All childhoods should be happy. Children, perhaps the only innocent people in this world, deserve to cherish a few years in that arcadia. We have our entire lives to become weighed down by the resentment that comes with age. The least we should be able to do is look back and savor that era uninhabited by older demons, a space to bask under warmer suns. And yet for some that place does not exist, and is only a bottomless pit from which springs memories better left in the dark.
Youth is often seen as a time of discovery, for stretching our cramped limbs long and shedding our naiveté. Yet when an individual is dogged by trauma this period is warped into a drawn-out survival attempt. After all, while traumatic events are initially external they quickly become internalized, assuming a place within like black bile running in the bloodstream or an unnatural growth on the psyche.
No matter how much time passes one is stuck helplessly dangling from that moment of terror. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score, “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on – unchanged and immutable – as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.” Essentially a pause button has been struck at ground zero, and one isn’t allowed to leave the scene. It’s as though the future has been deformed, time itself misshapen by inner disfigurement.
I kept that in mind as a friend who knew of my past told me that what had happened didn’t matter. He thought the years separating history and present acted as a buffer between myself and those horrid acts. No, I wanted to tell him, it was still inside me, rubbing up against my organs and leaving bruises on my bones. I kept that in mind as a patient in a psych ward, surrounded by children my age and younger who had been subjected to horrific things. Time could not save us. It could not save the girl whose brain was zapped so she’d forget her childhood. It certainly could not save me, who still woke up in the middle of the night screaming about days that happened well over a decade ago.
Perhaps that is the best description of a traumatized person, someone forced to live in a spoiled period of time. In Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, Judith Herman describes the fantasy of having years erase the pain, writing,
“Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom. But the personality formed in an environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life…[The survivor] is still a prisoner of [their] childhood; attempting to create a new life, [they reencounter] the trauma.”
I really used to think that adulthood could rescue me, as if running off to college would remove the scourge of my home-life. Then I realized that complete normalcy was nearly impossible. I constantly struggled to maintain healthy relationships, whether they be platonic, romantic, or sexual. It was like alienating people was my super power. I was at once clingy and distant, could be sweet as honey but always had cruelty hanging at the back of my tongue, constantly craved attention yet fed off isolation.
I was even more callous with myself. Sometimes the self-harm was obvious, like going at my own flesh with a razor blade or swallowing Prozac by the score. But then again, it could also be more subtle. Running across the street with abandon because I didn’t care if a car struck me, or spending nights that dragged on for eternity with uncaring men.
“What do ruined people do? Weird s***,” Emily Rapp notes in her essay Grief Magic. “This seems to be the consensus of psychoanalysts as far back as Freud and Jung; the traumatized self creates, out of necessity, a system of self-care that is keen to avoid repeat trauma.” I certainly felt ruined, like a malformed creature permanently twisted beyond recognition. How odd it was to inflict violence upon myself but also how natural. It was the smooth continuation of a legacy working its way through my early childhood down into my late adolescence. Weird s*** indeed.
Weirder still is the narrative that’s come to form around traumatized individuals. There’s this heavy emphasis on thriving despite the past, as if we can’t let those experiences define us. But how, I ask, can these events be anything less than definitive when they happened during crucial periods of development? They are stitched into our skin and needled into the back of our skulls, ready to be projected onto our consciousness in lurid technicolor in the presence of a certain sight, smell or touch. Especially touch. In the dichotomy of victim vs. survivor where the latter always seems to win out, there’s an almost pathological need to have happy endings. But sometimes I don’t want to see that. Sometimes I just want people to acknowledge that this terrible thing happened to me and I’m allowed to be upset about it, to wallow in my pain and be bitter, and nasty, and destructive. At least for a while.
I’ve had to accept a lot in life, mainly that what happened has happened and there’s no use in trying to change it. I’ve accepted that the prospect of full recovery is a bleak one. And yet I no longer have the urge to lie down and fold in upon myself, swallowed whole by the magnetic pull of the past. Yes, the past follows, it lurks, stirs underneath sometimes violently. But it does not kill, it does not kill.