On realizing that I wasn't just traumatized by my community. I was reliving it.
My heart is beating like a jackhammer. My head is aching. My thoughts are racing.
All I need to do to make it go away is to stop. Just stop. But it won’t. I have to destroy it, this thing that’s making me feel this way. I can’t just let it exist, I can’t let it go on its own way. I can’t. I have to devour its carcass in front of the world so they’ll know they can never do this to me again.
One time it was a Facebook conversation.
One time it was a conversation where young rabbis got together.
Another time it was a conversation with other Jewish writers.
Every time, it’s the same. Someone says something, and I can’t let it go. Or, I think I can’t let it go.
It’s a person who is criticizing a piece where I came out about trauma, telling me to stop “blaming and shaming” the community, and that trauma may be real, but traumatization is a choice. Things I know, but which I cannot understand the callousness of a person who uses an opportunity of someone coming out about having just realized they were traumatized to give these speeches.
It’s a person who is coming out about her own pain with her Jewish community, and my inability to remove myself from her situation, and wanting to rant about the dangers of letting the orthodox world control you. I start, but I’m stopped by the leader of the get-together, thankfully. I came out so strong, I think I may have scared the people around me who weren’t used to seeing me like this.
It’s a person who is telling me that no one takes the rabbis in our community seriously after a recent controversy where they came out against an event purely because it was about women and self-expression. And me wanting her to understand that they do have power, and I saw it, and they used it, and it hurt me, and how dare she make these pronouncements about what the community cares about when she’s never had an entire community out to get her ?
It wasn’t until recently that I think I really understood the idea of being “triggered.” This idea that certain stimuli can cause a physical reaction of pain that brings us back to a moment of trauma.
It started with the conversation with the writers. I wonder, why on earth did I just act like that? Why couldn’t I let it go? Why did I react so strongly?
This is was what has started me on the road to exploring the possibility that there is something deeper happening to me. Something connected to an unexplored pain. Which eventually opens me up to the idea that, yes, I have been traumatized by an experience in my chosen Jewish community.
But that realization doesn’t make things easier. It makes them harder.
Opening myself to the idea that I had been traumatized means opening up a door in my consciousness that I had been keeping shut up until this moment. It means opening myself to a vulnerability: the reality that, yes, this part of me is in an intense amount of pain and it hasn’t gone away. And now that I have admitted it, I no longer have the defenses up that I once did. The defenses such as denial: the fantasy that I am not, in fact, in pain. Or cynicism. Or anger.
And so without those shields, I am now exposed, and it is resulting in these extreme reactions, ones that seem to bring me all the way back to my traumatic moment, back to when I reacted the same way I am reacting now: the beating heart, the aching head, the racing thoughts. These are not just reactions to a painful memory: they are the memory lived out again. In that sense, it isn’t even a memory: it is a reality. And the unfortunate people to put themselves in the middle of that reality are suddenly on the receiving end of being treated the way I would treat the people who I feel traumatized me.
It’s a few days after the latest episode. I am speaking to my therapist about the conversation and the other ones. We discuss how these experiences can help me avoid such painful interactions in the future. But more than anything, I’m still letting go of so much, expressing so much that has been hidden deep inside of me until this moment.
And he’s mostly listening, because he is so good at knowing when I need to process something out loud so I can get there, get to wherever “there” is, that place of understanding what I always wanted to say but have just been looking for the words, and then from there a place of healing.
But he will ask a question every now and then, getting me to think a bit more deeply about what I’m saying.
I say how upsetting it is that opening myself up to this trauma has now exposed me to even more pain, to having to face what’s inside of me.
And he says, “Well, do you really think like it wasn’t something you were dealing with before?”
It’s a leading question, but he’s right. That’s the whole issue with being in denial about or refusing to face our trauma: we think by doing so we’re making it go away. But we’re holding onto it, really, and it’s eating at us even as we can’t see it.
So I nod, and I say he’s right, of course. For the last few years, I’ve been having trouble feeling anything. Allowing myself to cry or to feel the pain when others come after me on line or in real life: it’s as if I’ve been in a shell this entire time, hiding from my own emotions. Even the good ones. I used to go to movies and cry from the beauty of them. Now, I watch, I enjoy, and I know there is something more happening. But it’s rare that I let myself cry like I used to.
In other words, I was always sensitive to being triggered, which is exactly why I shut myself off. Why I wouldn’t let myself fully feel anything. Why I made myself hard. I wasn’t just trying to protect myself from those outside of me, I was trying to protect myself from what was happening within: a deep tear cut open and exposed, that I thought could be healed by refusing to look at it. I didn’t want to go to a doctor because then I’d have to admit it couldn’t be healed by looking away, that it was bleeding and pouring out of me everywhere I went, and I was hurting all the time.
All of these realizations don’t make me feel better. Yet again, I feel worse. And I tell this to my therapist.
“It’s so frustrating. So upsetting. I am so angry about this.”
Again, he listens sympathetically, but in his light and gentle way, he finds another break in my talking to insert a question.
I look up in confusion.
“Why do you feel so angry? What’s so upsetting about this to you?”
And again, something I didn’t know I was feeling comes tumbling out.
“I’m angry because all of this means that the trauma still has power over me. That the people who did this still are hurting me. That it’s in the present, not in the past. It’s right here, right now, and it’s stabbing me.”
And that’s what it is, right there. Finally, I’ve found the words for it. For why I’ve tried to ignore the trauma: because I don’t want to admit the power they had over me. Because I don’t want to admit they still have that power. Because I don’t want to face the fact that it is alive in me in the present, and that I’m controlled by it in some ways.
And as it comes out, although I have had trouble crying for years, I suddenly am crying uncontrollably. I don’t even remember the last time I cried in front of my therapist. Even when we talk about painful things, they’re in ways that are thoughtful and nuanced, and focused on action. This isn’t a place I go for catharsis: it’s a place I go to grow.
But I just can’t help it. It’s facing the reality of the trauma existing now, existing here, existing just as alive and painful as it was on the day that it occurred that finally opens up that well inside of me, that dissolves the shell I’ve been clinging to, and I’m finally fully feeling the pain I’ve been holding onto for so long.
And I suppose that’s why, as I finally stop crying, as the tears finally leave me (I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop them from coming… I tried, but they flowed, and I kept feeling embarrassed that he was looking at me like this because I wanted him to think I was better than I was when I first started going to him, but he’s the one who has helped me realize that crying in this way is actually a sign of strength, and so maybe that’s why my body and my subconscious are finally okay with letting go in front of someone), that I, for the first time since I’ve faced this trauma started to actually feel good about all this.
A sense of relief washes over me as we end the discussion, and a sense of freedom. It’s not all solved, and the shell is by no means gone completely. But for a moment, I took it off, and I felt what it means to allow myself to face trauma for what it is and to grow from it rather than denying it.
And now, for the first time in a while, I imagine a happy ending to this, or an ending that doesn’t just result in denial.