*Thank you to Lexi from Beauty After Bruises for allowing us to share this piece. You can see more of their content here.*
Trigger warning: this piece discusses themes of childhood abuse, dissociation, sexual abuse and trauma.
There are many things I wish I could help people understand about childhood trauma; this just happens to be one I hear very little about. Like many survivors, I struggle to hear sentiments like, “Oh my! I’m so so glad that’s over now and you got through it!” “I can’t believe you got out of that alive. I couldn’t even do that now! I’d give up,” or, “At least you know your worst days are behind you. You know you can conquer anything!” Even resources and groups for trauma survivors, as well as therapists and clinicians, can share quips like, “You survived the abuse, you’re going to survive the recovery!” While these things are intended to uplift or highlight our strength, they all categorically deny the fundamental mechanism that allowed us to survive in the first place, and why adulthood is the real hard part: dissociation.
Make no mistake, those of us who endured trauma as children are courageously strong. We were forced to be tougher than most; and, by nature or necessity, we became resilient, creative and sharp. But Little Me didn’t even experience the bulk of the trauma back then. I wasn’t connected to the physical pain or sheer terror; I wasn’t incapacitated by shame, disgust or uncleanliness; I wasn’t aware of the immorality, nor was I having a crisis of conscience. I also didn’t even know who was hurting me for much of my childhood - parts of my mind did, but not me. Little Me wasn’t facing the anger or the blistering sting of betrayal from those I loved most hurting me in such inhumane ways. I wasn’t yet aware this was abnormal or something that could make me feel alien or ‘different’ from my peers. I was numb, I was hyperfocused on the things I could control, and I was even made to feel special or self-confident in certain areas very early on. While some of that confidence dwindled over time and I became more aware of my unhappiness and ‘irrational’ fears, none of that compares to what you imagine a tortured child feels — let alone what I was about to feel later in life.
That suffering is here now. Adulthood is when all of it breaks through and confronts you with a vengeance. No, the abuse is not ‘over,’ it is not ‘behind me,’ it is not ‘something I got through.’ As far as my mind and body are concerned, it is NOW. It is very alive and in full effect. Each excruciating detail of physical pain, disgust, and revulsion; every tidal wave of anger at those who knew and did nothing; each immobilizing shockwave of new material that re-writes my entire life story from how I once knew it. THIS is when my survival is tested. I am hypervigilant, terrified, exhausted, unsure if I’m even real. I exist in hollowing spaces of grief for Little Me and the life I should have had… lost in an endless state of confusion, horror, disbelief and dismay. It is all day. THIS is live trauma in my brain and body. THIS is my battleground, and I am fighting for my life NOW. As an adult, not as a child.
Furthermore, the dissociative process not only contorts the timeline of when we experience our trauma, but dissociation as an independent symptom challenges life as an adult, too (even beyond the forgetfulness, memory gaps, driving troubles, safety, maintaining a job, etc.). One of the most critical elements in trauma recovery is establishing healthy relationships and improving our overall worldview. It’s very hard to want to carry on when all you’ve known is the absolute worst of mankind. Being able to look around, connect, and believe the world is still good is vital to our sanity, safety and healing. But, dissociation challenges this. It can dull your senses, leave you numb to positive feelings, keep you at an emotional distance from love or affection shown to you. It can keep you trapped in a surreal in-between state of both the past and the present – where you respond to what’s happening today with the same emotional maturity you had as a child. Emotional flashbacks, unexpected triggers, and other sudden symptoms that crop up - particularly in intimate relationships or the more meaningful aspects of life - can complicate joy and frustrate those in your life. But most of all, no one wants to just ‘be alive’ we want to LIVE. Fully and authentically, with all the vibrance and richness available to us. But, dissociation has a way of diluting and blurring the world - stripping it of its colour and beauty. How do you hold onto a light that you can barely see, feel or trust is even there?
Like with most all means of sheer survival, dissociation has its pros and cons. Just like chemotherapy and emergency surgery, they can keep you alive, but there are risks. They’re also unpleasant in the moment and, separate from the conditions that necessitate these interventions, they alone carry long-term consequences. But, without them, you wouldn’t be here - so it’s a constant tug of war with perspective and gratitude. Dissociation is no different. It got me through. It saved my life. It gave Little Me a fighting chance. But it also made life after abuse so darn difficult. Because I should feel free. The abuse has ended, I am safe. I should be dancing and singing and holding everything I love dear to my chest. But instead, now is when I fight. Now is when I stare down my trauma, my innocence, my perpetrators - all with adult intellect and understanding - and try to decide if this life is worth living and if I’m up for the task.
It is worth it. And, I am up for the fight. I’m going to do this and will do it with grace and strength. But then, and only then, can you say I survived the impossible or that ‘it’s over now.’ This is the battle; not for just survival, but for life. To make this existence meaningful now. I get the autonomy of choice today, not just be along for the ride. I get to choose LIFE and choose ME each day. The fight is no longer to endure the day, just see the next one, or go through the motions while feeling trapped here, but instead to fill each one with things of meaning and substance. Things I GET to do.
I get to discover texture and nuance, vibrance and stillness, range in opacity and brightness - all for the first time. I get to engage with the world like a child, but it’s in my control and in my direction (and with the cheat code of adult freedom!). There’s so much to learn and discover, so much I’ve not tasted or touched, and I get to be excited by that prospect. Trust it. Grow from it. Share it with another. I am going to conquer this. The trauma, the feelings, the defeat, the difficult relationships, the dissociation. I will also remain appreciative of what dissociation made possible for me, despite its thorns. I want Little Me to get credit for surviving the horror. But I want Adult Me to be credited for not only surviving more anguish, but for learning to LIVE, too.
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