I’ve been thinking a lot about trauma lately as I contemplate my increasingly vulnerable and terrifying station as a chronically ill woman who will have to rely on the long-term care and concern of others if I am to survive. For some reason I found this topic exceptionally difficult to write about in a coherent and meaningful way and in my experience as a somewhat seasoned social critic, that usually indicates that there is some thought-termination around the issue and that I am working my way through something that is not meant to be dissected and understood and that is probably the case here. For whatever reason, this post seems like it just does not want to be written, and as a writer and a creative person I can and do respect that, so I am giving up on the idea of writing a proper post about it. I have scrapped a dozen versions of this post and I’m glad they are gone.
But there is something that I — not my muse — would like to say about trauma, about women’s experience with trauma, how it affects us, and what little can probably be done about it. But little is not nothing, and where there is anything women can do to avoid trauma and to avoid becoming traumatized, women seriously need to do everything in their power to avoid it. The effects of trauma on our long-term physical and mental well-being are just too serious to ignore and we cannot keep letting this happen to us; we are told that “what does not kill us makes us stronger” but this is a reversal, and a lie. And besides, there are probably worse things than death and it seems to me like trauma may be one of those things. In reality, the constant traumas women experience that stop short of killing us only make us weaker, sicker, and less able to function. For women, the effect of constant trauma is that we are neither here nor there — we end up the walking dead.
As I approach middle age I am beginning to notice that a distinct physical, mental and emotional toll has been taken on the women I know including female friends and family, and probably even myself. Women are becoming physically ill, cognitively impaired and emotionally retarded, their minds and organs are failing and they do not react with strong emotion or decisive action when they should and they consistently over-react to everything else when they shouldn’t. Women I know are not aging well and I think a lot of this has to do with the cumulative effects of chronic stress and trauma over time. Trauma is not making us stronger. Trauma is slowly but noticeably killing the us in us. We are no longer anywhere to be found.
Looking back on my life I can identify several instances of trauma that have irreparably changed me and these are traumas that I could have and should have avoided. Being there when my younger brother died gruesomely of congestive heart and multiple organ failure after a lifetime of hideous medical interventions traumatized me, but what was I to do about it? Now, I think I should have either busted him out of my parents’ care and control and (somehow) provided him with a life free of medical trauma, or I should have thrown out the baby with the bathwater and abandoned my sick-ass fucking family completely. None of this half-in half-out shit that in the end left me no choice but to “be there” to comfort him when he died hideously because of what my parents and other Western medical professionals did to him, while I watched this happen for 21 years of my and my brother’s lives and I did nothing of substance to stop it. Fuck that. I should’ve been braver.
But I wasn’t brave, and instead I was seriously traumatized for which I likely continue to pay the price, in my case, my coward’s debt is probably being paid with my seriously failing health. I even said at his funeral that being there when he died that way “destroyed me” but still being young and relatively healthy I had no idea how right I would turn out to be about that, or that there was any way I could’ve avoided it. Note that I am talking about — and demonstrating — situations in which the trauma could have been reasonably avoided. I know that not all trauma can be avoided and I am not talking about those traumas. I do not blame women or myself for that.
In a similar vein, when I stayed in my home during 2 hurricanes instead of evacuating, did I really know what I was getting myself into? The first one, hurricane Irene turned out to be a nothing burger (for my neighborhood anyway) and was not that traumatizing where we were not in physical danger and did not sustain damage. But the second one, where I had to literally swim out of my apartment in chest-deep water at midnight and then somehow survive the aftermath on a devastated and destroyed island with no power, no supplies and sleeping on my ex-mother in law’s prehistoric couch definitely traumatized me. I should never have lived on an island in the first fucking place, and I never ever should have moved to an island to be with a man and especially not where he and his family were to be my only lifeline in an emergency. Never! Once the storm hit, the trauma was inevitable and I did the very best I could under the circumstances, but therein lies the rub. I never should have been there in the first fucking place. I only went there with him to begin with because I had nowhere else to go.
Is there anything, anything at all I could’ve done to avoid that? Probably. It would’ve been ugly and I would’ve had to start planning early, like building some kind of community independent of my family and which did not revolve around men — for me as an incurable introvert, and likely an autistic to boot, this would have been ugly, and gnarly, and hard, and it might not have worked. But I never should have been there on that island, that much I know. And I should’ve been around people that were smarter than my dumbass boyfriend and his dumbass mother who lived on a fucking island, where islands are known to be vulnerable to hurricanes and coastal flooding and where hurricanes and coastal flooding are known to cause trauma. Duh. But because I was a dumbass, and associated with dumbasses, I ended up irreparably traumatized and in fact my already-failing health quickly and steadily declined after that. After that I was never well again and considering that I now have an incurable progressive disease, I will probably never get better and I will only ever get worse. That trauma was probably the very last thing I needed and may well have been the final straw.
Or, maybe there really was nothing I could’ve done to avoid that or different or even worse trauma, where if I hadn’t gone with him after we both graduated from law school I could’ve ended up homeless because I had nowhere else to go. You know, like what I am facing now — in the end it appears as if I merely delayed it. Okay, maybe I had no meaningful choice but to end up on an island with a man. But maybe, just maybe if I had avoided a dozen earlier traumas, this one wouldn’t have been the one that did me in, but I didn’t avoid a dozen earlier traumas did I? No. I just kept walking into and out of trauma after trauma like it was nothing. And many of those earlier traumas were dealt to me by men because I kept fucking — and fucking dealing with — men. But trauma isn’t nothing, and the effects of repeated traumas seem to aggregate over time. I know that now. Now that it’s too fucking late to do anything about it, I know it. Well done on my part innit? Gah.
And don’t even get me started on my “choice” to put myself through my last year of college by stripping. No, definitely don’t get me started on that. I thought that I could outmaneuver or outsmart trauma, you see, because I was young and smart but no one is young enough or smart enough to outmaneuver or outsmart trauma because trauma doesn’t work like that. I thought that if I just stripped — and let men objectify me — with “intention” and if I put up “appropriate boundaries” that I could get in and out of this relatively low-risk sex work unscathed and untraumatized but I was wrong about that. After stripping — and letting men objectify me — for just a year, one year, I have been unable to maintain eye contact and constantly survey the exits during conversation and believe me when I say that this very noticeable behavioral “tick” did nothing to help me achieve (or fake) middle class because middle class women do not act that way. And middle and upper class men know what class of women do act that way — sex workers and other extremely traumatized women who they will never respect ever.
My plan to achieve middle class by stripping was a complete bust and I am still paying for that one where 20 years later I am still unable to maintain “normal” eye contact and I still survey the exits in every room and every situation in which I find myself. And where middle and upper class men still clock me as “something” even if they can’t put their finger on exactly what it is. Particularly old men, meaning middle-aged and older seem to love me and consistently want to mentor me but their attentions never actually helped me professionally or materially in any way. Weird, huh.
So. Could my trauma of relatively low-risk sex work where I stripped for men for money have been avoided? Yes! Because in my case, I lost my “normal” and relatively untraumatizing job as a cake decorator when I left for a month to be with my brother while he died, and to help my mom with funeral and other arrangements later. By the time I lost my cake decorating job, which I really enjoyed by the way, I was so traumatized by what had happened with my brother that I actually prefered taking off my clothes in front of and for strange men to the prospect of getting dressed up and going on a proper job interview, let alone working a normal job. If I had successfully avoided the extreme trauma of what happened with my brother, I would have also avoided the extreme trauma of stripping but I walked right into both as if they were nothing. I suspect this happens a lot. And although it felt like a lot longer, it was only a year — one year! — between all of that and when I met my would-be boyfriend who I ended up following literally into the eye of a hurricane. One fucking trauma after another, after another. And so it goes.
Below are 3 videos I have embedded here before but I think they are worth rewatching in the context of trauma, specifically medical trauma in the context of serious chronic illnesses like Crohn’s that are largely untreatable and both incurable and progressive. What risks are women taking when they leave their health in the hands of misogynistic sadistic capitalist patriarchal medicine which delights in undermining, controlling and damaging women on its best day, and how does the resulting trauma affect and continue to affect our lives? In the case of chronic illness, how does ongoing medical trauma itself impact our chronic conditions and overall physical and mental health where we are often made worse by painful, toxic and dangerous treatments necessitating even more treatment — and more trauma — that only causes more side effects and so on?
And is there anything, even a little bit that any of us can do to avoid any of this? Is there? Maybe. And it is absolutely worth thinking about, seeing how deadly serious all of this is and how fucked up and sick trauma can make us. At the very least, it certainly doesn’t help. Where I am now, facing looming homelessness as a seriously chronically ill woman in capitalism and patriarchy with no familial or other social and financial support is hell, pure hell, and I wish like hell that I had done something, anything, to avoid it. Maybe I was born with Crohn’s and would’ve ended up sick anyway, maybe I was always sick and didn’t know it, but maybe I could’ve put off the inevitable a bit longer, maybe I could’ve worked for 10 years as an attorney instead of 6, and maybe that would’ve made a difference. Maybe I should’ve moved to a cannabis legal state immediately following my diagnosis instead of submitting to medicalized torture for 2 years first. Maybe. Maybe. It’s hard to not have regret when pretty much anything would’ve been better than this.
Does anyone have anything to say about trauma or medical trauma, or avoiding trauma when and where we can? Please feel free to comment below.