Residual TraumaBy Emma Pearson
September 22, 2023
Photos my own. Main photo, Our Lady of the Rocks, 4 July 2022. And August 2017.
4 July 2022
I am not an expert in trauma, though I do try to keep up with the research and literature concerning how trauma affects the body, patterns of behaviour, transformation and healing. I try to keep up on what it means to be a trauma-sensitive coach and trauma-sensitive OD consultant. I also read voraciously about trauma and patterns of PTSD in the post-loss world. And I am far from being an expert.
What I do know and believe, (though didn’t want to believe for quite a while), was how it is the everyday, non-dramatic, traumas – related to core human needs (such as needing to belong, needing to be seen and valued, needing to be viewed as skilled and competent) being unmet – that can cause significant amounts of trauma, which itself results in inappropriate and maladaptive behaviour patterns.
And of course, death, caring for someone during a terminal illness and at end of life, suicide and the aftermath, are hugely well-researched as fertile grounds for generating big T Trauma.
And yet, despite all of this reading, I didn’t really figure that I experienced trauma. That I was traumatised. Yes, of course, I have had very challenging experiences – months and years of them – but I still didn’t think I had experienced trauma.
But this week, today in fact, on what should be – and is – a lovely swimming holiday break in Montenegro with the lovely and delicious Medjool, I had some senses of trauma revisited. Not collapsing in a heap trauma. But still my body and its vitals responding to some “historic” episodes.
Firstly a trip to the beautiful microscopic island, Our Lady of the Rocks in Kotor Bay – where there is a beautiful Roman Catholic church. I was there five years ago, just months after Mike died, with Ben, Megan, and Julia. Months into this new life. I had booked us a two to three-week trip during which we pretty much visited the entire country. Everything fell on my shoulders – from booking flights and AirBnbs and a hire car to all of the driving and much of the deciding what to do day by day. Many days, one, two or even all three kids preferred to stay in the AirBnb rather than visit places with me. It was hot. The AirBnbs had aircon. And, more importantly, wifi. Such hard days, weeks and months. So hard to organise a holiday alone when we’d always shared the tasks involved.
But today, I was back on that island. I’d seen it from the shoreline last year when I revisited the area with Medjool. But today, before I knew it, I was standing on it as part of the lovely SwimTrek experience. Just for 20 mins, and not enough time to visit the church and museum inside, but enough to sit on one of the stone bollards and remember how I had done that five years ago. Feeling totally alone, back then, despite being surrounded by flocks of tourists. I went to sit on a bollard today – it might even have been the same one. And despite almost wanting to sense back into the numbness of that day five years ago, I couldn’t. I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t particularly feel connected to the people around me. But most of all, I couldn’t connect back into that numbness. I wondered briefly what it meant. Of course I had Medjool standing close by. I had just lost Mike back then, and today I have Medjool in my life. Not always by my side, but today he was. Perhaps that is why I couldn’t feel into the numbness back then, even though I also cannot feel into whether or not Julia came with me that day. I think she and Megan stayed back and that only Ben was there. I’d need to check photos to know for sure. That so much of my visual and somatic memory is gone is a relief – and desperately sad. (I checked photos… I was on my own for the trip to Perast and our Lady of the Rocks. I offer a selfie as “proof”).
And later on in the day, after prudently stopping short our afternoon swim because of thunder, lightning and an impending storm in the outer Bay of Kotor, as our SwimTrek boat “Orca” was ferrying us back to the picturesque village of Perast, the engine started to make a high-pitched whine. There were times earlier in the day, and on the return too, that, because of swells or other boats passing, our boat rocked/lurched differently. Each time it had an effect on my stomach, my breathing. Sometimes I reached for Medjool’s hand. Sometimes I asked him if he heard a funny noise, or felt the boat was rocking weirdly. At one stage I became quite convinced that the boat was sitting lower in the water. Sinking. I took my eyes off the boat and forced myself back into the safety of my book.
It is only four weeks ago, on 2nd June, that I was on another boat heading out for a swim that quite simply, from what seemed to be one minute to the next, sank. No time at all, four weeks. And I felt the residual trauma. The questioning. Mild panic. I want the world to be solid, to feel solid. To be reliable. And I employ all kinds of wishful thinking and bargaining processes with the powers that be in the universe to convince myself that I will be okay.
And I am okay. Better than okay. Even if the world is not solid. Even if nothing is reliable. Not really.
And I accept that the trauma is there, in my sinew. Not just from being on a boat that sank a few weeks ago, but also from visiting churches on Montenegrin islands five years ago. So soon after Mike had died. When I still had Julia, but only for another 23 months. When I already thought my life had gone pear-shaped enough. When, to this day, I feel that I can barely “go back there” somatically, emotionally – because to do so requires me to re-absorb not just the loss of Mike, but also the loss of Julia.
I can’t really do it.
I don’t want to.
It is all traumatic and I latch on to the distraction, comfort and safety around me as much as I can.
Distraction, comfort and safety are all good by me.
So very needed.
The trauma is there. It has a home. A place.
It doesn’t stop me living.
It doesn’t stop me doing and being.
I don’t want to re-live it all – I don’t need to re-live it all – but I also don’t want to forget it.
So having the residual trauma is fine by me.
In time, I might do something more healing with it.