Trauma the Teacher - Three Life Lessons of Trauma
A tractor trailer changed everything. A split second in time when the truck’s wheels grazed the center line at the same moment my small convertible did the same. From North and South a vicious force of momentum and steel was unleashed. My body surrounded, engulfed in the fury.
In one’s life, there are crossroads. Places of profound change. Moments where the direction of everything you knew, you understood, transform. The path once yours suddenly obliterated.
For my life, for this life, it was a road accident. Small car meets large truck. A winding rural two lane in a steady rain my center point of change.
The first bystander to reach me that night concluded I had passed. No pulse. No movement. I was dead.
Thankfully, the paramedics checked for themselves. And because of their calm and professionalism, and because of the speed of a helicopter, I’m able to sit before you writing this introspection.
I share a commonality with many trauma survivors in looking back at the event as a gift. It was a gift. It is a gift.
For this time, I am so privileged to share with you today, I offer thoughts on three important lessons the gift has brought to my perspective on living. Lessons that continue to evolve as my years, my experiences, rise and fall with the gentle tides of all these extra days of living.
I’m unconvinced these lessons come to mind with any order of influence. I can only sequence them for purpose of the writing, not for purpose in the living. Neither is more or less important, but for how the lesson may manifest on a given day for a given situation.
Pain is Companion
You never make much progress in the early stages of recovery. That’s because you expend most of your energy trying to stop the pain. The pain is so debilitating in the beginning you must take these precautions. All you feel is pain. Pain unimagined. All you want is out.
A crucial place in the timeline is when you can accept the pain. When you reduce the barriers between you and the hurt, you finally feel the hurt. Treating the pain as companion allows the relationship to move towards healing. Becoming more aware and connected to the pain allows the right pathways for strength to emerge.
In my daily life, discovering myself in struggle with elements personal or professional, large or small, can usually be traced to my spending too much time avoiding pain. As a workaholic, I’m a skilled practitioner at staying very, very busy to avoid pain associated with what matters most.
I know too many people on too many pharmaceuticals because all they want to do is avoid the pain. They mask depression instead of dealing with depression. Or they spiral from diet to diet, from fad to fad, instead of dealing with the emotional pain causing their physical decline.
Make your pain your companion. Your confidant. Pain is telling you a lot about yourself. Sit with it a while. And listen.
Emotional and Physical Well Being Are The Same
Your brain and your body are one. That means all those emotions you are feeling today are completely and utterly connected to every physical movement and experience you have.
Our culture, our science of the last millennium has separated the mind and the body. When I search for health, the results are clearly divided; the mental and the physical. As a runner, I can read articles for hours on end that explore the marvelous mechanics of the physical body. I can spend every one of those hours without finding a word about emotional health. As a trauma survivor, I can spend even more hours reading expertise on mental health, mental illness, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other types of emotional brain issues. I can pour through these perspectives without concurrent data or mention of the physical health the body.
The Mind-Body experts could listen more to what athletes like marathoners, ultra-marathoners, even rock climbers are sharing. While they explore the limits of their physical selves, they also explore their emotional core in ways similar to Buddhist Monks.
The everyday athletes could listen more, as well. All of us performing and posting our daily workouts, routines, mileage and times in myopic routine of physical statistics are too often leaving the mind behind.
The mind of the body are one. Treat them as one.
Time Is the True Healer
Measure time thoughtfully. Mindfully. It is the only true healer. And the healer never works to your, or anyone else’s schedule. When I speak of my trauma, conversation is always pointed with questions of time. How long was I in the ICU? In the hospital? How long did it take before I could walk again? Work again? How long did I take pain meds? How long did I have back pain? In all of the days, in all of the years of these trauma interviews, no one has ever asked:
How Long Did It Take to Heal?
We are all in such a rush. Such a race. Our distorted, disfigured, disconnected relationship with time renders healing almost impossible.
I recall a time spent with my wife on vacation in the Florida Keys. We strolled into Mallory Square for our first Key West Sunset. At first, we thought we were in the wrong spot, since so few people were gathered. The issue was our approach to time. To us, the sunset took a long time. We arrived very early to savor every wondrous minute of the light changing from day to night.
Only a few minutes before the actual sunset time on the clock did the throngs arrive. At the strike of sunset there came conk shell blowing with much rejoicing, replete with thunderous applause. And as quickly as the throng arrived, so did it exit. Folks rushed off in gushes, headed to the call of the Duval Street bars.
We stayed. We stayed for a long time. The square about empty when we sauntered through the last of the sublime color reflecting from the waters so shallow at edge, so deep at distance. How long was the sunset? I don’t know. I never looked at my watch. It took time. That’s all I can say. It took time.
I can mark the post trauma months. I can turn the calendar pages and define the number of years between being broken and unbroken. But if you want me to explain how long it took from the day to the night to the day again, I can only share it took time.
Trauma taught me to measure time thoughtfully. Mindfully. And with the calendar of my life, not the one with all the numbers I bought at the store.
Trauma taught me so much more than these three highlights. Trauma, indeed, was a rare gift brought into my life. Another lesson I never stop relearning, is to accept the gift. Some days, I still fumble with the paper and tape. I don’t want to mess up the pretty bow. I have to relearn that I am worthy of receiving.
I can accept the gift. I can open the gift. I can appreciate and embrace all the lessons the gift has brought to my life. Trauma is, indeed, the Teacher. And I, always, the humble student.