Trauma Callbacks Can Repeat or Rhyme

Estimated Reading Time: 21 minutes

Imagine trying to write a very simple email to a colleague to explain that you do not have time to do something.  How much time would you spend on it?  2 minutes?  5 minutes? 15 minutes? 45 minutes?  When it took me to write this email to a colleague in early November, I had a stark realization that something bigger was going on...and that thing's name was traumatic reaction.  
A hand sculpture that has is several places where there are strips of gold in the traditional method of kintsugi.
Photo by SIMON LEE on Unsplash

Preamble (or where I explain why I'm writing what I'm writing)

For pieces like this, I hem and haw a lot before deciding to write it and share it more largely and permanently with the world. In a world of an attention-driven economy of media that values novelty and sensationalism, I worry that some may think these posts are an attempt to get attention or even more troubling, indirect asks for help. Those are easy places to land, especially if you do not know me (and maybe even if you do know me?).

Ultimately, I can assure myself, even if I can't assure others, that writing these types of posts comes from a place of hoping and believing that what I share is of value to others. I know that when I feel the urge to share my sense-making of deep and personal things, it is something likely that many other folks are or have grappled with--and often, we sit in silence with it or have not quite figured out the language to unpack things.  

Writing, too, is part of my processing. It has been for decades. Speaking, too, is integral.  But the two are intertwined and reciprocally iterative in helping me make clearer sense.  So while I might speak to a realization, writing about it allows me to better explore it, which allows me to more deeply think and write about it.  

What follows is an exploration of grappling with a triggering of my own emotional and complex trauma. In sharing, I hope it can operate as an example, a way for other folks to look for similar patterns or just think about how to spot their own reactions.  

Some details, I can directly share because they are mine to share and others, I will need to be vague because they are not.  I think that probably makes it a bit disjointed for folks wanting the "full story"  Oh well.  That's not really the point for me in writing this.  The bigger goal is to talk about what it means to get triggered and share that experience with the hope that others might see and understand more about how their own hard and traumatic experiences may resonate without their realizing it.  

Internal Context

There are two particular contexts I want to focus on as one is related to material or external elements of the situation and one is more grounded in what was going on with me internally.

For the internal context, I need to start in mid-September. I had finally gotten hit with COVID (much better now and back up to running--yay).  For different reasons, this made the end of September and early October a lot more challenging.  The first was that I was operating at a lower mental threshold for work for at least a week if not longer.  I had lingering effects of COVID that took a toll on my body and mind well into the third week of October (about a month or more). Even before this, I was already feeling stressed as I had little capacity given the demands of work at this point; COVID made it worse--going from floundering to drowning.

COVID kept me from exercising till the end of October. Running and moving my body is really important and invaluable to me. Enough so that I've written lots about running on this blog and that most folks know Lance talks about four things pretty consistently: audiobooks, cats, gardening, and running.  But going from running 6 out of 7 days to not running for over a month was a real challenge for me.

My body craves this movement. It feels good on many different levels to move my body and be in my body. Within a week of getting COVID, I could feel the kinetic energy building up in me like a ball of sparks looking for a conduit to release. Within two weeks of COVID, I found that I was increasingly irritable; things that didn't bother me were bothering me with much more ease. Luckily, I didn't actually speak to most of these but just noticed how quick I was to be reactive.  As much as I wanted to move my body, I knew I had to take the time to rest.  And around week 3, I did bike to work and paid for it in exhaustion at the end of the day (riding to work is only 20 minutes, mostly flat).  

Running in particular is also a big part of my inner processing and emotional regulating. Running is part of my health routine for my body, mind, and heart. It's where I got to feel in my body, to tire it out, and to process what's going on with myself. Running is where I sit with and through my problems or challenges to poke and prod them.  It's where I can feel and release my biggest emotions in different and helpful ways.  

I mention all this because even while I know the absence of exercise was having an impact on my experience, in hindsight, it's clear just how much it was impacting me and would during the ordeal.

External Context

My work centers on helping, supporting, and guiding learning and I work at a place that recognizes that learning is a social experience that requires more considerations to create the right and best conditions for learning than typical institutions are willing to consider or create.  That's part of why I work where I work because my understanding of the degree and context of transformative learning aligns with how my institution does it. The benefit of this alignment is that I get to do work that feels really important and centered in my values; work that I care about; heart work.  The challenge is that I care a lot about the work that I do.

We're a small and growing college. In the time that I've been there, we've doubled our enrollment and the number of faculty we work with.  My work as both instructional designer and faculty developer has expanded to both including recruiting, onboarding, and supporting instructional faculty as well as navigating training, support, processes, and decisions around our LMS system.  

In late June, I was given the go-ahead to hire someone to do a lot of the LMS and tech support for faculty.  By September, we were finalizing the search and offering the role to someone.  Relief was in sight and yet, by the beginning of October, the context had changed and we weren't in a position to hire for the role. That hit me hard because it meant that relief could be upwards of a year away and as I said, between the piling work and COVID, I felt like I was already drowning.

Beyond my own work, October was an utterly chaotic time for our institution.  We had an accreditation report due, we were hosting a national conference, and we were having the inauguration of our president.  For me, a new session of courses was also starting the week after all these things were happening.  

Needless to say, any one of those things during the semester is a lot--3 of them probably came close to breaking us. (Nearly 2 months later, and the impact is still evident).  For me, it felt insufferable between my own internal limitations and the material realities of my work.

The Catalyst

Shortly after all these things happened, we were called together for a meeting. It was both a needed meeting and one that many of us weren't prepared to engage in. Not because we didn't find it essential to our work to discuss it, but because we had not had any real time to decompress from the past month of intensity. It just wasn't the right time to try to focus on the subject because we were all so raw, exhausted, and emotionally wound up from the past few weeks. Many were reconciling the demands put upon us and their own boundaries.  

I was trying to explain this during this meeting but it was largely not being heard. I would say that was equal parts my own inability to speak sense at a time when my senses were significantly debilitated and because we were all so raw and reactionary that it just made it hard to hear anyone else's pain well enough to pause.  

Towards the end of the meeting, I found myself in tears. It came from a compliment from someone that I care about and deeply respect. I felt supported and also, in the context of the bigger conversation, knew that my comfort and support didn't feel right. It caused a spiral of emotions to move through me and I couldn't hold back.  So, I cried (interestingly, the second time I cried this year in front of colleagues and leadership).  

That I cried, I was entirely okay with. That I took attention away from the focus, I had trouble with.  That I was crying from an overwhelming sense of all the feels-some of which I could name and others I couldn't, well, that was disconcerting.  

The Discovery

Several more tense conversations happened that week.  One such meeting encouraged a colleague to reach out to me and another person to talk about doing some additional work together to figure out our own roles in all of it and help one another do better.  

The intent was thoughtful and caring; in so many other contexts I would have appreciated it; hell, the proposal was something I had actually proposed at least two previous times in other contexts.

But I had trouble responding. My basic message was that I didn't have time; that given the amount of extra work that October brought and the loss of a support role, I was running on less-than-fumes.  But every time I wrote it, it wasn't coming out right or I felt like there was much more to say but I couldn't figure out what.  

I kept trying to figure out why I was feeling so reactive to an email.  Why was it taking me more than 40 minutes to write such a response.  As I kept trying to write and rewrite, I also kept asking myself what was that I'm trying to say and trying to access within myself.   I can be thoughtful about communications but very rarely to the degree of paralysis.  And the more I kept trying to say something, the more I kept feeling something wasn't right--there was something deeper going on in me that I wasn't saying in this moment.  

The Trigger

My mind kept flashing back to a moment at the end of September; nearly 6 weeks prior. As I said, our work is heart-work. It can create all sorts of challenging and emotionally loaded moments.  In late September, I came face to face with one.  A friend and colleague of mine called me.  Though we talk regularly, we rarely talk on the phone so I figured something was up. 

Sure enough, he shared with me a situation he needed help with regarding someone else; someone that appeared to have possibly engaged in self-harm. My mind went into problem-solving mode. My first priority was to help my friend figure out if the person was ok (ultimately, yes the person was). My next was to make sure my friend and colleague was ok. 

It's not the first time I've been in this space personally or professionally, so I knew there were immediate issues to figure out and then, there was the waves of emotion afterward. And supporting him was no burden or challenge, it was as natural as breathing. I had a certain level of appreciation that I could be that kind of help in this situation.

But the thing is, I had been in the situation of the person my friend was concerned about--several times (I talk about it a bit more in this post). Years ago and in many ways so far removed from it that I am not the same person.  Yet, those memories and feelings still exist in me, even if I could no longer entertain the idea of harming myself.  

Hindsight tells me that some of my own instinct to go into "problem-solving" mode was to also not sit too long with reflecting back on my own history; not trying to let my mind wander to the younger version of me and feel all the feels, albeit distant and less intense. 

But if you're following along, you'll recall that this was just about the time as I was completing the direct effects of COVID but still unable to physically exercise. I was also learning that help for work was not coming.  My internal care plan was crumbling; my advocacy for work support was not being acted upon; more was being asked of me as we got further into October.

Maybe on its own, I could have dealt well enough with those elements, but it was a perfect storm to weaken me (physically, mentally, emotionally) so that when faced with something that connected me with my own past trauma, I just wasn't able to not ride the wave of emotions and visceral sensations that came with it. Instead, I was swept up in the tide and drowning.

Repeating or Rhyming 

Mark Twain is attributed with the quote, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes" and I would say that's true with trauma.  The only difference is that while we look for logical explanations and constructs with history; the same isn't true of trauma. It doesn't always make direct sense. The lines of cause and effect don't quite work the same way.

And so it was that my reaction rhymed.  At the center of this situation was what can only be described as a suicide note. That resonated with me because I had written several of those among other bids between 10 and 16 years old during a time I grappled with suicide ideation and several attempts. Some made it into others' hands and ears but I never got the support that I needed from most of those hands or ears.  I was left in a situation where I was doing my best to advocate for myself, say that I needed help, and explain that I was drowning in a sea of emotions that felt too big, too powerful, too hard for me...and I got silence.  

You can see where this is going right? To be reminded so deeply about those past experiences which while I have come to terms with, I can still feel very deeply.  At the same time, I experienced another moment where it all felt too much without the ability to care for myself which I knew was helpful, healing, and centering. And despite advocating for myself--my needs were not being addressed.  Well shit, of course, my mind and emotions went into overdrive. I'm surprised and grateful that's all it did. 

Somewhere within writing that email to my colleague, these insights came into stark relief.  I took a gulp of air. My eyes welled up. I released some guttural noise.  I found a way of sending off that email. I sat with my realization and wondered what to do with it.  

The Support

A proverb from Burkina Faso tells us "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." That resonates with my experience. I'm surrounded by a lot of emotionally intelligent people both as friends and colleagues.  These folks were instrumental in my navigating this as well as I did (not to say I navigated it great but that it could have been so much worse). Not just in the immediacy of the last few months but in the longer tail of conversations, support, insights, and care.  

Chris, my spouse, is first among them. Her insights about our inner emotional lives often help me to dig deeper into myself and find things that either I didn't know were there or needed to be dusted off.  Of course, other friends had much to contribute during this time through daily and weekly care of conversation be it along walks, via text, or virtual interaction. It happened in big and small ways, and in the way they found to talk more deeply about feelings and processing experiences.

In the midst of fully feeling it without understanding on a deeper level what was going on, they offered kind ears, thoughtful provocations, and insightful validation. They kept centered or at least not so off-centered that I tumbled over.   And, of course, as I realized what was happening and came to them anew, they held what I shared. They did the thing I needed--the thing I was missing earlier in my life--they held space, showed compassion, and trusted in my own course of healing and response.  

Insights (Or, What Went Well)

As hard as this was, these past few months have also given me a lot to appreciate and reflect upon.  Rather than dwell on the fact that it happened, I'd rather celebrate the wins and things I've learned. After all, it's unrealistic to think this won't happen again or that I've conquered that complex and nuanced set of emotions and experiences that are deeply rooted in my sense of who I am.  Yet, I can feel more grounded with all of it to lessen the experience next time around.

Prior to this, I've learned enough about myself and my own needs that holding something in once I realized what was going on, wasn't going to help me to heal.  It is a sign of my own growth and healing on other levels that I went into sharing it with Chris and close friends as nearly as soon as I realized it. At various stages in my life, I would hold that pain in--maybe hint at it--and try to see if anyone could REALLY see--not me--but my pain (but I assumed that part of me for my whole). I don't know how much of this is a societal thing, a "guy" thing, or just my own way of trying to figure out if people really care about me in the ways that I (or rather a former version of me) deem to be "real" or "true." So kudos to me for not playing games with my own pain to "test" others but just going to them for the care I needed. 

Telling folks was also really helpful for me because it gave me more understanding and power over what happened. Speaking about things I'm going through has always a form of exorcising the demons.  If I don't have the means of talking about it with others, then it is me with "the thing", alone.  And so much of the past self-harm and hurt I experienced came from the place of grappling with the demons by myself (or feeling like there weren't others to help hold it).  

It also feels like going through this and sharing this with close friends in my life is something that strengthened my relationships; something that allowed me to be seen and validated. It's not that I expected rejection--I have some really fucking awesome people in my life--but I don't think I anticipated the care, appreciation, and validation from everyone.  

I also want to take a moment to recognize that despite not having my most powerful coping mechanism (running) and feeling an incredible amount of stress and emotion, I didn't slip into binge eating. I've been working with navigating that as a coping mechanism for the past couple years. That doesn't necessarily mean I ate entirely well or there weren't times when I used food to soothe emotion but I still maintained a better sense of control and care about not eating to a point of discomfort in order to drown out other discomfort.  I'll take the win.  

I really need to pay attention to my sleep.  For some folks, it's their appetite, their stomach, or just feeling something in their body.  For me, it's my sleep. As Ralph Wiggum said, "Oh boy, sleep! That's where I'm a Viking!" I fall asleep at the drop of a hat and sleep solidly.  And my sleep was shit throughout October.  My mind reeled as I replayed or anticipated things and how I would react to the situation. While I definitely reflect or project when I'm going to sleep, it is often from a place of ease and appreciation. I'm looking forward to what I get to do the next day (even as mundane as getting up to write and exercise). They are calming thoughts that guide me to sleep. But these thoughts were intrusive and determined to take up space in my head no matter how much I redirected.  So, it's a better tell for me that if my thoughts are so intrusive they're keeping me from sleeping (and they did--kept me up an hour or more and lord forbid I get up in the middle of the night to pee, I was not getting back to sleep).    

The Next Steps

What do I do with all this? I think it can be easy to think that because I didn't do anything really self-destructive, was able to name it, and find relief and resolution from it--that's it, all set and fixed.  Not so fast.  

I do feel like a lot of progress has been made and I have a lot stronger sense of the warning signs to look for.  I know that next time it happens it's probably not going to look exactly like this in terms of what triggers it. I could even imagine the way my body and mind respond might look different.  So it's not just keeping an eye out for the next time I'm not able to run for a long duration or I find myself having to help others that resonate with my own past trauma.  Sure, be on more alert but that's not the only spaces to be mindful about.

Getting back into therapy is priority one on my list. In part to further review and explore what just happened but also in the bigger sense to prepare and navigate future incidents, unpack more what I've experienced and learn where else it manifests in my life and relationships.  I look forward to therapy even if I dread the process of having to shop around for one, but it's got to happen. 

I also have to think about how to ask my friends for help in this. How might they be able to check-in or notice things that I don't and bring that to my attention?  Again, if I wanna go far, others should be with me and helping me in this process--spot-checking for me as I hope to do for them.

Concluding Thoughts

In vocally sharing with others this experience, what I found were really powerful responses and folks resonating either directly with or on behalf of others.  It reminded me of some of my other personal writings on this blog such as reading as a vehicle for navigating life as a teen or navigating my relationship with my father as he died.  It helped me realize that this too was worth sharing here for others.  

If you're still here, thanks for sticking around. That's a whole lot of words and I hope it's conveyed not just my experience but highlighted insights that might be helpful to you or others in the present or future.  

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  1. Lance, I'm so thankful you're still standing, and sharing, and radiating insight, courage, and healing.

    1. Thanks Christine! I appreciate the encouragement and the reading.


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