Sep 15, 2021
12 mins read
Trauma is almost always spoken of as something in our past - often our distant past. Oh trauma! Too bad, so sad, we each have one or two (at least), and now it's time to live with the aftermath and heal as best we can. But at least it's all behind us, yes?
Google the topic - and you'll see.
But the truth is you have friends and loved ones undergoing horrors right now.
If this makes you feel itchy, or powerless, or nervous or upset - well, perhaps it should.
One of the worst aspects of my eleven-day medical ordeal (August 31st through September 10th of this year) was how quickly I began to know in my Knowing Place my brain was being broken. Probably about day three. I was in absolute agonies and even as I did the best I could - Yes, I advocated for myself! Yes, I spoke up for my needs! Yes, I called my surgeon - many times! - I knew the hardest thing wouldn't be surviving and physically recovering from the horrible, black mystery spiraling up from my guts:
The hardest thing would be living with what was happening to me. I could feel it changing me. And I couldn't stop it.
The hardest thing would be coping with the memories of crying out for help, and being denied. Of knowing something was very wrong, and not being heard. On day three and for eight days after, every moment I was lucid I knew this ordeal was costing my mind; my brain was being halved. There is no better description.
Some people assisted me. Some people neglected me; the worst of them laughed. In the moments I could I wrote things down, and each time I surfaced, I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I could feel myself hurtling towards and through an experience no one should have to endure. I knew it "wasn't fair" but I also have always known life isn't fair, and in a very terrible sense I knew my time had come.
It was horrific. Just horrific.
On September 10th after the hardest fight in my life, I was finally heard, and helped, and my agonies ceased. Four days later I am recovering physically. I have some peace and my body is blissfully free from pain.
So here is what I want to share - while these memories are still so very fresh. I hope more than anything that you can help your loved ones - or even casual strangers - by reading. Now everyone is different and may need different forms of care and support - but I feel pretty confident a few of you could use a brush-up.
If you suspect someone is undergoing a traumatic ordeal:
Tell them you are there; show them you are listening.
After the waves of pain, when through heavy-hitting drugs the agonies would subside, I would grasp my phone and post, or read. Seeing all the Likes, the hearts, the comments, the loving words - even when I couldn't focus on the names - helped me more than I would have guessed. This ordeal really put a place to me for social media. My friends' comments and expressions of love did not solve my problems but I knew on some level that I was not alone - and I knew people cared. This gave me some comfort while I was in the dark.
Don't "silver lining" their ordeal.
I realize that watching your loved one suffer is a horrible experience. It feels like if you say something soothing - if you offer a little comfort, a little perspective from calmer seas - you may ease their pain. One one level this makes sense.
The problem is, this type of well-meaning interjection is more likely to hurt, than to help. Telling someone who is suffering that it could be worse, sharing your opinion that it's "part of God's plan", saying, "at least -" - or explaining why they are enduring this personal hellscape (just so you know: you sound like a priggish know-it-all) - is very likely the wrong call. To the sufferer you are probably just another person who's not helping, or worse another person denying the sufferer's reality; in these dark moments that feels most nightmarish of all.
And please be careful before saying, "I'm so glad you're doing better!" because your friend may have a moment of "doing better" - but be plummeted into the depths of Hell again in five minutes. Listen very intently to your friend, for a long time after you think the horrors have passed. Don't signal that you're ready to move on, because they may not get to move on.
Now: silver linings are a thing. Some of our greatest transcendence may come after a great trial. Silver linings are not, however, a guaranteed feature of every shitshow, and they are very unlikely to be fully realized - or appreciated - during a trauma experience. If your friend survives and heals they may very well come back to tell you what they learned, how they grew, or maybe even how they benefitted (and then again - they may not). But this isn't your call - at all.
Silver linings are real; they are not guaranteed, they are not a bystander sport, and your fortune cookie is not helpful.
Realize that trauma itself, is often experienced as humiliation.
Even if/when we know our trauma is not our own fault, the sense of degradation we can feel while we suffer, can be great. I think people easily forget this.
Of all the horrors I've recently endured, the humiliation at the hands of those who were supposed to help, was the worst part. Some of my friends are surprised to hear that I'm not yet physically one hundred percent - but they are downright puzzled to hear I've lost my confidence.
My body will heal long before my psyche does.
If it's been a minute since you were last thrown into the street with your dignity in shreds, I am truly glad for you. Not everyone has that buffer, not everyone has had time to benefit from that Forgetting. A little extra TLC goes a long way.
Pay a lot of attention to what they're asking for.
During trauma events a lot of people suddenly vanish. I suppose they think they are "giving us space" - but usually, space is not what we need.
What do we need?
Answer: we usually ask for it, directly.
So: is your loved one looking for advice? For a resource? Do they just want to be heard? Do they want a hot meal brought to their home? Some cash sent via Venmo? Do they want prayers? Are they posting on social media and asking for suggestions, or a grocery delivery, or good vibes?
Do they want a ride somewhere? Do they want someone to do an errand, or set something up? Are they worried about something you could easily step in for?
The thing I wanted halfway through my experience, was for my online Discord group to set up a get together so I could rest in bed and listen to them talk. I had enough energy to ask - and it took a lot out of me to ask - but not enough steam to organize for myself - nor fight for it.
What I can tell you is, as strange or minor or weird a request is, your friend isn't asking for fun and the crucible of suffering has likely honed them to knowing exactly what they need most. Don't ignore their request in favor of what you think is a better idea; don't shrug something off as too impossible - or too trivial. And realize that if they are making a request at all, it's probably taking a lot more out of them than you think. Asking for anything at all when we've been hurt this way, often requires a Herculean effort.
Be willing to go the extra mile (if you can).
A handful of medical professionals let me down, but a few of them helped me. And many, many of my friends bolstered me in ways small and large. Until the end of my days I will appreciate their kindnesses because I have never been so vulnerable for so sustained a time.
On day five of my ordeal, as we drove down the hill from our horrific, inept ER experience, I knew with clarity my husband needed support staff. I'd been five days without food, two days without sleep, and my husband had suffered alongside me, up every two hours around the clock. He'd also observed my agonies up close and in a way no one should have to. I had a twin awareness: it hurt me to know what he was going through, and I also held the purely selfish knowledge that if he faltered, I was fucked.
So on our drive home he recited aloud the names of those who offered to come stay with us that night; I knew with immediate insight that my friend Traci was the right person to call. She was on the road immediately and in my home, in a few short hours.
Traci went the extra mile, and she saw me at my worst. It took our team of three to get through the night, and to get me to another ER the next morning. She went the extra mile and I'm not sure what we've have done without her.
My drama was a black hole and it ate other people up. I couldn't much help this. So if at all possible, and if you've got the strength: hurl yourself in! But:
Do not extend help you cannot realistically provide.
If you can bring by hot soup: bring by hot soup. If you can send a little cash: send a little cash. If you can run an errand, run an errand!
If you can't do these things: don't.
Your friend needs help - but they also need you to be responsible and care for yourself. Don't play the martyr; but a little heroics may be required. And for God's sake:
Do not promise something you don't deliver.
During my eleven days many people offered me love and support and kind words but a few people offered me more: a favor or something little or a delivery of food or flowers or even a message or something they'd send me or post for me.
And those who offered and then reneged, caused me so much anguish; ludicrously, these fumblings hurt a great deal more than they "should" have. I can say definitively it would have been better for them not to offer anything at all. Today - safe, pain-free, relatively balanced - I recognize we are all human, and we all slip.
But their mistakes cost me a lot because I was not in a "normal" mental space. In times like these the world's reliability skews into a vast nothingness; in times like these, we think we have been forsaken. Trust is all we cling to and Trust is threatened at every step. It would be better to promise nothing, than to promise and forget, or to be five minutes late.
In this kind of scenario: it's go time! Make it count.
If you can't or won't help, don't make it about you.
Incredibly, I have noticed over the years that when I am suffering and I have shared this there have been people - some close to me, some less so - who will publicly respond on my social media with something like, 'I'd like to help you but right now I'm having a hard time because of ___ and I can't do anything, sorry!"
Unless you are being specifically named and asked for a specific thing (and therefore a response is likely required), you don't have to offer a refusal at all. What a traumatized person is likely to hear by your unnecessary, "Sorry but here's what's going on with me" - is just another No, another No One Cares, another There Is No Rescue Coming. It's better not to say anything in that moment. If you're upset or triggered this is a good time to find a support for yourself - hopefully an unaffected, balanced third party you can seek out.
Remember: trauma doesn't come on a convenient schedule so if your friend's trauma hits you when you're down for the count: that's life. One of the reasons I take so much care to care for myself, one of the reasons I will street-fight to get my needs met - is so that I can be there for others when they need me.
Don't make it about you, part two.
You are almost sure to have strong feelings as you watch your friend's agonies. Be very careful sharing those feelings with them: and during their ordeal, may not the time. Maybe there will never be the right time! Or as my friend Tim wrote when I put a call-out on this topic on Twitter: "Don't project your anxiety on the person you're visiting or taking care of. That anxious, nervous energy freaks people out and makes things worse. For me at least."
Check in with them "after" - if there is an after.
It's only been four days but in general people seem to forget what I endured, breathing a sigh of relief the moment I waved the flag and said things had improved. They're just glad the issue got resolved ("resolved"). And I get it! Life's tough right now. It's so tempting to pick up and move feet forward.
But for me, gathering up my pieces is incredibly daunting. I'm not recovered, although I am doing all the things I'm supposed to. I've had nightmares - two nights ago, my sleep was flooded with dreams where I was forced to endure a surgery yet again, and no one would listen to my protests. During my waking hours I've felt at times so very low I didn't know how to express it (and that's what I do for a living! Express myself!). I can't pick myself up immediately and if you'd been there you'd understand why.
It's going to take me a while - probably months, probably not years - and I want my friends to notice, and I want them to care, and I want acknowledgment. I know I provide the same for them, and - as much as I didn't enjoy how deeply I had to learn this - I now know how incredibly valuable it is to keep up that aftercare.
Thanks for listening - and for those of you who somehow knew this script I've written, especially for those of you who heard and continue to hear my requests for help -
Bless you, bless you very much indeed.