I was 20 when the call came that my mother had cancer.
Here is what I remember: I was in my room at the Kappa Kappa Gamma house. I was standing near the door, facing my bed which was up on cinder blocks because the room was so small we needed all the space we could find. The bed was brown. There was a cork board on the wall over the side of the bed. If I close my eyes long enough I can remember every picture and ripped out quote from a magazine that was on that board that day. I also remember before that call everything in my life felt really good. For the first time in my life I felt really, really good. And then my mom died. That’s what I remember.
Of course that’s not how it happened. She died ten years later. I had just had my second baby, bought a new house and had a job I absolutely loved. My life felt really, really good. And then my mom died.
Of course there are a million little things that happened in between. A lot of good things and some equally sad things. Of course I know, in my head that it wasn’t A (my life feels really good) plus B (I relax into the good) equals C (people die). It was all much more nuanced then that. But the fact remains, that this equation is exactly how this trauma lives in me.
People always have interesting reactions when I say I am a trauma therapist. If it’s a potential client, they often think I’m not a good fit for them because they don’t have any trauma in their life. If it’s an acquaintance who finds out what I do, they quickly get uncomfortable and change the subject or walk away. No one wants to be near trauma because they don’t think they have any, or they know they do.
I used to think that about myself. That I had no trauma. Sure, my dad died when I was four. Sure, my siblings were all much older than me and therefore had some adult issues that I was privy to as a young kid. Sure, my mom’s cancer came back when I was pregnant with my first child and she died just after I gave birth to my second. But no one abused me. No one neglected me. We were poor, but never homeless. My mom was always employed and able to pay for shelter and food. I am white and acutely aware of that privilege. See? No trauma.
Then I started studying the topic. Admittedly, when I began I thought it would all be natural disasters and violent assaults and deaths. But a funny thing happened when I left textbooks and started seeking out professionals I wanted to learn from-those working in modern times, with real people. My definition of trauma (and maybe even humanity) changed.
People are exceptionally resilient. The issue that brings most to therapy is that no matter the resilience, protective patterns of behavior are just as strong as a person’s will. They come to see me when those patterns get too strong to ignore.
The work we do is first to recognize those patterns for what they are-without judgement or shame. Only then can we try to change them.
Want to know what I’m really good at? Preemptively messing crap up in my life so no one dies.
For years I thought I was
- Bad with Money
- Not Good Enough to Have Real Friends
- A Bad Wife
- Too ADHD to Pursue Real Dreams
- Incapable of Feeling Joy
The truth is, I am none of those things. I am simply someone who has trauma that lived in her in a way that made her sabotage happiness just before she could really be hurt again.
When I’m really happy, I lose everything.
That is what I used to think. That is still what I sometimes feel bubble up inside when good things are happening. Over the years, I’ve had to relearn to trust my intuition: be able to discern the difference between fear and faith.
It is through the acknowledgment of my own trauma that I was able to become aware of all of those thoughts listed above. Because I tuned in to my body to FEEL what happened inside when I had those thoughts, I am better able to manage them when they crop up now.
And they still crop up. I’m on the precipice of becoming a doctor-(something I have dreamed about since I was 6 years old) and almost daily I’m moments away from burning the whole thing down to avoid the inevitable pain that my body believes will come when something is going really well in my life.
So, I go for a lot of walks. I do A LOT of breathing and mindfulness exercises. I double up on the melatonin so I can fall asleep. I take in only the amount of media I need to stay informed, avoiding the rabbit hole that can quickly overwhelm me. I monitor my drinking-which usually means I quit for a while. I take the amazon app off my phone.
The truth is, we’ve all had something or somethings in our life that function as trauma in that it shapes our behaviors and triggers and relationship patterns. It may not seem like capital T trauma because it isn’t big enough. Whatever it is, it’s big enough to matter for us and our sense of self. Don’t we all deserve to take care of that self?
Find more about Cristie’s coaching work at cristieritzking.com.
P.S. Looking for more parenting guidance and tips for self-care? Check out From Chaos to Calm a guided training to help you feel better in this tough season.