There are moments in a survivor’s life that come in as if they are part of a volcanic eruption – but it’s a complicated and inward experience – an emotional implosion of hot lava and broken rock, filling our insides with ash and dense, unbreathable air.
All that can be done, in those moments is for someone to come alongside and see that a past life or an archived moment has suddenly and most likely without welcome, become all that the survivor can feel.
When you are witnessing this (and it helps if the survivor can throw out a flag that says, “I am triggered right now”), you have only a few options and mental dispositions that will be useful to you and the survivor at that time. Do you touch them? Do you give them space? Do you offer to listen? Do you ask them if they want to call a different person? None of this matters until you resolve your own angst over the following 3 realities:
Reality 1: There isn’t anything you can say – the trauma happened.
You can try to remind us that we are better off now, or grass is greener in real time, but that is like offering a distraction, not a solution. The intensity of a trigger REQUIRES no distractions. It has come up because the survivor is ready. If you aren’t, that’s on you – so get ready. Release the expectation that you are going to heal this, stop this, or have magic words. You don’t. This is a moment for a genuine, “Shit, this is ugly. This happened and I’m here with you right now in it.” Those are the closest you will get to magic words, if you feel like you must speak.
Reality 2: There isn’t anything you can do – the past cannot be erased.
It’s awkward. Your loved one is transported to another place, another life, another hour of suffering that is unrecognizable to you. But you cannot undo this – you truly weren’t able to save them then and you won’t be able to save them now. You can’t minimize it by reminding them how long ago it was – yes it is past. But this is a trigger and trauma, for all of its complications, is incredibly astute at avoiding all sense of time. In that volcanic hour, the trauma could have happened an hour ago. Remember, that feeling is not insanity – that’s just trauma.
Reality 3: There isn’t anything that feels right – the wrong committed is unforgettable.
Finally, you aren’t going to be able to “make this feeling go away.” Nothing feels good… the survivor may actually only have words like, “I don’t feel good.” Literally, as a statement of value, he or she probably feels un-good. You can’t argue with this feeling and you can’t bring a pro’s and con’s lists to the table and expect to make a difference. The survivor is reprocessing their memories of trauma in real time – you are witnessing a sacred and brave act of self-care and genuine badassery. Time to stand in awe as we reconcile that what was past is unforgettable not because we aren’t forgiving or moving on, but because again… that’s just trauma. Trauma doesn’t “Live and let live.” Trauma… lets you learn not to die as you try to live sometimes!
So in those moments – it may feel like an awkward scene at a grave site or worse, a scene from a genocide or battle ground… But that is all it is – it is a scene.
If you are ever there for that implosion within, I ask you with all my heart, as a survivor and survivor advocate… Just show up for reality.
Expect nothing but for the scene to change when the flow has slowed… the air has cleared… and coolness of your presence empowers us to move through the past and return to our current time and place.
Speaking for survivors, as messy as this experience is, we do come through most of our triggers with more wisdom and more acceptance – we come through better prepared for the life we are choosing because of the patience we have learned to have with reminders of the trauma we did not choose.
I share this post as a woman who is a two-time survivor of sexual assault and a survivor of a over a decade of conversion therapy… and as a woman who advocates for other survivors as a volunteer for organizations like Beyond Ex Gay and RAINN. Some of us find the words for our experiences and some of us do not – but most of all, ALL of us define for ourselves the paths we must take to endure the intrusive guilt, shame, and fear that can erupt within our memories without warning. If you choose to love us, you choose a reality that is not always pleasant, but is always honest…
And as a survivor now 25 years removed from the first trauma, I simply know no other way to say it – surviving trauma is not something I wish on anyone, but I do not wish it away from me because I am a softer, gentler and more open-hearted person to all I meet because I have seen a darkness in the human condition that most are spared. It makes me stronger… even when there are volcanic moments when I remember, it did almost kill me.
Namaste, survivors… and namaste to our loved ones who are learning of our brave and tenacious paths to wholeness.
Gail is an author, poet, blogger and activist whose new book, Enlightened-ish
chronicles her spiritual awakening experience after witnessing a suicide, grieving her father’s unexpected death and leaving a spiritual community. Her first book, “Coming Out of the Closet without Coming Apart at the Seams”
was published in 2004. Gail has appeared in FOX DC News,SkyNews
and Our America with Lisa Ling as an advocate for ex-gay survivors
and young people. Her freelance work has appeared in God Allows U-Turns, Encounter Magazine and Outlook Weekly. “For Gail So Loved the World” is her blog, where she discusses spirituality, politics and social and emotional intelligence from a global perspective. Her spoken word pieces and drumming meditations are available on YouTube and she schedules private speaking engagements where these performances are shared. Gail is the only lesbian known to hold a Bachelor’s Degree from Cincinnati Christian University. Currently, Gail resides in the Washington, DC Area and serves her local community as the Executive Director of a nature-based early learning center.