Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I Can't Hear Your Pain
"I need to minimize my exposure to your pain," a friend told me recently, while we were discussing some of the traumatic events we've both experienced in our lives. Sadly, this isn't the first time I've heard those words. Another friend told me that "it makes her stomach hurt," to hear about my past experiences. The friend who I met for coffee last week, happens to be the father of the daughter I relinquished for adoption: aka my ex. The original intention of our reunion was to discuss and heal from the experiences of the past. Now, he's decided that he doesn't have room in his life for me anymore and he doesn't want to hear anymore about my grief. What he had to say hurt, but I had seen it coming for a long time and I wasn't surprised.
The Loneliness of Trauma
Processing trauma can get very lonely at times. Therapist Dr. Kathleen Young refers to this as trauma stigma and her take on what silencing can mean to trauma survivors is worth reading. I am a trauma survivor with complex PTSD and complicated grief recovering from and processing multiple traumas that took place over 20 years of my life - ages 17 to 37. That doesn't mean that I talk about trauma all the time. Far from it. I would get exhausted. However, there are times when I want to share how I'm feeling with friends, family and - in the case of my ex and my husband - those who have gone through traumatic experiences with me. I have several wonderful friends who are not afraid of my pain. They can let me feel what I feel and be who I am. This is not a small gift. Others - even people I love - behave as if trauma is contagious and the less said about it the better. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and think that they can't really understand what it means to be silenced. Sometimes, however, this is no longer possible. It is not healthy to be silenced. The problem isn't that I MUST always speak about my pain. The problem is that the traumas I experienced are a part of me and, even though I am working on healing, the pain may never be entirely gone. And so, I have to limit my exposure to people who want to silence me.
My ex followed up our talk with a hurtful email that said, amongst other things, that being reunited with our daughter should make up for any trauma that I experienced in the past and that he wasn't interested in holding my hand while I continued to grieve. If it were only that simple. My relationship with my daughter is a tenuous thing and she hasn't spoken to me in over a year, while my ex sees her and talks to her regularly. Both my ex and my daughter imply that "if only you would change and let go of the past everything would be great." That might be true. But it is hard for me to believe. Telling people that "if only you change, I'll love you," rarely seems to work, at least in my experience. My therapist has often told me not to disown that part of myself that experienced the trauma. I also know that if I tried to silence that part of me, not only wouldn't it work, but I would have to erase a large part of myself and I can't do that. It reminds me of the hikers we met along the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. There was a large dead seal near where they had pitched their tent They had simply thrown some dirt over the seal and moved their tent 20 feet. Both black bears and mountain lions frequent that stretch of the trail and neither animal would be the least bit fooled by dirt. Trying to cover up trauma and grief can be that way: only the person burying it thinks it's hidden. To get back to my ex, I responded to his email with one of my own. Amongst other things, I said that "I am tired of your anger and your inability to accept me for who I am." And that's what it comes down to: acceptance or silencing. I have silenced myself for many years and now that I am learning to speak out, I can't stop. I have a voice and I need to use it. That doesn't mean I have to speak out at inappropriate times and places. All I know is that I don't want to be silenced again. And after I sent the email, I felt a burden lift from my heart. Below, Dr. Maya Angelou reads her poem "And Still I Rise," Her poem evokes the beautiful resiliency of the human spirit under difficult circumstances. It is a poem that resonates with me.
Has anyone ever silenced you when you were sharing your feelings about past traumas or your grief? What did you do?
This is the first in a series of posts on trauma within communities and why trauma survivors need to speak out in order to heal.