Awakening to Trauma: A “Coming Out” Story

After nearly three decades of silence, I am finally ready to publicly share my story of trauma.

Why have I chosen here and now to speak my truth? Because I’ve worked through a process to be strong enough to speak up and know doing so will help others.

Trauma is a silent epidemic, and it is deadly. When we collectively face trauma as a society, it loses its power, and we remember our own. Telling our story is a truth and reconciliation process for all marginalized individuals who have experienced trauma. Through this collective acknowledgement and repair, the community stands at the forefront of architecting systems of care that shape public health, pave the way for intergenerational and cultural healing, as well as open up conversations for justice, reparation, and equity. This time and process serves as a key stepping-stone in our evolution towards collective healing for humans and the planet.

How the World is Confronting Trauma

Over the past decade, confronting trauma has begun taking center stage, as we have seen through movements like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Take Back the Night, and Time’s Up. These movements remind us that we can make a difference by coming together as an empowered community and talking about trauma. We cannot deal with a problem that stays in the shadows. We cannot help our neighbors if we do not know their struggle. We cannot hold abusers accountable if we do not know of their actions. We create a global movement by empowering ourselves as activists.

The aforementioned movements are a clear indicator that society at large is ready to address the shadowed conversations of abuse. This imperative does not only fall on the victims. Everyone processes their trauma at different rates and in different ways. The important thing is for safe spaces to exist and we are ready to listen and be an ally when others do speak up and share their stories.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased conversations around mental health support and the importance of community, public health policy, and wellness activities. The combination of scientific research, public awareness, and better readiness creates the perfect conditions for the world to do the trauma work that must be done.

My Path Through Trauma

It began when I was one and stopped when I was seven. I grew up in an environment of abuse. My room wasn’t safe. My home wasn’t safe. My body wasn’t safe. The people who were supposed to be my protectors and caregivers weren’t safe. I was hurting and alone. 

For 28-years I only saw those traumatic memories from a child’s lens that was clouded by confusion, uncertainty, and betrayal. After suddenly losing a partner at age 27, the grief I felt – for both my adult self and my childhood self – led me down a path of wellness through yoga, meditation, mindfulness practices, and medicinal plants. These were my foundations of self-care that allowed me to safely awaken to trauma and begin to heal.

As I recalled memories of my childhood abuse, I spoke parts of my truth for the first time to people I trusted. Like ripping a bandage from your skin, each time came with both pain and relief.

I faced some dismissive responses:

“Are you sure that happened?”

“Can’t you just forgive them and move on?”

“Don’t say anything, it’ll devastate the family.”

“They were doing the best they could.”

“Why didn’t you tell them to stop?”

“I told you not to let anyone touch you there.”

There were also many awkward conversations, deafening moments of silence, and attempts to change the topic and never revisit it. I faced the trial of owning my truth in each of these moments.

At one point someone said, “Well this happens all the time.”

I responded, “Rape happens all the time. Does that mean it should keep happening?”

The long pause and look on their face revealed it had landed. In that moment I witnessed two different ideologies meet and how human consciousness could evolve in the matter of a second. That moment showed me the potency of sharing and I was forever resolved to keep doing so. Standing for my story was creating trust and compassion in myself for the first time. I realized that speaking out was an ultimate form of activism – I was saying no and fighting back.

Breaking Silence and Isolation

Abuse damages a core aspect of what it means to be human – the part of us that can connect and relate to other humans in a healthy way. Keeping abuse a secret is often held as a defense mechanism by survivors – it’s necessary in order to stay “safe.” This leads to isolation and loneliness, which “has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” according to Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health.

Breaking isolation is to begin to create meaningful connections with others. It is important to explore these meaningful connections where acceptance, understanding and validation are primary values. Talking to others, especially those who share similar experiences, helps to create feelings of community, hope, and acceptance. It begins to knock at the walls of shame and guilt that trauma builds around you.

Healing From Trauma is Non-Linear

A year after I had first shared my story the memories of my trauma bubbled up again. I vividly remember being hit by a wave of disbelief and confusion. Gasping for air through uncontrollable sobs, I googled “child abuse survivor” in an attempt to make sense of what was happening to me. I felt so lost with nowhere to turn. I called the Suicide Hotline.

Eventually, I found a local Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse (ASCA) peer support group. I remember scheduling it on my calendar as “ASCA” and imagining the shame I would feel if someone were to find out what it stood for. I also felt a hint of relief as this was a big step towards my healing.

When I went to a meeting for the first time and it was my turn to share, I heard myself say the words, “When I was young, my father touched me.” I recall,  to my surprise, how small I felt in that moment. At the same time, I was aware of the magnitude of what I just did by saying those words out loud to a room of strangers. I was taking my power back.

I sat and listened to the stories that others were sharing and began to feel that sense of connection that I so desperately needed, even though I wasn’t aware of it before that moment. When we witness the openness and vulnerability of others – it helps inspire our own courage. There was also a comfort in knowing they were all strangers; I was likely to never see them again if I didn’t want to.

These moments of sharing my story and breaking isolation continued over the following two-years. I “came out” to my partner, my best friends, my brother, and eventually my mother. I came out at small retreats. Eventually, I even said yes to being filmed for a documentary on childhood trauma and shared my story publicly on Facebook.

Resources and Education

My path to healing also came through books, forums, and researching the work of prominent psychologists. I was lucky to have access to trauma therapy modalities like Somatic Experiencing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness Training, and Internal Family Systems.

I have an infinite amount of gratitude for the authors who have devoted their life’s work to trauma and published their findings in accessible books. For example, one year after attending the ACE meeting, I came across The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, which reveals the effects of early childhood adversity and shines a light on the impact of developmental trauma on the brain and its long-term health outcomes including lung cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, suicidal thoughts and actions, among other impacts.

I recall learning about Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker and being shocked by how many symptoms I didn’t realize I was having and wasn’t just normal: flashbacks, hyperarousal, startling through loud noises, belief that the world isn’t a safe place, distrust in self and others,  dissociation, and more (Walker, 2013). Like most people surviving with C-PTSD, I endured trauma for an extended period of time in an environment where I was under the control of my abuser, which is a main distinction between C-PTSD and PTSD (Herman, 1992).

Through Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands,  I learned about the generations of trauma that sit in all of our bodies, the trauma caused by racism, the trauma that gets activated as a protective response when trauma isn’t metabolized and what that looks like on our streets today  (Menakem, 2017).

Some of the most remarkable and unexpected resources I discovered were subreddits dedicated to adult abuse survivors and C-PTSD. I found the hundreds of responses to my late-night posts that I wrote in times of desperation to be irreplaceable medicine. The nature of anonymous peer sharing creates a community of raw authenticity that is crucial to our ability to process, share, and connect.

Finding a trauma-informed therapist that practiced Internal Family Systems, a powerful model of psychotherapy,  was another critical point in my healing. I learned about all the parts that were hurt and never understood what safety felt like. I learned how to bring in a spirit animal to help ground me into feeling protected. I learned how to appropriately direct anger to the right people instead of directing it inward. I learned how to say no and affirm my boundaries.

I hope future access to quality clinical healing work will move beyond its high pay walls and become more accessible to all levels of income.

Alternative Healing Methods

As my memories slowly matured to understand the impact of my trauma, I moved through the typical stages of grief: denial, pain, anger, and depression. I grieved the childhood I never had. I grieved the safety I never felt. I grieved the love I never received. After months of therapy, I began to realize I had a pattern of escaping trauma in the body by way of the mind.

I explored alternative healing modalities beyond cognitive learning. Medicinal plants became a strong ally in my journey to confront trauma that was stored in parts of myself that I couldn’t access.  Ayahuasca, Wauchuma, and Iboga all helped me to heal the mind, body, heart, and spirit in profound ways. I look forward to a future where these plants are recognized as medicine by society, the lineages that carry them are recognized with honor and respect, and people who seek it are able to benefit from their healing properties in the right ways.

Theater and art therapy helped me to express emotions I could not express in my other healing work. Coming together with other trauma survivors to create art or perform an original performance about trauma was exceptionally empowering – it allowed us to feel present and seen, together.

After six years of processing my trauma, I have finally taken a step towards healing I thought would never happen in my lifetime. I confronted my father.

Finally, 34 -years later – I experience glimmers of acceptance and hope.

Looking Ahead

In my trauma journey, I have continuously longed for more community spaces for survivors to connect and heal together. During the coronavirus pandemic, I founded The Trauma Project, a non-profit focused on creating peer-to-peer experiences and programs for the community of marginalized individuals who have experienced trauma and abuse.

These programs follow similar milestones in my own experience: 1) break silence, 2) break isolation, 3) access resources and education, and 4) experience integrative healing modalities.

We organize trauma circles, create accessible trauma education courses, art therapy programs, theater healing programs, and medicinal plant experiences and integration. You can donate to support the non-profit or contact us and get involved as a trauma therapist, as a trauma survivor, or as an ally to this work in any other way.

It is an honor to be invited to join the Trauma Research Foundation’s Therapeutic Alliance. The foundation has many programs that are helpful for survivors of abuse, like their Peer Counseling Project and Neurofeedback Training Program. This is the first time I have shared my story on a public blog and I plan to continue to share my story, advocate for peer-to-peer and community spaces for trauma healing, and strive for a global awakening to trauma.

If you feel comfortable, I would like to invite you to share what you’ve found helpful on your own healing journey in the comments below. You never know who you might help by sharing even the smallest piece of your story.

Written by TRF Guest Blogger and TRF Alliance Member Teresa Yung

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