, going into what should be normal and easy situations to navigate: hanging out with friends, spending time with family. Things I should be able to engage in without an issue. Except in these moments, too, I always feel on the outside looking in. Literally. Physically I’m there, taking in what’s going on around me, but I’m not present.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder “involves an ongoing or episodic sense of detachment or being outside yourself — observing our actions and thoughts and self from a distance as though watching a movie.” Or, exactly what I told my therapist I’ve been experiencing.
The on-set of dissociative disorders isn’t complicated to understand. Simply, they develop as a way to help you cope with trauma: disasters, unstable home environment, war, abuse (physical, emotional, sexual).
Because I see the scene, but I’m not the actor in it. I can’t be. There’s no way this terrible thing happened to me.
Asking me to talk about things I’ve seen, I’ve heard, I’ve lived through is easy. I’m a writer and I’ll paint the hell out of a memory. I’ll build the world around what was happening at the time, tell you the weather, the way the late afternoon sun was coming in through the bathroom window when I realized that I went from pregnant to not pregnant. Because I see the scene, but I’m not the actor in it. I can’t be. There’s no way this terrible thing happened to me.
And that’s where trying to lean on people for support gets complicated.
Trying to verbalize to my mental health team about the things I’ve lived through, what I’m experiencing now, the best way to work through them is hard enough. I’m chipping away at the walls I’ve taken decades to build — trying to, in as safe and as controlled of an environment as possible. But in leaving this work in the therapy space, I’m at a loss on how to let the people who care about me in. The same part of me that wants to protect me also wants to protect them. And there’s the whole idea of being that strong independent person who can handle this. I got this. I, writer and poet, can put feelings to words and bleed nightmares onto pages, close the book, move on.
Conversations are remembered in pieces — fragmented moments of joy interlaced between beats of stories I wish I could forget.
Except that’s a lie. Except I know I need people: need to let them in, need to let them know that I’m okay, let them know that sometimes I’m physically there but not mentally. Because I can be watching people move in a room around me and I’m wishing I could be part of what was going on around me. Sometimes I’m in a room and I’m aware of what’s going on, but because I have memories stuck on repeat I can’t keep up with what’s going on around me. Either way, the experience and the memories are dulled. Conversations are remembered in pieces — fragmented moments of joy interlaced between beats of stories I wish I could forget.
While I try and map out a way through and around the walls of my memories I’m at a loss on the best way to make sure no one I love is left out, feels left behind, feels ignored or unloved. Someone like me, the protector type, will do what they can to shield everyone from what they’re really experiencing. Because someone like me doesn’t know how to let people in. And, sure, maybe part of that can be chalked up to a complication of a dissociative disorder, of PTSD, of just being an exhausted introverted insomniac.
What I’m trying to say is, just like with healing from trauma, there is no easy way to tell your support system what you need. No easy answer your loved one can give you when you ask them how you can help. But having patience, showing up — they’re a good place to start.