The Labels We Give Our Trauma
[content warning: child abuse, sexual violence]
When I was in sixth grade, my religion teacher, Sister Pam, a young light-skinned Black nun in our parish, talked to us about how to behave like good Catholics.
The night before, I had done something to anger my dad and got whipped by the belt. It didn’t take much to anger him as he was notorious for his short temper. To this day, I cannot remember what offense I committed, but I’ll never forget the bright red welts left on my thighs. I happened to be wearing sweatpants that day, not jeans, so each slap of leather stung a bit more than usual.
At school the next day, I wore the uniform slacks instead of the skirt. I was planning to talk to Sister Pam after class. I was planning to show her the welts on my legs that were still there from the night before. I wanted to ask her if what I had gone through was child abuse. I trusted her. Likely because she was the only adult of color in the whole school. Surely, she would be on my side.
She had the class sit on a rug in the corner of the classroom to teach us what we needed to know in order to be the children of God we have been called to be. I had a hard time focusing on what she was saying. The pain of my thighs distracted me. Sitting on the rug just made it worse. I really didn’t hear anything she said except for this:
“Now, if you did something bad, there’s nothing wrong with a few hits from the belt.”
How did she know??
And immediately, the Catholic programming of guilt set in.
(*side note: I have a complex relationship with Catholicism wherein I am still practicing but am deeply critical of the Church. More on that in another post!)
I thought to myself, Oh, man, I must have really been bad! (Even though the next day, after the “incident”, I couldn’t remember what offense I committed!) But I guess I deserved it. That’s what Sister Pam was saying: I deserved it. I need to behave better. But my thighs hurt so much. Is this really just punishment for what I did? Even though I can’t remember what I did? I guess so.
But deep down, I knew the truth. The offense did not warrant that punishment.
I felt betrayed by Sister Pam, though I couldn’t explain why. I ended up not speaking with her about what happened. I didn’t want to feel like I was blowing things out of proportion. I didn’t want to create a problem where there wasn’t one.
After sixth grade was over, we moved away. I never saw her again.
Two weeks before I graduated from college, I was raped by a casual friend. Deep down, I knew that this was some kind of trauma. Though, truth be told, I hesitated to call it that. I hesitated to call it rape.
No, no, I thought. That’s not what happened to me. No. No, rape happens in a dark alley in a seedy part of town. Rape happens at knife point, at gunpoint. Rape happens when a stranger attacks you. When you wear the wrong clothes. Not with someone you know. Rape happens to someone else. Not me.
These were the messages I received about rape during the 80s and 90s. How far have we come since then?
It took a long time for me to name it. For me to speak about it.
What’s interesting is that the previous year, I was an officer in my sorority. I was the fraternity educator, which meant I created and curated programming to help our members grow and evolve. One of my big projects was education around sexual assault and rape. Little did I know that I’d be one of those statistics a year later. Little did I know that I would experience the cliches that all the videos and literature described.
No one believed me (“He wouldn’t do that. He’s not an animal.”). People tried to sweep it under the rug (“You’re graduating. Just leave this place and start a new life!”). A mutual friend called it a “lover’s quarrel”.
Gaslighting was on full blast. Never mind my own interior doubts.
And yet I still knew that I just experienced trauma.
I looked for proof. For evidence. So that I wouldn’t lose my mind. I researched signs of trauma — what was the experience like during the event? (Out of body experience.) What about the aftereffects? (Damaging coping mechanisms like numbing out on alcohol or drugs.) Are you sure? I asked myself.
Even though my conscious mind was still in denial that I had been raped (I kept calling it sexual assault to try to minimize it. Rape felt like an intense word. Still does.), I still sought therapy. I knew that I had to do *something* that felt like healing.
But what about the experiences of trauma that don’t feel like trauma-with-a-capital-T?
Too many folks of color, women in particular, are reluctant to label our experiences with racism and sexism as trauma.
Others have had it worse than me. No, really it wasn’t so bad. I’m here now, right? I survived. That experience happened to my parents/grandparents/ancestors. Not me. I’m okay. If I call it trauma, that means I have to go to therapy. Our people don’t do therapy. Nothing happened to me. It was just some name calling.
So what happens? We don’t do anything to heal. Instead, we unknowingly and knowingly carry our traumas everywhere we go. Unchecked baggage weighing us down while we walk through our lives, struggling just to stay above water.
We’ve gotten so used to the pain that we believe this is how life is supposed to be.
Until more “little t” traumas build up over time and then a huge reckoning explodes. It can look like an actual explosion of emotion that seems to come out of nowhere. It can look like autoimmune disease or some other ailment in the body. It can look like broken relationship after broken relationship.
What would it look like if we recognized and acknowledged the deep wounds that we carry? What would it look like if we embarked on the work of deep healing? What might be possible? How different would our lives be? How much lighter and brighter? How much ease? How much JOY?
For a long time, I worked on trying to heal the trauma from my rape. It took a really long time. It took naming it. Acknowledging it. Owning it. And then working on my own self-worth and self-love before I could release it. There were a lot of different things I did aside from talk therapy… so many modalities that came from various traditions across time and space. The good thing was that I was also healing every other trauma I experienced in my life-known and unknown-including the belt whippings I got as a kid.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that my healing is complete. There are infinite layers. This shit goes deep. And just when you think you’re done (is that you talking, Ego?), there’s another layer to look at, heal, and release. I’m STILL working through shit. And I probably will be for the rest of my life. BUT I am living a life that feels amazing and full of infinite possibility!
And the bonus benefit? The people around you, especially the people you love, also benefit from your healing. You are the example they follow. The brightest light is the one that leads the way. What better inspiration to keep you moving on that healing path?
This is part of the Maverick Monday series, where I talk about healing trauma (micro and macro) through the lens of a woman writer of color (that’s me!). Each week, I’ll share a personal story from my healing journey in the hopes that others will find comfort in knowing that they are not alone. I hope that by doing this, you can see that YES! healing-true, lasting, deep healing — — IS possible and that you can thrive in your life, living as your most authentic self without shrinking from the world. And I can help YOU get there! From my membership community to Heal to Power, a healing program for WOCs, to one-on-one coaching, you’ll find what’s right for you! https://suryagian.com/
Originally published at https://www.suryagian.com on July 19, 2021.