Who Am I?

Trauma – What’s in a Word?

Posted: May 20th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Comments Off on Trauma – What’s in a Word?

I know I’ve only been posting intermittently since 2012. There’s been a slight uptick in the frequency of my posts since I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2016, but I still haven’t published thoughts as frequently as I did for some years. I’ve also been commenting less on other blogs during that same time period. The reasons are both complicated and ones I can’t really claim to fully understand myself.

I’ve always been more bemused than anything else that some people seem drawn to my words. I’ve been equally bemused by the number of different people over the years, most recently including my therapist, who have told me in all seriousness that I should write a book. Every person has envisioned a different book I should write, which makes it even stranger to me. I can’t even explain why I’ve never felt a desire to seek any form of publication. It’s not like the process of being a writer is somehow foreign to me. Both my parents as well as other family members and family friends have been published in a variety of contexts. One of my good childhood memories is attending a massive American Booksellers Association convention in Atlanta in the 1970s at which my parents had a booth.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. One of my mother’s books began as her first Master’s thesis. She didn’t finish that degree, but self-published the thesis as a book later. (My parents had their own small press publishing company and book store for a few years when I was a child.) Later, she updated and expanded the book and the revised version was published by a university press. I don’t recall the details of its republication, but I believe it may have been after she had completed her Master’s in Art Therapy. I know the book was used in some classes around the country. It’s an insightful book in many ways.

The title of my mother’s book is Just This Side of Madness: Creativity and the Drive to Create. I think of the different writers and other creative people, familial and otherwise, that inhabit my childhood memories and I find little reason to dispute the thesis developed in the book, though it’s been many years now since I last read it. Those truths shaped one of many ways my childhood was … challenging.

I do not deny my own creative drive. It’s present and strong. And that creative energy and will form part of the reason I’ve been so successful in my career. Whether it’s writing an end-user application or the sort of deeper, less visible IT design work I do these days, on a very basic level I have to envision something which does not currently exist and work out the means to bring it into reality. That’s the part of my work I enjoy; the rest is often drudgery.

I mostly think in words. I don’t remember a time when I could not read. I can’t really even remember a time I didn’t read on an adult level, which is odd in a way I’ve never been able to describe. I read and could comprehend the denotations of the words, but I lacked the experience and more developed, nuanced understanding of an adult. In many ways, my writing is a window into my mind. It reveals my thoughts at a particular time in a particular context.

When I began to  be so overwhelmed that it robbed me to some extent of my words, that was at once an expression of my inner turmoil and an agent of that same turmoil. It’s not only my public writing that slowed. Outside the context of work, I began struggling to write at all. My thoughts were chaotic which meant my words, which have flowed my entire life, were increasingly difficult to hold.

My thoughts are my words and my words are my thoughts. As I struggle to write, so I struggle to think clearly.

Some words are harder and more slippery than others. Trauma seems to be such a word.

My childhood and early adult life were challenging. On a cognitive level, that truth has always been undeniable. However much I may have minimized or dismissed my experience, the reactions of other people when I revealed even small snippets have always shredded those attempts on my part. One problem, though, is the cognitive part of my brain is not where the effects of those experiences are mostly stored. In fact, they are hardly there at all. I’ve always struggled to think of them in any vaguely coherent way.

A family member recently described their experience of recently discovering gaps and holes in their memories. They found it distressing on something of an existential level and asked questions I found intriguing, “If I’m not the sum of my memories then what am I? And if I am that sum, but parts of me can vanish, what then?”

It’s not so much that I sought answers to those questions, it’s the premise and experience of life that allowed them to be asked which caught my attention. There’s no point in my life when it would have even occurred to me to ask them. My memories and associated experiences, especially throughout childhood, are defined more by their isolation from each other than by any sense of connection. The gaps and holes in my memory combined with the jumbled nature of so many of the ones I do have together feel more like the shards of a shattered mirror in the fragments of which I can see pieces of my reflection.

The gaps and holes even have different textures to me. In some memories I’m aware that there are people and things present somewhere that are absent from the memory. Other memories are fuzzy and almost staticky with elements fading in and out. Others are jumbled and chaotic. They are hard to piece together and decipher. There are some where I have tiny pieces and I even know they created internalized negative reactions that sometimes went on for years, but I can’t quite put things together. It’s like it’s a flicker at the edge of my vision. And then there are places that are just … gone, even the shards are missing from my pile of fragments.

Mostly I’m the ‘me’ experiencing this moment. I have some sense of continuity, of a shared life, with past versions of ‘me’, though the farther back in the past I go, the more distant and different that ‘me’ becomes from my current experience. My past created the circumstances in which I currently exist, so in many ways it shapes and forms me, but the sum of my memories? No, that requires a more linear and ordered collection of memories than I’ve ever had available.

My diagnosis was the key that is gradually unlocking my experience. Autism explained so much about my life that had never made sense before, whichever way I had viewed it or tried to fit things together. But as I peel back those layers, they’ve been exposing the things that get left behind, that aren’t explained, at least not in whole, by autism. And I have a lot of those.

Many of those things, it seems, are better explained by my experience and reaction to complex trauma, as colored and shaped through the lens of my autistic experience. That recognition has been a long, slow process. I can’t explain why, but in many ways it’s been much more of a struggle than internalizing and processing my autistic experience.

My therapist has other people she wants me see and things she wants me to try. I’ll tackle them and do my best. The people I love need me to be a healthier, better person. Everyone keeps telling me I should do things for myself because those things help me, and I guess I understand their point. But my own needs, whatever they may be, do not give me the drive, focus, and motivation I require right now. The needs of those who depend on me do.

Trauma is a hard word. It doesn’t let you hide.

But it’s harder for me to hide these days anyway. I’m pretty certain I still feel a lot less (or at least identify fewer feelings, which is similar) than most people. But by my standards, my feelings are nearer the surface, more accessible, and more raw than they’ve been most of my life. And it’s not the things I feel in the moment that are often overwhelming. Time and again, feelings that are unrelated or out of proportion to anything in the present moment well up and threaten to overwhelm me. My memories of the things that happen when that’s the case are, at best, jumbled and chaotic. They are similar in texture and feeling to so many of my childhood memories.

I believe that’s similar in some ways to the experience sometimes described as being ‘triggered’. In my case, no visual experiences accompany the experience as you often find described with PTSD and as I’ve witnessed personally with different family members over the course of my life. But I feel as I did in those past situations, without actually remembering any situation, and it effects me in every way as though my emotions and body were experiencing it again.

In many ways, my body has never left its past experience behind. I find my muscles are often tense and prepared, so much so that things will sometimes hurt with no explanation. At the same time, my interoception is so poor, I nearly died last year. And while I thought of myself as “calm and relaxed” my whole life and had taught myself a presentation that created something of that impression, I’ve gradually become aware that my default state is not just ‘anxiety’ but outright fear. My body lives in a state expecting the worst at any moment. If my interoception were better, I’m beginning to wonder how often I would be paralyzed by a form of panic attack.

I’m surprised each day by how hard the present situation in my country is for me to bear. It hasn’t gotten significantly better since the election. And I did not expect that to happen nor does it make any rational sense at all. I wasn’t surprised by the election results as so many others were. I have relatively few delusions about our country and the campaign process had long stripped any I might have retained. I’m also an older white male. I’m in just about as ‘safe’ a demographic as one can be in our country today, though being autistic makes me less safe if things do get as bad as they could. Still, I’m not really visibly autistic, so even the worst case risk is not that great. I expected my role would be to speak, vote, donate, and support those at greater risk than me.

Instead, the callous disregard for the humanity of others, the mocking of disabled people, the sexual assault even of children, and the recognition that so many people were at least okay with all that and more … created a reaction I can’t really describe. I was already struggling with my thoughts and that became more challenging. Emotions well up from nowhere, even in completely neutral and relatively emotion free contexts. And my ability to both write and read for pleasure withered further than they ever have in my life. I have no explanation for my reaction. It makes no sense and I’m aware it makes no sense. Nevertheless, I live with the experience of it every day and I have no true idea why.

Trauma is a painful word. It hurts to live and breathe at times.

Many of the things I read about trauma describe restoring a person to the healthier version of themselves they were before. It’s about integrating the experiences into the narrative of their lives. But what if there’s no ‘before’? I’m probably the closest I’ve been to ‘healthy and integrated’ in my whole life today. I was handed the tiles of a shattered mosaic from the outset with no idea what the picture should even look like.

I’m writing less because words are a struggle right now. They often have been when I speak, but rarely when I write.

I need to find my words. It seems increasingly likely that trauma is the word within which they are hidden.

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