There are things you learn after trauma. Well, I guess technically you learn them during trauma, and then only have the wherewithal to realize or appreciate it fully after the storm has passed and you notice one day you’ve picked up a new tendency. Some of these learnings are interesting because they not only come in useful at moments of pain, but are also worth keeping in mind for facing the daily struggles and challenges of everyday life.
I used to joke that I’m covered with so many scars and war wounds, I’ve collected virtually all the character development consolation prizes that the universe doles out in sheepish apology for screwing you over. It’s why I make such a great dinner party guest. Recipe for witty banter? Empathy, blended together with a keen understanding of human nature, layered with that very dark, very dry sense of humour that is the proud emblem of the survivor, and finally topped with a subtle garnish of irreverence. Because after all, what is left to be afraid of anymore?
To be fair, spiders, alligators, and the thought of being tortured in a black site for information I don’t have on account of mistaken identity does, on occasion, keep me up at night. Comparatively, more familiar territory like rape, muggings, losing a parent, finding oneself amidst a Scarlett Letter type town scandal, resorting-to-crime levels of poverty, coping with mental illness, etc, no longer holds that power.
Anyway, thinking about all of this was triggered when I learned that a close friend had been assaulted. When something like that happens, you feel duty-bound to say or do something to help. When it’s something that has previously happened to you, such that you can particularly appreciate what they are going through, that duty triples in weight. I sat down for a while and thought about what I wanted to say to her, and eventually decided to opt for sending a long, meandering voice message on WhatsApp instead of texting. Mostly because I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate the things I wanted to say and I thought it would be less frustrating to talk around in circles until I got there than to attempt writing it down clearly.
Afterward, I listened back over what I said to reassure myself that it was mostly coherent, and the more I listened the more it occurred to me that little of what I had said necessarily applied exclusively to recovering from assault or coping in the aftermath. No, they were actually fairly universally applicable tips for self-care that most women — if they are anything like me — could do with being reminded of every once in a while.
So here’s your reminder to:
Never tell yourself things that you wouldn’t allow someone to say to your best friend.
It’s difficult to be kind to yourself, as a human being, but in particular as a woman. The lens through which you consider your actions is warped from years of steeping in narratives that encourage harsh self-judgment. Whole industries are constructed on the foundation of convincing you that you’re crap in comparison to some other hypothetical perfect woman out there. This compounded with that unique uncharitableness, bred from overexposure and overfamiliarity with yourself, sees you speak inward all sorts of things that you would never permit someone to say to your friends. At least not without consequence. So use that metric as a handy way to judge the criticisms you throw your own way. Are they fair? Or are you being a bully to yourself?
Permit yourself to be a reactive impulsive creature, and follow your hedonistic instincts
Life’s little pleasures are cumulatively the bulwark against the sometimes shittiness of the whole affair. The things that bring you small joys will give you the strength to keep going and will serve as a useful reminder that, it’s really not so bad, and maybe even rather worth it on the whole. To collect a critical mass of those kinds of moments and experiences requires letting yourself move impulsively every once in a while. Don’t overthink, just do, now and again. Having a rubbish time at that party and desperately wishing you were in bed? Leave. Immediately. Want an ice cream? Get up, stop whatever you’re doing, buy ice cream and then continue plodding along. Get up in the middle of the night and go get takeout; drive to the beach with a bottle of wine, get drunk and yell at clouds. Book that flight and go have sex with that gorgeous idiot. If you reckon that doing a thing will make you feel good, in that moment, do the thing! Don’t waste time picking apart the whys of the thing or judging yourself for the desire. A little hedonism goes a long way toward keeping that old existential crisis at bay. Let your instincts guide you, especially in dark times because you know deep down the things that will make you feel better. You’ve had a lifetime of gathering data on the things that piqued your desire or made you smile or breathe easy for a second. When a craving for something bubbles up, it’s coming from that knowledge store, so just listen and do and grab a moment of respite from the ceaseless assault of existence.
Talk out loud
People telling you to talk about a problem often feels like a simplistic and trite response, but I think that’s because it’s rarely followed with an explanation of why talking can often be beneficial. The way I see it is that it is valuable because when you are trying to articulate something, explain it clearly out loud, to be understood by someone, you focus on it and unspool it carefully and thoroughly in a way that you don’t when it’s just turning around in your own head. For one thing, when you think, there’s a bunch of other noise flying around, interrupting and intersecting.
When you are explaining, the only thing at the forefront of your mind is what you’re trying to say. Also, the feedback loop of dialogue helps with this construction exercise. When you read the confusion on someone’s face you know you need to dig deeper, find other words, other metaphors to get where you want to go. When you hear from them their articulation of what they understand you to have said, or their thoughts on it, you have even more to build on. If they misinterpret you, it’s a way of highlighting to you more clearly the parameters that separate what you do mean from what you don’t. If they understand you correctly, then you have managed to give form to the swirling morass of feeling inside you and make it tangible and comprehensible to yourself. You can see it for what it is now, which means you can move on to what you wish to do with it.
Relatedly, it’s worth noting that you probably do have people who want to listen in your life, because most people love being needed, and love being embedded in the narratives of other people’s lives. We want to be a foreground character in other people’s movies and not an overlooked extra. It’s the reason for that weird, perverse satisfaction you feel when you are directly connected to a major event. “Yeah, I was right there, man. I saw the whole thing! it was crazy!” “I actually know her really well, we grew up together.” etc etc.
Anyway, this means that very often, you bringing your baggage to someone isn’t just about you, or just for your benefit, there’s mutual satisfaction in it. Reminding yourself of that will make it easier for you to land on someone when you need to! If you definitely, definitely don’t have people you can share your burdens with — get a therapist. Frankly, it’s one of the best things you can spend your money on.
Ditch Shame and Regret
Useless, corrosive emotions, in my opinion. A sense of responsibility and the motivation to do whatever needs doing in the future won’t necessarily stem from marinating in those noxious feelings and self-flagellating. In fact, most times the desire to escape the unpleasantness of feeling ashamed will see you opt for more obvious sources of relief like shoving away the entire subject matter in question and burying your head in the sand. What’s done is done, what do you want to see happen going forward? That’s all that matters.
PS: Remember to take all advice with a pinch of salt, if it doesn’t resonate with or work for you, that’s absolutely fair enough.