You know the Buddhist koan – something like “if a tree falls in the woods and there’s nobody around to hear it, did it actually make any sound?”
There is an everyday-life adaptation for that – “if somebody hurt you and you didn’t recognize it at the time, did they actually hurt you?”
The answer to both is probably “yes”, and I’m even more sure about the second one.
I keep coming back to this, in my head. One skill I’ve acquired and honed is the ability to put on a good mask when I need to. This is not the narcissistic/psychopathic type of mask, where I shamelessly lure people in to secure my own security. Rather, this is a matter of attempting to fit in, in order to function and get along in the world.
Sometimes this mask takes on an emotion theme, in which the emotions themselves can be masked and set aside, for the purposes of being able to focus on the people or tasks in front of me with my full presence, even if I’ve had an otherwise horrible day.
Most people can do this, to an extent. Some are better than others. I’m not sure how I measure up; all I can say is that I do my best.
However, sometimes I’m good enough at this masking bit that at times, I don’t even realize I’m feeling certain emotions. Someone may say or do something, to which my response is blunted and watered down. It might even fly under the radar altogether.
I rationalize it away, scolding myself for overreacting, briefly and reflexively, convince myself that it wasn’t that big a deal in the first place, and I move on. And I’m great at convincing myself. I’m also great at looking ahead and moving on.
What has truly happened in those instances, however, is that I’ve just successfully gaslit and deceived myself. I’ve just said no to myself when I should’ve said yes, abandoned myself when I should’ve shown up.
The healing process is uncomfortable. It uncovers all sorts of internal bruises and scars you never realized were there in the first place. Like the small child who falls down and skins his or her knee, but only starts to cry after they realize they’re bleeding a little.
And sometimes, the bleeding itself is internal. Some argue that that’s the worst kind of trauma – the invisible, the trauma you don’t see. Sometimes, the bearer doesn’t realize it exists.
That would be me…
…except that I’m currently (still) undergoing a discovery process, in which I’m beginning to realize the full extent of the trauma I’ve sustained. It’s hitting slowly and heavily, like a freight train in slow motion.
My trauma is not one distinct event, nor a series of them, where it’s unmistakably clear that something unacceptable happened, and the correct responsive action is just as clear. My trauma did not call for police reports or restraining to be filed, an arrest to be made, nor any other disciplinary action taken.
Rather, every trauma I’ve sustained in this relationship is like a micro-trauma, almost like a “death of a thousand paper cuts”. It’s the trail of wrappers and dishes left on the counter for me to pick up. It’s the “oh by the way, we have to make a stop on the way home from work”, just as we’re climbing into the vehicle to leave the workplace and go home. It’s the refusal to engage in the other half of any normal healthy human conversation. It’s the refusal to change behaviors that should be unspokenly basic to any functional adult. It’s the dumping of clothing piles in my normal bedroom walking path so that I cannot access my closets. It’s the boldfaced lies or lies by omission that get exposed months or years later. It’s the complete disregard for any of my wishes, desires, ideas, preferences, opinions, and so on, without even the simple respect of voicing the disagreement and giving me the opportunity to respond.
Respectively (referring to the above), I was sent the message that I was merely a maid, a chauffeur, nonexistent and not worth talking to, not worth making efforts for, unintelligent/incompetent and unworthy of consideration, unintelligent enough that I would not discover such lies, and utterly nonexistent again.
This begins to beg the question: if you’re being constantly reminded that your very existence is immaterial, your presence is so non-valued that it’s almost a nuisance, your entire worth is handmaid and chauffeur, and they don’t bother to entertain the thought of making the slightest effort to engage with you or consider you or function in a relationship with you, and you absolutely Matter Not to them…
…is that micro-trauma anymore, just because no physical bruises, lacerations, or broken bones have occurred?
Or, is the denial of any value to your very existence and humanity actually more of a subtle, systematic pattern of macro-trauma, especially when these daily occurrences have been added up over the course of decades?
Because he has never hit me (he wouldn’t dare; it’s actually a socioeconomic thing for him; only lower-income people beat their spouses, after all), nor has he called me any names or said/done anything overt, it’s easy to overlook the damage inflicted and the trauma sustained. It’s easy to undervalue its significance and true impact.
Especially when you’re busy trying to be the engine that drives the household and business, in terms of “let’s make sure X gets done” or “let’s make sure to take care of Y this week”. And you’re also trying to figure out what they could possibly be concealing under their own stoic mask, that you probably need to be aware of, but they’re not budging.
That’s a lot of mental energy expenditure. And when you’re just trying to slay your to-do list for the day, you don’t always have a lot of time to pause and ask yourself just how much their dumping their belongings in your walking path invalidated your existence. It would be a fair question to ask, of course, but most of us have been shamed out of doing so for fear that we may be labeled by society (or our loved ones) as “oversensitive”, “overreacting”, or “causing drama”.
I’m currently in the process of exiting this dark tunnel and all of its demons. But it’s not as easy as passing through a door with an Exit sign; it truly is a process, and a wobbly one at that. Sometimes I do get a glimpse of just how much it has hurt to be systematically marginalized, sidelined, controlled, invalidated, dismissed, disregarded, lied to, alienated, abandoned, factored out, and shut out. And lest I forget, the more recent discoveries themselves have been traumatic. The damage has been cumulative, and now that I’m in the process of self-liberation, the emotions are starting to percolate a little more.
Sometimes, even in the company of others (loved ones), my own emotional mask slips and tears fall. When this happens, sometimes I feel self-conscious and even occasionally a little ridiculous.
It’s at times like these, in the midst of wondering what the hell happened and what the hell is going on, I have to remind myself (often, for now) that I have indeed sustained trauma. I live with one foot still inside the causative environment and one foot outside. Which means that the trauma is still occurring, but on a much more limited basis due to lack of exposure and opportunity. I minimize both, but the exit process is not complete yet. And even once it is, I’ll be a newly-free survivor.
What happens to newly-freed trauma survivors? They’re often volatile. Emotions arise and cycle, unpredictably. Thoughts race. Sleep and appetite are often disturbed. Trust is hard, and so is openness. Vulnerability is nearly impossible. The system defenses recoil and stay there, ready to pounce at the slightest hint of a repeat of the trauma. Tears may even form at surprising times, in surprising situations, to surprising triggers.
It’s essentially a form of PTSD, when you didn’t even know anything traumatic had happened to you in the first place.
All of these have happened to me, most within the last few days. I remember breaking down just a couple days ago. The tears formed, against my will, and worse yet, my face scrunched up. In front of two people. Waiting for my voice to steady, I simply confessed that most of the time, my emotional mask is pretty solid, I feel relatively stable, and my eyes don’t betray me. However, at times, the mask slips and I realize just how much I have been–and am still going–through, and it can be too much, overwhelming.
At the top of my to-do list for this must be to be patient with myself. Said list proceeds as follows: To be honest with myself. Communicate with loved ones, being honest and open with them, too. Spend time only around those who don’t cause me pain or bring me down. Lean on them gently as needed. Let myself feel the various emotions as they surface, for they’re valid as they are; they’re all part of the process, and as such, they must all be properly processed. Know my limits, and don’t attempt heroic efforts to surpass them for at least a little while. Give myself plenty of downtime, alone time, meditative time, creative time.
That, dear ones, is how I’m going to make it through.
In the meantime, while all of this is still new to me, I have to resist my urge to deny what I’ve said here and write it off as melodramatic, because it isn’t; it’s my reality.
And acceptance is always the first step. ❤