This has been a big week. For the country, for our collective sanity, and for Bernie memes. How good does it feel to have social media feeds filled with fluffy memes rather than yet another humanitarian crisis?
While I’m breathing a sigh of relief along with so many others, I’ve also reconnected with a familiar stomach clenching anxiety that I now understand is the result of trauma. Whatever your personal story, we are all dealing with chronic trauma now. It’s not a fun club to belong to, but none of us is alone.
A little over a year ago I attended The Younique Foundation’s incredible retreat for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It was a life-changing experience that I can’t fully express my gratitude for being able to attend.
I planned to write about it many months ago, after I’d had time to settle into my new emotional toolkit, but then … the pandemic hit. And instead I spent my time figuring out how to homeschool my kiddo, reimagine my career that disappeared overnight with all events and live music, and managing the visceral fear that comes with an unprecedented global shutdown.
As it turns out, the retreat was perfectly timed for me. I learned so much there that I’ve been able to apply to life in lockdown and being at the mercy of an abuser in charge of the country. While I personally believe he’s guilty of more, the abuse I’m referring to is the lying, gaslighting and manipulation of reality that defined 45’s tenure in office. Because when we’re told we can’t trust our own interpretations of reality, it’s likely we’re in an abusive relationship.
So what did I learn? I learned to recognize that my instincts matter. Your instincts matter. My feelings matter. Your feelings matter. I matter. You matter. Let that sink in for a second. If you’re like me, your first response is to skim past this part as quickly as possible. Don’t. Let yourself marinate in it for a minute. Feel it sink in. Breathe.
And then? Well, the first phase of the healing process is relief and joy and lightness of being. It’s an amazing feeling to go from the oppressive claustrophobia of abuse to sudden freedom. Seeing that sane adults are at the helm provides much needed calm in the chaos. Not hearing 45’s voice or seeing his face every day has been an extraordinary treat. Enjoy that feeling. Laugh out loud. Play. Smile. Frolic. Follow your joy.
The second stage is a lot less fun. Sorry. I wish we could skip this part or soften it somehow, but that doesn’t seem to be how it works. It usually starts with anger. Once the joy fades and we start to reacclimate to day-to-day life, it might begin to sink in just how bad things had gotten. When we’re bored listening to the news or press briefings or don’t even know the names of most cabinet members, we might feel a niggling sensation. When we start to question things, one by one, as new events come up and contrast the old, we might start to feel the injustice and anger and frustration in a new, more intense way. Because on top of the pandemic we were stuck in an abusive relationship we couldn’t escape, one that most of us never consented to in the first place.
My hope is that the anger and freedom combine to create a new level of activism that prioritizes humanity, equality and the environment like never before. Our collective experience contains limitless potential. We will not err on the side of assuming everything will simply work out. Because it doesn’t always. We must be active participants in our democracy and our lives.
But proceed with caution. Things that were once been easy may suddenly feel hard. Things like maintaining a healthy weight, sleeping well, having enough energy and focus to complete our daily tasks, and even feeling joy itself may take more effort or elude us completely. Our bodies store trauma physically as well as emotionally and we have to be gentle with ourselves and show compassion to others as we navigate these waters. I keep reminding myself to pay attention to how I feel, in my life and my body.
On a practical level I can share two concrete things I learned at the retreat that have helped me immensely. What I love about them is that anyone can do these at any time. They are tools that are immediately available and make a big impact .
- BREATHE OUT: When you get that panicky feeling and can’t take a full breath, breathe out. When we try to breathe in and the shallow inhales produce more panic, our lungs scream, “Need air! Breathe!” But if we start by letting the breath out, our bodies will automatically start a new breath without force. It sounds so simple, but it has helped me many times in triggering moments.
- CREATE NEW NEURAL PATHWAYS: The second thing is to acknowledge that our brains are always trying to create shortcuts in order to conserve energy. This is why habits form and are hard to break. Our brains want to take the path that’s easiest (most worn in) and therefore costs less effort. But in healing from trauma our easy pathways may no longer serve us outside of that abusive situation. We need to create new neural pathways. When we don’t have to protect ourselves from an immediate threat, and when we feel triggered, instead of allowing ourselves to go into that self-protective mode, start by becoming aware that it’s happening. What does it feel like to be triggered? What sensations are you experiencing in your body? Are you safe in this moment? Even if you don’t do anything else, becoming aware of these answers will start to change those neural pathways. If you can, notice and then actively choose a new way to respond. Eventually it will become easier and finally, automatic.
And finally, the big takeaway for me has been about fun. Trauma creates debilitating feelings of unworthiness and not belonging. The retreat broke through all of that because every one of us was in a place where we belonged. We were understood and honored in a way I had never felt before. It was powerful. Having gotten a glimpse of that feeling gave me a new, healthy baseline.
Nothing breaks negative patterns like doing something just for fun. I don’t always find that easy to do—to give myself permission to not be productive—but every time I do, I remember. I remember what it was like to be a kid making up games. Not for any specific purpose, just because an empty toilet paper roll needed to become a Star Wars blaster. Because following my imagination was fun. And now, as I watch my kiddo explore his own imaginary worlds I find fun in bringing that world to life through composites. I’ve run the gamut of feelings this week and struggled to regain my center. So in taking my own advice, here are my just for fun composites. Catharsis through creativity. And hopefully, over time, I won’t need to remind myself anymore. It will become automatic again.
*And for anyone interested in the Younique Foundation’s retreat, feel free to send me a message or visit their website for more information.