There are a few things about my personal experience with trauma that I want to share. I go through times when I talk more about it, and times when I talk less about it. At first I aggressively defended my silence. I didn’t want to talk about it, and I verbally attacked people who wanted to talk with me about it, which was mostly my mother. I’m not proud of that, but it’s a fact. When I finally started coming out, my traumas were emotionally tied to my sexuality. I couldn’t talk about one without talking about the other. It was hard, and, from a distance, not realizing the rest of my story, ridiculous the way it took me so long to be able to say the most basic part of it, “I am gay.” But once I started speaking, I shattered the silence I so aggressively defended. It took me years from first trauma to understanding myself and years more to first coming out. But as soon as I started coming out, I started (over)sharing the stories of of my childhood sexual traumas. It was such a tremendous relief, and a freedom not to have to keep secrets. I’m pretty sure I overcompensated. I think a few times the summer after my freshman year, I may have introduced myself as “Hi, I’m gay, I was sexually abused as a child, and my name is Stephen.”
As you might imagine, I pretty rapidly developed narratives of varying length for my history. And those narratives are with me today; the way I think about and tell my story, what to include, how I present the various parts of it, phrasing and word choice coalesced as I was first telling it. And so I’ve told the same story more times than I can count over the years, probably with subtle variations. Naming it and sharing it made me feel strong. I’ve faced this pain from my past. I can tell you about it and not hurt. I remember that it hurt, but the retelling doesn’t hurt. The story is a tool for navigating the memory.
When encountering similar circumstances, for example, when friends or their loved ones have been hospitalized for attempted suicide, I’m steady, I’m present, I’m supportive, and I’m understanding. I am definitely not lost in my own remembered pain or fear from similar circumstances. I’m much harder to shock and horrify than some people with less troubled lives. I believed I had managed my emotional baggage well. I believed I was basically over it. If I had some odd quirks or minor sensitivities left over, that was understandable, and no big deal. I had a handle on things. Then I had an experience that hit a little closer to home, in a way that I wasn’t expecting, that reminded me too closely of the linchpin childhood trauma, and I was lost in a storm of rage, guilt, and hurt; silent and immobile, contained, harmless to anyone outside myself, but not harmless to myself, for many hours over the course of a long sleepless night. Getting back to functionality took time. I was clearly not over it.
Years after that, I was in a car with a friend, and when I made space for it, they shared their story. And not just the part I’d explicitly expressed interest in, but a full narrative that they had clearly rehearsed over their own retellings. They apologized afterwards for going above and beyond the original question, but offhand expressed that the story was all one thing to them. That they couldn’t just share a part of it, but had to share the whole thing. And it dawned on me then, that our stories are paths through mine fields. Our full ritual retellings are safe(r) ways to share our experiences. They’re ways to express our traumas, that don’t trigger the traumas, either because that particular path is so familiar, or because we structured our story in the first place to avoid the points that hurt the most, while still answering (or at least forestalling) the questions.
I don’t have a moral here, or an uplifting finish, just a few personal experiences around the stories of my own traumas that I wanted to share.