Too Weak Bonds, or Why Trauma doesn’t take turns
“There’s a light up ahead,
but it’s not where we are.
And I’m no good at being on my own,
but together we’re worse off than being alone.
It’s hard to face but we can’t go on like this, can’t you see us burning down?”
These are lyrics from a verse of a song by Tyler Hilton called Can’t Stop Now. It’s recorded live from Atlanta on an album of his, and before he begins singing, he shares, “This is one of the songs I was kind of nervous about putting out there because it’s kind of so unromantic and so honest, but, but um, it was important for me to do anyway.”
Maybe its unromantic qualities are what draw me towards it this Valentine’s Day, hearing in the lyrics words that resonate in how they describe the states of our relationships.
My niece gravitates towards acoustic music and his voice and this song specifically. So much so that she had us dance and sing to it for two hours this afternoon as she tried to digest the lyrics.
It’s felt especially apt as I try to digest this past year and this week more generally, as, stated directly, much of it has been a clusterfuck. The weepiness clears out for the weariness, as anything felt too long becomes more stale than interesting. It’s hard to learn from something that simultaneously bores you even when it leaves you in pain, because there’s a part of our engagement that activates how we know to appeal to our will to heal or to learn from an experience. Contrastingly, this disengaged flavor fills our relationships, saturating our views of what feels good with what instead feels most expected. There’s something calming in the expected, and something that keeps us from sensing what’s going on in us.
Six and a half years ago when I was new to a full-time advocacy position, I was spending my early weeks getting acquainted with my coworkers. Much of those conversations were devoted to learning if I fit.
Over coffee with one of my colleagues they remarked, “People tend to find themselves in advocacy from one of three paths. Most commonly, people come to test their own healing, imagining that if they can do this work, they are well enough and healed enough. Almost as commonly, people come because they’ve declared that they’re healed, and they tote that as a standard for others to reach. More rarely, people come to advocacy in spite of themselves, feeling a tug that suggests that they have something to illuminate and soak up from being here. I suspect you might be in that last group.”
Those words went over my head mostly at the time, but the imagery left a strong impression.
Maybe unintended, this conversation shaped my read on my own motivations whenever I reflect on my interactions with other survivors and advocates, encouraging me to be self-reflexive un-statically. I’ve called on this conversation to fend off self-righteousness, as well as myopia, and I’ve talked firmly to myself when I’ve felt too punctured to hear my own self critique because of how it stirs me into a different posture. Often a posture that carries stress with more composure and vulnerability modestly. A posture that can do both those things while in relationship with others is more trying, and less consistent. For the reasons my colleague illuminated, how we come to the work and its significance.
This day last year we reacted to the tragic Parkland shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people. We’ve been told each year that this marks a record year in mass shootings, only to be out paced by the next one. The formulaic nature of what we learn, frequent links between domestic violence and public violence, intimate partner violence and state violence, sexual violence and abuses of power in leadership, white supremacy and domestic terrorism, militarism and unstable international relationships, nationalism and the criminalization of immigration, Christian supremacy and a rise in hate crimes and bias based violence codified into our policy. The blending and blurring are obscured by the personal crises happening in our personal lives, and being triggered in our brains and bodies and relationships. The energy to be self-reflexive dwindles while hypervigilance and dissociation take turns.
In the most removed sense, hypervigilance and dissociation are too sides of the same coin.
Hypervigilance tells our brains that things are too dangerous not to be paying attention fully at all times.
Dissociation tells our brains that things are too dangerous for us to be present to know how what’s happening feels.
Yet, in both instances, our starting point is an assessment that danger has intruded into our lives.
Earlier this year I was at a baby shower where I saw for the first time a baby picture of my mom. There was a contest to guess which guest was the baby in each photo correctly, and my two aunts and my mom all incorrectly guessed which baby was them. Before I graduated from high school, all seven of my grandparents had died. Before I started working in advocacy, I’d lost a parent, two siblings, an uncle and many of my living relatives to grief induced estrangement. Pulling apart that complicated ball has been labor filled and routinely unresolved and, in some cases, worse than before I started to look closer, but it taught me to write in hypervigilance and dissociation where it hasn’t yet been confessed or addressed. It taught me to note gaps in memory, consciousness, and capacity to think relationally. It taught me that together isn’t the same as better than alone, anymore than being alone is neutral.
It taught me that our support reservoirs are deeply and prematurely depleted, and not labeled as unavailable to us now. Not even after we’ve wrecked our relationships by wounding in similarly unaddressed ways, repeating stories that fill our conversations with our bodies when we’re alone.
The losses that I’ve had to bear simultaneous to my advocacy have taught me more about my patterns in relationships than any prior time in my life, in part for obvious reasons, but as I learned belatedly, not for inevitable ones. One of my patterns is that I’m best at functioning without breaks under stress. Another is that I sharpen in sarcasm while avoiding things that will make me laugh and then cry. Another is that I seek out babies and avoid social engagements and how are you questions. Another is that I clean, and clean what I’ve cleaned.
To be in a role to both observe and narrate to someone in a learning process how they’re doing and what they’re strengths are, you have to be present beyond a crisis response, and beyond becoming triggered by theirs. You have to remain connected to the part of the brain that can be stressed and still form words, and say words before and after listening to body language and group dynamics. You have to have the thickest and most nimble skin to be in settings that will drain already emptying reserves. You have to know when you’ll reach empty before you ever are. You have to soberly walk yourself in and out of situations where harm has happened, is happening, and will likely happen and be disclosed to you. You have to stay disconnected from your personal trauma well enough to see dissimilar traumas, and you have to stay connected to your personal trauma enough to share what only you know about how you’re doing or what has come up for you.
When I reflect back on that early conversation with my colleague, I hear in myself a wondering that I believe anecdotally is true. When we come to advocacy for healing, or when we come to advocacy to demand it for others, trauma becomes suddenly less real to us in an effort to make our proximity to it feel manageable. But when trauma stops being real, the takeaways we hold onto become fake and false. The scars we inflict, the scars we recreate, the scars we avoid, the vulnerabilities that evade knowing how we misuse power, the tunnel vision that doesn’t see destruction that is a part of a pattern of ours.
What my transition has grounded me in is the freedom of my tongue that comes from being unaffiliated with an institution. The grounding of knowing how much is co-occurring at any one time, even when we retreat to one plain to help us master something we’re currently unskilled in. The reminder that truth is distorted for all kinds of rationale reasons, but that doesn’t make our understandings less clouded with time, it makes them more susceptible to staying clouded. It makes us more likely to avoid seeing more or seeing anything well, because it will bring back the punch to the gut that is the first in a series.
What my transition has grounded me in is the knowledge that support induces a relationship dynamic that mimics whatever is already true. If that’s mutuality, that will be amplified. If that’s inequity, that will be amplified. If that’s dissociation, or hypervigilance, that will be longer and harder to negate or come out of. If that’s something unaddressed, or born from trauma, you will feel it before you know what it’s significance for you is. You will feel it and be faced with information that has implications in what you do with it.
For me, February carries two heavy meanings that shape how I observe my reactions. It is filled with endings in abusive and even healthy or generative relationships, and it is filled with complicated associations with pregnancy and pregnancy loss. It is filled with windows and mirrors that confuse my read of what is over and what is happening and what is coming, but that pull me towards advocacy and how I got here.
Here to motivation. Here to frustration. Here to insatiable exercise. Here to hours spent dancing with toddlers and singing the same song lyric. Here to honesty about what I have failed to master and who has been hurt during my learning processes. Here to an acknowledgment that I can not accompany everything. Here to transparency in my observations. Here to insomnia and cleaning. Here to reexamining and re-asking where and how I fit and if that works for my relationships. Here to reviewing the limitless tragedy and our lost sense of urgency and compunction. Here to what I sound like when I’m talking as myself and for myself and by myself.
There’s a lag between lights coming on and us being the ones that can stand under them, and there’s a lag in being near somewhere healing with someone else integrated into that experience. Only in slowing down and stepping away from what feels involuntary in its redundancy can we see what we can’t yet see, even if that’s ourselves and our intentions and what they help us do well and poorly.
Collectively, we are doing relationships poorly more often than we’re doing them well, and trauma is a huge part of the gaps in those stories and our dissimilar recollections. And yet, the unanswered question is still whether or not we find that information and missing information significant.