On Trauma


Growth Myndset is happy to present this featured post in our Guest Writer's Series.  Guest writers are diverse in their background and issues of focus, and the content below is neither edited nor altered by Growth Myndset in any way without the consent of the author. The views expressed elsewhere on our website do not represent the views of our guest writers.

Content Warning: This piece contains coarse language, sexual violence, and mental illness including PTSD.

The Traumatic Brain Injury (Physical):

When I was fifteen, a friend tried to throw me into a pool and missed. It was the middle of August, my first summer on staff at the camp I now direct, and everyone there was someone I’d looked up to my whole life. I hit my head on the concrete pool edge before actually entering the water, although I didn’t know it. When I came to underwater, all I could think was *air now*, and I swam to what I hoped was up, up, up. After I took a glorious breath of air my next thought was goddamn fuck why does my head feel like it’s exploding, I must have hit the water hard, smile so no one stares at you. Everyone stared at me. Someone’s arm was around me. I wondered if I had actually maybe not swum to the surface on my own, and then I was confused, and people were surrounding the pool now so I just kept smiling. We made our way to the pool’s edge and two strong arms pulled me out of the water. My thought then was please hopefully my shirt isn’t riding up thank god I am fully clothed. I repeated over and over that I was “fine, yeah, fine, lucky, I know,” and then when no one was looking I threw up behind a bush.

I was fifteen, so I was thinking like, if I tell my mom, I’ll never be allowed to go to another camp party again.

Three weeks after that party, I was introducing myself in my grade ten English class when suddenly I couldn’t see or hear. I was so hot that I wanted to strip down in class and I would have, but the world around me fell away and I woke up on the cold classroom floor. The only thing I felt was relief because I wasn’t hot anymore, the ground was so hard and so cool. I didn’t want to open my eyes because I knew that people would be all around—I could hear them. They were saying my name. In the distance, my English teacher was asking them what’s her last name, does anyone know? And everyone knew, because although it was the first day of grade ten, it was a small school, and they all knew me as the kind of eager loner from last year. The principal came into the class to escort me out, and even though I was sitting by then, I was glad to leave. He made me drink a large bottle of orange juice, which I finished, then excused myself to go to the bathroom and projectile vomit.

The principal also called my mom, who left the meeting she was in to take me to the hospital. And because I was fifteen, she was in the room when I told the doctor about the pool incident. The doctor seemed to think I was lucky to be alive. In the days after that hospital visit, my traumatic brain injury was diagnosed.

The Traumatic Brain Injury (Mental)

When I was twenty-one, I was sexually assaulted by a friend, resulting in a diagnosis that came over a year later of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It wasn’t a particularly violent attack, but because I was restrained, and because I was silenced, it was enough to reinjure my brain. Perhaps because it wasn’t particularly violent is why I need to talk about it. It took almost a year – a year of deteriorating mental health, without being able to understand the reason – to recognize what had happened for what it was. Although the response was delayed, when it came, it came with a fierceness that I couldn’t quite match, and I developed my panic disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is, of my diagnoses, the most difficult to talk about. “Post-trauma” indicates that there was a trauma and can’t be easily acknowledged in the way that depression and anxiety are – without a story. My PTSD manifested itself when I saw my assailant unexpectedly, thinking he had graduated and was therefore gone forever. He appeared in my workplace and was so happy to see me, which caused more confusion entangled in the already complicated thoughts I had towards him. After that day, I started reliving the assault, seeing him everywhere even though he was gone once more, and for good this time. I could hardly sleep, and would often wake up two or three times a night panicking. I stopped being able to wear turtlenecks, necklaces, anything that felt like his hands around me. I became apathetic too often, once a fierce advocate for myself and now unable to make simple decisions.

Once diagnosed, I had to grapple with the mixed feelings of guilt I knew I shouldn’t have. It meant that I had to acknowledge the assault as trauma even if I couldn’t admit it to anyone else. It took a long time to hear what I told all other survivors in my life, and to be able to feel a little less to blame. Most of all, it felt like all of the work I had done for my traumatized brain had been undone, with the new injury taking place of the last.

A Tale of Two Traumas

The physical trauma and the emotional trauma had strikingly similar results. Neither was immediate, but both metastasized into mental injuries with physical characteristics. As a teenager, I dealt with concentration issues, memory loss, and frequent headaches on top of the depression and anxiety. As an adult, I now deal with uncontrollable shaking, dizziness, nausea, and memory loss as a part of the PTSD and panic disorder. I don’t know how much of my life changed because of my concussion, and how differently my brain might have turned out if it hadn’t been damaged by hitting brick instead of water. My mental illness manifested itself in the way of self-harm in the weeks after the concussion, became more than that later that year; I don’t know the extent of the relation. It’s impossible to know if the PTSD would have impacted me differently without the concussion as a precursor. There are too many variables that remain unknown because the brain is still such a mysterious organ.

What I am able to do is compare both traumatic brain injuries, and I am constantly surprised at how alike they were. The word trauma perhaps doesn’t do it justice. It isn’t specific enough, yet it is a tool in its broadness because it allows me to link the two. After both experiences, my mood was almost identical. I was a subdued version of myself. I became a shell of the energetic, passionate person I consider myself to be. I was unable to connect with those around me in ways I was used to. I developed an entrenched sense of self-loathing that I could not justify or give reason to. Outwardly, I was largely the same, because I was fixated on internalizing the struggle. I had such a difficult time making and maintaining memories because none of them felt real to the me trapped inside my (injured) head.

As I write this, I deflect to using the past tense. Not all of this is in the past. It is a long road to healing but one on which I am continually moving.

It’s very difficult to make sense of trauma, because trauma does not make sense. Some events can be equally as traumatic as others, but not result in PTSD. Some forceful impacts to the head can result in nothing more than a slight headache. I can only talk about trauma as it relates to my experiences, one physical and one mental, both of which taught me a great deal. I often wonder what would happen if I were to reinjure my brain, and for many years I developed a lot of anxiety surrounding any head-related injuries. However, I’ve recently had a shift in perspective. I had a very healing conversation with a friend who asked me if I would take it all back if I could – would I choose to forgo both traumas? The easy answer is of course, as there was and is so much suffering involved. But it isn’t a fair question: I can’t take back the trauma, and although I would wish neither on anyone, I am very grateful for the person I’ve become through it all. I don’t know who I would be without the concussion, and my journey through PTSD is a continuous lesson in compassion. I no longer fear trauma in the way I used to, because I have seen myself come through it. It will always be a part of my life, but maybe not always such a major part, and the lessons from both injuries will continue to help me grow.