Why Our Trauma Waits for Safety

Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

I remember learning early in my social work career that trauma can’t be fully processed and integrated into the interconnected web of our memories until we have gained some sense of safety and consistency in our lives.

I was in my early twenties, a case manager for unaccompanied refugee youth. Now in a new context where they weren’t wondering where their next meal was going to come from, or whether or not this new acquaintance was a friend or foe, many of my clients had just begun navigating the foreign experience of daily safety and security. It seems counterintuitive, but it is in this context of safety that all hell would break loose for many of them in the processing of their trauma.

Just like when a child involuntarily saves their meltdown for when they get home, it takes safety and the space that safety provides for us to feel through everything tangled up inside us, everything trapped in the “fight or flight” part of our brains.

Last week Friday was my last day in a job with a Reformed denomination that had been my favorite of my career with colleagues I’d loved. It was also the job that caused me the most trauma and harm due to institutional lack of support and abuse (#LeaveLOUD). If I hadn’t known that trauma was what I was experiencing while I was in it (which I did), I would have figured it out now, not even one week out of the context.

My body has entirely crashed. This week, all I have managed to do is snuggle and sleep, listen to music, walk around the block, sleep again, and take baths. Keeping up with the dishes has felt insurmountable. I washed my hair last night and it was a major feat. While my body has found new safety and rest, my mind is actively trying to make sense of the trauma.

I woke myself yelling this morning, yelling at the ones who’d silenced, belittled, and gaslit me in my job.

In this all-too-real of a nightmare, my former colleague and I publicly called out our former director for his part in getting my colleague retaliated out of her job (which happened in real life). He responded stating that what we’d done was made him feel like he’d been “taken hostage” (which is ironic, because “hostage-taking” was one of the explicit threats of violence directed towards our team by someone in our institution, which happened in real life, as did a complete lack of intervention from our executive leadership).

Our director, his boss, and several other men came together to hear me and my colleague’s testimonies about what really happened, but it was clear to us that this self-appointed jury was biased towards the party that had disposed of my colleague. Not only was there a biased jury, but we were not allowed to go before them together — we had to testify by ourselves.

My colleague went before the group alone while I had to wait outside, handcuffed, accompanied by two large male security guards watching my every move. I knew that my colleague was not being heard — that her experiences were being minimized, dismissed, and weaponized against her — so I began screaming about what actually happened so that anyone inside, or anyone anywhere for that matter, would hear the truth.

No sooner had I opened my mouth that the security guard blocking the door took out a mask — with the institution’s name prominently printed on it — and began covering my mouth with it, suffocating me. “What the actual fuck?!” I yelled, until I woke myself up, realizing that I was actually yelling this into the air, into the safe quiet of my bedroom, into this newfound time in my life that I am no longer beholden to this harmful institution.

I stayed awake the rest of those wee hours of the morning, reminding myself that I am safe, that my story is true, that my feelings and fears are warranted, that I made the right choice to leave my job in pursuit of my own health and well-being. I spent time being present to my feelings, telling them to a friend, and laying them all out in my journal — because trauma warrants gentle, tender care and attention.

Healing is and will be mine; the way that I have collapsed into safety this week — and my brain’s attempts to process and integrate my trauma — are proof that I have chosen the right path. While this part of the journey isn’t fun, I know that it is necessary.

If I don’t write I can’t call myself a writer. I care about racial and gender justice, mental health, and faith. Stick around for what I have to say about it.

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