I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people knowing about my deeper, darker trauma history. I don’t like people knowing that I ultimately ended my marriage because of domestic violence. It goes without saying that I don’t like people knowing that I was trafficked when I was 18. Yes, that was twentysomething years ago, but there are aspects of it that still feel like now. That is how trauma works. Unprocessed and maladaptively processed trauma remain in the “still happening” box in your brain. This is why those memories pack such a punch when you recall them or re-experience them. Your limbic system activates when you think about them. You sweat. You have gastrointestinal symptoms. You might experience a migraine. You might feel a sudden need to run. Maybe you get belligerent. Or, perhaps you lose your words–you can’t speak. You can chalk that up to that very basic survival reaction called fight or flight (or freeze). We can thank acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, for a lot of those symptoms. It’s all very real. You are not making it up or wishing yourself ill.
Me? Sometimes, out of nowhere, I have a sudden urge to move house, leave town, and start over with a new identity. I’ll panic and think, “People know too much about me. I’m too vulnerable. I must leave. Must…run.” I’ll want to cut off all relationships and flee. I don’t do that, of course, but it happens from time to time.
I had that experience when I was in California. I wanted to leave the country. A gulag in Siberia started to sound pretty appealing to me. Why?
It all started with this guy…
I didn’t know that his name was Claude until I started writing this post! That somehow makes this seem funny in a sinister Loony Toons sort of way. So, I had just walked into the California Academy of Science. I saw a lot of people gathered around a large open air exhibit.
“Ooooh, what’s that?” I thought.
I sauntered over, and that’s when I saw him.
Claude. A very large alligator.
I am extremely afraid of alligators. It all began when I was a very small child. I was convinced that a gator was living under my bed, and this seemed perfectly reasonable to me because there was a bayou directly behind my house. Sometimes alligators would emerge from their natural habitat and awkwardly drag themselves down my residential street. So, every night I had to be careful not to let any of my extremities fall over the edge of my bed lest that under-the-bed-alligator bite them clean off!
Fast forward to my 18th year. Was I over my fear of alligators? I liked to think that I was, but I wasn’t. I was fascinated by them, but I maintained a strong fear of them. It remained visceral for me. I left Texas after I graduated from high school, and I figured that I left alligators behind for good.
I was wrong.
Human trafficking for the purposes of sex work is talked about today. Shows like NCIS, Law&Order:SVU, and Criminal Minds use the topic in their plot lines. The most accurate on-screen portrayals of an abduction and sex/human trafficking scenarios that I’ve seen are represented in the movie Taken. The auction at the end? Those are very real. The buyers? Real. Girls being closed up in rooms, drugged, and raped? Real. That was very close to my experiences in the early 90’s. Not much has changed. What is not discussed or used as fodder for entertainment is the torture aspect of trafficking. Torture is a very important part of human trafficking because psychologically “breaking” an abductee is important in order to gain compliance and destroy hope. My perpetrator used alligators.
Do you remember that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy opens up the ancient Egyptian crypt where the ark of the covenant has been hidden for millennia only to discover that the entirety of the interior is creeping and crawling with snakes–his greatest fear?
That was me. “Alligators. Why’d it have to be alligators.” In retrospect, my perpetrator was a lot like one of those unintelligent Bond villains thinking up creative ways to torture and kill people. Instead of using something reliable like a gun or knife, he had to try to be showy and egomaniacal and threaten me with being eaten alive by alligators.
Until a year ago, I never talked about the alligators. I survived the experience and compartmentalized that particular aspect of my time in captivity. Until last Sunday, I have not come face to face with another alligator since I was 18.
So, how did I do upon meeting Claude?
I froze. I started sweating. My stomach clenched. I almost started crying. I had no thoughts. It was entirely a limbic response. Pure trauma. So, I decided to just stand there among all the strangers oohing and aahing over this white, prehistoric reptile and let it flow while I told myself the truth.
“I am okay. I am safe. That alligator is not going to eat me. There is no perpetrator here now who is going to throw me down there. I will never be thrown to alligators. An alligator does not live under my bed or behind my house or anywhere near where I live. I am no longer being threatened. I can look at this alligator and know that I am safe at the same time.”
And then I moved on with the rest of my day. That was it. No one knew what I was experiencing. Just me.
What is the point of sharing this?
Well, the longer that I engage in the healing work (and it’s been a lifetime work at this point), the more that I realize that I have to be my own biggest support. I have to be my biggest fan. I am not trying to say that we become self-reliant Teddy Roosevelts who white-knuckle it on the open tundras of life’s hardships. What I am saying is that we must learn to coach ourselves through the unexpected scenarios that trigger us because sometimes very powerful healing opportunities arise at inopportune times, and we have to take hold of them quickly. Sometimes our allies are not around, or they are wrapped up in their own healing work. We must experience and know our strength, and we do have it.
It isn’t romantic. It will look nothing like it does in the movies. The theme from Chariots of Fire will not start playing. No one will high-five you or lift you up on their shoulders. Most people won’t even know just how hard you’re working. Just you. You will probably be judged. At some point, you’ll feel like a total failure. You’ll become disillusioned with yourself and life in general. It will feel like you’re working twice as hard as everyone else just to be average. Sometimes you might feel like an outcast. Like you don’t belong anywhere. You’ll feel ontologically different, and that creates a devouring kind of loneliness that can almost make you feel cold inside.
This is what healing from trauma feels like. I describe it as such because I have found that when I discover that my experience is common, then I am consoled. I am not alone. Maybe I am okay, and in that sense of being potentially okay I find momentum to keep going.
This is why I will always say, “Keep going. Never give up.” It gets easier, and it gets better. There are bad days, but there are good days, too. And, at some point, the good outnumber the bad, and life starts to feel worthwhile again. Even when you’re facing down your fears.
Keep climbing. Keep going. Shalom…