While my family was on vacation in DC last month, I attended a 3-½ day training on life transitions/major life changes (I know, I know, mixing business with family time, but sometimes it’s hard to keep it all completely separate!). I was surprised that a large part of the training was spent discussing trauma and traumatic life events such as being held up at gunpoint, very traumatic indeed, but also thankfully quite rare. I got to the point where I was thinking that the information on trauma did not really apply to me and my own life circumstances, and I almost dismissed the training as a whole. Almost… but then, as what often happens to many of us, the stuff in life that you’re resisting and categorizing as “inapplicable to me and my life” is the stuff that most needs our attention in the first place!
The word trauma itself has been a huge buzzword recently in the therapy world, but what even is it and how is it defined? The dictionary defines trauma as simply, “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” That’s pretty open and vague, if you ask me, and I would think it defines an event in all of our lives at one time or another. I think of traumatic events as occurring on a continuum, where some events are mildly distressing, some moderately so and some severely distressing. How you react to these events can be very different from person to person (even within the same family system), and very dependent on your support system and overall mental health at the time of the traumatic occurrence.
As a grief and loss specialist, I’m trained to see life events through this lens, but I do think there is a lot of crossovers and similarities between traumatic events and grief and loss. I’d say personally, in my own life, the death of my dad and the late miscarriage I experienced were both very traumatic life events, and losses that I needed to grieve deeply, and in some ways continue to do so to this day.
There was also the choking incident when my son was three weeks old, where he choked on milk and stopped breathing. He was thankfully revived quickly (and is perfectly healthy today), but that was also another extremely traumatic event that I experienced in my own life as well. But, there was also a grief piece here too, where I had to grieve the loss of my hope/dream that everything would be perfectly fine and stress free with our new baby.
There was the time when I was driving at night using my cell phone with my driving directions, when my phone suddenly died without warning. I was in a foreign city with my child, and come to find out, had no car cell phone charger (stupid, I know!). I remember feeling panicked and frozen and complete traumatized, including physical symptoms like I thought my pounding heart was going to explode out of my chest, my hands were so sweaty it was hard to grasp the steering wheel, and I even felt a little short of breath and light headed. Yet, I still knew on some level that only I could get myself out of this bad situation, and I had to put complete trust in myself and my own abilities. So, while driving around looking for a place to purchase a phone charger so I could use Google maps again, I found my bearings, got us to the main road surrounded by familiar scenery, and finally HOME!
To end with, for all your parents out there, the time my husband was out-of-town and I was awoken from a deep sleep by the sounds of a newly sick child throwing up in her bed. I got her changed, got her sheets switched out, and got her back in bed, and when I went to start the washing machine, I discovered we had no water (a pretty common occurrence during the time we lived in Lima, Peru, but that night most definitely had to be one of the no water nights!). Then, while I was standing there contemplating what to do next, as I couldn’t even wash my hands at that point, I heard my daughter getting sick again! So, we started the whole routine over again. At some point during that long night, we ran out of sheets, and my daughter and I ended up on the couch (which I completely covered in every beach towel we owned!), a trash can at arms reach, hand sanitizer, a six-year-old watching Disney movies, and a thoroughly drained and depleted mom, who in that moment could simply sit and just let the tears slowly fall.
I was grieving the loss of the strong, “perfect” mom that I so desperately wanted to be, and coming to accept that at that moment in time, I was most definitely the opposite of this person, but that was fine and perfectly acceptable too. In that traumatic moment, I still realized that I had to get us through that awful night and to the bright light of the next morning.
As often happens from one of the darkest nights comes a completely different day, one where my husband/my support system returned so I could finally get some much needed rest, the water was working so we could finally wash our hands and do load after load of laundry, and most importantly, the bug was gone and my daughter was on the mend (and somehow, even without running water, did not infect the rest of us!).
What’s my point to all this? That trauma can hit us differently at different time in our lives. Sometimes normal things like a sick kid can become a traumatic event by removing a person’s support system and life normalcies like running water.
I’m not trying to say that every little event in your life needs to be defined as traumatic. I’m simply saying that you get to decided in your own life what events hold more weight than others; what events were most life changing for you; what events transformed you as a person; what events you learned the most from and taught you the most about life and what truly matters at the end of the day.