I woke up the morning after feeling irritated, a clutching pain behind my eyes. Alert, but not wanting to do anything. There it was, that vague feeling of dis-ease, a familiar disconnection.
It’s difficult to admit how personally triggered I was by Dylan Farrow’s open letter in The New York Times. I would rather ignore it, throw myself into work or blame the feeling on something else— maybe I’m mad at my boyfriend. Maybe it’s my body; maybe I could make the way I’m feeling about the way I look— but that’s not the truth. I know what’s wrong and— like Farrow’s story itself, it’s worth saying out loud.
It was less Farrow’s letter than it was people’s reactions that had upset me. “Friends” on Facebook jumped to Woody Allen’s defense, many posting that awful piece on Daily Beast as if it were some kind of counterpoint. Yeah, it’s Facebook, I know I shouldn’t care. But my connections to people, however they come, are important. And besides, some of these people were friends in real life, individuals that I used to trust and respect. That trust and respect was gone.
Reading through comments, I found myself sickened. I mean, if it’s your position that you don’t know what happened, why say anything at all? Why re-enforce the message to survivors that we won’t be believed? That we’re making it up and anyways, who cares?
This is exactly what perpetrators do, I thought to myself. This is exactly what makes our traumas traumatic.
I was never a victim of sexual abuse, but I did grow up in an abusive home, and experienced what experts would describe as repeated or cumulative trauma. I was exposed to terrorizing situations as a child. My home-life was unpredictable, and my physical and emotional needs were not predictably met. I learned to survive in a perilous environment. Like most victims of trauma, I mal-adapted.
One of the most difficult parts of surviving a trauma is seeing people with the power to do something do nothing. People around you know that bad things are happening and yet they ignore it. Worse, they deny it. They pretend it’s not true. I used to have dreams, when I was a kid, that I was screaming and screaming and screaming and no sound was coming out. These dreams continued well into adulthood. Mornings after, I’d wake up with a crushing, inexplicable sense of loss.
What was lost, I have come to understand, was my feeling of belonging. My connection to community. My respect for humanity, including my own.
Many years in recovery, I’ve learned how the choices I’ve made in my lifetime are related to my trauma, evidence of a characteristic propensity to re-expose myself as if this time I might master new versions of my earlier pain; relationship violence, substance abuse, compulsivity, promiscuity, sex work, excessiveness in all respects, recklessness in every way imaginable— I’ve been there, done that, bought the hair shirt emblazoned with self-loathing. Before this, as a child, I had tried my best to be perfect. To control the uncontrollable, I’d tried following the rules— making myself small and doing everything right— but following the rules proved impossible. The game was rigged. Like most victims of trauma, I grew to mistrust authority. Adults were unsafe. They were violent and mean, or else they turned a blind eye. A failure at earning my mother’s protection, I was left to rescue myself. I grew up quick and came to believe I could take care of myself, thank you very much. I didn’t need your help— not that you were offering.
Now in my thirties, I’ve spent most of my life intent on surviving, on meeting my basic needs in hostile environments— environments that I’ve put myself in, mind you— situations all the more hostile for someone with as immature a system of psychological defenses as mine. People who’ve experienced trauma— especially those of us with maladaptive personalities, people who don’t know better but to make compulsively bad choices, and who exhibit anti-social behaviors and clinging false beliefs, much of which is a consequence of our traumas— have a hard time asking for help. When we do, we are viewed unsympathetically by a society already unwilling to be burdened by the truth of our experiences. For a survivor of trauma, you might say this struggle is a lifetime achievement. Just being alive is the reward.
Trauma prevents a person from forming a fundamental belief in one’s own goodness, and a basic sense of trust. According to Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, a victim of trauma develops “a sense of alienation, of disconnection [that] pervades every relationship, from the most intimate familial bonds to the most abstract affiliations of community and religion.” Thanks to recovery, I feel this way less often. When I do feel it, it’s less acute. Experts say these feelings never entirely go away.
These feelings never go away, but people can and do recovery. Like a struggle with addiction, we learn to take it one day at a time. Recovery relies on a survivor restoring our connection to our community, which begins by telling our truth. When private issues are acknowledged publicly, and dealt with as public concerns, we have an opportunity to see how personal experiences are, oftentimes, indicative of systemic abuses. Herman argues how experiences of rape and combat, for example, are paradigmatic forms of trauma for women and men, respectively— complementary social rites of initiation into the coercive violence at the foundation of adult society.
“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator, says Herman, “All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
Being triggered sucks. It’s embarrassing to admit it. To label myself a victim feels like I’m asking for pity. It feels like I’m inviting criticism— and, the sad truth is that I am. No one wants to hear about the bad stuff. That’s the message I’ve gotten all my life, and one of the greatest challenges of being a survivor. We learn to keep it to ourselves. And then we learn this doesn’t work— not for the individual, and not for the greater good.