I was driving home this morning (bringing home donuts, if you really must know), when a half-ton truck pulled up within inches of my rear bumper, impatient to pass me and trying to find an opening in the next lane to speed by me. I was going the speed limit, but as soon as I saw the truck in my rearview mirror, I second-guessed myself and wondered if I might be doing something wrong to cause his agitation. The light turned yellow in the intersection ahead of me, and I instinctively slowed down, but then my body went into panic mode and I considered rushing through the yellow light just to let Mr. Big Man in the truck get past. The law-following voice in my head battled with the keep-yourself-safe voice in my head, but I did the right thing and stopped. Behind me, I could see Mr. Big Man’s arm flailing in exasperation.
We were both in the right-turn lane. I could see that there was a no-right-turn-on-red sign, so I stayed stopped. But the keep-yourself-safe voice started clambering at me that perhaps Mr. Big Man couldn’t see the sign because my car blocked it from his view. What if he was still convinced I was making stupid driving decisions? Should I move so that he could see it better? Should I turn anyway, since there was no oncoming traffic and it wasn’t much risk? I could feel my nervous system kicking into high gear as my ears began to buzz, my throat tightened, and my brain became consumed with one thing – stay safe and do whatever needs to be done to minimize the threat. Make bad decisions if you have to but KEEP MR. BIG MAN HAPPY! Even after the light turned green and I pulled far enough ahead that he could race past me, I still felt myself in high anxiety over the fact that I had caused him distress. I would sooner find fault with MYSELF and MY actions, in the middle of that kind of crisis when my amygdala has been hijacked and I don’t have much capacity for rational thought, than blame him for impatient driving.
That last part is what always surprises me after my nervous system has recovered from an incident like that. That’s why it took me a long time to see myself in the trauma literature that talks primarily about a fight/flight/freeze response. Sure, I wanted to flee in that moment of distress, but this feels different from just fleeing. In order to calm myself down, my first reaction is to calm the abuser (or source of threat) down. And calming that person down often means completely shutting down my own needs, rights and opinions, to the point of assuming I must be at fault and am insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
When I found the research that identified a fourth trauma response (tend-and-befriend), I finally felt seen and could finally begin to name my reactivity as trauma-related and not just something that made me weak. (I could also learn to soothe myself, and to experience my heightened reactivity with more mindfulness and less self-judgment.) Tend-and-befriend is most often seen in women, according to the research. It’s the instinct that causes us to gather the vulnerable around us and to befriend those who will help us survive the threat. The “befriend” part can be a really healthy community-support piece (i.e. gathering other family members to help us protect our children), but the dark side of it is that we also tend to befriend the perpetrator of the threat in order to mitigate the harm. (Some also talk about a “fawn” reaction, but I like the added element of “tend-and-befriend”.)
Sometimes, when that threat continues because you are in a relationship with the person causing the harm, you find yourself in a trauma bond that is very hard to break away from. In a trauma bond, a person develops an attachment system with the person causing harm because that person is also a source of security (i.e. abusers convince victims that they are protecting them from even greater harm, and then gaslight them into believing they’re over-reacting to the harm and can’t survive on their own). Their nervous system is always on high alert because they never know where the threat is coming from or where/when they will be safe, and they lose capacity for rational thought. They cling to the abuser because the world outside of that relationship seems even more terrifying and unpredictable.
There’s another thing that is going on in the mind of someone who has an attachment bond to an abusive person and it has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that you feel when you try to hold two opposing views at the same time (especially when one of those views is tied to your identity). When, for example, you have to hold both the belief that “I am a good person and I make smart decisions” with “I’m choosing to stay in a relationship with an abuser”, the contradiction causes a great deal of stress because it might mean you have to change your view of yourself. In an effort to get rid of the discomfort, your mind begins to rationalize your choice by convincing you that the harm being done is minor and the good far outweighs the harm and maybe you’re just perceiving harm when it’s not really there and… isn’t the abuser a victim too and wouldn’t you be a horrible person if you abandoned a victim?
The longer you stay with a particular choice (even a self-destructive one), the harder your mind has to work to rationalize that choice in order to maintain the view you have of yourself and the harder it is for anyone else to convince you that it’s the wrong choice. To finally come to a conclusion that a choice you made a number of years ago may have caused harm to people (including yourself) is a massive disruption in your sense of self and many of us simply don’t have the emotional and psychological maturity and resources to handle that kind of uncomfortable identity crisis. It’s easier to dig in and heap more and more rationale (and additional bad decisions) on top of the reasons why you made that decision in the first place.
But at some point, you have to be held accountable for being complicit in harm. At some point, you have to come face-to-face with your own shadow. At some point, you have to take that difficult journey into your own psyche to see that you, too, may have become an abuser in your efforts to justify your choices and banish the cognitive dissonance. Or, if you simply can’t take that journey yourself and you escalate the harm you cause to avoid the dissonance, a moral culture may need to dole out consequences for your actions.
I wasn’t sure this was where I was going when I first started to write about Mr. Big Man at the intersection, but it seems to be what’s on my heart. Sometimes we make bad choices because bullies are breathing down our necks and we’re in distress. And sometimes those bad choices lead to even worse choices because we can’t handle thinking of ourselves as people who cause harm and who align ourselves with abusers and we have to justify what we did in the first place. And sometimes that means that we, too, become like Mr. Big Man, sufficiently disconnected from ourselves that we terrorize other people.
The workday was finished and I had just picked up my two daughters – one a toddler and one an infant at the time – from daycare and we were on our way home in the family minivan. I was tired and knew that I still had to find enough energy to make supper, feed the girls, and give them the attention they needed after a day away from me.
There was a train crossing the road, so I stopped at the railway crossing, the second vehicle away from the tracks. Suddenly, a screeching sound caught my attention and I turned to see that the last three cars of the train, still about 50 metres from the road I was on, had come off the tracks and were crashing down to the ground on my side of the tracks. I had only an instant to process what was going on and what was about to happen. The wayward cars were being dragged along by the still-moving train and were in danger of swinging outward to exactly the spot where I sat.
I jammed the van into reverse, but then looked back to see a long line of cars behind me – unless they moved, I had nowhere to go. The railway cars were heading my direction and I was frozen in place, waiting to see if my daughters and I would be crushed by a careening railcar.
Fortunately, the derailed rail cars stayed close enough to the track that none of the vehicles on the road were hit. With my heart pounding, I, and all of the others on the road, turned away from the wreck and found our way onto other roads that would take us home.
Yesterday morning I was waiting for another train at a crossing not far from where the train derailed and I had a flashback to that moment, over twenty years ago, when I didn’t know whether I’d be able to keep my daughters alive.
When the tears started to fill my eyes with the memory, I realized it wasn’t just the train I was thinking about. “This is exactly how LIFE feels right now!” I thought. “We are ALL sitting on the road, watching a derailed train barrel down the tracks and all we can do is sit and watch it come toward us wondering whether we’ll be in the path of destruction.”
That derailed train is so many things right now. It’s the pandemic that none of us can control and nobody knows when/if it will touch our families or circles of beloveds. It’s the jobs being lost and the businesses that may not survive the repeated shutdowns. It’s the bank accounts careening toward empty as a result. It’s the changing climate. It’s the racial injustice and the pain and trauma of BIPOC people and the rising tension because there seems to be no sign of the systemic racism and related deaths coming to an end. It’s the coming U.S. election which is causing so much fear not only because a misogynist bully might win again and continue to wreak havoc, but because there is a very real threat of serious disruption and possible violence as a result of the election outcome. It’s a Supreme Court in the U.S. that is now dangerously tipped against the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the reproductive rights of women.
Many of us, in fact, are at an intersection where multiple derailed trains are coming at us at once and we don’t know which one will wreak the most havoc. For a person of colour in the U.S., for example, or a person with a disability at greater risk because of the pandemic, there are converging trains coming down the track at once.
I don’t write this to be a doomsday prophet or town crier shouting about the end of the world. (I can already imagine the emails I might get from those who want me to post more “positive thoughts” so I don’t “attract” those runaway trains.) I write it to acknowledge that we are in a strange and complex liminal space and none of us has any control over the outcome and in some moments the only thing we can see on the horizon is sure disaster. This is where we are. This is the complexity of the liminal space the world is in right now, and if you are afraid or angry or overwhelmed, you are not alone. And you are not “doing it wrong”. You are human, with real human emotions. And I will never, ever shame you or gaslight you or offer you any spiritual bypassing cliches that would suggest you shouldn’t be having these feelings right now. I’ve been on the road watching that derailed train come toward me and my children – I know how it feels to be powerless in that moment.
That moment isn’t the end of the story, though. I survived it. And my daughters did too. And trains don’t stay forever off the rails. And moments of terror pass. And even if there is destruction, those of us left behind figure out how to pick up the pieces, and we carry on. And we get stronger. And we discover our own courage and resilience and we turn toward each other and we share the stories and admit our fears so that we can help each other survive.
And then one day, more than twenty years later, we sit at another train track, where a train passes us smoothly and we remember that we survived. And we are grateful to still be alive and to be able to continue to parent those little girls who are now adults. And we might cry a little, because it feels like another train is coming at us from another direction, but we remember that we have the capacity to survive and that trains pass. Even the derailed ones.
Here’s what I want to say to you if you’re sitting there, feeling helpless, as the derailed train is coming toward you and your beloveds.
1. Recognize the trauma response. Your body has within it the capacity to respond to moments of threat and stress in what it senses are the right ways to protect you. When the pressure is intense, your amygdala kicks into gear and takes over your brain functioning and nervous system, raising your adrenaline so that you are ready for the flight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend. This quick reactivity serves an important purpose, but it also comes with a cost. For one thing, it makes it very difficult for you to engage the other parts of your brain that are more rational and calm. For another thing, when the trauma from your past is still present in your body, you’ll have a tendency to respond the same way even when the threat isn’t immediate, or isn’t as dangerous as your body senses it to be. That means that, in times of high intensity, especially when multiple trains seem to have become derailed at the same time, you might regularly find yourself with a flooded nervous system and a diminished capacity for calm and rational thought. And sometimes you might even find yourself suffering from adrenal fatigue when your nervous system has been functioning at high alert for too long. Give yourself a break if you’re not able to accomplish much right now or if you seem to be over-reactive to every stimulus. Speak gently to yourself the way you would to a frightened child. Practice soothing yourself with tactile items, gentle touch, or time in nature. Consider seeing a therapist or seek out the medical and/or psychological support you need.
2. Remember the impermanence of every state. It gives me great comfort to recognize that no emotion ever stays forever. It lets me feel even the intense emotions with a little more ease and presence because I know that they will pass. Fear, grief, overwhelm, anger – none of them are sustainable in the long term and so they will all fade away eventually and you will find yourself in other emotional states that are less exhausting. Yes, they may cycle through you again and again, especially in times of stress or tragedy, but you can practice holding them with more mindfulness and awareness, watching them come, holding space for them for a moment, and then watching them leave. Your emotional state does not own you and you can allow whatever shows up to pass through you without becoming overly attached to it.
3. Find outlets that help you release the emotions and the impacts of the trauma. If you need to scream, scream (perhaps in a place where you won’t alarm the neighbours). If you need to cry, cry. If your body feels shaky, let it shake. If you need to laugh until you cry, then do that. If you need to punch something, make sure it’s a pillow and not the face of someone you love. If you need to break something, find your least favourite mug and throw it against a cement wall. Emotions that threaten to overwhelm you need a healthy outlet so that you don’t hurt anyone (including yourself) with them. And trauma that is not physically released from your body has a greater chance of staying locked inside. Sometimes wild dance movements help. Sometimes swinging a hammer or using power tools helps. Sometimes making messy art helps. Sometimes just watching a sad movie and letting your tears flow helps. Emotions that get stuck inside of us will find less healthy ways of showing up later.
4. Find stillness. As I mentioned above, intense emotional states aren’t sustainable, and worry and fretting are among those that we need to let go of when they’re ready to pass. It’s hard to let go of that kind of frenetic energy, though, if we stay in the frenetic space that feeds the worry. Step away from your computer for awhile. Stay off social media one day a week or turn it off at 7 p.m. Don’t check the news first thing when you wake up. Limit the number of conversations you engage in online, especially if there are some that cause you anxiety and discomfort. Unfollow people whose feeds are full of doom and gloom. Pick a comfortable chair in your home that is the no-electronics zone and leave your phone in another room every time you curl up in that chair. Or designate your backyard a no-tech area. Find the places that give you some measure of peace and visit them regularly.
5. Lean into love. Even though we can’t spend as much time in the same physical spaces as the people we love, this is a time when we need connection and community more than ever. This is a time when we need to rely on each other and find the spaces where we can be authentic and vulnerable with people we trust. Lean into that. Reach out to your friends and host Zoom dates. Go for walks in the park together. Send a small gift to someone who’s special to you. Find a way to offer love and that love will come back to you in some way or another. Notice who’s in the most direct line of the oncoming train (i.e. who will be the first to be impacted by the disaster?) and find a way to support them or advocate for them. And if you need mental health support, call a help line or ask around to find a therapist or support group. You are not in this alone. Collectively, we have more capacity to weather derailed trains than we do alone.
6. Know that you are resilient. This too shall pass. You have survived hard things in the past and you will survive hard things in the future. And each hard thing you survive gives you additional resources to help you survive the next one. Trust that you have the strength and resilience to weather this storm. Trust that your emotional muscles will grow under the strain of this new weight. Trust that even those who lose limbs learn to dance again.
Perhaps next year, when we find our way through the rubble of the derailed trains, and we can touch each other again, we’ll lean on each other, we’ll hold up the most wounded, and we’ll do the dance of the wobbly yet resilient.
A few weeks ago, my shoulder started to ache. My right shoulder has become a bit of a barometer for my emotional state. Specifically, it tends to ache when there are trauma memories being triggered by a particular season or event.
Three years ago, I broke this shoulder on a day when my body was trying to process a couple of traumatic events at once. On the afternoon of that day, I’d had a hard conversation with a couple of dear friends with whom some conflict had arisen. I came off a Zoom call feeling tense and anxious, knowing that the conflict hadn’t been fully resolved. Then, only minutes after the call, my former husband, who’d dropped in to pick up my daughter for a quick errand, brought up some abusive behaviour he’d been guilty of during our marriage and – out of the blue – he wanted absolution for it. I wasn’t ready to process the weight of what he suddenly dropped in my lap, or the casualness with which he brought it up, and my body tensed up even more as my fight/flight/freeze reactivity kicked in.
After that, while trying not to reveal the chaos spinning around in my brain, I took my daughters out for a promised restaurant meal. Though I tried to put on a brave front, my body simply couldn’t fully relax. When I got home, I did the only thing I could think to do in the state I was in – I ran the bathtub full of hot water and added Epson salt. Then – because I was fairly certain I’d need to cry in the bathtub – I locked the door and climbed in.
Unfortunately, one of my daughters was going out that evening and needed her makeup from the bathroom. Somewhat resentfully, I stood up and reached for the bathroom door. Suddenly, because the doorknob was really too far to safely reach from the bathtub, my feet slipped out from under me and I slammed to the floor, twisting my outstretched arm in a manner it wasn’t meant to twist. It was broken, in a way and place that’s tricky to heal, and I had to live with pain for about a year after that.
And that’s how trauma and my aching shoulder became so closely intertwined. It was trauma that put my body into a tense state, which I’m certain resulted in the fall. And now it’s trauma that brings the ache back. When it aches, I’m learning to pay attention to what my body might be needing.
At first, I wasn’t sure why it started aching a few weeks ago. I was feeling relaxed and happy after taking some much-needed time for self-care and family-care during the month of August, and I was excited about my upcoming book launch. Trauma was far from my mind.
But then the memories started to flood back. First, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my former husband’s first suicide attempt (which I wrote about in a recent blog post on the Centre for Holding Space website). Then, just a few days later, it was the twentieth anniversary of the day my son Matthew died and was born (in that order).
Just two days later was my book launch. While I was processing all of those memories, I also had to prepare to share my book with the world and do several media interviews about the book.
I chose that book launch date a long time ago, not remembering, at the time, that it would be happening in one of the most difficult weeks of the year for me. Now, when it was about to happen, I was beginning to regret not paying more careful attention to the calendar.
And yet… even as I was struggling to keep my head up when my body wanted to shut down… I started to consider that perhaps this was the PERFECT week to launch a book about holding space. What better time to talk about trauma and grief and overwhelm and boundaries and relationships than in the middle of a week that represents SO MUCH of my learning in those areas?
In fact, those two narratives – the death of my son and the suicide attempts of my former husband – are two of the primary narratives in the book because they shaped me in ways that few other events ever could. They taught me how to survive disruption and chaos. They taught me what it’s like to go through the depths of liminal space. They taught me how to strengthen my boundaries and how to be more clear about my own needs and limitations. They taught me about spiritual bypassing, and about all of the ways that we tend to hijack space instead of hold it. They also taught me about the importance of community.
This book would not exist without those two narratives. It would not exist without the trauma that still holds a place in my body. It would not exist if I hadn’t learned what those two events taught me about resilience and grace and strength and mindfulness.
As I prepared for my book launch, I realized that possibly one of the subconscious reasons why I’d picked that date was because I wanted to write a new memory for my body to hold when next September rolls around. No, my body might never let go of the memory of those traumas, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t hold joy and pride and gratitude simultaneously.
This is one of the greatest survival skills I have learned from the traumas I’ve experienced: After the trauma settles and you have the space to work on healing it, make meaning of the trauma so that you can practice holding it differently. Tell the story of it, again and again, as much as you are able, so that the story takes a new shape in your life and it becomes less and less destructive. Turn it into paintings and dances and songs and blog posts. Mold it into shapes with clay or play doh. Play with it and move with it and teach your body that it can hold it with more lightness and ease. Talk about it in sharing circles and coffee dates with friends. Release it out into the world so that it doesn’t take the shape of shame or resentment in your life.
Your trauma is not the end of the story. In fact, it can be a new beginning. You have the capacity, like an alchemist, to turn it from pain into triumph. You have the capacity to transform it into a gift that you can offer other people who, some day in the future, might experience a similar trauma. You have the capacity to make it into music.
For me, this book marks a milestone in the relationship with my trauma. Like a potter with my hands in the clay, I have worked with those stories again and again, kneading and re-shaping them until they were ready to be offered to the world as gifts. No, that doesn’t mean that my body will forget or that I can stamp “healed” on all of my past wounds, but it means that I can hold it all more lightly than I ever could before, and I can trust that the meaning I’ve found in it all will make its way to those who need it.
This is the beauty and complexity and messiness of being human. We are molded by our trauma, but then we get to turn around and mold that trauma into meaning and gift so that it doesn’t control or imprison us.
Want to learn to reshape your trauma and to hold space for yourself and others in a deeper way? Join us in a few weeks when we begin the next session of the Holding Space Foundation Program.