All trauma leaves traces behind, some which can be felt for a lifetime. But childhood trauma creates an impact so large, so consuming, it’s difficult to escape. The relationship you have with your caregiver is the foundation for all your future relationships. You take what you learn in your childhood forward for the rest of your life.
Now imagine a childhood full of suspense. You may never know what your day is going to look like. You don’t know if your caregiver is having a good day or a bad day. And even if you do know, it can change with the blink of an eye. Imagine that how you see your caregiver interact with others is in a violent way, a way that includes yelling, anger, and hurt. Imagine living each day like you’re walking on glass: you must tread lightly so you don’t upset anyone. You must ignore the tiny cuts you get along the way when you wade through broken areas. And when that glass does break, because it always will, you are the one who has to fix it up.
Your childhood teaches you how to protect yourself. You develop defense mechanisms in order to manage your day-to-day experience. And once you find the ways that work, you hold onto them like they’re a lifeline. Because they are. And even though they eventually stop working so well (or at all), you hang on to those defenses because that’s the only way you know how to survive, how to live.
My biggest defense mechanism is vigilance. I am constantly prepared for almost any scenario, because being prepared means that I can protect myself from what may come. Sometimes vigilance means that I’m running through possible scenarios in my head, calculating how to diminish or avoid them, or how to get out if I need to. But as I’ve grown and changed, this mechanism has shifted too. Now vigilance often means second-guessing others’ intentions, their words, their feelings. Preparing myself for the actions of others to not match up with their words. Believing that no one is there to support or protect me, and then trying to avoid any situation where I could be hurt.
It fucking blows. I don’t want to believe that everyone will betray what they say eventually. I don’t want to believe that life is full of constant disappointment and pain. And let’s be real here: it isn’t. Life doesn’t dole out only bad hands. Not all people are abusive. The universe does not deal in absolutes.
This should be reassuring, right? It would be, if we as humans didn’t create frames for future experiences based on what we’ve experienced in the past.
So where does that leave me? Constantly using a broken frame of trauma to see every new situation? For a long, long time that’s exactly what it felt like. Until recently, I didn’t realize that I could view things any differently. I’ve learned though that there are people out there who get it, who’ve studied it, who’ve lived it. And those people are absolute godsends. It makes a world of difference to have someone recognize your defense mechanism for what it is, to not reject it or you out of hand, and instead say “what can I do to reassure you?”.
Let’s be clear: this is not a magic fix. But it was a magic moment for me. Because it got me to thinking, what do I need in order to move past this? And while I had originally thought I needed others to be or act differently, I realized it was me who needed to change. I needed to decide if I was ready to be vulnerable. And once I made that decision, that incredibly painful decision to open myself up to possible hurt, I was able to move past my vigilance. Rest assured, it was still not a magic fix. I almost constantly have the same vigilant responses that I did before. Except now, I can recognize who I am comfortable being vulnerable with and make the conscious decision to do so. I can tell those people when I’m having a trauma response and ask them for their reassurance that they mean what they say, that we are on the same page. Because the people who want to support you and stay in your life, those people will never turn you away for disclosing your past. Because, for the people who belong in your life, you and your past are never too much.
So ask yourself: What do you need to move past your trauma responses? What do you need to sit in them, recognize them for what they are, and decide that you can lay them down? How can you decide to be vulnerable in ways that maybe make you uncomfortable, but don’t jeopardize your safety? Because, I promise you, the comfort you think you get from those outdated defense mechanisms is nothing compared to the real comfort you find from allowing yourself to be seen for who you are.
Sending you love and support to be the strong person you have always been, just in new ways.