If I asked one hundred people how they define “trauma,” I might get eighty different answers. One person might talk about their broken leg. Another would talk about physical or sexual abused. A veteran may talk about a war experience. A bitter divorce. The loss of a parent, sibling or child. A beloved pet. It might have happened last week, last year, or fifty years ago. It may be an event another person may not consider traumatic when applied to their life experience. It does not make it any less real. Trauma is subjective and personal.
One trauma in my life that imprinted deep into my psyche was bullying. An event that took place over forty years ago yet for a long time, played out like a full-length movie in my mind and dreams. For many years, it played a role in how I defined my self-worth.
It began with the usual one-mile walk home from my high school. The usual group of kids I tried to ingratiate myself with as a symbol of acceptance and status. It began with a pair of shiny gold bell-bottomed disco style pants my brother Mark had given me. The disco era of Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta. It ended with a physical assault. Fat teasing escalated to an event that would change me for decades.
“Love the gold bell-bottom pants Cuban, don’t quite fit you though. Do you think you’re John Travolta? Can you even sit down without them tearing?
My brother gave me these, I said.
“Yea well, he’s not fat, you are. He should have given you some stretch pants and a bra from Sears to hold up those boobs. Those pants look ridiculous on you. They are about to burst.”
Yea, they are a little tight, but I like them. I said,
“A little? Your fat ass looks like a bag of cats trying to get out. What do you think guys? ” Those pants gotta go Cubes. We can help you with that.”
The grabbing, pulling and tearing began. With each tiny rip, the intensity of the assault escalated. The pants were gone. Torn into shreds. Tossed in the middle of a busy street. I gathered up the pieces. I walked home in my underwear. For decades after that, I looked in the mirror and saw a fit pig who needed a Sears bra. A pig who would never be loved or accepted.
I did not tell a soul. I hid it deep inside where I could tell myself I was over it. I adapted to it. I convinced myself that it was weak and counterproductive to open up the wounds of the past.
The reality was the injury had been open since those terrible moments. It would take decades and a lot of therapy for me to understand that vulnerability to heal trauma is a good thing, not weakness. I realized that even with long-term addiction recovery, trauma was still driving my daily thought process which made me more susceptible to relapse.
While not scientific, I am comfortable stating that lawyers as a profession, have a difficult time in this area. In speaking with many lawyers and law students about addiction and depression issues, it is not uncommon for me to hear about traumatic events that have been rationalized and dismissed.
Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Mental abuse. A few of the types of trauma revealed yet never dealt with or only in a superficial way. An avoidance mechanism to digging deeper. This is something I was great at.
“I’m in therapy, so I am dealing with it.”
I was in therapy but lying to my psychiatrist or leaving out critical facts about events that injured me to the core of my identity. Shame knows no hourly rate. More comfortable to leave things off the couch then face the past. Easier to gauge my trauma by those who appear “strong.” Maybe those who post in social media to “get over it” or “stop ‘whining.” Good for them. They are not you. My guess is that they are less than honest with themselves about the impact of trauma on their lives.
Here is something I did that may help you. I made a list of every single event in my life I could remember that I considered traumatic. Nothing was too small or too big. I read it to my therapist. It was the first step. Acknowledging the trauma. It starts there. Give it a try. There is no doubt in my mind that allowing ourselves vulnerability in looking at our past or ongoing trauma is a gatekeeper to wellness and something that has helped me stay sober and deal with depression.