March 15, 2024

Capital T Trauma: I Never Thought it Would Happen to Me.

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December 28, 2023, is a day that is unfortunately burned into my memory like no other.

After making it almost 60 years on Earth without experiencing a true dark night of the soul, Trauma was visited upon me on that day.

I was not unfamiliar with trauma. I was aware that I had dealt with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), which meant I had some big challenges in the family I grew up in.

We’re learning so much about trauma every day. Few people experience what they call capital T trauma, such as violence, sexual abuse, or fearing for your life. Many more of us experience little T traumas, as anything that overwhelms our nervous system. It could be failure to attach during childhood, bullying, or parental unemployment. When there are enough traumas, they become a sort of Trauma. Each one of us gets to decide when a life challenge rises to the level of trauma/Trauma. Anytime the circumstances of life overwhelm our ability to cope, we’ve had a trauma.

Well, at least that’s the basic understanding I had. (Forgive the layperson’s explanation and read the experts to find out the latest ways this field is evolving. Because evolving it is.) Most importantly, trauma is personal. The same event can be traumatic for you and merely irritating to me.

I considered myself somewhat “trauma-informed.” Not enough to counsel someone, but enough to understand how it affects us⏤enough to know when a childhood trigger is touched and then to deal with it.

While we shouldn’t compare traumas, I admit that I felt lucky that I hadn’t experienced what I saw as “real” traumas. I have dozens of friends who were raped, abused, or mugged. My heart went out to them much more than it did to myself for my “minor traumas.” As a senior citizen, I had probably passed through the ages when many of the worst physical traumas happen. It didn’t mean I was exempt, but I suppose I believed I could pretty much handle whatever life would throw at me. I’d overcome a lot and had good coping skills and a lot of therapy and personal growth behind me.

But none of that mattered on December 28. After a scheduled “routine” surgery that required just a quick overnight stay, I went home with almost no pain, ready for a standard recovery. The whole thing was textbook normal and going well…until it wasn’t.

The details of what happened physically aren’t important. Essentially, a debilitating level of pain ensued that could not be managed. After a dismissive conversation with the on-call surgeon, my husband took me to the ER and I was readmitted for another day so they could control the pain.

At the moment I was readmitted, something in me broke. I had no choice. I didn’t decide to react. My body took over and went into an involuntary level of shock, panic, and shutdown. I told my husband I would never be the same after this. A part of me realized this was going to affect me in the biggest way possible. I would be forever changed and never the same.

I felt completely out of control of my body and circumstances, and I was not prepared for that level of pain. I was already fragile and scared when the dismissive doctor spoke to me like I was somewhat ridiculous (my word), and the (well-meaning) nurse said I should hug a pillow, and I was then left with no treatment plan or discharge estimate; I felt completely abandoned and betrayed by the doctor, hospital, surgery, medicine, and the world. Everything, everything had failed me.

When I returned home, the physical pain was gone, but the existential pain skyrocketed. It was like another being had taken over my mind. Shame like I have never felt swept away any mental health skills I had learned. I felt like the smallest, worst loser the world has ever had. I didn’t feel worthy of a hug from my husband; I couldn’t face my friends and told them I was withdrawing. I managed to search online to try to understand why I was spiraling and learned that what happened is called a medical trauma. Almost no one knows about that.

I had gone from being a fairly competent adult to a wrecked, heaping pile of worthless nothingness.

The cruel message of shame told me I did not deserve to live. Because I was weak and overly sensitive and couldn’t handle this “simple” surgery, I shouldn’t be allowed to burden anyone (especially not friends) with the awfulness of me. I wouldn’t allow myself to look at texts. I saw no hope of ever recovering and being normal.

The shameful part of me that took over became a sort of “Gollum” to me. I started to call it that. All I could do was sit on the couch and watch TV in a trance. If my husband hadn’t fed me, I might have starved. And then came the shame of how I burdened him. I begged him to leave so I wouldn’t hurt him anymore.

As I write this a few months later, I cry for that woman. It’s not so far gone that I can’t believe it happened. No, I’ve touched the deepest of my wounds⏤that I don’t deserve to exist, and that doesn’t fully leave you.

When I could finally force myself to see my therapist, she said I was in acute trauma. Cutting off from others is typical of such trauma. Suicidal thoughts are common. Shame runs the show. In Internal Family Systems language, my shameful part blended with me until I could not find myself.

Thanks to therapy, EMDR work, an astounding husband, and a few amazing friends who fought for me, I made it through—well, through to today anyway. I’m not 100 percent. I may never be able to fully process what happened to me. But I “get” big T trauma now. It doesn’t mean little t traumas don’t count; they do. Yet, the level of devastation is far beyond the worst of my previous difficulties.

I realize that is hard for others to fully understand. I doubt I fully got it before this. I knew Trauma was horrendous, but I can’t even find a word strong enough to explain what happened. It has reset my life. I can see a possibility of post-traumatic growth. I have laughed again. I have seen the best of my friends again. And I have lost friends—those who took this personally or judged me for doing what I needed to stay alive. While I know these aren’t true friends anyway, it still hurts. And I’m still embarrassed that I fell apart. I worry about the effect on my husband.

It feels lonely to have gone to a place of almost no return. It is strange to live with a knowing of something that even the best of my friends probably can’t fully understand. (Although a few of them come awfully close. They are the miracles of my life.) I am tentative in the world in a way I’ve never been before. I wonder what people think and what they say. I’m not sure how to reconnect. I’m afraid I’ll be too emotional and just too much for others to handle. I want to be normal. Not special. Not fragile.

But I am who I am. Wired for great sensitivity. Managing CPTSD and now healing from acute trauma. I hope I’ve done what I can to avoid PTSD. I think I have, thanks to those who could sit with me in the pain. Time will tell. Now that I’m on the other side, I want to share my story if it might give one person some comfort to know they aren’t crazy. They aren’t alone. I see your trauma, and I’m here to love you when it shows up.

For today, I keep moving on—figuring out this new life where I can clearly see that I am not the same. The unthinkable happened to me. I’ll just have to build on that.


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