Trauma: A Frame Of Reference
Trigger warning: the following post has mentions of sexual assault.
“The big “Aha!’ moment is that the trauma never goes away.” — Viola Davis
Stories need context, background. The present moment makes more sense with a frame of reference linking back to the past.
Our sense of self, our actions, and behaviors often make more sense when we try to understand events of our past. Many psychological theories are based on the idea that many mental health issues stem from events, especially traumatic events, in our childhoods.
To understand — and to explain my own mental health issues to others—a brief look at certain events in my childhood is helpful.
Unlike a book, a blog is published in bits and pieces. References are made. Stories told. When reading a book, it’s easy enough to flip back to refresh the memory. Blog posts either require an explanation every time I mention something, which can be tedious to regular readers, or a post can link back to another post or page where the reader can find where I’ve already written about the topic.
My goal for this blog is to explore some of these traumatic issues in a more detailed way. I believe we are meant to share our stories with each other. We are all a part of the human experience even if our individual experiences are different. Telling and listening to each other’s stories can expand our minds, open our hearts, and, sometimes, we discover others with similar stories and realize that we are not alone in our experience.
Since this is a blog, and not a book, I need a place to link back to, for readers who may need to refresh their memories or for new readers to discover the basic stories of the various traumatic events that have shaped my life. And since this is a blog, and not a book, posts may jump from topic to topic more than typically happens in a book. I’m still learning to understand myself, to understand how the trauma of my childhood shaped me, and these blog posts won’t be written and then organized into a cohesive whole like would be done with a book. This is more organic. Stream of conciousness. Making connections.
A brief(-ish), not-too-emotional telling of the different traumas might be a good place to start. It sets up the narrative that will be scattered throughout this blog (I say scattered, because not every post will be about trauma or tragedy; I like to write about a variety of things). From a practical blogging perspective, this is almost an FAQ page, a page to point readers back to for information without having to describe events every time they’re mentioned in a post.
This is also a writing challenge for me: writing about events in a brief, matter-of-fact way.
“Just the facts, ma’am.” (words attributed to Sgt. Joe Friday, though never spoken by him).
Do I recall the exact dates? No. The best I can recall is that I was ten or eleven when I was first molested. I remember the first time. I remember many specific instances. There comes a point where most of the memories of being molested blend together making it tough to describe details of each separate incident. The molestation ended before my father’s heart-surgery, which was just before I turned thirteen.
Who: A family friend. He was about five years older than I.
Everything stopped after I told my mom though my mom and his remained friends. I saw him regularly (at his house or ours, when our mom’s visited) until I was about fifteen. I saw him a few times while shopping, though we never spoke—I tried to “hide” before he saw me, though, I suppose he may have seen me before I saw him. In my early 20s, I was working in retail, and I had to ring up his purchase. We exchanged a few words. I’ve not seen him since.
Age: 14 years, one week.
Exactly one week after my fourteenth birthday, my father died after a 10 month battle with a very aggressive, usually fatal, cancerous brain tumor. He was 55.
I was adopted at birth. For reference: “mother”, “father”, “parent(s)”, all refer to my adoptive parents. To differentiate, I use “birth mother/father” or “biological mother/father/parent(s)”
When I was five, my parents adopted another child, a boy, David. Unlike me, David was an in-family adoption: David’s biological mother was my dad’s niece.
My brother and I knew of our adoptions from an early age. Mom often told us a bedtime story about a couple who couldn’t have children of their own so they adopted children. The ending moral was: adopted children are special because someone wants them.
Until they don’t.
David’s story is a book of its own. People often described him as “David the devil”, “a demon”, “problematic”, “a terror”; today, they’d probably call him a “thug”, “delinquent”, “monster”.
He had discipline issues. He was wild. He was prone to outbursts of intense anger. He was almost eight years old the first time they arrested him for shoplifting. He stole things from his classmates. When he was in second grade, he punched his pregnant teacher in the stomach.
After dad died, mom decided that she couldn’t handle David. She contacted my dad’s niece and sent him back to live with her. This is a rather simple version of the story. The takeaway here is that I quickly learned that the adopted children “were wanted” line of thinking was, apparently, questionable. And it made me realize my mom could send me back at any moment. Unlike David, I was not adopted in-family. Exactly where I might be sent back to was a scary unknown. My mother never threatened to send me away. Though once she learned that it was something that scared me, she quickly figured out how to leverage my fear and turn it into terror or guilt.
In my twenty-first year, I was raped.
A few months earlier, the three-year relationship I had been in ended. I was young, single, sexually active. One night I went to one of the gay bars in town. There were three, maybe four, at that particular time. I went alone.
Yes, I was looking for a sexual partner.
The bar was located on the western edge of the downtown area, an area that was sparsely populated, just some overgrown fields, a warehouse or two, and abandoned structures, empty dirt lots. There were two bars there, a couple of hundred yards apart. There was no paved parking lot, only a big, empty dirt lot in front, with a few smaller dirt lots dotted around the area. I’d arrived later than I wanted, so I had to park in a smaller lot off to the side, several hundred yards away from the main lot. The area was not lit well.
The time in the bar was uneventful. I had a few drinks, chatted with a few men. Because I arrived later than I planned, I was surprised when “last call” was announced. I finished my drink and left the bar.
As I walked through the main lot, I heard footsteps behind me. I turned, saw a man who looked to be a few years older than I. I smiled, I think, and turned away, focused on the lumpy dirt I was walking on. In the poor light, and having had a couple of drinks, falling was a possibility. I gave no thought to the man walking behind me. I don’t think it even occurred to me that he could be a mugger, much less a rapist. It was 1987. Who’d heard of men getting raped? So why would I give the man behind me a second thought?
When I got to my car, there was no other car around. The man who’d been following me grabbed me as I was opening my car door. He held a knife to the side of my neck. He stuffed a pair of underwear in my mouth. He raped me and left after nicking my neck with his knife and a warning not to get up quickly.
He didn’t need to worry. I was in too much pain to get up.
When I got home, I started the shower and undressed. Until I took off my pants and underwear, I had no idea how much I was bleeding from a wound not caused by a knife.
I was too ashamed and embarrassed to go to the hospital or the police.
A decade of trauma.
Being molested, dad’s death, and David’s being sent away all happened in a short period of time (three to four years); the rape didn’t happen until later, until I was twenty-one. We imagine ourselves as all-grown-up when we are twenty-one. It’s not until we’re older that we realize that we’re only just emerging from childhood when we’re twenty-one.
I exclude, on this page, any talk of my mother’s abusiveness. I was 51 when she died, and the verbal abuse continued practically until her last breath. It’s too complex to summarize briefly, but I should mention it as it also had a long-term impact.
These, then, are the big traumatic events of my youth.
These, then, are the events that shaped my adulthood.
I think I remember encountering all these across your past writings – seeing them as a list is, of course, stark but I know some of the perspective and adjustment you are making around them that makes you much more than just this list
These are hard things to share with the “public.” I think that is courageous and we, your faithful readers, support you. Write on, John, write on.